THE MYSTERIOUS MOTHER (1768)

HORACE WALPOLE (1717–97)

Scene III.

BENEDICT, MARTIN [two friars]

BENEDICT. Ay! sift her, sift her –
As if I had not prob’d her very soul,
And wound me round her heart – I tell thee, brother,
This woman was not cast in human mould:
Ten such would soil a council, would unbuild
Our Roman church – In her, devotion’s real:
Our beads, our hymns, our saints, amuse her not:
Nay, not confession, not repeating o’er
Her darling sins, has any charms for her.
I have mark’d her praying: not one wand’ring thought
Seems to steal meaning from her words.–– She prays
Because she feels, and feels, because a sinner.

MARTIN. What is this secret sin; this untold tale,
That art cannot extract, nor penance cleanse?
Loss of a husband, sixteen years enjoy’d,
And dead as many, could not stamp such sorrow.
Nor could she be his death’s artificer,
And now affect to weep it. – I have heard,
That chasing as he homeward rode, a stag,
Chas’d by the hounds, with sudden onset slew
Th’ adventurous Count.

BENEDICT.                     ’Twas so; and yet, my brother,
My mind has more than once imputed blood
To this incessant mourner. Beatrice,
The damsel for whose sake she holds in exile
Her only son, has never, since the night
Of his incontinence, been seen or heard of.

MARTIN. ’Tis clear, ’s clear; nor will her prudent tongue
Accuse its owner.

BENEDICT.                     Judge not rashly, brother.
I oft have shifted my discourse to murder:
She notes it not. Her muscles hold their place,
Nor discompos’d, nor firm’d to steadiness.
No sudden flushing, and no falt’ring lip:
Nor, tho’ she pities, lifts she to her eyes
Her handkerchief, to palliate her disorder.
There the wound rankles not. – I fix’d on love,
The failure of her sex, and aptest cause
Of each attendant crime –

MARTIN.                     Ay, brother, there
We master all their craft. Touch but that string –

BENEDICT. Still, brother, do you err. She own’d to me,
That, tho’ of nature warm, the passion love
Did ne’er anticipate her choice. The Count,
Her husband, so ador’d and so lamented,
Won not her fancy, till the nuptial rites
Had with the sting of pleasure taught her passion.
This, with such modest truth, and that truth heighten’d
By conscious sense, that holds deceit a weakness,
She utter’d, I would pawn my order’s credit
On her veracity.

MARTIN.                     Then whither turn
To worm her secret out?

BENEDICT.                     I know not that.
She will be silent, but she scorns a falshood [sic].
And thus while frank on all things, but her secret,
I know, I know it not.

MARTIN.                     Till she disclose it,
Deny her absolution.

BENEDICT.                    She will take none:
Offer’d, she scoffs it; and withheld, demands not.
Nay, vows she will not load her sinking soul
With incantations.

MARTIN.                     This is heresy;
Rank heresy; and holy church should note it.

BENEDICT. Be patient, brother – Tho’ of adamant
Her reason, charity dissolves that rock,
– And surely we have tasted of the stream.
Nay, one unguarded moment may disclose
This mystic tale – then, brother, what a harvest,
When masters of her bosom-guilt! – Age too
May numb her faculties. – Or soon, or late,
A praying woman must become our spoil. . . .

Postscript.

From the time that I first undertook the foregoing scenes, I never flattered myself that they would be proper to appear on the stage. The subject is so horrid, that I thought it would shock, rather than give satisfaction to an audience. Still I found it so truly tragic in the two essential springs of terror and pity, that I could not resist the impulse of adapting it to the scene, though it should never be practicable to produce it there. I saw too that it would admit of great situations, of lofty characters, and of those sudden and unforeseen strokes, which have singular effect in operating a revolution in the passions, and in interesting the spectator. It was capable of furnishing, not only a contrast of characters, but a contrast of vice and virtue in the same character: and by laying the scene in what age and country I pleased, pictures of ancient manners might be drawn, and many allusions to historic events introduced to bring the action nearer to the imagination of the spectator. The moral resulting from the calamities attendant on unbounded passion, even to the destruction of the criminal person’s race, was obviously suited to the purpose and object of tragedy.
          The subject is more truly horrid than even that of OEdipus; and yet I do not doubt but a Grecian poet would have made no scruple of exhibiting it on the theatre. Revolting as it is, a son assassinating his mother, as Orestes does, exceeds the guilt that appears in the foregoing scenes. As murder is the highest crime that man can commit against his fellow beings, parricide is the deepest degree of murder. No age but has suffered such guilt to be represented on the stage. And yet I feel the disgust that must arise at the catastrophe of this piece; so much is our delicacy more apt to be shocked than our good-nature. Nor will it be an excuse that I thought the story founded on an event in real life.
          I had heard, when very young, that a gentlewoman, under uncommon agonies of mind, had waited on archbishop Tillotson, and besought his counsel. A damsel that served her had, many years before, acquainted her that she was importuned by the gentlewoman’s son to grant him a private meeting. The mother ordered the maiden to make the assignation, when, she said, she would discover herself, and reprimand him for his criminal passion: but being hurried away by a much more criminal passion herself, she kept the assignation without discovering herself. The fruit of this horrid artifice was a daughter, whom the gentlewoman caused to be educated very privately in the country: but proving very lovely, and being accidentally met by her father-brother, who had never had the slightest suspicion of the truth, he had fallen in love with and actually married her. The wretched guilty mother, learning what had happened, and distracted with the consequence of her crime, had now resorted to the archbishop to know in what manner she should act. The prelate charged her never to let her son and daughter know what had passed, as they were innocent of any criminal intention. For herself, he bade her almost despair.
          Some time after I had finished the play on this ground-work, a gentleman to whom I had communicated it, accidentally discovered the origine [sic] of the tradition in the novels of the queen of Navarre, vol. I. nov. 30. and to my great surprise I found a strange concurrence of circumstances between the story as there related, and as I had adapted it to my piece: for though I believed it to have happened in the reign of king William, I had, for a purpose mentioned below, thrown it back to the even of the reformation; and the queen, it appears, dates the event in the reign of Louis XII. I had chosen Narbonne for the scene; the queen places it in Languedoc. These rencounters are of little importance; and perhaps curious to nobody but the author.
          In order to make use of a canvas so shocking, it was necessary as much as possible to palliate the crime, and raise the character of the criminal. To attain the former end, I imagined the moment in which she had lost a beloved husband, when grief, disappointment and a conflict of passions might be supposed to have thrown her reason off its guard, and exposed her to the danger under which she fell. Strange as the moment may seem for vice to have seized her, still it makes her less hatefull, than if she had cooly meditated so foul a crime. I have endeavoured to make her very fondness for her husband in some measure the cause of her guilt.
          But as that guilt could not be lessened without destroying the subject itself, I thought that her immediate horror and consequential repentance were essential towards effectuating her being suffered on the stage. Still more was necessary: the audience must be prejudiced in her favour; or an uniform sentiment of disgust would have been raised against the whole piece. For this reason I suppressed the story till the last scene; and bestowed every ornament of sense, unbigotted piety, and interesting contrition, on the character that was at last to raise universal indignation; in hopes that some degree of pity would linger in the breasts of the audience; and that a whole life of virtue and penance might in some measure atone for a moment, though a most odious moment, of a depraved imagination.
          Some of my friends have thought that I have pushed the sublimity of sense and reason, in the character of the Countess, to too great a height, considering the dark and superstitious age in which she lived. They are of opinion that the excess of her repentance would have been more likely to have thrown her into the arms of enthusiasm. Perhaps it might – but I was willing to insinuate that virtue could and ought to leave more lasting stings in a mind conscious of having fallen; and that weak minds alone believe or feel that conscience is to be lulled asleep by the incantations of bigotry. However, to reconcile even the seeming inconsistence objected to, I have placed my fable at the dawn of the reformation: consequently the strength of mind in the Countess may be supposed to have borrowed aid from other sources, besides those she found in her own understanding.
          Her character is certainly new, and the cast of the whole play unlike any other that I am acquainted with. The incidents seem to me to flow naturally from the situation; and with all the defects in the writing, of many of which I am conscious, and many more no doubt will be discovered, still I think, as a tragedy, its greatest fault is the horror which it must occasion in the audience; particularly in the fairer, more tender, and less criminal part of it. . . .


[SOURCE: Horace Walpole, The Mysterious Mother. A Tragedy (Printed at Strawberry Hill, 1768), pp. 10–13; Postscript, pp. 1–6]


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