Book Review: Northwood, or Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

Written in open anticipation of the Civil War, Northwood, or Life North and South (1852) posits basic differences in character between Yankees and Southrons. Some character traits are caused by geography and climate, as in:

The universal necessity for constant labor or application to business, which yet happily exists in the New England States, contributes, perhaps more than any other cause, to preserve the purity of morals which distinguishes the inhabitants of that section of our country. Had the Puritans and their descendants been fed with manna and fattened with quails in their wilderness, they would, doubtless, long before this, have spurned the hand that bestowed the unsought favors. (p. 240)

In some cases, the climatic factor gives way to the social:

‘Your cool climate keeps your temperament cool; and the perfect equality subsisting in your society makes the controlling of the passions more indispensable than with us, where the overflowings of wrath may be poured out on the heads, and bodies too, of unresisting menials.’ (pp. 205-206)

The novel’s protagonist, Sidney Romilly, shifts back and forth between New Hampshire and South Carolina and thus tries both halves of the experiment on himself. The results he relates in a letter to an English friend:

‘As a fair parallel I will mention Napoleon the Great. Like him I was taken from humble life, to be the heir of a sovereignty; make what exceptions you please to my use of the term sovereignty, the southern slaveholder is as absolute in his dominions, or plantation rather, as the grand seignior, and when I had become accustomed to command, and my mind was weakened by indolence and enervated by dissipation, I was suddenly thrown back to my former insignificance, and compelled to dig for my daily bread. “O, what a falling off was there!”…. [However,] the activity which we are compelled by our situation to exert…operates to dispel the gloom of grief. Employment is an excellent comforter, and fatigue the best opiate in the world. I never slept so soundly since my childhood, and my slumbers are most refreshing. I awaken in the morning without any solicitude save just the business of the farm. I have no appointments to keep or engagements to escape, no punctilios of honor or intrigues of love. In short, could I fairly forget the last dozen years of my life, I think I might now enjoy the best felicity of which mortal men can, on earth, be partakers.’ (pp. 324-326)

Northwood’s author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, directly addresses the problem of slavery only toward the end of the book. While against the institution – as something that is bad for white people – she is equally against its violent overthrow and rather dreams, somewhat like Gandhi, of a swelling of (Christian) soul force that will compel slave-owners of their own accord to manumit their menials, educate and evangelize them, and then allow them to colonize and Christianize Africa. She holds no belief in racial equality (or amalgamation) and supposes black and white coexistence in America to be impossible.

Otherwise, Northwood is chock-full of little bits of wisdom I’m more prepared to accept. For example, it rebukes me for excessive romanticism by commenting favorably that a certain love-letter “was not an unmeaning rhapsody – alternately fire and frost; now breathing out his affections and now lamenting his destiny”… but rather addressed to the lady “as his friend and therefore entitled to his confidence – as a reasoning being and therefore able to understand his situation and assist him with her counsel.” (p. 207) It chides me too for my regrettable Machiavellian conception of respect, when it quotes Sidney’s report that “‘I am more respected and less feared; better, far better beloved, yet less flattered; have fewer followers and firmer friends.’” (p. 340)

In refutation both of Machiavelli and of the Chinese philosopher Han Fei, it supplies the Christian argument that love is superior to law: “Even God, reverently speaking, could not, by force, compel His rational creatures to be, in heart and soul, obedient to His law. Therefore, He sent His beloved Son to die for us, and thus, by His love, to move us to love, which includes obedience in return.” (p. 394)

Finally, the book has a few things to say about the general struggle between equality and aristocracy. On the one hand, it heralds the bitter reaction of the latter against the former that, in my humble opinion, has given rise to all totalitarian doctrine from Marxism to Nazism and that has constituted the chief driving force of history since the mid-nineteenth century:

‘Neither is it strange that the aristocratical spirit of the old world should be alarmed and revolt at the democratical influence which the new is so rapidly obtaining. We cannot expect those who pride themselves on an ancestry, whose pure blood has flowed through proud veins for many hundred years, will forget at once this fancied superiority, and look on what they call our plebian origin, without feelings of contempt.’

On the other hand – or perhaps on the same hand – these pages also note the development of a pseudo-aristocracy, arising among the plebians, that may, in spite of its origins, exemplify the reaction of the aristocratical spirit against the democratical one:

‘I do think the real English gentleman has more of dignity, and less of arrogance, than our purse-bound citizens. The Englishman is more proud, perhaps, but is free from that puffing consequence which is the most offensive part of the folly in our own countrymen. This may arise from the superiority of the former being established and acknowledged, whereas our own gentlemen are continually striving to maintain their precarious honors, and seem determined, by making the most of what they happen to possess, to indemnify themselves for the transientness of its continuance.’ (pp. 244-245)

It is ultimately the totalitarian, in his twentieth-century guise, who seeks to “maintain precarious honors” and indemnify himself against the transientness of democratical society by reimposing upon it a fixed hierarchial order, with himself at its apex.

In the meantime, the pseudo-aristocrats of Northwood, are described by Hale consistently as people of fashion. Examples of her use of the term are almost beyond counting:

His appearance, rank, and fortune, made his alliance a prize not lightly to be rejected by people of fashion. (p. 182)

Thus gently and almost imperceptibly, Stuart was loosening the chains which fashion had twined around our hero and restoring him to the freedom of that rational enjoyment which his soul was formed to appreciate but for which the Circean cup of luxury had nearly destroyed his relish. (p. 237)

Now he must put forth his own strength and depend on his own exertions. Yet strange as it may seem to those who connect felicity only with wealth, splendor, and distinction, he was never, in the proudest moment of his prosperity, when he was the star of fashion and minion of fortune, so cheerfully and equally happy as now, while confined to labor and living in obscurity. (p. 323)

He whispered to Sidney in great confidence that he fancied Miss Redington’s accession of wealth had already begun to make her dissatisfied with a residence in that unfashionable place and that he presumed she would soon depart for Boston. (p. 332)

I’ve always found fashion to be imposingly hierarchial, a ready means by which even Americans, who lack a true aristocracy, strive to concoct a false one. It’s therefore confirming to see how often Hale presents fashion as the antithesis of New England’s virtuous, egalitarian simplicity.

Book Review: Amadis of Gaul, Books I & II

The first two books of Amadis of Gaul are a pleasure to read, absorbing, and hard to put down. The only possible rough patch would be the narrative of the long series of Amadis’s and Galaor’s victories in the middle of Book I, which, since both knights are invincible, borders on the monotonous. However, the story soon becomes more politically intriguing and generally deeper, so that the reader is fully enthralled by the end of Book II. Indeed, it is hard to resist the temptation, even after 682 pages, to dive right into the second volume, containing Books III and IV. (Even so, I think I will balance my palette with a taste of something else before returning to Amadis.)

The world of Amadis of Gaul consists of three overlapping and sometimes conflicting moralities. The first morality, the aristocratic one, equates good looks, personal honesty, martial valor, and fine pedigree, resulting in the assumption that a handsome man must therefore be an honest man, who must therefore be a good fighter, who must therefore be a man of noble birth. These linkages are nonsensical to the modern reader, who may be amused by such statements in Amadis as “‘I really believe you are telling the truth, for I heard you praised extravagantly for your good looks’” (p. 91); but they were accepted by the pre-modern reader, who, perhaps because he was an aristocrat himself, wished to believe that his position atop society was justified by the general superiority of all the individuals in his class. It is interesting in this respect to observe that many of the villains in this book are ugly of appearance or of nonstandard physical types such as dwarfs and giants. In any case, this aristocratic morality of Amadis is so internalized that its compiler, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, never pauses to examine it.

The second plane of morality, the religious one, holds that God’s favor determines everything and that self-confidence, in the Augustinian sense, is folly. In contrast to the passively-accepted aristocratic morality, the religious one is elaborated more explicitly. Often, its invoker is a character in the book, as in this dialogue between the evil Arcalaus and the heroic Amadis:

“Knight, you are in danger of death, and I do not know who you are; tell me so that I may know, for I am thinking more about killing you than overcoming you.”

“My death,” said Amadis, “is at the will of God, whom I fear; and yours at that of the devil, who is already angry for having supported you and wishes that your body, to which so many evil vices he has given, should perish along with your soul” (p. 207).

Just as frequently, the reminder that God is in charge is provided by the narrator himself. Thus are we told that the arrogant King Dardan “esteemed his own strength and the great zeal of his heart more than the judgment of the most high Lord, who with very little of His power brings it about that the very strong are overcome and dishonored by the very weak” (p. 151). In a few places, too, the narrator speaks in general, didactic, terms, as in:

And at this juncture, as the story seeks to proceed, you will be able to see how little the strength of the human mind suffices when that high Lord, with slackened reins and lifted hand withdrawing His grace, permits the judgment of man to exercise its powers freely; whence it will be manifest to you whether great estates, high dominions can be won and governed with the prudence and diligence of mortal man; or if when divine Grace is lacking, great pride, great greed, a throng of armed soldiers are enough to maintain them. (p. 630)

Of course, the notion that possession of “great estates, high dominions” could only have been won and kept through divine right is a huge justification of the prevailing class system and suggests that the religious morality reinforces the aristocratic. However, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, in soliloquizing that the high may be brought low, seems also to be positing the religious morality as a contrast to the aristocratic.

Finally, there is the romantic or chivalric morality, which subjects even the most well-born and divinely-favored knights to their ladies. Amidis himself, after declining to serve King Lisuarte of Great Britain, becomes the sworn knight of Queen Brisena, as though to prove “how much greater influence women have on knights than men do” (p. 167). Of course, Amidis’s true master is Princess Oriana, his lover, “at whose slightest angry word heard by him – for such is his great fear of angering her – he would bury himself alive” (p. 507). Indeed, since Amidis is so completely the devotee of Oriana, it might be wondered whether he really serves God at all. When he accepts a dangerous fight with the giant Famongomadan, Amadis at first dismisses the concerns of his squire by trotting out the familiar religious morality: “I want to test the compassion of God,” he says, “whether it will please Him that the very great violence that this enemy of His commits be done away with by me.” However, a few lines later, Amidis prays not to God but to his lover, then miles away: “Oh, my lady Oriana! Never did I begin a great feat on my own initiative wherever I might be, except with your help; and now, my good lady, help me, for it is so necessary for me” (p. 538).

One might suppose that the romantic morality would come into direct conflict with the religious, if and when it leads to sex, but Rodriguez de Montalvo never uses words like fornication or adultery to describe sex out of wedlock. He seems, however, to draw a distinction between sex and love and to invest the latter with a religious aspect – especially when the woman is in command.

Common, purely sexual episodes result from passion and appetite, as in:

At this time the maidens were going about through the castle searching with the other women in order to give them something to eat; and Galaor and the maiden, called Brandueta, were talking alone about what you hear, and as she was very beautiful, and he was covetous of such viands, before the meal came or the table was set, both of them rumpled a bed that was in the hall where they were, thus making her a matron who before that was not, satisfying their desires, which, in a short space of time, each looking at the other’s beautiful youthfulness in bloom, had become very great. (p. 266)

In spite of this enjoyment, though, Galaor and Brandueta do not become permanent lovers. They each take their pleasure and move on.

Contrariwise, Amidis’s parents, King Perion and Princess Elisena, fall hopelessly in love, despite their moral virtue. Elisena’s “great modesty and exemplary life could not prevent her from becoming a prisoner of incurable and great love for him, and the king in like manner for her.” At dinner, Perion expresses hope that “my whole life will be employed in serving you,” and later, Elisena’s maid, Darioleta, arranges for them to be together, at which, King Perion considers himself “very fortunate that God had brought him into such a connubial state” (pp. 25-30).

The offspring of this union, Amidis, and his lover, Oriana, grow up together innocently, he serving as her page. With years of love budding between them, and with Amadis having demonstrated his martial valor and high birth, they find themselves, likewise, at dinner, and Oriana grasps Amidis’s hand under the table. Each confesses the most consuming desire for the other, and, as Amadis weeps and loses the power of speech, Oriana promises to give herself to him (pp. 294-296). When, at the conclusion of a subsequent adventure she undertakes to fulfill her promise, she charges him only to “see to it that, although here below it may appear error and sin, it not be so before God.”

And Amadis is able to “see to it” by surrendering the initiative  — and by surrendering himself, body and soul — to Oriana:

When he saw her thus so beautiful and in his power, she having agreed to do his will, he was so distraught with joy and bashfulness that he did not dare even to look at her; so that one could well say that in that green grass, on that mantle, more by the grace and courtesy of Oriana than by any immodesty or boldness on Amadis’s part, was the most beautiful maiden in the world made a matron. (p. 339)

As I understand it, chivalric literature was influenced by Sufi Islam and transformed by the troubadours, who reoriented its ecstatic devotion from God to woman. Amadis of Gaul is a monument of this unique form of worship.

It’s also, as I said, a lot of fun.

PS. An OpEd in today’s Wall Street Journal by Ashley McGuire called “The Controversial Text That Saved Me” contains the following sentence that may be apropos: “The trust spouses place in each other imitates the transcendent trust that faith teaches us to put in the divine when things aren’t fully within our control.”

PPS. At one point, Amadis’s conduct seems to anticipate classical liberalism. After freeing a group of prisoners, he says to them, “Friends, may each one of you go wherever he pleases and where it be most advantageous for him” (p. 213).

Questions for St. Augustine

The key passage:

To your grace and to your mercy I ascribe it that you have dissolved my sins as if they were ice. To your grace I ascribe also whatsoever evils I have not done…. Who is the man who will reflect on his weakness, and yet dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own powers, so that he loves you the less, as if he had little need for that mercy by which you forgive sins to those who turn to you. There may be someone who has been called by you, and has heeded your voice, and has shunned those deeds which he now hears me recalling and confessing of myself. Let him not laugh to scorn a sick man who has been healed by that same physician who gave him such aid that he did not fall ill, or rather that he had only a lesser ill. Let him therefore love you just as much, nay even more. For he sees that I have been rescued from such depths of sinful disease by him who, as he also sees, has preserved him from the same maladies.

Confessions, II/7/15


They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all.

— X/27/38

So that which is of God both keeps us from and calls us to him?


Joys that I should bewail contend with sorrows at which I should rejoice, but on which side victory may rest I do not know…. You are the physician; I am a sick man. You are merciful; I am in need of mercy.

— X/28/39

God is the Composer, and his symphony contains both dissonance and consonance, the former to resolve into the latter?