Thoughts on Le Fanu’s “The Cock and Anchor” by Peter McClean

1841751First published in 1845, Valancourt Books reissued the novel in 2010.

The Cock and Anchor is set in Dublin in 1710, twenty years after Protestant William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Ireland is under British rule and a Lord Lieutenant, Thomas, 5th Baron Wharton, is ruling the country from Dublin Castle. While the leaders of the Catholic aristocracy who supported King James have fled to France (The Wild Geese) there is still a corps of Jacobite supporters in Ireland who are readying themselves for the day when King James returns to reclaim his crown and the lands of England and Ireland.

I did not know what to expect when I started reading this novel, but what I found delighted and intrigued me. It proved to be one of those books that I did not like to put down and found myself making time to return to.

The Valancourt edition contains a 46-page introduction, 14 pages of informative notes referenced from within the text, and a 52-page appendix containing contemporary reviews and extracts of other works referenced in the introduction. The novel itself is 439 pages in length. All in all, this is a comprehensive tome for anyone intent on studying The Cock and Anchor in a serious fashion.

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The 1895 edition featuring illustrations by the author’s son, Brinsley.

In this note I will freely discuss elements of the story, so I warn the reader to set this document aside until having read the work and then return to discover my thoughts on the book and to agree with them, argue against them, raise your own thoughts, feelings, or revelations that pounced upon you as you travelled through the pages written in an age long gone, 130 years into the past.

The geopolitical machinations of the novel’s setting, and the societal impact of the war ended only nineteen years before the tale told in the book begins, are used by Le Fanu as a backdrop to the story rather than as a raison d’être for the telling of the story. While the prevailing political and religious practices and prejudices of the time are not the main theme of the story, they do inform the behaviours of the characters and the social context of the events and relationships involved.

At the heart of the story is the love between the son (Edmond O’Connor) of a Jacobite nobleman, (Richard O’Connor), and the daughter of Sir Richard Ashwoode, a member of the ruling aristocracy. As a Jacobite, Edmond O’Connor is a Catholic and as the daughter of one of the established ruling aristocracy, Mary Ashwoode, the daughter is Protestant. Sir Richard is, of course, not in favour of an alliance between Mary and Edmond, but the religious difference is not cited as the root cause of his displeasure about the match, but the fact that he considers young Edmond O’Connor to be from a poorer class.

titlepageThe Irish peasantry is presented as a body of people who look up to the wealthier classes and doff their caps and follow their orders. Some of them are used for comic relief, especially Mr. Larry Toole who is a stereotypical, stage-Irish character with all the “begorrahs” and “begads” you could ask for. He was a servant in the employ of the Ashwoode estate who has been let go and who manages to find himself a position as servant to Edmond O’Connor.

Humour was an unexpected element of the book but it is more pervasive in the first half of the story. It is still present later in the book but the more serious matters of the later parts of the story reduce the opportunity for humour. It is still there, but not as frequently. Much of the humour is in the descriptions of the characters:

Lady Stukely: “Lady Stukely was a delicate, die-away lady, not very far from sixty; the natural blush upon her nose outblazoned the rouge upon her cheeks; several very long teeth – “ivory and ebony” peeped roguishly from beneath her upper lip, which her ladyship had a playful trick of screwing down, to conceal them – a trick which made her ladyship’s smile rather a surprising than an attractive exhibition.”

Physician: “The physician of those days was a solemn personage: he would as readily have appeared without his head, as without his full-bottomed wig; and his ponderous gold-headed cane was a sort of fifth limb, the supposition of whose absence involved a contradiction to the laws of anatomy; his dress was rich and funereal; his step was slow and pompous; his words very long and very few; his look was mysterious; his nod awful; and the shake of his head unfathomable; in short, he was in no respect very much better than a modern charlatan. The science which he professed was then overgrown with absurdities and mystification. The temper of the times was superstitious and credulous, the physician, being wise in his generation, framed his outward man (including his air and language) accordingly, and the populace swallowed his long words and his electuaries with equal faith.”

001Doctor Mallarde: “Doctor Mallarde was a doctor-like person, and, in theatrical phraseology, looked the part well. . . . he had a habit of pressing the gold head of his professional cane against one corner of his mouth, in a way which produced a sinister and mysterious distortion of that organ; and by exhibiting the medical baton, the outward and visible sign of doctorship, in immediate juxtaposition with the fountain of language, added enormously to the gravity and authority of the words which from time to time proceeded therefrom.”

I could continue to quote humorous character descriptions from this book all night, but I will let you enjoy reading them yourself when you read the book.

Real characters: Le Fanu uses a mixture of real and fictitious characters. The Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Wharton, was a real person whose character and description Le Fanu gleaned from the writings of Jonathan Swift, another real person who appears in the novel. Swift wrote a pamphlet from which Le Fanu drew information on the Earl of Wharton.

004The supernatural: I recall four allusions to the supernatural: three of these could be dismissed as the imaginings of individuals but the fourth is a detailed description of the appearance of a spirit to Edmond O’Connor. This spirit fits with the legend of banshees in all but the appearance and the noise produced. Lord Ashwoode is overheard telling someone to leave him while in a state of delirium but subsequently it is discovered there is no-one in his room. Likewise, his son tells O’Connor of a spirit that is bothering him and tormenting him in his time of despair. The other mention of anything that might be supernatural is the young Sir Henry Ashwoode’s thinking her sees the paintings of his ancestors move as he looks at them.

Profanity: The novel is full of dashes: lines in the text to mark were foul words have been used. I have seen two editions of the novel and they both have the “bad words” obliterated. I suspect this was to placate the sensitivities of the puritanical reader. Even the word, “Devil”, is presented as, “D—l”.

Language: Le Fanu does not use one word where fifteen will do. This is not a complaint. The language he uses is a pleasure to read and is beautifully put together. Take for example, his description of Mr. Larry Toole’s tendency to poke his nose into other people’s business: “A liberal and unsolicited attention to the affairs of other people, was one among the many amiable peculiarities of Mr. Laurence Toole . . . ”

Kept guessing: While many of the plot elements are used in later texts, Le Fanu always kept what way the plot would turn a mystery. There were many places in the book where I was convinced I knew how the story was going to turn only to be surprised by Le Fanu as he took me a totally different direction. This kept me interested and eager to carry on reading the book.

Locations: Many of the locations used in the story are real and still exist. One of the most famous is The Bleeding Horse pub which is still a thriving business and has a stone plaque honouring Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu on the footpath at the entrance. Other locations that can still be visited are Dublin Castle, albeit slightly renovated since 1710; Leixlip, with a better road through the village than existed at the time of the story; and Chaplizod which still some of the aspects of the small village of 1710.

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The Bleeding Horse Pub, Dublin

The view of Ireland: Dublin Castle was the residence of the Lord Lieutenant and in the novel it is the scene of a great social gathering. Le Fanu does not, however, let the reader forget that it is the centre of an occupying force that supports a predominantly English ruling class in a country with a population that has proven difficult to keep repressed. His description of the castle on the night of the banquet in question is wound up thus:

“ . . . the ponderous old towers which have since disappeared, with their narrow loopholes and iron studded doors looming darkly over the less massive fabrics of the place with stern and gloomy aspect, reminded the passer every moment, that the building, whose courts he trod, was not merely the theatre of stately ceremonies, but a fortress and a prison.”

In an exchange between the Lord Lieutenant and Johathan Swift, Le Fanu presents the views of the ruling class of Ireland and how it was considered a backwater that did no-one’s career any good:

“On my soul, we want you in England – this is no stage for you. By —- you cannot hope to serve either yourself or your friends in this place.”

“Very few thrive here but scoundrels, my lord,” rejoined Swift. “Even so,” replied Wharton with perfect equanimity – “it is a nation of scoundrels – dissent on the one side and popery on the other. The upper order harpies, and the lower a mere prey – and all equally liars, rogues, rebels, slaves, and robbers. By — some fine day the devil will carry off the island bodily. For very safety you must get out of it . . . ”

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Thoughts on Le Fanu’s “The Cock and Anchor” by Peter McClean