British Fiction, 18001829

SPENCE, Elizabeth Isabella. Dame Rebecca Berry (1827)

Contemporary Reviews

La Belle Assemblée, 3rd ser. 5 (Mar 1827): 126–30.

In passing from fact to fiction, we shall first notice a novel, in three volumes, entitled ‘Dame Rebecca Berry, or Court Scenes in the Reign of Charles the Second,’ the production, if we mistake not, of a lady to whom the world has more than once before been indebted. The basis of the story is a tradition recorded in Lyson’s Environs of London; upon which tradition also a once popular, but wretchedly-written ballad, called The Cruel Knight, or Fortunate Farmer’s Daughter, was founded. The tradition is briefly this:—A knight upon a journey passes a night at a farm-house. During his stay, a female child is born. The knight’s knowledge in the science of judicial astrology ‘informs him that the child then born was destined to be his wife. He endeavours to elude the decrees of fate, and avoid so ignoble an alliance, by various attempts to destroy the child, which are defeated. At length, when grown to woman’s estate, he takes her to the sea-side, intending to drown her, but relents; at the same time throwing a ring into the sea, he commands her never to see his face again, on pain of instant death, unless she can produce the ring. She afterwards becomes a cook, and finds the ring in the cod-fish, as she is dressing it for dinner. The marriage takes place of course.’ This traditional tale is connected with the monument of Dame Rebecca Berry, wife of Thomas Elton, of Stratford, Bow, and relict of Sir John Berry, which is still [126/127] to be seen in good preservation at the east end of Stepney church. The inscription makes no reference to the story; but it may not be amiss to remark, that the armorial bearings on the monument are paly of six, on a bend three mullets, Elton empaling a fish, and in the dexter chief point, an annulet between two bends wavy.

The story is ingeniously enough wrought up in the work before us; though we should have been better pleased if the ring had not been invested with magical power; a circumstance which seems at once to nullify the over-ruling power of Providence, and equally to prevent the surprise and astonishment which might be excited by a merely fortuitous event.

The cottage-scene, after the death of poor Barton, the fisherman, is extremely well conceived. The early portions, however, of Dame Rebecca’s history, occupying the first volume, serve happily as an introduction to the court scenes in the reign of Charles the Second, which are sketched with great vivacity and effect. The love-making of Sedley to Lady Cordelia Trevillion, in Greenwich Park, is, as it should be, not only animated but elegant; and the more tender scenes between Lord Ossory and Lady Trevillion, are marked by beauty, grace, and feeling. The writer evidently excels in description. Of this we shall offer one or two instances; and, first, of the dress and appearance of the royal Charles:—

‘The doors were thrown open, and the king himself entered, apparelled in a suit of purple velvet; his cloak, which was lined with white satin, and embroidered both inside and out with a deep border of golden oak leaves, was thrown back so as to display the jewelled orders that he wore; the cloak itself was tied with a gold cord, and tassels in the form of thistles; the downy part of which was imitated by (what singly would have been impalpable) gold threads, but which united, appeared, with every movement of their wearer like floating sunbeams; in his hat, which was also of violet-coloured velvet, were three snow-white plumes, fastened with a diamond loop and button; his hose were of white silk, bordered with gold clocks; his square high-heeled shoes, were of white kid, with purple rosettes; in the centres of which sparkled and fluttered a small diamond butterfly; a pair of white military gloves, with purple and gold tops, completed his attire.’

Some of the freaks of the witty Rochester and his associates are very felicitously related. At one period, in consequence of having inadvertently shewn the King a lampoon upon his Majesty, instead of one which he had made upon Richmond, the Earl was banished from court. During his exile, as Burnet relates, he hired apartments in Tower Street, and passed himself off for a German doctor; after which, he disguised himself as an Italian mountebank, and practised astrology to the wonder and admiration of every one. The description which Rochester gives to Buckingham about the latter proceedings is capital, and we regret exceedingly that our limits will not permit us to transcribe it. However, we shall give on scene which is materially connected with the denouement of the story. One of the rooms engaged by the Earl, in the service of the occult science, is mentioned as high and spacious, and more like the personification of a fairy tale than any thing in this nether world.

[Extract beginning ‘The frames of the six windows that opened on one side of it….’, and ending ‘… to make the beholders almost fancy they were looking it into life’, is omitted].

[p. 128] This is delightfully imaginative.—Amongst the numerous applicants to the Signor Pietro di Manfredati, as the Earl called himself, was Sir Ambrose Templeton himself, the star-smitten husband of Lady Berry. As due notice had been given of the knight’s intended visit, due preparations had been made to receive him; and it may not be remiss to remark, though we cannot further avail ourselves of the circumstance, that, while Sir Ambrose was in the occupation of one of the ante-rooms, Lady Berry, and Lady Trevillion and her maid, were in the occupation of another. The scene in which Sir Ambrose was so deeply interested, is all that we can give. After certain preliminaries, Sir Ambrose was pushed into a long, narrow passage, the door of which was closed upon him.

[Extract beginning ‘In this place shone just enough light….’, and ending ‘…as though it had lost all the energies that silk and velvet can possess, namely, their courtly gloss and modest hues’, is omitted].

Some ludicrous anachronisms have forced themselves upon our notice in the perusal of these volumes; but they have no material effect upon the interest of the story, which, as will be inferred from the extracts which we have given, abounds with incident and description, of a fresh and lively and original character.

Monthly Review, n.s. 5 (May 1827): 144–45.

It must have been a very great disappointment to the authoress of ‘Dame Rebecca,’ after she had finished her pretty little web of literary labour, and was just about to give it to the light, whilst perhaps pondering within herself how happy she was to have been able to take out a patent, as it were, for exhibiting all that was curious and interesting in Charles’s court—to find that ‘Woodstock’ and ‘Brambletye-House’ had been in the market before her. It was not necessary that, in the preface, the writer should assure us, that nearly the whole of her work had been finished before the announcement of the other two productions had been made. We could very easily believe, that to the mind of one who shews not a little sagacity and acuteness in other matters, it would never occur to risk character and future success, by entering into rivalship with such tried veterans in literature as Sir Walter Scott and Mr. Smith. Neither can there be traced the slightest resemblance between ‘Dame Rebecca’ and the two works of those gentlemen, in those points where a resemblance, arising from imitation, would be sure to discover itself.

The foundation of the performance before us is a story of very simple texture. It is adopted from a homely, but ancient ballad, which again has, no doubt, derived its incidents from tradition. The particulars which are given of persons and events of celebrity, seem not to have been sought for, but to grow naturally out of the course of the tale. These episodes form some of the happiest portions of the novel. The descriptions of court scenes are not, perhaps, remarkable for a guiding and animating poetical spirit; but they are elaborately and curiously faithful to truth—an advantage which an enlarged acquaintance with the personal and political [144/145] history of the time alone, could have enabled any writer to attain. The style will be found to be generally perspicuous and spirited, though now and then stiffened, or, to borrow a phrase from millinery, brocaded by an attempt to rival the stateliness of expression that belongs to an elder time.

We hope Miss Spence will not think us gratuitously unkind, if we point attention to one or two awkward instances of negligence. Rebecca, in her childhood, is described as being possessed, amongst other attractions, of a comely quantity of black hair: ‘her laughing eyes sparkled with gladness, and her black hair turned into a thousand fantastic curls over her face and neck.’ —vol. i, p. 9. About some twenty-five pages further on, Rebecca having attained her fourteenth year, is made to answer to the following portrait:—‘Her fair complexion, mild blue eyes, with a profusion of light curling hair, rendered her a most attractive creature.’—ib. p. 33. And in the same page we are told, that ‘her silken blond ringlets flowed, &c.’ —a supposed change, which is exactly the reverse of what takes place in nature. We know with what facility a writer in the ardour of composition will fall into the commission of little sins against chronology—when one is in pursuit of some desirable epithet, or fairly committed to the stream of the narrative, it is not very probable that one will stop to calculate dates, and enter into nice comparisons of eras. It must have been, doubtless, in some moment of poetic rapture that our agreeable authoress has renewed the popularity of the ballad of ‘Black-eyed Susan,’ and enabled her heroine to have it by heart, many years before the author happened to be born.

Notes: Format: 3 vols 8vo; price 18s. Publisher: Longman & Co.

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