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Anastasius
:  Towards Background and Meaning
 

 John Rodenbeck

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In the summer of 1877 the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly drew his readers’ attention to a forgotten novel: “A revered bibliophile,” he wrote, “counseled me to read Anastasius. . . . Here, he said, is one of the great books of the world, more neglected even than Clarissa Harlowe or Tom Jones. Yes, and open to the same ethical criticism, but nonetheless a marvel of erudition, eloquence, and profound insight into human character.”[1] The Atlantic editor was William Dean Howells (1837-1920), friend of Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Henry James (1843-1916) and no mean novelist himself; and his article on Anastasius remains, despite its brevity, one of the most informed, helpful, lucid, and suggestive statements yet made–––let us say at once that we agree with the “revered bibliophile”–––about Thomas Hope’s great book.

 

Anastasius was a roaring international best-seller in its time: issued anonymously by John Murray, the most prestigious London publishing house of that era and of many long afterwards, it went through three editions within a matter of weeks. Its first readers universally ascribed it to Lord Byron (1788-1824), who had already used his own experience of the Ottoman Empire to write the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812) and four verse romances, The Giaour  (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), and Lara ((1814).[2] Byron had presented Childe Harold to the public as a versified travelogue, complete with footnotes and a hero who was introduced, according to the author, only “for the sake of giving some connexion to the piece.”[3] The second edition of Anastasius was sold out in 24 hours; and it was in the brief preface that he added to the third edition that Hope at last revealed his authorship and disclosed his aims, observing that his hero was largely a structural device. Such remarks were so like Byron’s about Childe Harold that many readers rejected Hope’s authorship even after his open avowal. They also dismissed the modesty of his stated aims, believing it to be mere affectation. A French translation was published in Paris that same year.[4]

 

By 1851, 20 years after Hope’s death, Anastasius had appeared in seven editions in England, two in America, four in France, four in Germany, and two in the Nether­lands.[5] Murray kept the book in print until the 1850s and as late as World War I–––in the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1913), for example, or the Cambridge History of English Literature (1907-1921)[6]–––it was still reckoned as a significant cultural document, its author being identified not for his accomplishments as a scholar-popularizer, artist, designer, architectural historian, collector, or philo­sopher, but as “Anastasius” Hope, novelist and traveller. Ian Jack author of the relevant volume in the Oxford History of English Literature (1963), excuses himself from a discussion of the book only on grounds of available space.[7] A new edition of the French translation was published as recently as 1999.[8]

Howells identifies the reason why, however, after its early vogue, this book had by 1877 already lost ground with the Anglo-American public: like Clarissa Harlowe and Tom Jones, he says, it was “open to . . . ethical criticism.” Howells’ specific reference to these two eighteenth-century masterpieces tells us as plainly as possible that Anas­tasius was regarded as, like them, simply too sexy for an increasingly pious and Pharisaical readership, which in England included members of Hope’s own family. Thomas Hope (1769-1831), on the other hand, belonged to an earlier, much less pious, and much more liberal-minded generation. By background cosmopolitan, by education a classicist-polyglot, and by temperament a freethinking man of the Enlightenment, he wrote Anastasius during a very different epoch from the one that succeeded it.

 

The contrast in attitude and tone between the Regency and the Victorian era is most succinctly characterized, perhaps, in the well-known remark by Lord Melbourne (1779-1848). His first wife, Lady Caroline Lamb (1785–1828), who had been the most flamboyant of Byron’s multitudinous mistresses, died during the reign of George IV, but Melbourne himself lingered on to become the most trusted advisor of the young Queen Victoria. Emerging from yet another confrontation with Prince Albert, who was no fool and saw significant political advantage in siding publicly with Evangelical virtue, Melbourne was heard to mutter, “This damned morality will ruin everything!”[9]

 

Even some readers during the Regency–––Mary Berry, for example, and Crabb Robinson––found Anastasius too racy, too Epicurean.[10] They undoubtedly noticed the Circassian damsel, bound for an Egyptian harem, whom Anastasius encounters on the ship taking him to Alexandria (Volume I, Chapter XV). After she has told him her very brief history, she is set upon by her travelling companions, jealous Georgian girls, who strip her to the waist. What would a gently-reared middle-class mid-Victorian young lady have made not only of this act, but also of Anastasius’ unchivalrous reaction to it?

 

They all fell upon poor Hamida, forcibly tore open her feridjee, and displayed her bosom. It might not answer the utmost amplitude of Asiatic ideas, but I confess, though I looked hard, I perceived no deficiency.

 

What would the same Victorian young lady have said about the particular pursuit of happiness after his return from the austerities of the Hajj as recorded in this introduction to Anastasius’ only adventure in Damascus (Volume II, Chapter VI)?

 

One Friday morning, after my devotions, just as I stepped out of the mosque, my eye happened to be caught by one of those celestial beings, found in large cities, who, anti­cipating the office of the Houris of Paradise, have no objection to cast a ray of bliss on the existence of mortal man. Unfortunately my eagerness to pursue this flitting form of brightness made me overlook some nearer but less attractive objects that stood in my way. Foremost among them happened to be a little man. . . .

 

And apart from his several marriages and amorous liaisons, what indeed would such a young lady have made of his penultimate adventures, his rambles northward through Italy, where, though worn down sorely by the burden of his ailing son and his own mortal injuries, he nevertheless emits one final flash of casual lust (Volume III, Chapter XIV)?

 

After passing through several cities, which looked like the deserted habitations of Titans, in[to] which had crept a race of pigmies, we arrived at Loretto, where, pulled one way by the guardian of a holy house, anxious that I should wipe away my old sins,  and the other by a fair  vendor of crucifixes, desirous that I should commence a new score, I was only saved from leaving my cloak in the hands of the syren, by a pilgrim who had stolen it before.

 

Apart from the fact that the last two passages actually link religion with commercial sex, the mere irreverence, wit, length, and elegance of their sentences and many others in Anastasius make it extremely doubtful that they were written, as has actually been suggested, by a clergyman, of whatever persuasion.[11]

 

The book would probably have escaped penalties under the Obscene Publications Act, passed in 1857. But the trade in novels in Victorian Britain had already become controlled by large circulating libraries that adhered to the rising Idealist-Evangelical ethic–––their eye was on the newly literate, newly leisured, and newly moneyed–––and were determined that nothing in their stock should “bring a blush to a maiden’s cheek.” Thanks to the expanding penetration of their commerce in a rapidly growing mass market, these distributors were able to dictate terms to publishers and ultimately even to writers. Such a situation anticipated in many ways the substantive control over Holly­wood that was exercised between 1934 and 1967 by the so-called Hays Office, which censored American films in accord with strictures laid down by the Legion of Decency in defence of what it perceived to be Catholic “family values.” The cases of Lolita (1958) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), finally decided in 1959 and 1960, even­tually meant the end of censorship in American bookshops, but until 1966 many so-called public libraries in America were in fact governed by the Index Librorum Prohi­bitorum, which banned such authors as Defoe, Voltaire, Gibbon, Balzac, Sartre and Kazantzakis, as well as virtually all modern philosophy.  Even now Anastasius is not a book for pietists, puritans or prudes–––unless, of course, they’d like to learn something. Nor is it for the  semi-literate.

It is his irrepressible energy, much of it expressed through sex, that makes Anastasius, the eponymous diarist of these three volumes, different from other vaguely similar heroes, far different from Byron’s languid Childe Harold and even from his Don Juan, to whom Anastasius bears otherwise considerable resemblance. Compared with Anastasius, however, who is always game for another adventure, Juan is almost an acci­dental or passive lover, generally more pursued than pursuing, that fact being precisely what gives point to Byron’s satire. There may be a great deal of resemblance between Donna Inez’ letter in Don Juan I.cxcii-cxcvii and Helena’s letter to Anastasius in Volume I, Chapter XIII of the novel, but Hope could not have read the first two cantos of Don Juan before writing all or most of Anastasius, simply because they were not published until mid-July of 1819. Byron’s admiration for Hope’s novel, on the other hand, is well known and Cantos III-V of Don Juan almost certainly owe a great deal to Anastasius, as do many of the later cantos.[12]

 

The Picaresque

 

Hope’s book has an instantly recognizable literary pedigree in the long tradition of the pica­resque novel. This tradition had its beginnings in the cultural penumbra of Hellenistic Alexandria, where the ancestor of all Western novels, the Greek prose romance, was invented. Surviving records give us five more or less complete ancient Greek romances, with others known only from summaries. The archetypal plot involves a virginal young couple whose idyllic happiness is interrupted by a criminal incursion that quickly leads to many journeys and separations. After a great deal of danger, both physical and moral, the couple is rescued by divine agency and is eventually reunited to reaffirm or consummate their love. [13]

This basic plot continues to inspire countless Western works, especially films, down to our own time. The relationship of Anastasius to such a plot, however, is sidelong and ironic. The action of Hope’s novel takes place in a world immune to Providence, in which boy meets girl, their love is quickly consummated, and then they part, never to meet again. The hero’s ultimate passion is not for a heroine, but for his own child, the only tangible record of his passage through a universe from which the gods remain withdrawn, occasionally illuminated for him by such human attachments.

One quality, however, Anastasius indeed shares with the Greek romances: their central theme or motif  and certainly their central structural device is in fact not love, but travel. Displacements followed by landings in exotic ports of call are their major feature. And as Hope’s preface to the third (1820) edition makes clear, his chief aim was identical with that of the travel literature of his time:  to display, with “minute and characteristic details,” the “manners” of the Ottoman Empire, supplementing the mass of what he had personally observed with historical and statistical infor­mation from current written sources. The story he tells, the imaginative part of Anastasius,  he describes as merely a “fictitious superstructure.”

 

Designed chiefly as diversions, to suit the Alexandrian taste for charm and frivolity,  the  Greek romances are never set in nor ever seek to represent their own place and time. In the only two lengthy fictional prose narratives that have come down to us from ancient Rome, on the other hand––––the fragmentary Satyricon of Petronius and the Metamophoses or Golden Ass of Apuleius–––the motif of travel is combined with critical and often satirical analysis of contemporary society. This fact, which shows a deliberate closeness of reference to real life, is what entitles them to be considered as novels rather than as romances. In subject, settings, aim, and spirit, Anastasius obviously has a great deal in common with them.

 

The English word picaresque derives, as is common knowledge, from the Spanish word pícaro, meaning “scoundrel” or “rascal." During the Spanish Golden Age, when classical literary forms were revived and made new, the term was applied to the roguish heroes of such works as the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1553), the great Cer­vantes’ novela “Rinconete y Cortadillo” (1613), Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache: Atalaya de la Vida (1599-1604, Espinel’s Relaciones de la vida del escudero Marcos de Obregón (1618), and Quevedo’s La vida de Buscón (1626). These picaresque novels constitute the beginnings of a modern subgenre clearly descended from both the Greek romance and the Roman novel, which overlap in their mutual use of travel.

The picaresque mode was imported early into England by Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) in numerous works, especially The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), but did not re-emerge into English literature generally until a hundred or so years after Nashe’s premature death. La vraie histoire comique de Francion by Charles Sorel (1599?-1674) meanwhile carried the subgenre triumphantly to France. Published in several editions (1623, 1626, 1633, 1645), Francion was almost certainly read in his youth by Hope, whose primary mother-tongue (of three) was undoubtedly French.

 

Nearly a century before Anastasius, Daniel Defoe (1616-1731) created a brilliant pica­resque novel in English with a first-person female narrator in Moll Flanders (1722). The outstanding exemplar of the picaresque novel in that period, however, is Le Sage’s Gil Blas de Santillana (1715/1724/1735), a French masterpiece that points directly to its own inspiration by being set in Spain. A vigorous English translation of Gil Blas was published under the name of Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), himself the author of three rollicking novels of travel deeply influenced by the Spanish picaresque: Roderick Random in 1748, Peregrine Pickle in 1751, and Humphry Clinker in 1771. Smollett had already been anticipated, however, by his arch-rival, Henry Fielding (1707-1754), whose Jonathan Wild (1743) and Tom Jones (1749) both belong to the picaresque mode. The latter has triumphantly escaped from Victorian oblivion, even winding up in two cinema adaptations, the first produced in 1917, the second, Tony Richardson’s delightful romp with a distinguished cast, in 1963.

 

The Mysterious East

 

But there is another element that enters into both the reception and the formation of Anastasius, a literary fascination with the Near East that likewise began in Spain, where the dispossession and expulsion of the Moors was accompanied by widespread admiration for their doomed civilization, represented now by the great architectural monu­ments of Andalucía, scattered physical and literary remnants as far north as Switzerland, and much of the music of Spain: the very words guitar and tambourine both derive from Arabic. Representative of such an attitude are Ginés Pérez de Hita’s famous and widely read Historia de los vandas de los Zegries y Abencerrajes (Part I) and La guerra de los moriscos (Part II) known in English together as “The Civil Wars of Granada.”  Part I in par­ticular was wildly popular and went through at least eight editions in five Iberian cities between 1595 and 1605, propagating a romantic view of Arab culture that lasted consciously  for at least 300 years–––“Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” for example, Albéniz’ guitar transcription of the Muslim call to prayer, dates from 1899––and unconsciously even longer: flamenco and Arab singers both still begin sessions with improvisations on the Arabic invocation, “Ya layl!”[14]

French interest in the Ottoman Empire, where the French ambassador outranked all others, had long been fostered by common strategic concerns, naval and military alliances, and consequent high-powered diplomacy, as well as by long-standing commercial connections. It received great impetus from the publication of such works as  L’Espion turc (1684) by Giovanni Paolo Marana (1642-1693) and the Bibliothèque orientale, an entertaining compendium first assembled by the Orientalist Barthélemy d’Herbelot de Molainvillle (1625-1695). From 1697 onward the Bibliothèque orientale was published in constantly expanding successive editions and influenced two or three generations of French writers.

 

Between 1704 and 1710, finally, appeared the first European translation of the Kitab Alf Layla wa Layla, the Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, otherwise known as the Arabian Nights, a work second only to the Bible among Oriental books in its impact on Western culture. The author of this version was Antoine Galland (1646-1715), an Orientalist who had sojourned three times in Con­stantinople between 1670 and 1679. His notion of translation involved not only the rendition of an Eastern original, but also its elaborate adaptation to current Western tastes, which had already become rococo. His ideal remained the norm throughout the following century, when a translator was expected to add connecting material, to insert “colour,” descriptions, and explanations into the text, to invent speeches, to modify, add, or excise as he felt inclined.

Even more accomplished as an Orientalist than Galland and a diplomat of proven skill, François Pétis de la Croix (1653–1713)  was the son of the Court translator of Arabic and ultimately became professor of Arabic at the Collège Royale de France. He saw the possibilities opened by Galland and published his own Contes turcs in 1707, but not before two of his tales had already been pirated by his own publisher for inclusion in Galland’s collection. The entire book was published in English the following year. Two years later he began publication of five volumes of purportedly Persian tales called Les Mille et un jours (1710-1712), which were published in English in 1714. Pétis de la Croix’s tale about a character called “Turandocte” supplied the plot for the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s satirical Principessa Turandot (1762), which provided in turn the inspiration for Friedrich Schiller’s romantic adaptation, Die Prinzessin Turandot (1802), which finally gave Puccini the basis for the libretto of Turandot (1926).[15]

During the same period several French travellers, well armed with the necessary languages, published authentic and serious first-hand accounts of travel in the Middle East. To name only a half dozen: Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689), François Bernier (1625–1688), Jean de Thévenot (1633-1667), Sir John Chardin (1643–1713, a Huguenot who received his English title after moving to London to escape persecution in France, and Paul Lucas (1664-1737), who had been responsible for bringing Yuhanna Diab, Galland’s Syrian collaborator, to Paris from Aleppo in 1709. The memoirs of another traveler of the time, the adventurous Laurent, Chevalier d’Arvieux (1635-1702), a favorite of Louis XIV, also found publication, but more than 30 years after his death. Meanwhile between 1666 and 1670 Thévenot’s uncle, Melchisédec Thévenot (1620-1692), librarian to Louis XIV,  published an important collection of travel narratives in which descriptions of the Middle East figure largely. 

 

In Britain such French works, unparalleled in English, were eagerly seized upon, as was an ensuing spate both of fresh translations and new non-translations, Orientalizing fiction and verse inspired by the success of Galland’s Arabian Nights and  François Pétis de la Croix’s Turkish and Persian tales, but wholly themselves a fantastical invention. An early example of the latter is Les Aventures d’Abdulla, fils d’Hanif, envoyé du Sultan des Indes à la découverte de l’Île de Boreco et de la fontaine merveilleuse dont l’eau fait rajeunir (1713) by a distinguished member of the Académie Française, Jean-Paul Bignon (1662-1743), who became chief of the Royal library. The Parisian playwright Thomas-Simon Gueullette (1683-1766) produced Les Mille et un quarts d’heure, contes tartares (1715), then Les Mille et une heures, contes péruviens, Les Sultanes de Gazarate, ou les  Songes des Hommes éveillés, (1732), and finally Les Mille et une soirées, Contes mogols (1749). Scores of similar titles followed, including the Lettres persanes of Montesqieu (1721), the “Oriental” inventions concocted by Voltaire (1694-1778), and operas like Zamire et Azor (1771) by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813).

 

Between 1735 and 1786 the English likewise produced their own fanciful “Oriental tales” in abundance, by such authors as George Lyttelton (1709-1773), Eliza Haywood (1693-1756), Horace Walpole (1717-1797), Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Oliver Gold­smith, (1730?-1774) John Hawkesworth (1715-1773) James Ridley ((1736–1765), Frances Sheridan (1724-1766), Alexander Dow (1730?-1779), who apparently knew Persian, and Clara Reeve (1729-1807).There was no one in Britain, however, who was both capable or daring enough to publish a direct translation from Arabic to English and Britain therefore remained dependent upon France for its Arabian Nights. Twenty English editions of Galland’s Nights thus appeared before the end of the eighteenth century. In France there were meanwhile also several genuine additions to the Nights, translations of newly surfaced Arabic material. One, for example, is the work of the extraordinary Anne-Claude-Philippe de Tubières-Grimoard de Pestels de Lévis, comte de Caylus, marquis d’Esternay, and baron de Bransac (1692-1765), soldier, artist, and man of letters. His Contes orientaux, tirés de manuscrits de la Bibliothèque du roi de France (1743) is an elaborated translation in Galland’s style. He also published fairy-tales and a series of licentious novelettes, however, which points to the fact that an imagined Middle East was becoming the repository for a great deal of suppressed Western libido.

 

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Thomas Hope - Triumph, Tragedy: Obverse Worlds

Anastasius

Anastasius:  Towards Background and Meaning

Philosophy

Interior Design

A Study of the Beechey Portrait

Sándor Baumgarten, Hope's Forgotten Champion

 

'Racial' Politics and Personal Ethics

Contact us

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