Agony Uncles: Advice From The Anthenian Oracle (Part 1)

Athenian_Mercury_Feb_28_1693Most people today would probably consider Dear Abby, with her origins in the 1950s, as the archetypal advice columnist, but this brand of casuistical journalism actually has its roots nearly three hundred years earlier. Usually credited with producing the first English-language advice column, John Dunton (1659–1733) first published his Athenian Mercury in London in 1690.

Although the Mercury answered questions on topics which are still modern advice column stalwarts, such as love dilemmas and health complaints, it also addressed a bewilderingly wide range of other topics from history, to science, to mathematics, and philosophy. Despite the claim to virtual omniscience inherent in setting up as an advice columnist, this might have been a tall order for just one man. Dunton, therefore, answered his readers’ queries with the aid of an expert panel: the Athenian Society, comprising Dunton, a mathematician, a discretely anonymous and genteelly uncompensated physician, and a poetic clergyman, as well as several non-existent alter-egos.

The questions asked demonstrate the enduring nature of certain human fascinations, whilst the answers given read like little populist summaries of the zeitgeist of later Stuart London. This is the first in a series of posts drawing from The Athenian Oracle, an edited collection of highlights from the periodical, available in the public domain, here.

The Oracle divides its selections from the writings of the Athenian Society under three main headings: History and Philosophy, Divinity, and, of course, Love and Marriage. This post will be the first of several drawing on the selections classified as History and Philosophy, a fascinating amalgamation of casuistry on subjects we might describe variously as natural history, human and Church history, legal history, science, psychology, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and more.

Here are three of my favorites:

HookeFlea01

Schem. XXXIV – Of a Flea. Robert Hooke, Micrographia.

1. Why the anatomy of the flea is like the cruelty of a beautiful lady.
It’s okay to be curious about the World around you, as long as you don’t mind a hefty dose of condescension, flirtation, and misogynistic leg-pulling with your edification.

Quest. —A lady desires to know whether Fleas have stings, or whether they only suck or bite, when they draw blood from the body?

Ans.—Not to trouble you, Madam, with the Hebrew or Arabic name of a flea, or to transcribe Bochart’s learned dissertations on the little animal, we shall, for your satisfaction, give such a description thereof as we have yet been able to discover. Its skin is of a lovely deep red colour, most neatly polished, and armed with scales, which can resist anything but fate and your ladyship’s unmerciful fingers; the neck of it is exactly like the tail of a lobster, and, by the assistance of those strong scales it is covered with, springs backwards and forwards much in the same manner, and with equal violence; it has two eyes on each side of its head, so pretty, that I would prefer them to any, Madam, but yours; and which it makes use of to avoid its fate, and fly its enemies, with as much nimbleness and success as your sex manage those fatal weapons, lovely basilisks as you are, for the ruin of your adorers. Nature has provided it six substantial legs, of great strength, and incomparable agility jointed like a cane, covered with large hairs, and armed each of them with two claws, which appear of a horny substance, more sharp than lancets, or the finest needle you have in all your needle-book. It was a long while before we could discover its mouth, which, we confess, we have not yet so exactly done as we could wish, the little bashful creature always holding up its two fore feet before it, which it uses instead of a fan, or mask, when it has no mind to be known; and we were forced to be guilty of an act both uncivil and cruel, without which we could never have resolved your question. We were obliged to unmask this modest one, and cut off its two forelegs to get to the face; which being performed, though it makes our tender hearts as well as yours almost bleed to think of it, we immediately discovered what your Ladyship desired, and found Nature had given it a strong proboscis, or trunk, as a gnat or muschetto, though much thicker and stouter, with which we may very well suppose it penetrates your fair hand, feasts itself on the nectar of your blood, and then, Like a Little faithless fugitive of a lover, skips away, almost invisibly, nobody knows whither.

2. Is ignorance bliss, or is it hard to tell because everyone is stupid?

Quest.—Who are the most happy in the world, wise men or fools?

Ans. — Much may be said of either, but the manner very different. If the fool be the happier, the world is a very desirable place, there being such a quantity of happy men in it. The Supreme Being is essential happiness; those, therefore, that act the most like him are happiest. There is but one right line, and infinite crooked ones; one wisdom, but follies innumerable; one real goodness, but divers appearances of it; and but one best way to every thing, and to judge of everything that is reason, or understanding. Here only is the paradox; the fool’s happiness consists in a privation of grief, and the happiness of a wise man in possession of good; which, being a little considered, the result of this next question will answer the first; namely, which would be more miserable, a wise man that wanted his good, or a fool that had a sense of his grief? In this reverse the wise man would be more miserable; because he that wants his happiness wants every thing, but he that has a sense of grief may have a sense of happiness. Now this reverse, or contrary to the reverse, must necessarily make him happy; namely, his possession of good is preferable to the fool’s privation of grief.

Fashionable_contrasts_james_gillray

Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s foot. James Gillray, 1792.

3. I hope you weren’t expecting medical advice from our in-house doctor…
…unless misogyny be the cure for corns.

Quest. — A lady who is extremely troubled with corns desires to know the reason?

Ans. —Alas, poor lady! There may be many weighty reasons assigned for this sore calamity. Perhaps her hard heart has infected her toes, and made them as obdurate as herself; or else the little wag Cupid is taking his vengeance upon her for having murdered some of his humble servants, and is turning her into stone for a flinty-hearted creature, as his cousin Apollo served Niobe; and she is now dying upwards as Daphne’s poor toes rooted in the ground, and if she appeases not the little angry god quickly, she must in a few days expect to be perfect plaster of Paris.

Had the Society set their conviction that all women were responsible for broken hearts over twelve bars of music, the blues might have been born somewhat earlier and in a very different place. Nevertheless, they attempted to curry favor with the sex they so mercilessly teased, and the Ladies’ Mercury became the first periodical to be aimed at women alone in 1693. Perhaps the constant jibes were not appreciated as the publication only lasted four issues.

What are the clouds-The above extracts have been selected for their entertainment value but the philosophical and historical questions most typically sent to the Mercury resemble most closely, to modern eyes, the whimsical wonderings of a stoner. In my mind, I can’t help but imagine them being read by Keanu Reeves: What are the clouds? How is the dew produced? How does a nettle sting? What is the reason that, by applying the empty shells of some shell-fishes to your ear, you may therein perceive a noise like the roaring of the sea? Whether birds have any government? Whether the sky be of any colour? What think you of the Milky Way in the heavens? Wherefore is it that, having two eyes, we see nevertheless but one … image of the objects? Why men dream of things they never thought of? What is melancholy? What is death? Is it not better to die than to live? What becomes of smoke? How is the fire made betwixt the flint and the steel? And, of course, Whence have we our Opium?

Despite how these questions may sound to me, they are more accurately viewed in the context of the Scientific Revolution. Late seventeenth century London was a place where people were feeling their way towards a confidence that empirical observation and experiment (something like what we might call the scientific method) could increase their knowledge of the natural world and that such knowledge could be used for invention and innovation which might improve the material and spiritual lot of mankind.

This was a more radical way of feeling than we might imagine. The medieval sense of living in the ‘dark ages’, where man clung to scraps of wisdom from the ancients which could not be improved upon, had been gradually eroded by discoveries of new lands, their people flora and fauna, their technologies. Scholarship flourished, partially out of the simple need to catalogue and process all this new information. London, the seat of a monarch sympathetic to learning, presiding over a court where natural philosophy was fashionable, was near the forefront of European scholarship for the first time. The men of the Royal Society, giants like Boyle and Robert Hooke, were the Mercury’s heroes and a large part of the Athenian Society’s purpose was to make their discoveries accessible to the layman. In the case of the flea, a new-ish and fashionable technology was used to reveal a previously unknown microscopic world. The Athenians make their observations, laced with humor and divested of Latin. This was popular science for people who did not want to wade through Hooke’s Micrographia, a sort of seventeenth century Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or, for my older, British readers, Johnny Ball.

Quest. — Whether the common notion of the world be true, that these latter ages, for some centuries past, have a less share of learning, judgment, and invention, than those which have preceded, because we find them deficient in finding out such advantageous arts as their forefathers have done?

Ans. — …See the inventions and experiments of the Royal Society, which will abundantly convince anyone that our age has as active and busy spirits for invention as any former age in the world.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins

Source

The Athenian Oracle, available online here. 

On The Famous Voyage: Finding London’s Lost River

the fleet by samuel scott

The Fleet River. Samuel Scott, 1750.

London’s major river is, of course, the Thames but, as the capital’s antiquarians will tell you, there are more than a dozen ancient tributaries hidden beneath the surface of the modern metropolis. The largest of these smaller rivers is the River Fleet, which flows from the largest stretch of common green in London, at Hampstead Heath, to Blackfriars Bridge, where it enters the Thames. This is a journey, not just from North London to the River, but also through the history of the City from Ancient to Modern times, marking some colourful characters and encompassing some bewildering changes along the way.

Cities are typically built along rivers to provide drinking water, transport, defense, and sewage removal. The Fleet has served all of these functions over London’s long history. As place-names along its banks (Brideswell, Clerkenwell) suggest, many wells were built along the Fleet in Roman and Saxon times, although, as we shall see, the purity of its waters were not set to be a defining feature as London grew.

The Fleet (‘tidal inlet’ in Anglo-Saxon) initially provided a waterway which served London from the North and, in a later incarnation as the New Canal, was part of the network which brought coal from the North of England to fuel the rapidly industrializing London of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even after the canals were superseded by road and rail and entirely covered over in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the valley carved by the Fleet continued to form the basis for some of London’s modern arteries, such as Farringdon Road and the Metropolitan Railway line (although it resisted having an underground railway line–that which would become the Jubilee Line–lain beneath it by repeatedly flooding tunnels).

Defensively, the Fleet has a rather inglorious history. It is unclear how the Fleet was utilized by the Romans and it seems rarely to have been called upon subsequently. A second century boat carrying ragstone (possibly intended for building the city wall) was discovered in 1962, sunk at the mouth of the river.

Much later, the Fleet’s banks were built up into earthworks during the Civil War, when London was very much a Parliamentarian (‘Roundhead’) stronghold. The Royalist armies, however, never threatened the capital, with Charles II’s return to the City being by invitation rather than by conquest. During one of the great crises of the restored king’s reign in 1666, desperate Londoners were hopeful that the Fleet would provide an effective break against the Great Fire as it reached its third day. Here the Fleet proved as ineffective as the civic defenses and the Fire jumped the Fleet ditch, ultimately allowing it to claim St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, the most serious modern military threat to London came from the air in the form of the Luftwaffe. The old river beneath Fleet Street could offer no protection when Serjeant’s Inn, one of the oldest legal precincts in England, was destroyed during the Blitz.

It is with the removal of sewage and other waste, or at least with its failure to do so effectively, with which the Fleet is most famously associated. As London grew, the Fleet increasingly became a repository for whatever the city’s inhabitants wanted to get rid of. The medieval meat markets which grew up to feed the expanding population soon became problematic and in 1290 the Carmelite monks complained that the offal deposited in the river by butchers at a nearby market (the delightfully-named Shambles, at Newgate) was constantly blocking what was, at this point, a stream.

Copperplate_map_Fleet

The southern end of the Fleet, 1550s.

Although all manner of industries poured waste into the Fleet, it was the offal and dead animals in various forms which seemed to catch the imagination of early modern satirists of the capital. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1612) mock-epic poem which lends its title to this article was a litany of classical references intertwined with toilet humour and social satire and described the diverse pollutants of the river with considerable gusto:

Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,
That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.
The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,
The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:
For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,
To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?
Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,
And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,
Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,
But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.
For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,
Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.

Jonson’s influence and the continued assault of the Fleet upon the senses continued into the eighteenth century: Jonathan Swift’s “Drown’d Puppies” and “Dead Cats” of 1710’s A Description of a City Shower, floating amongst the offal and turnip-tops, were echoed by Alexander Pope’s “large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames” in 1728’s Dunciad.

The enthusiasm of these men for describing the sewage, of which the Fleet’s waters seemed largely comprised, was hardly less. Jonson’s ‘voyage’ was taken down a river where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”. His Fleet contained the contents of every ‘night-tub’ from an overcrowded metropolis, where “each privy’s seat/ Is filled with buttock” and the very “walls do sweat Urine”. This state of affairs is compounded by the diet of a city where “every clerk eats artichokes, and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat”. In 1700, Thomas Brown has his narrator, an ‘Indian’ revealing the strange “Manners, Customs, and Religions” practiced by the various “Nations” of London to his readers, shove an impudent rag-seller into the kennel [1] in the centre of the street with the words:

Tho’ I want nothing out of your Shops, methinks you all want good Manners and Civility, that are ready to tear a New Sute (suit) from my Back, under pretence of selling me an Olde one; Avant Vermin, your Cloaths smell as rankly of Newgate and Tyburn, as the bedding to be sold at the Ditch-side near Fleet-Bridge, smells of Bawdy-House and Brandy.

Brown’s tone is lighthearted and playful, but some of the associations he makes are telling. The visceral nature of these accounts certainly reflected a literal reality but they also had a metaphorical dimension in which it was the excesses and vices of London itself which were clogging up its abused waterways. The writers were playing, not just on the Fleet’s role in waste disposal, but also on the reputation of those who occupied its banks. In Jonathan Swift’s A Description of a City Shower, in particular, a storm washing through London links the different areas and strata of the city together through its flow.

The Fleet flowed past Bridewell and the Fleet prisons and through areas such as Clerkenwell, notorious for sheltering heretics, thieves, and prostitutes from the arms of the law. Here the bodies floating downstream alongside the unfortunate cats and dogs might be human. The industries around the river were messy and disease was known to cling to its slums. The Dunciad plays on the Fleet’s use as an open sewer by having the hack-writers, who are one of the principal subjects of Pope’s ire, swim in it. The implication was as clear as Pope’s Fleet was ‘muddy’. Much later, Charles Dickens’ child-warping pick-pocket, Fagin, would have his den alongside the Fleet.

From the early attempts by the Carmelites to keep the river unblocked to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century attempt to make it serve as a canal, the smell and the constant need for dredging could not be overcome. So impossible was it to contain the flood of effluent that, even after the river was paved over during the later part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, the build-up of trapped gas exploded near Blackfriars in 1846, taking out three posthouses and a steamboat in the process. It must have seemed as though the truth would not be hidden beneath the streets. Eventually, however, the Great Stink of 1858 preceded a concerted effort to enclose the city’s sewers and a London more familiar to us today emerged.

Dr. J.V.P. Jenkins is a historian and freelance editor from London. He earned his BA, Master’s, and Doctorate at Swansea University. He is the new co-editor of Dirty, Sexy History and sometimes tweets @JVPolsomJenkins.

Sources

Brown, Thomas. Amusements serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London (1700)
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist (1839)
Jonson, Ben. On The Famous Voyage (c.1612)
Pope, Alexander. Dunciad (1728)
Swift, Jonathan. A Description of a City Shower (1710)
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography (Anchor; New York, 2003)
Brown, Laura. Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Cornell U.P., 2003)
Gray, Robert. A History of London (Taplinger; New York, 1979)

[1] An open gutter, running down the middle of the street. The 1671 Sewage and Paving Act had prescribed moving the kennel from the center of the street to an open side drain set off by a raised pavement. The main thoroughfares were also to be cambered (built up in middle for drainage and paved) but these measures were not instantly applied to all streets.

Love and Hate in the 19th Century: Say It With Flowers

language_of_flowers_by_alphonse_mucha

Language of Flowers. Aphonse Mucha, 1900.

Although floriography existed in the ancient world and throughout the Renaissance, it hit its height of popularity in the nineteenth century. Mary Wartley Montagu is credited with bringing it to England in the early eighteenth century from her travels to the Ottoman Empire, where the court was fascinated with tulips. Tulipomania had come and gone a hundred years before, but European interest in botany was just beginning, contributing in no small part to the success of guides to the language of flowers.

Several such guides were available throughout the nineteenth century, many of them embellished with illustrations or even poetry. Hundreds of editions were sold around the world, and the craze influenced popular culture, with floriography appearing in books by Austen and the Brontes. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used it extensively in many of their paintings, using the symbolism of the flowers to communicate themes to their audience in a language they would understand.

In a society as relatively repressed as Victorian Britain, floriography must have presented tantalizing possibility. One could say anything without saying anything at all. Rather involved love affairs could take place almost entirely with flowers. Whole conversations could be had in a single bouquet. It had the added benefit that it would have been a hobby for the genteel; it required a certain degree of literacy, knowledge of botany, and means with which to obtain the plants necessary to communicate one’s message. While one might pass daisies (“I share your sentiment”) every day, African Marigolds (“vulgar minds”) or Helmet Flowers (“knight-errantry”) might present a greater challenge.

Interestingly enough, for every plant with a positive meaning, there is at least one more with a severely negative one. Reading Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers (1884), it is reassuring that those courted by people they didn’t fancy could put them off without being outwardly rude, from Red Balsam (“touch me not”) to the rather frightening Wild Tansy (“I declare war against you”).

Whether you’re researching a book, decoding a painting, or just looking for a Valentine’s idea for your loved one (or worst enemy), floriography is good fun. Here are some lists of my favorites. Scroll to the bottom for links to some nineteenth century guides you can read in full online or download for your e-reader. Have fun!

A Beginner’s Guide to the Language of Flowers

“When nature laughs out in all the triumph of Spring, it may be said, without a metaphor, that, in her thousand varieties of flowers, we see the sweetest of her smiles; that, through them, we comprehend the exultation of her joys; and that, by them, she wafts her songs of thanksgiving to the heaven above her, which repays her tribute of gratitude with looks of love. Yes, flowers have their language. Theirs is an oratory that speaks in perfumed silence, and there is tenderness, and passion, and even light-heartedness of mirth, in the variegated beauty of their vocabularly.” – Frederic Schoberl, 1834.

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Positive

Almond (flowering) Hope
Ambrosia Love returned
Arbor Vitae* Unchanging Friendship. Live for me.
Cloves Dignity
Clover, four-leaved Be mine
Coreopsis Arkansa Love at first sight
Coriander Hidden worth
Corn Riches
Daffodil Regard
Daisy, Garden I share your sentiments
Forget Me Not Forget Me Not
Ivy Fidelity. Marriage.
Lemon blossoms Fidelity
Mallow, Syrian Consumed by love
Oak Tree Hospitality
Oak Leaves Bravery
Pine-apple You are perfect
Potato Benevolence
Ranunculus You are radiant with charms
Snowdrop Hope
Strawberry Tree Esteem and Love
Tulip, Red Declaration of love
Tulip, Variegated Beautiful eyes
Tulip, Yellow Hopeless love
Venice Sumach Intellectual excellence
Walnut Intellect. Strategem.
Water Lily Purity of heart
1870s_vinegar_valentine_snake_proposal_declined

A “Vinegar Valentine” from the 1870s

Negative

Achillea Millefolia War
Aconite (Wolfsbane) Misanthropy
Adonis, Flos Painful recollections
Agnus Castus Coldness. Indifference.
Almond (common) Stupidity. Indiscretion.
Amaranth (cockscomb) Foppery
Apple, Thorn Deceitful charms
Asphodel My regrets follow you to the grave.
Bachelor’s Buttons Celibacy
Balsam, Red Touch me not
Barberry Sourness of temper
Basil Hatred
Bay leaf I change but in death.
Bay (Rose) Rhododendron Danger. Beware.
Belladonna Silence
Belvedere I declare against you
Bilberry Treachery
Birdsfoot Trefoil Revenge
Blue-flowered Green Valerian Rupture
Burdock Touch me not.
Butterfly Weed Let me go.
Carnation, Striped Refusal
Carnation, Yellow Disdain
Chequered Fritillary Persecution
China or Indian Pink Aversion
Citron Ill-natured beauty
Clotbur Rudeness. Pertinacity.
Coltsfood Justice shall be done
Columbine Folly
Convulvulus, Major Extinguished hopes
Creeping Cereus Horror
Crowfoot Ingratitude
Cypress Death. Mourning.
Dragonwort Horror
Enchanter’s Nightshade Witchcraft. Sorcery.
Flytrap Deceit
Fool’s Parsley Silliness
Frog Ophrys Disgust
Fuller’s Teasel Misanthropy
Fumitory Spleen
Garden Anemone Forsaken
Hand Flower Tree Warning
Hellebore Scandal
Hemlock You will be my death
Hydrangea Heartlessness
Japan Rose Beauty is your only attraction
Leaves (dead) Melancholy
Lavender Distrust
Lily, Yellow Falsehood
Licorice, Wild I declare against you
Lobelia Malevolence
Mandrake Horror
Milfoil War
Mosses Ennui
Mourning Bride Unfortunate attachment
Moving Plant Agitation
Mushroom Suspicion
Nettle, Burning Slander
Pennyroyal Flee away
Raspberry Remorse
Rose, York and Lancaster War
Rue Disdain
Saint John’s Wort Animosity
Spiked Willow Herb Pretension
Tamarisk Crime
Tansy (Wild) I declare war against you
Thistle, Scotch Retaliation
Trefoil Revenge
White Rose (dried) Death preferable to loss of innocence
Whortleberry Treason
Wormwood Absence
My love in her garden. Victorian Valentine card

Victorian Valentine by Kate Greenaway

Sexy

African Marigold Vulgar minds
Darnel (ray grass) Vice
Dittany of Crete, White Passion
Dragon Plant Snare
Everlasting Pea Lasting Pleasure
Fleur-de-Lis Flame. I burn.
Geranium, Lemon Unexpected meeting
Geranium, Nutmeg Expected meeting
Grass Submission
Jasmine, Spanish Sensuality
Linden or Lime Trees Conjugal Love
Orange Flowers Bridal festivities
Peach Blossom I am your captive
Quince Temptation
Rose, Carolina Love is dangerous
Rose, Dog Pleasure and pain
Tuberose Dangerous pleasures
Vine Intoxication

 

mechanical_valentine_06

Weird

Aloe Grief. Religious superstition
Cereus (Creeping) Modest genius
Christmas Rose Relieve my anxiety.
Cistus, Gum I shall die to-morrow
Colchicum, of Meadow Saffron My best days are past.
Dandelion Rustic Oracle
Helmet Flower (Monkshood) Knight-errantry
Houseleek Domestic industry
Indian Cress Warlike trophy
Lady’s Slipper Win me and wear me
Lint I feel my obligations
Oats The witching soul of music
Passion Flower Religious superstition
Persimon Bury me amid Nature’s beauties
Poppy, White. Sleep. My bane. My antidote.
Prickly Pear Satire
Violet, Yellow Rural happiness

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Greenaway, Kate. The Language of Flowers (1884)

Schoberl, Frederic. The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry (1834)

Tyas, Robert. The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (1836)

*Arbor Vitae was also slang for penis at this time.

 

English Horrors Through the Eyes of a French Romantic

Not long ago a fellow Historical Novel Society member was lamenting the fact that the Stuart dynasty does not get enough exposure. I see the tide turning. More and more English history novels are set during the English Civil War and the Cromwellian era. Let’s not forget some of the 19th century classics who drew inspiration from that time period. Everyone knows Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. However, not as many readers are familiar with Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit.

The Man Who Laughs is Victor Hugo’s last exile novel written over the course of fifteen months. This novel did not receive nearly as much fame as Notre-Dame de Paris or Les Misérables did. “Serious” critics condemn The Man Who Laughs for its brutalities and absurdities. Ordinary readers often brand this novel as a Two-Beauties-and-the-Beast story.

The protagonist, Gwynplaine, is a disfigured sideshow performer whose face had been carved into a perpetual grin by an amoral surgeon who made a fortune creating monsters. Gwynplaine is coveted by two beauties, one of which is Dea, a blind actress and a childhood friend who only perceives his noble soul while remaining oblivious to his outward deformity, and the other Josiana, a spoiled duchess who yearns to escape the stagnant routine of the royal court by taking a hideous mountebank for a lover.
hugo-gwynplaine

This bizarre love triangle is what most readers remember from the novel. There is a lengthy and graphic seduction scene that many readers revisit time after time. Although disturbing, this scene is a stunning segment of extremely articulate and sensual prose. However, there are equally articulate, if less arousing, passages that deal with English history and politics.

Unfortunately, many readers skip over those passages. The political component in the novel is just as significant as the romantic one. Hugo did not include politics and history to divert the story line. Politics and romance were not intended to rival but to complement each other.

The protagonist’s pseudo-Celtic name, presumably derived from the Welsh word “gwyn” for “white,” connotes innocence and purity. The Celtic origin of the name also suggests estrangement from the English culture.

Very few readers remember the reason why the protagonist was disfigured in the first place. Gwynplaine’s natural father remained a supporter of the Republic even after the Restoration. The hapless child and his father are both depicted as victims of monarchy. First Charles II exiles the father, and later James II sanctions the kidnapping and the disfigurement of the child.

In the novel, Cromwell himself never makes a personal appearance. We learn about him by examining the lives of those who had outlived him. The action takes place well after Cromwell’s death, from 1690 to 1705.

Hugo devotes an entire chapter to the protagonist’s natural father, a fictitious rebel lord by the name of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Baron Clancharlie and Hunkerville, one of the few lords who remained loyal to the Republic even after the fall of Cromwell. Refusing to accept the return of Stuarts to the throne, Lord Clancharlie flees to Switzerland and marries Anne Bradshaw, a fictitious daughter of John Bradshaw, one of the key regicides.

Gwynplaine, whose real name is Fermain, is the fruit of this marriage and the only legitimate heir to his father’s estates. Back in England Lord Clancharlie also has an illegitimate son David with Lady Dirry-Moir, a Scottish noblewoman who refused to follow him to Switzerland and chose to give herself to Charles II.

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Lord Chancharlie in the 1928 film adaptation

Hugo goes to great lengths describing the plight of Lord Clancharlie and the utter lack of sympathy from his former friends who pledged allegiance to the Stuart dynasty after the Restoration.

Linnaeus Baron Clancharlie, a contemporary of Cromwell, was one of the peers of England — few in number, be it said — who accepted the republic. It was a matter of course that Lord Clancharlie should adhere to the republic, as long as the republic had the upper hand; but after the close of the revolution and the fall of the parliamentary government, Lord Clancharlie had persisted in his fidelity to it.

Hugo describes the euphoria that engulfed England after the Restoration:

England was happy; a restoration is as the reconciliation of husband and wife, prince and nation return to each other, no state can be more graceful or more pleasant. Great Britain beamed with joy; to have a king at all was a good deal — but furthermore, the king was a charming one. Charles II was amiable — a man of pleasure, yet able to govern; and great, if not after the fashion of Louis XIV. He was essentially a gentleman.

Lord Clancharlie, who refuses to partake in this jubilation, is regarded as a madman by his contemporaries.

Plainly a dupe and traitor in one. Let a man be as great a fool as he likes, so that he does not set a bad example. Fools need only be civil, and in consideration thereof they may aim at being the basis of monarchies. The narrowness of Clancharlie’s mind was incomprehensible. His eyes were still dazzled by the phantasmagoria of the revolution. He had allowed himself to be taken in by the republic — yes; and cast out. He was an affront to his country.

Hugo mentions George Monk, 1st Duke of Albemarle (1608-1669), the “prodigal son” of English monarchy, who originally supported Richard Cromwell but then was instrumental in restoring the Stuarts to the throne. Linnaeus Clancharlie’s “madness” and treachery are juxtaposed to Monk’s “wisdom”:

Take Monk’s case. He commands the republican army. Charles II, having been informed of his honesty, writes to him. Monk, who combines virtue with tact, dissimulates at first, then suddenly at the head of his troops dissolves the rebel parliament, and re-establishes the king on the throne. Monk is created Duke of Albemarle, has the honour of having saved society, becomes very rich, sheds a glory over his own time, is created Knight of the Garter, and has the prospect of being buried in Westminster Abbey. Such glory is the reward of British fidelity!

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Ursus, illustration from 1870 edition

It is important to stress that it is the post-Restoration society that views Linnaeus Clancharlie as a madman. Hugo himself views his hero as a martyr. Hugo’s loyalties invariably lie on the side of the outcast. He had always sympathized with those who were ridiculed by the masses. Because Hugo himself was living in exile while writing The Man Who Laughs, it is obvious that Lord Clancharlie’s fate parallels his own. Hugo presents Linnaeus Clancharlie as a man of principle, someone who chose exile and ridicule over communion with those whose political views he did not share.

Ursus, the foster-father of the protagonist, claims to be as a supporter of monarchy throughout the novel, but does so for unique reasons. Being a self-proclaimed misanthrope, he cannot possibly be a patriot. He accepts monarchy and overall social hierarchy as status quo, as a natural state of things. Inside his caravan, Ursus keeps a roster with the names of English aristocrats and detailed description of their respective estates. Next to Lord Clancharlie’s name he has a handwritten note: “Rebel; in exile; houses, lands, and chattels sequestrated. It is well.”

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Josiana in Paul Leni’s 1928 adaptation

When Gwynplaine makes a comment about the image of Queen Anne on a coin representing oppression, Ursus scolds him for insolence. “Watch over your abominable jaws. There is a rule for the great — to do nothing; and a rule for the small — to say nothing. The poor man has but one friend, silence.” It is apparent from this passage that it is not patriotism that compels Ursus to defend the Queen. The old man promotes silence and humility merely for the sake of one’s safety.

Later, when Lady Josiana attends a performance of Chaos Vanquished, an amateur play in which Gwynplaine plays the leading role, Ursus exclaims: “She is more than a goddess. She is a duchess.” This statement implies that, in Ursus’ understanding, secular hierarchy overrides divine laws. This very statement awakens suspicion and insecurity in Dea, whose name incidentally means “goddess” in Latin. The blind girl becomes aware of her inferiority to the brilliant socialite.

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Gwynplaine’s speech at the House of Lords. 19th century illustration

When Gwynplaine learns about his aristocratic origin and enters the House of Lords, he expresses his indignation with monarchy before his peers. In his speech addressed to the lords, Gwynplaine speaks rather unfavorably of the two kings who came after Cromwell. He also condemns, quite brazenly, Lady Dirry-Moir, his father’s former mistress who chose to take the side of Charles II:

How I execrate kings! And how shameless are the women! I have been told a sad story. How I hate Charles II! A woman whom my father loved gave herself to that king whilst my father was dying in exile. The prostitute! Charles II, James II! After a scamp, a scoundrel. What is there in a king? A man, feeble and contemptible, subject to wants and infirmities. Of what good is a king? You cultivate that parasite royalty; you make a serpent of that worm, a dragon of that insect.

Furthermore, Gwynplaine expresses nostalgia for the era he had not lived through himself but one that his father had witnessed. He brings up the Republic as a form of earthly paradise:

There will come an hour when convulsion shall break down your oppression; when an angry roar will reply to your jeers. Nay, that hour did come! Thou wert of it, O my father! That hour of God did come, and was called the Republic! It was destroyed, but it will return. Meanwhile, remember that the line of kings armed with the sword was broken by Cromwell, armed with the axe. Tremble!

Gwynplaine’s reference to Cromwell amuses the lords, because in 1705 monarchy was not in danger. Revolution was not a realistic menace. Cromwell was but a distant memory. A significant component of Gwynplaine tragedy is that he is fighting for a hopeless cause. The lords whom he addresses with such passion and indignation realize the security of their situation. Like his natural father, Lord Clancharlie, Gwynplaine is just a madman in the eyes of the English aristocracy.

The novel ends tragically. After being ridiculed and insulted by the lords, Gwynplaine flees the Parliament in hopes to return to his old life as an entertainer. For a brief moment he reunites with his old family, Ursus and Dea, only to find that the girl is deadly ill. When Dea dies in his arms, Gwynplaine throws themanwholaughsposterhimself in the Thames and drowns.

There have been several theatrical and cinematic adaptations of The Man Who Laughs of varying success and quality. Not all of them highlight the political nuances of the original novel. Two screen adaptations particularly stand out: the 1928 silent film by Paul Leni and the 1971 French miniseries by Jean Kerchbron.

The 1928 version opens with a scene of Lord Clancharlie’s execution that is not described in the novel, but the rest of the film focuses primarily on the love story and the concept of universal justice. The English monarchy is ridiculed rather than criticized. To please the audience, the director chooses a happy ending. The young lovers, their aging foster-father and the pet wolf all reunite and sail off to France.

The 1971 version is a less known but more thorough and faithful adaptation. There are several graphic torture scenes that are taken directly from the novel.

Gwynplaine’s speech in the Parliament is also taken from the original text almost word for word. All historical references to Cromwell and the Republic were included. Kerchbron believed it important to preserve the political context, without which much of Hugo’s message would be lost. Taking republican politics out of The Man Who Laughs is like taking Gothic architecture out of Notre-Dame de Paris. Kerchbron’s faithfulness to the original text is commendable.

M. J. Neary 

16958_321447571977_6886780_nAn only child of classical musicians, M.J. Neary is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed expert on military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. Notable achievements include a trilogy revolving the Anglo-Irish conflict, including Never Be at Peace, a novel of Irish rebels. She continues to explore the topic of ethnic tension in her autobiographical satire Saved by the Bang: a Nuclear Comedy.

Her latest release is a cyber mystery Trench Coat Pal set in Westport, CT at the dawn of the internet era. Colored with the same dark misanthropic humor as the rest of Neary’s works, Trench Coat Pal features a cast of delusional and forlorn New Englanders who become pawns in an impromptu revenge scheme devised by a self-proclaimed Robin Hood. A revised edition of Wynfield’s Kingdom, her debut Neo-Victorian thriller, was recently released through Crossroad Press. Wynfield’s War is the sequel following the volatile protagonist to the Crimea. Set in 1910 Ireland, Big Hero of a Small Country is a tragic and violent tale of a family ravaged by an ideological conflict. You can visit her blog here.

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