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Introduction to The Danvers Jewels. Inglezakis, Mara L.
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Introduction to The Danvers Jewels

By Mara Inglezakis

1886 was a bad year for empire. Gladstone introduced the contentious Irish Home Rule Bill in Parliament: the beginning of the end for the British domination of Ireland. Ludwig II, the last king of Bavaria, died, and Bismark consolidated his rule of a united and rivalrous Germany. American economic power pulled even with Britain's. Even the horse, that symbol of imperial prowess, became obsolete: Karl Benz patented the first gas-powered automobile in 1886.

The introductory tableau of The Danvers Jewels, written in that year and published the next, takes us back to the moment it first became apparent that the sun would in fact set on the British Empire—to the First War of Indian Independence, or, as the Victorians called it, the Sepoy Mutiny. In May of 1857, the ever-present discontent of the Indian soldiers—sepoys—serving in the British East India Company's army in segregated, white-officered units, violently exploded. Standard-issue rifle bullets were reportedly being greased with a mixture of cow and pig fat; since caps had to be bitten off prior to inserting bullets in rifles, this added insult to the injury of colonial subordination for both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. With many of Britain's regiments busy in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Crimea, the sepoys were able to wipe out not only their white officers, but much colonial infrastructure; their advances culminated in the siege of Lucknow. For the Anglo-Indians, the Mutiny licensed their own slaughter of native Indians across the continent from the end of 1857 through 1859—not only sepoys, but civilian men, women, and children. Some methods of revenge were brutal: one, called "blowing away," involved strapping a living "revel" over the mouth of a cannon and firing it. The long-term effects of the Mutiny included the consolidation and annexation of India as a colony by the British Crown in 1858; India would not gain independence for nearly a hundred years, in 1947.

The Danvers Jewels gives us a glimpse into this latter part of the war, and the English retaliation, the uncomfortable details of which were generally glossed over by contemporary writers—most notably by Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone, to which Cholmondeley's novel bitingly responds. In Chapter 1 we meet our narrator, one Colonel Middleton, and his superior, Sir John, an administrator of high yet indeterminate rank. As Sir John presents Middleton with the jewels of the novel's title, he tell him to: "Look at those emeralds. The hasp is broken, but it makes a pretty bracelet. I don't think I'll tell you how the hasp got broken—little accident as the lady who wore it gave it to me. Rather brown, isn't it, on one side; but it will come off. No, you need not be afraid of touching, it, it isn't wet." (6) Although the emerald bracelet will taste blood again before the novel's close, Middleton is so untouched by this revealing detail that it receives neither reflection nor a second mention.

Asking us from the first to read between the lines of Colonel Middleton's parodically profound (and profoundly proper) ignorance, The Danvers Jewels directs us throughout to the suppressed and silent parts of history. But rather than spoiling the plot by way of explanation (as the end of this introduction will have to do), let us turn our attention to its author.

Mary Cholmondeley, like the fin de siècle culture in which she lived, stood at a crossroads. Class structures demanded that earlier-century authoresses should not work for profit—as Jane Austen obliquely dramatized in Sense and Sensibility—while, for the 20th-century professional woman writer, her rank and social identity were actively encoded in her profession of letters. Cholmondeley wrote at the moment when the dominant masculine culture of 19th-century Europe had begun to notice women as individuals—economically and legally—in their own right.

Although born into relative privilege, like many Victorian feminists (amongst whom we must count Cholmondeley with some reservation, as she was never an activist), Cholmondeley's life was not one of ease and leisure. She was born to a family of the middle gentry in the village of Hodnet, Shropshire, where she would spend much of her life as the unmarried "daughter at home," taking her invalid mother's place as her rector father's assistant in parish matters, and as nurse to both her parents and seven siblings. The lifestyle left her little time to pursue what, according to biographer Carolyn Oulton, she identified as her vocation at age nineteen: writing. The Danvers Jewels was Cholmondeley's second publication and first published novel: she had previously completed a novel, Her Evil Genius, and a short story, “Geoffrey's Wife,” appeared in The Graphic in 1885. The Danvers Jewels saw print in 1887, when she was twenty eight. The book was dedicated to her younger sister, Diana, who, with sister Victoria, "helped [her] to write" by relieving her from her quite crushing household and parish duties.

It was not only the lack of discretionary "money and a room of one's own" which impeded Cholmondeley as an author. She also suffered from chronic respiratory complaints, including asthma, which always threatened to immobilize her during the winter (for asthma is exacerbated by cold). Because the British social season occurred during the winter, this poor health impeded Cholmondeley's access to the raw social material she needed in order to create the brilliant tableaux of character which would distinguish her work—visits, balls, even church services—as her diaries and letters make clear. Biographies by both Carolyn Oulton and by Cholmondeley's friend, Percy Lubbock, suggest that Cholmondeley suffered, in addition to—and perhaps because of—her unpropitious home life and poor health, from what her physician, Victor Horseley, called "nervous exhaustion," for which he prescribed (for example) a six-week rest cure in 1893 (the treatment was most famously dramatized in Charlotte Perkins Gillman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” ). In the 21st century, we would probably call this "nervous exhaustion" anxiety. We might also note that, like cold, anxiety promotes and even induces asthma.

Like the history that must be wiped from Sir John's emeralds, all this pain lurks beneath the sparkling surface of The Danvers Jewels. The novel's publication was auspicious for Cholmondeley both personally and professionally. Thanks to the assistance of her aunt Victoria's friends, the writers Anne Thackery Ritchie and Rhoda Broughton, The Danvers Jewels first appeared in serial form in Temple Bar magazine, then edited by George Bentley (whose father Richard had most famously employed, then parted from, Charles Dickens, over Bentley's Miscellany). Cholmondeley would come to rely upon Bentley implicitly in professional matters, so much so that her career would be arrested when Bentley died and Temple Bar was sold to Macmillian's, who unceremoniously dropped her, just as she completed her most famous novel, Red Pottage (1899). As it was, The Danvers Jewels met with commercial, if not much critical, success. Bentley would serialize its sequel, Sir Charles Danvers (1889), and afterwards Diana Tempest (1893), the novel that established Cholmondeley in London literary circles, where she would be able to socialize on her own terms—rather than those dictated by a drafty, asthma-inducing vicarage haunted by insalubrious household and social duties. But Cholmondeley would not really take provincial life, or her own biography, head-on until Red Pottage.

With The Danvers Jewels, Cholmondeley directs her powers of observation outwards. At the level of content, the novel is most concerned with what I have anachronistically called empire and its attendant practices, brought home. Its motivating incident, the theft of the jewels by Sir John during the Mutiny, is mirrored by their attempted theft by its adventurous anti-heroine, "Aurelia Grant"—who, like the "rhanee" from whose arm they were first ripped, does not meet a happy end: in the world Cholmondeley describes, the possession of valuables by a woman of color or of low estate is clearly not allowed. Sir George, the patriarch of the Danvers family to whom Colonel Middleton is commissioned (by Sir John) to deliver the jewels, runs a familial administration as crooked as Anglo-India's: eldest son Charles, the rightful (and, as it is quietly and quite outrageously suggested early on, the only) heir of the Danvers family, cannot access his inheritance; it has been repurposed for the legally and personally less qualified younger son, Ralph, whose only strong point is that he has not yet offended his father. Ralph, whose perceptiveness equals that of the aptly-named Colonel Middleton, is poised at the beginning of the novel to marry a woman who turns out to be both a jewel thief and another man's wife—and an American's, at that. And, as was so often the case in colonial India, officials who are both capable and compassionate are away "on business" when wanted most—in this book, General Marston, who with Colonel Middleton is a houseguest at the Danvers' mansion for the bulk of the novel.

All this comes to us through the lens of Colonel Middleton's ignorance, so persistent in the face of evidence that it seems, to borrow a phrase from Herbert Spencer, hereditary rather than willful. After the dénoument that reveals the American whom Middleton met and befriended on the boat back to England, Valentine Carr, to be a thief, Sir John's murderer, and Aurelia's husband, Middleton still "believed in Carr's innocence, though I must own that I was sorry that he never answered any of the numerous letters I wrote to him, or ever came to see me in London as I had particularly asked him to do. Of course, I did not believe that he was married to Aurelia, for it was only on the word of a stranger and a police inspector." (218-9) Choice words for a man whose credibility also relies on his having served the Crown.

Middleton's mental faux pas are not simply ridiculous, but screamingly funny. So funny that, in the opinion of this critic, Cholmondeley's Colonel, and her ability to sustain his hilariously limited perspective throughout a 300-page novel, is rivaled only by Molière (with his crass old men), as well as Wodehouse (with his bumbling Bertie, who seems, indeed, to be a species of Colonel Middleton). It would be disingenuous to style Cholmondeley a great humorist, since the remainder of her corpus retains only the caustic wit inherent in the parody that diffuses itself through this novel. Still, The Danvers Jewels itself deserves a place alongside such late-Victorian comic masterpieces as Jerrold's Mrs. Candles Curtain Lectures (1866), W.S. Gilbert's Engaged (1877), the Grossmith brothers' Diary of a Nobody (1888), Jerome's Three Men In A Boat (1889), and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). As this list reveals, comedy and parody were almost entirely male preserves—which makes Cholmondeley's achievement all the more striking.

Comedy is not the only generic arena in which The Danvers Jewels is conspicuous. Towards the end of the novel, the reader has entirely ceased to trust Middleton's observations (if she ever did); she has been relying upon her own guided, perhaps, by those of Charles. Charles reads, indeed, as something like a prototype for Sherlock Holmes—who debuted in the 1887 edition of Beeton's Christmas Annual with A Study in Scarlet. As The Danvers Jewels was published in January of that same year, 11 months prior to A Study In Scarlet's November publication, it is tempting to speculate that Doyle's Holmes was inspired by Cholmondeley's Charles. Structurally, too, A Study in Scarlet resembles The Danvers Jewels, for it differs from all other Sherlock Holmes mysteries in that the largest part of the text is occupied not by the character of Holmes, but by the backstory of a perpetrator as sympathetic as Valentine Carr. Charles's methods of detection anticipate Holmes's, too: we find at the end of The Danvers Jewels that Charles has traced Aurelia through the outwardly suspicious behaviors of her husband, by a process of deduction. Cholmondeley's novel culminates, like many of Conan Doyle's stories, in a desperate physical pursuit and apprehension of the criminal, and a crashing dénoument. With his wit and his laconic, but excellent, manners, Charles may also be read as a heterosexualized type of another character who has been compared to Holmes—Oscar Wilde, London's most-talked-of celebrity at the time The Danvers Jewels was composed and published.

It would be mistaken to believe that The Danvers Jewels is somehow the outward-looking counterpart to Red Pottage's sustained introspection. For, like her own hero, Charles, Cholmondeley herself was a sort of Holmes: like that fictional detective's armchair deductions, the intellectual feats that were her novels were accomplished at home, to which she was so often confined by ill health and (like Holmes again) eventual addiction to pain medication (morphine, of which heroin is a distillate). And just as Wilde was compelled to relocate from Ireland to England and from England to France by love-related distresses, Cholmondeley travelled extensively among the health resorts of southern England and Europe in search of her own, less romantic but still "constant craving"—breathable air. Charles, who is forced merely to move around to escape his creditors, is more fortunate.

Cholmondeley's life story is likewise central to one of the most interesting—and, morally, most troubling—aspects of The Danvers Jewels: the narrative's sympathy for Charles's inverse counterpart, the female thief and impostor who calls herself Aurelia. We are cued to this sympathy by the reluctance of the novel's good woman, Evelyn, whom we find at the end has long suspected her as the thief, to accuse or even suggest that she suspects her of stealing the jewels. Evelyn bears more than a passing resemblance to Dorothea Brooke, whom Cholmondeley invoked with intent: she adored George Eliot, and, as Sir Charles Danvers suggests, she was especially fond of Middlemarch. Perhaps Evelyn is sympathetic to the woman she knows to be an imposter because she, too, must practice deception on a day-to-day basis: Evelyn is forced to confront and even assist the infatuation of her cousin Ralph—whom she loves—with Aurelia.

Deception comes to a head in The Danvers Jewels hours before Aurelia steals the jewels, with a more workaday diversion from the truth: an evening of "amateur theatricals" performed at the Danvers mansion for the enjoyment of the the family and their neighbors. While the use of theatre to foreshadow danger might not signify to the modern reader, the theatre remained suspect, to the Evangelical mind, until the end of the 19th century: it was associated with fiction, lies, and the Devil. Bourgeois prejudice persisted against actresses, who were broadly suspected of prostitution (sometimes justly), and of theaters as places of assignation for professional prostitutes and their customers. "Private" theatricals were thus a safer form of access to drama, but also in themselves always potentially suspect, as in Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) and Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). The "private" theatrical in The Danvers Jewels is no less suspect, in that it reveals truths which a normative audience, epitomized on the one hand by Sir George and on the other by Colonel Middleton, does not wish to acknowledge. Valentine Carr is invited to the Danvers's house specifically for the purpose of acting in the play by Colonel Middleton, who, as usual, is oblivious to how accomplished an actor his friend truly is. The play and the rehearsals leading up to it are the moments in which it is revealed that Charles is deeply and secretly in love with Evelyn, whose hand he feels unable to request owing to his debts. Aurelia Grant, too, appears in her natural state—as a performer, whom, as Cholmondeley notes "on stage Evelyn surpassed[...] as much as Aurelia surpassed Evelyn off it" (91)

Aurelia is sympathetic in the way that Daphne du Maurier would later make her villainesses sympathetic: we may not condone, but we understand her crime. Aurelia impersonates a woman of ambivalent respectability (though, really, her "people" are unknown, and what little is known of them is that they are Irish) in order to make her living as a thoroughly unrespectable thief. In the relationship she cultivates with the Danvers family, she is at once a marriageable girl who pursues men for their money only a little more determinedly than her thousands of sisters on the Victorian marriage market, and, at the time the novel is set—directly after the Mutiny in the late 1850s or early 1860s—as a perverse woman, who works in the public world—and excels at the job even the accomplished con man to whom she is married. Just as Valentine Carr set out for India to prey on Sir John's ill-gotten gains, Aurelia takes aim at the male domain that was the province of marriage—as her respectable creator knew it to exist with every cup of tea she poured for the ladies of her father's parish, every time a chauvinist dinner companion insisted that her novels must have been written by a man, every time a publisher took advantage of her. Even Bentley, after all, offered her an insultingly low amount for the copyright to Sir Charles Danvers, in spite of the success of The Danvers Jewels.

Near the end of the novel, the emerald bracelet and the rest of the jewels that were to make her fortune are stripped from Aurelia's corpse, as they were from the nameless rhanee's before her. This sort of rapine will become a theme in Cholmondeley's novels—not with the villains, but directed at her heroines. The title character of Diana Tempest will be robbed of her familial estate; Red Pottage's deeply autobiographical writer heroine, Hester, has her masterpiece stolen and burned. The persistence of this theme is not surprising from Cholmondeley, whose life circumstances mimicked a sort of ongoing rapine: the English climate robbed her of her health, her social climate sapped her mental health, and the gendered expectations in which it culminated robbed this brilliant, largely neglected author of the professional success that was her due. Cholmondeley saw only a fraction of the profits from her most commercially and critically successful novel, Red Pottage: the publisher to whom she had recourse, upon Bentley's death, tricked her into relinquishing her rights to the novel's lucrative American sales. She never wrote another comparable book.

The story of Aurelia, in this lost gem of a novel, turns out to be, perhaps, a female fantasy of rebellious success and complete escape.

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