(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 15. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1998)
The Classical Subtext in Lawrence Norfolk’s
Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier
It may be useful to provide at the outset a summary of the story narrated in Lawrence Norfolk’s novel. This outline is intended to provide a guide-line (or the equivalent of Ariadne’s thread) through the deligthtful and dizzying complexities of the plot, but also to indicate the role of intertextuality, which is not just a narrative device, but contributes vitally to the story proper.
At the most superficial level, the novel is a highly imaginative account of the life of young John Lemprière, through the twenty-three years preceding the publication, in 1788, of his Classical Dictionary, which was to serve as a standard work of reference for more than a century. What is peculiar to the fiction, however, is that some of the stories of the ancient myths he is occupied with also occur, or recur, as incidents in Lemprière’s own life, in a different guise, of course, but quite recognizably. It looks as if there is a process of active intertextuality going on, an interaction through which the old texts interfere with the fictional reality of the story. What comes out gradually is that, in fact, the coincidences are not spontaneous, but engineered, and part of a plot. The reason for these contrivances is that Lemprière, using some clues found in his dead father’s papers, is also investigating an obscure episode in his family history, and thus becoming a threat for the inheritors of those who have deprived his ancestor of his rights and fortune. They form a secret group, calling themselves the Cabbala, and holding their meetings in the network of catacombs and passages under the City. The reason why they use the devious means of the repetition of myths to keep young Lemprière off the trail is that they are divided about what is to be done with him. Some are in favour of simply eliminating him, but others, because family ties are
not always what they seem, want to preserve his life, and the leader even intends to lure him into being his successor.
At that second and literally underground level of the story, the contemporay facts are gradually set in a much broader time-frame, constructed out of some historical events. It starts with the very real foundation of the East India Company in 1600. In the fiction, however, the Company soon becomes bankrupt, and is taken over by a group of French protestants, who buy out the original owners and use them as a screen for their activity. They build up an enormous fortune, but their political ambitions are ruined by the siege and capture of La Rochelle, the port from which they operated, and by the proscription of the protestants in France. They salvage their gold, but exclude from the bounty one of their number, Lemprière, who will found a new family in the Isle of Man, and carry on a bitter feud against them and the Company. Their later attempt to recover their power is behind all the political unrest which will culminate in the French Revolution, and would lead to a similar result in England, if their plans were not thwarted. In their failure, intertextuality again plays a role, in ways which are also part of the theme of this study.
Sed vos, quae fata secuntur,/Currite ducentes subtegmina , currite, fusi.
Such are the words with which the three Parcae, in Catullus’ poem The Nuptials of Thetis and Peleus, conclude each stanza of the song through which they prophesy the future of the happy couple, and the exploits of their son Achilles, while they nimbly twist ‘the threads that men’s destinies follow’.
The poem is referred to in the novel through a brief quotation of two words, when Sir John Fielding, Bow Street magistrate and detective, is mentally piecing together several bits of information, ‘drawing the filaments together currite fusi, snip snip, solution and dissolution ...’ (382) . But, before introducing the Fates weaving the cloth which is a representation and a metaphor of human destinies, the poem opens with a long narrative which links together the ‘wonderful scenes’ woven on another tapestry hung round the bridal bed. It includes some of the main characters who will find their way into the novel by way of entries in Lemprière’s Dictionary. The tapestry evokes Jason, the leader of the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece, who betrayed Medea. It tells the story of Theseus: the killing of the Minotaur in the labyrinth, with the help of Ariadne’s thread, his desertion of Ariadne, and the accidental hoisting of the black sail that caused his father Aegeus to hurl himself headlong (praecipitem) into the sea.
I have literally transposed the word subtegmina into ‘subtext’ to label the particular form of ‘transtextuality’ that concerns me here.
1. All the references to the novel, between brackets, are to the unabridged text (1991) in the Minerva edition (1992). The novel will from now on be referred to as LD.
Transtextualité is the term used by Gérard Genette in Palimpsestes  to cover all the different forms of the relation of a given text to other texts, which is one essential aspect of ‘literariness’, since no literary text is read in a cultural vacuum. It takes different forms, and we can perhaps best define what I have called the classical subtext by contradistinction with other forms of transtextuality in this novel
At the deepest level, a literary text is characterized as belonging to a certain genre (epic, tragedy, etc.). The determination of this generic archetype may be useful to define formal characteristics and readers’ expectations, but not in the case of the novel, which is too protean, or metamorphic, as a genre to provide much information of that kind. We thus have to move up from the generic to the level of the specific, to define a certain species of novel within the genre, and say for instance that LD is a ‘novel of action and suspense’. This is as far as we can go in a classification based on formal criteria. This specific definition is still too broad to be more than a guideline, and it fails to provide valuable information about the affinity (the word is here deliberately vague) of this novel with earlier works (not necessarily of fiction). The failure is not simply due to the non-formal character of the novel, already mentioned. The relation of even the Eneid to the Odyssey taken as an archetype, as Genette rightly points out, is not only formal but also thematic: both deal with episodes of a similar kind. In order to analyze distinctive features within the species, then, we have to explore the different kinds of incidents used as mainsprings for ‘action and suspense’. We have to generalize from individual works by taking into account their thematic content, that is, basically though not exclusively, the kind of story they use for their plots. We have thus categories defined by induction, formed out of clusters of works having affinities between them, at a given period or at different times, whether as the result of imitation or not. This, at least, forms one half of the concept of ‘transtextuality’, which can manifest itself through reaction as well as imitation. But my immediate purpose is to situate LD.
My suggestion is that its main thematic affinities are with the corpus of novels published roughly between 1760 and 1820, forming what is known as the Gothic Novel. We can trace in LD most of its dominant features. The origin of the action is revenge, in the course of a long family feud stemming from a dispute about inheritance. The setting connects the high structure of a castle (here transposed as East India House) with the underworld of dungeons, galleries, and secret passages. There are signs of a supernatural or
2. Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes, La littérature au second degré, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1982. I have used what was relevant to my purpose in his general study of ‘transtextuality’, and stuck close to his terms and their definition. I have used ‘subtext’, however, for what Genette calls ‘hypotext’: because of Catullus, of course, but also because the word has the merit of being all Latin in origin, alhough I admit that it would be difficult to find an all Latin symmetrical term for its opposite ‘hypertext’, the obvious ‘supertext’ having misleading connotations.
at least extraordinary agency, suggesting that an evil or destructive spirit is abroad. There are two types of conclusion available: one maintaining the supernatural to the end, and the other rationalizing it away into natural causes (material or psychological). In this respect, LD belongs to both traditions, and mostly to the second, since what appears unnnatural is in fact engineered deception, but with a definite kinship with the first at the end, mainly through Septimus as a hovering ageless spirit.
All this, however, requires some qualifications, and further comments. There is in LD nothing Gothic in the sense of ‘medieval’. We thus have to use Genette’s distinction: it is not an imitation, but a transformation, involving a transposition in time and resulting changes in the materials of the plot. It is, however, of some significance that the action is cast in the very period when, for reasons having to do with the crisis of the Enlightenment, the fictional imagination made a return to Gothic times and tales. The ‘transformation’ is deliberate (that is, different from unconscious influence), and amounts to a transposition of the genre. One could use the word parody in its etymological sense, but it has unwelcome implications in common usage, and ‘transformation’ is more suitable because it is neutral, and does not imply manipulation for playful, comic or debunking effects. No doubt, there is a ‘tongue in the cheek’ treatment of some of the most sensational and gruesome episodes, but in the main there is an attempt to recreate the effects of suspense and horror on the reader, and the purpose is not derision.
One must also emphasize the fact that a category such as the Gothic Novel can only be isolated on account of its massive grouping of characteristic features, but that none of those features taken in isolation belongs to it exclusively. This is an important point for LD, owing to the very extensive and miscellaneous range of its references. The underground labyrinth, with the image of it as the entrails of the Beast, is also part of what may be called the Novel of the City, and appears for instance as the network of the Paris sewers in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The reader can trace connections with the Historical Novel (A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge), where imaginary characters are caught in the stream of real events more or less faithfully narrated or transposed : here, the controversy about the India Company, Wilkes, the Letters of Junius, all in the large context of the times (unrest and impending storm throughout Europe). This type of fiction shades off into the Historical Romance, and indeed a large part of the novel belongs to the same tradition as Alexandre Dumas, whose Three Musketeers also deal with the siege of La Rochelle, or The Scarlet Pimpernel, in the highly imaginative foray behind the scenes for cabals and conspiracies, for daggers and poison, for love interfering with politics, and in brief for all the secret springs behind the motions of conspicuous History. As to the partial transformation by Vaucanson of men and beasts into automata, it connects the novel with the beginnings of Science Fiction, half way between scientific experiment and the fantastic, as in Frankenstein.
All these connections, however, fall within the broad definition given of ‘transtextuality’, as including all the relations that a particular text can have with other texts.
To define more precisely the nature and the role of the classical element in this novel, we have to move to a more restrictive definition of ‘intertextuality’ proper, as the actual presence of a text within another, manifested by actual quotation, transposition or imitation, or allusion. This distinction may be clarified if we return to some of the examples already given. The influence of Victor Hugo on LD is not very likely, and that of Alexandre Dumas is more plausible. But in both cases we could only be sure through documents external to the novel (notebooks, interviews with the author), and the possible relation is only relevant to the disciplines of comparative literature and source study. If we come to the novels of Dickens, we may well believe that A Tale of Two Cities had some impact on Lawrence Norfolk’s imagination, but again we have no textual evidence for it. On the other hand, concerning Barnaby Rudge, the fact that the titular character lends his name in LD to the assistant of Sir John Fielding, who himself constantly remembers his dead brother Henry, is a broad textual hint which establishes a link with the narrative by Dickens of the Gordon Riots, and a clear trace of the relation of intertextuality between the two novels.
What I have called the classical subtext is of this intertextual kind. It is, however, introduced gradually into the novel from its (paratextual) periphery. There is the epigraph, from Ovid complaining (in Tristes V,10) that in his Pontic exile he is the true Barbarian since his language is not understood. It is to be read as a warning that the novel must seem ‘barbarian’ to those for whom Latin is a dead language, and mythology a dead world. The title of Part I (17), Caesarea, is obviously from the context the Roman name for Jersey. But it is also (see the Dictionary) the name of ‘many insignificant towns’ built as outposts of the Empire, and the connection with the theme of ‘Decline and Fall’ is only made at the very end (612).
When we come to the text itself, on the first page of Part I (17), we find Young Lemprière, still practically blind, waking up to confront in his room what for him is a mysterious world of shadows, and recalling with some scorn the purely materialistic definition, given by Lucretius, of night as simply ‘air deprived of light’. But the name is bound to recall for the reader the famous opening of De Natura Rerum., the hymn to Venus, ‘mother of Aeneas and of all his race’, and ‘sole ruler of Nature’. There Lucretius shows up the fears of the night as the source of all superstitions, and of ‘religion that has inspired so many evils’. And as an instance of those evils, he narrates at some length the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis, which is transposed later in the novel. The reader may then remember the connection, and he may already suspect from the early passage that Lemprière is blind not only physically, but to the merits of materialism versus imagination. How far such allusive intertextuality can help us to recognize central themes depends on many factors, and
it may not work every time, but our attention is at least arrested , and of course the novel has not been written to be read only once.
The two mythological references that follow are introduced much more directly. We first find Lemprière reading and translating to himself (33) two lines of Propertius (IV, 2) about Vertumnus. But what is evoked in his mind is clearly the more detailed account given by Ovid (Metamorphoses, XIV 641 sq.) of the wiles of the sylvan god, who tried to seduce Pomona by transforming himself successively into different characters, and eventually won her love in his own handsome person. Some time later, Lemprière seems to perceive in the evening twilight the writhings of the god, and wonders if they are figments of his imagination, or if he truly calls up the figures from his reading into existence. The themes of metamorphosis, deception and veracity, illusions or the permanent reality of the myths, are firmly set. The next scene of the kind (58 sq.) occurs when Charles Lemprière, John’s father, having seen Juliette bathing naked in the pool, is torn to pieces by Lord Castlereigh’s dogs. That the scene is the transposition of the story of Diana and Actaeon as told by Ovid (Metamorphoses, III 138 sq.) is textually confirmed by the catalogue of the names of the dogs borrowed from the poem. It is also obvious, though incomprehensible, to the young man, who had earlier been fascinated by the illustration of that very scene in the copy of Ovid’s poem presented to him by his protector. He had also made a mental note, though to no immediate effect, of the brief comments made by Ovid before and after his narrative: the sacrilege of Actaeon was due to fate, and was not a crime (54); and some find that Diana’s austere virginity had made her exceed the bounds of justice (52).
After the first few chapters, the references tend to settle halfway between these two extremes of mere allusion and actual quotation. We have names, and at least some factual details referring to stories, and mostly evoking scenes that could be illustrated in some de luxe edition similar to Lemprière’s copy of Ovid: Perseus rescuing Andromeda, Danae and the shower of gold (where the traditional image would singularly differ from the grim reality he has to face), and Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at the altar. But there is a wealth of other such classical references, and it would be pointless to go through them all. They are for the most part easy to pick up, and the curious reader can as a rule easily trace them back to the Dictionary. My purpose here is to analyze, through concrete examples, but in general terms, the nature and the function of that kind of intertextuality in the novel. Stated briefly, my main points are as follows. (1) It is established through Lemprière’s mind, and thus with his dictionary in progress, but also beyond that with the classical texts themselves. The subtext is not the Dictionary, but the world of texts it opens. (2) This subtext falls into a coherent narrative pattern by combining two sequences, or story lines, here referred to as The Hero’s Quest and the Fall of the City, the first being included in the larger frame of the second.
Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary of Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors was ‘Printed for T. Cadell, London’ and originally published in 1788. Modern editions include a Memoir, which indicates the minimal connection between the real life of the author and the novel. Lemprière was the name of an old Jersey family. But it had in fact settled there long before the exile of the Huguenots, and there was nothing that was not proper and conventional in the career of the young scholar who could sign his original Preface ‘J. Lemprière, Pembroke College, Oxford’. The Dictionary is his only passport to fame, and to the world of fiction.
The reason for the lasting popularity of the book is that it provides compact factual entries, while also registering the different versions of the stories told of the characters, and adding references to the sources. It could thus serve as a useful refresher for classical memories, which is probably the way Keats used it: as a way to return to Virgil and others, not by ‘knowing it by heart’ (Sidney Colvin quoted in the Memoir), for the fare is too packed to be digestible, and this view of Keats getting his classical lore at second hand belongs to the Victorian myth of the ‘untutored genius’. On the other hand, a dictionary is not just a neutral and transparent instrument of mediation between the reader and the texts. By its very role of selection, compression, and classification, and through the system of cross-references between entries, it brings together elements scattered in many literary texts to some sort of coherence, and creates out of them the World of Mythology.
It is in fact a small world, at least if we eliminate the larger area of history, which Lemprière treats more perfunctorily anyway. The cast is limited, and everyone seems to have some more or less distant connection with everybody else. The legends are based on a limited number of stories or plots. But it is also a world of constant change: the key word for it is Metamorphosis. This applies in a strict sense to Proteus or Vertumnus changing into different forms. But we also have other manifestations of instabillity. One character may have different identities, being also ‘also known as’ someone else, or have like Juno a long list of surnames corresponding to a heterogeneous series of roles. The same character can be seen in very different lights. In the main tradition Penelope is a faithful wife, but in another version the suitors were really her lovers. What’s in a name? Juliette may be no better than a prostitute, or she may be the incarnation of purity for Lemprière, her Romeo. There are optional endings for the same basic story: the hero who rescues the maiden can be faithful to her or leave her, he is Perseus or Theseus to Andromeda or Ariadne (150). There may be conflicting accounts of the fate of the same character. In Ovid, the end of the affair at Aulis is that a stag was at the last moment substituted by Diana for Iphigeneia, but nobody really saw what happened behind the thick cloud of smoke. ‘According to some authors’, says the Dictionary, the victim was another girl. It is generally agreed that Iphigeneia was saved and
carried away; but it may bave been to the island of the blessed, for her delayed nuptials with dead Achilles (Vide Leuce, and 407), or else, according to the prevalent version imposed by the earlier text of Euripides in the timeless world of myth, to Taurica, where she became the priestess of Diana’s temple, waiting for Orestes and Pylades, with a further role to play.
The reasons why Lemprière becomes the author of the Dictionary in the fiction are complex. We have seen that he has long been practically shut off by near blindness from the visible world (23), and imprisoned in the world conjured up by his painstaking decyphering of the classics. When his sight is restored, he still tends to merge the world recreated by his imagination into reality. This peculiar disposition is exploited at an early stage by those who want to lure him away from the family task of inquiry and revenge, and make him their accomplice in the deeds of the past. The writing of the Dictionary (186) is thus a kind of therapy, since he undertakes it to come to terms with his obsessions, and to clear up this constant interference of the legendary past with his life. But he is encouraged by Septimus, who acts at that time as an agent of the Cabbala, and has the sheets copied as they come out, so that his employers can work out the details and time the progress of their plot. The result, then, is to increase Lemprière’s confusion, and his delusion will last practically to the end, when he takes the book to Sir John Fielding as a proof that he makes what he dreams come true, and is somehow guilty of all the murders (601).The reader is better informed (he sees Boffe making preparations for the Danae episode, 193). The novel is not written exclusively from the point of view and within the perspective of the protagonist, and there are some effects of dramatic irony as well as of suspense, at least in what concerns the plot itself, for the deeper motives for the conspiracy remain obscure almost to the end.
That Lemprière manages in the end to extricate himself from the plot is partly due to causes over which he has no control, and also to his own character. There is the change of heart of Septimus. Those who want to play the role of the fateful Parcae in his life do not all have the same pattern in mind, and do not always pull the threads in concert. He himself may be in some ways very naive, but he is also far from easy to daunt or control, and tears through the net cast over him. But the true way to his salvation is the writing of the Dictionary.
Admittedly, his work is in part drudgery, and there are phases during which he is just piling up meaningless facts mechanically. But in the process of selecting and ordering all this material he recognizes some patterns that appear in his own life. No wonder, since they are for a large part imposed on it from the outside, and the resemblance in the details with the legends is accentuated by the designers. What they cannot prevent, however, is that the compiler who faithfully records the different versions of a story, or the different stories derived from the same model or archetype, is also aware that different heroes can make
different decisions in similar situations, and within limits determine their fate. What the Dictionary gives to Lemprière is the power to escape the fixed plot devised to control his actual life in the city. He is not freed from the mythological past, but by it. He becomes ‘the agent of an exchange between different versions of the same past: the city and the book’ (434). The labyrinth within which he is supposed to be imprisoned leaves some openings for chance and choice. But the Dictionary as such, as a compilation of facts and stories, can point out the options, but not guide any choice. Only the classical texts themselves can offer the comments, the value judgments, the moral and philosophical perspective. Lemprière’s Dictionary is the perceptible trace on the surface of LD of a deeper form of intertextuality. It is finally on the subtextual basis of the classical texts themselves that Lemprière is able to write the text of his own life.
The sequence I have called the Hero’s Quest can be analyzed along the lines followed by Propp in his discussion of the Russian folk tales. But some points must be clear from what precedes. Such an approach must not be reductive. It does not imply that the narrative ‘deep structure’ is what the novel finally amounts to. It is of interest only as a starting point for a return to the textual surface, and if it contributes to a finer perception of the qualities of the novel, of its imaginative ingenuity and thematic consistency in combining the strands of the mythology between them and with other stuff. Concerning the mode of description, the sequence is not to be analysed, in Propp’s way, as the stringing together of situations in a fixed order, but as offering at each stage of the action a set of options with opposite narrative possibilities . The sequence is as follows.
Hero (Jason, Theseus, Perseus) / Mission, or Quest / Obstacle: labyrinth and monster (the Beast is both, and Coade Stone Manufactory an engineered parody) / the girl as Seducer (se-ducere, leading away from the goal) or Helper / Object attained: Gold and Honour, but ambivalent and can be dissociated / Maiden as Helper rewarded or betrayed / Return of the hero, with the resulting death of the usurper (Pelias), father (Aegeus) or grandfather (Acrisius). As we shall see, this final section is the main link with the other sequence.
The existence of different versions and the possibility of a moral choice are indicated early, when the sequence is rehearsed as a farce of Circean seduction at the Pork Club. Lemprière mistakes the clue given by Septimus, casts himself in the role of Perseus instead of Theseus, and in the end refuses the prize in its two forms, the girl Rosalie tied to the bed to masquerade for his ideal Juliette, and the purse that has to be stuffed in his mouth when he is carried away drunk (155). The Dictionary refers the reader to the text of Ovid
3. See the valuable discussion of Propp’s method by Claude Brémond in Logique du Récit, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1973.
(Metamorphoses IV 604 sq.), which emphasizes the disinterestedness of the hero, since ‘he carried away Andromeda without a dowry as the prize of such high feats’. It also tells us that ‘the innocence of Perseus was patronized by the gods’, who had all agreed to give him the magic weapons (invisibility,the winged sandals, the mirror-like buckle) with which he obtained the even more formidable Medusa’s head to petrify his enemies.
Lemprière’s obsession with Danae, even before he has filled the page about her or met her counterpart in life, is due to the ambivalence of the character, or reputation, of the mother of Perseus. The Dictionary (Vid. Danae, as read by Septimus 283)) reminds us of the official version: she was the daughter of Acrisius king of Argos, who confined her in a brazen tower. Jupiter gained access to her bed by changing himself into a golden shower. But ‘some suppose’ that the real father was the king’s own brother, and ‘it was maintained that the keepers of Danae were bribed by the gold of her seducer’. Lemprière was familiar enough with Ovid to grasp the textual allusion in the mode of the victim’s death, recalling (though he does not refer to the passage) that in Metamorphoses (XI 125) Danae is briefly mentioned in connection with Midas, at whose touch, instead of water, ‘liquid gold poured into his mouth’. The fate of the indiscreet and greedy procuress of Rosalie was no doubt meant as a warning to Lemprière that silence, when it cannot be bought, can be secured by gold in more drastic ways. But his horror prevents him from receiving the lesson that was intended, and converting the guilt he is made to feel into complicity with the murderers.
Lemprière manages in the end to defeat the plot, with the help of Juliette, an increasingly reluctant seducer turned into helper, and he imposes a composite happy ending. The hero comes out of the labyrinth as Theseus, and he escapes as faithful Perseus, presumably to happiness ever after. But he has been rewarded for his disinterestedness and obstinacy without having really mastered the situation, in practice or in his mind. He can only succeed with the help of Septimus, who saves him from Castlereigh, defuses his confession of guilt to the magistrate, hurls him into the labyrinth for his final test, and saves him from despair at the disappearance of Juliette (490). Above all, he never becomes fully conscious that the twists and turns of his private romance were inextricably bound up with larger issues, and that he plays a role in the larger drama of revenge for a murderous past, in a story which ‘began at La Rochelle’; as Septimus whispers to him (497), and repeats to himself later (622). He is ultimately saved, but nearly destroyed, by the Furies, or the vessels that bear their names, and but for Septimus he would be lost and lose Juliette in the compound confusion of the Trojan war in the theatre and the summer of discontent in London.
There are many mythological links between the sequence of the Quest and that of the Fall of the City. Paris is the anti-type of the hero, as the seducer who could not fight and only won dishonour and ruin. Jason and his associates in the quest for the Golden Fleece are the clear prototypes of the founders of the East India Company, and their ship Argo was probably built in Argos for that first all-Greek expedition. But the main connection is through Iphigeneia. Her funeral pyre was the necessary prologue to the war. She was saved to heal some of the wounds. When Orestes, persecuted by the Furies for his murder of Clytemnestra, lands in Taurica, he is, in the words of the Dictionary, first saved by the ‘inviolable attachment and friendship’ of Pylades who offers to die in his place, and then by Iphigeneia herself who placates Diana, and returns with him to Argos, where he is to reign for many years ‘crowned in peace and security’.
These are some bare facts. But even Septimus does not have a clear vision of the larger pattern in which all these fragments of myth make sense. The novel ends on two puzzled silent monologues. Septimus reviews the events, from the distant time when he was hurled by his mother from the burning citadel into the sea, with the mission to find and kill his father, their betrayer, down to the recent time when he finally found François and played the part of the dark avenging angel in sparking off the final explosion (another Orestes, though here as a parricide). But he does not quite understand his change of heart towards Lemprière: how he came to play the guardian angel by his side, instead of treating him as just another expendable instrument for his revenge. After all, Lemprière is the descendent of the man who deserved to die, he has stolen the family name and made Septimus a perpetual waif. In fact, Septimus is uncertain about himself and his future destiny. He is weary of the past and all its quarrels, and even the final curse of his mother, her call to vengeance, still ringing in his ears, gets confused. And again the Ancient legends, through the texts pointed to by the factual account in the Dictionary, throw light on what goes on in his mind, and on the spirit of the conclusion.
It is clear that the loneliness so long enforced on him, his lassitude with the family feud, and the sympathy he has developed for Lemprière have prepared him to acknowledge their brotherhood. But what he longs for is the deepest form of friendship illustrated in Antiquity: two beings so united as to become one in two forms, interchangeable, each one living in and through the other. Septimus has betrayed the spirit of mythology by being a false Achates to Aeneas, and he atones for this by leaving his brother the undisputed heir, and even making him his other self. What he longs to obtain in exchange is to find in Lemprière a friend equal to Pylades, who was prepared to die so that Orestes might be spared, and in Juliette the Iphigeneia who obtained from the gods the purification of the murderous son.
In the Virgilian version of the end of Troy, in Aeneis II, there are two major differences with what happened at La Rochelle: in the message left by the mother, and in the plans long matured for revenge and recapture. Aeneas is advised by his mother Venus that he cannot save or win back the city, and that his destiny is to found another Ilion. So, he must leave, carrying with him the civic gods, Anchises, his wife, and his son Ascanius, whose bright future is then marked by the ‘wonderful prodigy’ of his suddenly but harmlessly ‘flaming hair’ (685). When Aeneas, during his escape, finds himself separated from Creusa, he retraces his steps, but meets her shade, who tells him that she is now in the keeping of the gods, and has accepted their decision that he will find a new kingdom and a new royal spouse, only requesting him to ‘preserve his love for the child of their union’ (Aeneis II 789).
The final metamorphosis of Septimus Praeceps into a gull (and retroactively the fact that he survived his early precipitation into the sea) is a transposition of Ovid’s story of Alcyone (Metamorphoses XI 730 sq.). She jumped into the sea to join her husband who had drowned, and both were transformed by the pitying gods into halcyons: mythological birds variously identified, but mostly as gulls, with the privilege of making their nests on the sea which (in the words of the Dictionary) is kept for them ‘calm and serene’. It is also related, more in depth, to what Ovid tells us of the wise Pythagoras (Metamorphoses XV 60 sq.). His hatred of violence, including the killing of animals, was rooted in his belief in perpetual mutability and metempsychosis. We are indeed ‘bird souls’ (volucres animae) since we flit from one form to another. This view of transmigration annihilates the fear together with the reality of death. It also leads to a serene vision of history as the succession of cycles in which destruction leads to rebirth in other forms, and Ilion revives in Rome. The philosopher’s wisdom was passed on through Egeria to Numa, who ‘managed to convert a nation used to the violence of war to the arts of peace’.
The most significant clue, however, is given unwittingly by Lemprière, in the final page of the novel (626), and about the entry, still to be written, that will deal with Juno. She is the goddess who ‘presided over marriage’, and the surname that gets lost in the noise of the wind is Pronuba, duly listed in the Dictionary. This entry is ‘final’ not of course in the alphabetical order, but in time: Lemprière has now done with the book. As the ship veers back to carry him home with Juliette, what he leaves behind him is the outline of another dictionary: of place names, arranged in spatial rather than in chronological order, laid out so that the eye can move freely from A to Z and from Z ‘back’ to A, and corresponding to the perspective, or bird’s eye view, of Septimus. But the presumably matrimonial conclusion of the story is the gift of Juno in another way. The end of Aeneas is narrated in a passage of Metamorphoses (581 sq.) which must have been familiar to Lemprière, since it occurs just
before the story of Vertumnus, in the cycle about local divinities. In his old age, and once the power of Iulius (another name for Ascanius) was firmly established, Aeneas was changed into a god. This was obtained by the prayers of his mother Venus to Jupiter, but ‘with the consent of all the gods’. Juno herself, who had so long been his enemy, showed her emotion, and made a sign of assent. The rare privilege (obtained before by Perseus, another son of Venus) of reconciling around him Juno, Venus, Diana and Minerva has now been granted to Aeneas.
This is the image of the Settlement announced in the title of the last part, with the return to peace, on earth as on Olympus, after old feuds have been forgotten and old ghosts laid. But mythology is not only in request to provide illustrative vignettes: it also brings in some of the spirit of Antiquity. It has been noted that at the end of the novel, mostly through Septimus as a hovering spirit, we have a manifestation of the supernatural or the fantastic not reduced to natural causes which belongs to one tradition of the Gothic novel. What appears in the final references to mythology is that this is not mere fictional fancy, but a way to convey what may be called the spirit of Natural Supernaturalism 4. Historically, it expresses the feeling born in the troubled times in which the story is set: Coleridge’s timidly pantheistic meditations, Wordsworth’s ‘undetermined sense/Of unknown modes of being’, and his desperate admission that ‘the world is too much with us’ once we have lost, together with the mythology created by a ‘creed outworn’, the old Pagan vision which alone can enable man to ‘Have glimpses that would make (him) less forlorn;/Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea’ 5. Philosophically, it marks a return to the wisdom of Lucretius, early mentioned and too summarily dismissed (17). Religio may be no more than superstition, peopling the night with shadows, but it breeds fanaticism which is the real source of most evils. Mythology is fiction, but it expresses man’s hopes and fears, and the beliefs that direct his life. So, it must be preserved and purified, rather than discarded, and made to contribute to the accession of Venus to the rank that belongs to her, as ‘the sole ruler of Nature’.
(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 15. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1998)