October 30, 2022
Last November, when I wrote the short novel “Return Of The Native Son” for my annual NaNoWriMo project, I intended it to be the first of a series of short novels chronicling a particular family who held the title of Viscount Lipton in Yorkshire. I found the experience of writing about a middle-aged man in the period immediately after the American Revolution seeking to find his way and take up a title that he had not had reason to expect to have invigorating, and the completion of the novel and its success led me to ponder how to continue the saga.
Having begun in media res, as one should when writing, I was left with the choice of whether to go forward in time or backwards in time. After all, there is a lot more to write about in both directions, and I had a couple of stories in mind. One of them, which I am reserving for a later time, involves the period of the Lord Lipton of the first novel in the period before he received the title of Viscount and was still a private citizen, albeit one who was soon to become heir to a peerage. The other one, which you are reading now, is a short novel about the young ward of Lord Lipton, Clarissa Bennett, who one meets in the first chapter of the novel, and who has in this book grown up to be a lovely and accomplished young woman beginning her adulthood and seeking to find her own place in the world as her cousin so successfully did nearly ten years before.
One of the most notable aspects of this particular series of stories is the issue of context. While the saga of the House of Lipton goes back to the seventeenth century, at least as I now conceive it, and continues on possibly into the twentieth century–I do not yet know if I will continue it until the present day or end it in some kind of noble but tragic end during World War I or World War II–the period of the saga in which we are now engaged was a very interesting period of history. As is commonly the case during interesting times, there was a lot of violence and revolutionary turmoil, and the anti-revolutionary family found itself deeply involved in the matters of state that were involved in the ultimately successful efforts by the British Empire to roll back the French Revolution and prevent its contagion from spreading to the overthrow of all good government from the world.
That is, at least, one way of looking at it. As might be imagined, there were no sides of unmixed good or evil, although the French Revolution was far further along the path of evil than its much-maligned ancien regime, troubled as that period was when it ended in the period after 1789. While the American Revolution was based, in large part, on the desire of independent-minded colonists to preserve a legacy of freedom that had developed during a period of salutary neglect under the negligent tutelage of a nation that seems to have acquired its empire during a fit of madness, the French Revolution had a far more troubling history in anti-religious rebelliousness that combined the worst features of anarchy and tyranny, demonstrating the instability of the French Republican coalition that has continued in many respects to this day.
There is very little good that one can say about the French Revolution in light of its malign influence on the contemporary world. Perhaps most perniciously, the French Revolution and its adherents believed that they were the supporters and exemplars of reason as opposed to some sort of superstitious nonsense that included the religious faith as well as the noble patriotism of previous ages. To this day contemporary progressives consider themselves to be paragons of rationality and intellect and progress, and all of those who oppose their millennial follies and the inevitable suffering and ruin that those projects entail are labeled as beneath the dignity of being respected as human beings. This sort of bias affected American politics during the age, which is perhaps a tale for another time, but more to the present point strongly affected the politics of other European countries. Many French emigres fled to Great Britain, where they sought to live in freedom rather than be mercilessly sent to the guillotine. While some of these refugees were able to preserve at least some of their wealth and status, many emigrees were impoverished by the experience of losing their property and wealth to thieving revolutionaries, and the experience of exile and impoverishment proved to be a traumatic one.
It is now that we reach a delicate subject that must be addressed when one considers the turmoil of revolutionary times. One of the dirty little secrets of those who have fancied themselves to be the adherents of reason and those who were going to bring mankind into progress from the age of darkness and superstition is that terror has always been used by such regimes in a deliberate fashion. This is not to say that the ancien regime, with its corrupt nobles and church and its parasitic courtier elite in Versailles and other places was entirely blameless, but rather that what replaced it was far worse. The hostility towards independent-minded and conservative provincial areas as well as elements of French society in the Vendee as well as in Southern France, to say nothing of the violence within the area of Paris itself, was truly horrifying, and those who survived the experience were heavily damaged by the experience. This appears to have been a deliberate attempt by revolutionary authorities to make themselves so terrible that resistance was seen as futile. And yet people still resisted, and were ultimately successful, although it would take decades of conflict before France was able to see a more just societal order, and long remained divided (and perhaps remains so to this day) by the forces that the French Revolution unleashed.
Trauma is a delicate matter to deal with. All too often, those who seek to gain power do so at least in part to inflict trauma upon political enemies. One of the more notable ways that power is used by those who are wicked and evil–which is to say most of those who are and who have ever been in power during the history of mankind–is to use the coercive power of authority to inflict trauma on those unfortunate enough to come under their misrule. If this was done in a sporadic fashion under even the best regimes of human history, it was done systematically and on an industrial scale during the worst of those regimes, among which we can include that of the French Revolution through the age of Napoleon, when death and destruction were visited upon millions of French people and many others around the world, especially but by no means only in Europe. When we consider the horror and trauma of slavery that is mourned by those whose ancestors were sold by other Africans across the Atlantic passage or through the deserts to the Muslim Middle East, we must also acknowledge the trauma that has been inflicted by Revolutionary regimes like that of the France of the late 18th and early 19th centuries or of the socialist and national socialist revolutions of the twentieth century, or, we may hear the footsteps of, the political turmoil of our own present evil age.
What does the political trauma of a revolutionary age have to do with the romantic hopes and expectations of an English young woman in the late 18th century? One of the great pitfalls of writing historical novels is that it is hard for us to write characters who are spirited enough to appeal to readers in the contemporary age while also being true to the social and moral restraints of an age that was powerfully affected by the reaction against revolution and all of the anarchy in society as well as within the home and family that was threatened by such forces. One need not be conscious of such larger political affairs to recognize that being true to the times one writes about leads one to have to think seriously about what sort of character and behavior is going to be exhibited by one’s heroes and heroines. If it is easy to imagine brave and dashing heroines making enthusiastic speeches as well as charging successfully into battle, it is less easy to remember the scars that result from political or military conflict during ages where governments feel immensely insecure and vulnerable to threats from outside and within. If it is easy to imagine women seeking to break the restraints of morality and patriarchy, it is less easy for us to understand the damage and trauma that result from being taken advantage of by people who have always urged others to cast off restraint for the gratification of their own selfish desires to fulfill their lusts and to escape responsibility for their actions. The lure of moral as well as political anarchy has long been a cover for the removal of vulnerable people from the protection they had previously received from those empowered by the authorities of church and state in families and other institutions and their subjection to greater harm and trauma by those whose highly charged rhetoric hid corrupted and debased hearts and minds, as it remains to this day.
In taking a clear anti-revolutionary perspective in this book, as well as in this series as a whole, and indeed in my entire course of writings as a whole, I do not pretend that all authorities behave nobly and decently. Far from it. It is merely to recognize that the ordinary if lamentable evil and corruption that endures in even the best people and the best regimes of human history is not bettered by the subjection of those regimes and their pious hypocrisies and lamentable shortcomings to withering contempt and criticism. When imperfect but decent regimes are subjected to the demands of perfectionism that fails to recognize its own manifest injustice and evil, they are often replaced by governments whose evils and whose corruptions overflow the banks of what had previously been thought to be grievous and intolerable wrongs. How is it possible to develop good character and to be successful and survive and thrive in such a terrible age as that of the French Revolution or our own? Let us consider the story of Clarissa and her family to be a case study of such a noble and difficult task, one that remains relevant in our own age as well as her own.