I was surprised and kind of annoyed with myself to realise that, in all of my years of reviewing for the Australian Women Writers Challenge (five of them!) I hadn’t thought to write a review of a Rosa Praed novel. Maybe it’s because I’ve written of them so often in my scholarly work (which, if you’re interested, can be found on my website).
Praed was a prolific author. From the publication of her first novel in England in 1880, she published at least one work nearly every year. She became well known in literary circles in London, becoming acquainted with writers Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle, and theosophist founders Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott. Her first two novels An Australian Girl (1880) and Policy and Passion (1881) were based on her Australian experiences. After this she moved into themes of spiritualism and theosophy such as communicating with the dead, reincarnation and mesmerism, although she returned often to her memories of Australia.
The most recent Praed novel I’ve read is The Soul of Countess Adrian. I picked this up a while back but I’m revisiting her oeuvre as I do the final bit of work on my book. One of her many works dealing with spiritualist themes, this one dwells largely upon mesmerism, otherwise known as ‘animal magnetism’ or, later, ‘hypnotism’. Mesmer, who developed the idea of animal magnetism, believed that a subtle physical fluid fills the universe and forms connecting mediums between humans, the earth and heavenly bodies. Diseases form when this fluid is unevenly distributed in the body, and the person recovers when equilibrium is restored through the chanelling of the fluid to other people. Although the basis of his ideas were in fluid, they were more believably exercised through the concept of power in interpersonal relations between himself and patients, and this is how the notion manifests in The Soul of Countess Adrian.
The novel features the stock Praed characters of a young, vulnerable, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman and a strong-willed, potentially dangerous older woman who exerts her influence over the younger woman. The former is Miss Beatrice Brett, a performer, and the latter is Countess Adrian, who ‘was far too large, too tall, too bounteously made for beauty. But then, how perfectly she was proportioned, and what a graceful snake-like way she had of moving, and what a grand carriage of head and magnificence of bust! Her eyes were too close together. But the eyes! Surely they might have illustrated Professor Viall's theory of Magnetic Dynamics. They were all pupil and yellow light. When the pupil dilated, there was nothing else; when it contracted, the iris showed queer golden gleams, like those the eyes of some savage animal … And who cared that the rich red lips, parted so as to show a double row of small glistening teeth, were so red and so ripe as to suggest sense rather than soul? Soul somehow was the last attribute one would associate with Countess Adrian’ (35-6).
By contrast, Beatrice had a soul which, Lenton muses, ‘might be likened, as in Dryden's metaphor, to a rare and well-tempered blade fretting its too delicate scabbard, so frail was her physique, so ethereal her look’ (10).
Beatrice is known as an ‘Improvisatrice’, traditionally a female poet who performs verse, but in this novel she acts out plays without a script. She performs as a compulsion, not as a desire, explainign to her admirer Lenton, ‘I can’t think of anything now, but what I am going to do. I don’t know why I want to do it, but I can’t help it; it’s been in me all day, making me so restless’ (34).
In other words, she is a medium, a woman who channels spirits. Her uncle refers to her ‘genuis’ as ‘the unconscious power of access to the highest influences of the past … It’s the open door through which these bodiless beings from the other side can enter into our world again – the body by which they can vent their unsatisfied cravings and pen-up aspirations’ (43).
Both women love Lenton, who adores the purity of Beatrice. When the countess discovers that Lenton is engaged to Beatrice, she mesmerises the young girl and, in a vampiric kiss, transfers her soul to Beatrice, then dies. Beatrice is left unconscious, but when she finally wakes she has undergone a personality change. Acting as the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, Lenton observes how ‘With her eyes and her voice and her gesture, she stood the embodied lust of the flesh’ (179). No longer shy and shrinking, her form ‘seemed more luxuriantly moulded than before her illness, and her lips and eyes had acquired a peculiar and voluptuous expression’ (181). However, through the intervention of a mystic, this new, sexualised personality is exorcised and the previous Beatrice returns.
It’s interesting that Beatrice is a performer, as it was through mediumship that women were able to gain authority in a culture in which they were terribly circumscribed. Some such as Katie King became famous, although they were later exposed as frauds. What I’ve always found peculiar in Praed’s novels is her representation of these passionate, sexual women who exert a mesmerising force that must be removed. Praed was a terrifically strong woman (although she didn’t much like sex), and perhaps these novels express her awareness that her personality was too powerful for the culture in which she lived.
As far as Praed novels go, this was one was fairly simply. Others, such as Policy and Passion are more complex and interesting. For those who are interested in reading more (and you can always be guaranteed of a good plot in a Praed novel), some of her works are available on Project Gutenberg.
This is my ninth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.