Wednesday 21st December

Am I OK? Broken home to go to … (5)

Long before he settles for the quiet life of a jobbing lawyer, Thomas Jefferson Hogg dreams of being a writer. Unlike his itinerant friend, Shelley, he has no gift for poetry, but he hopes that his narrative skills will compensate for that. A year or so after his expulsion from Univ and a little while after his unequivocal rejection by the 16-year-old Harriet, my forefather finds time, in between his mind-numbing conveyancing work and his study for the Bar, to work on what he hopes will be the first of many novels. And unlike most of us, he actually finishes it. And even less like you and me, gentle reader, he finds a publisher.

Hogg’s novel, Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff, supposedly translated from the original Latin by the fictitious ‘John Brown’ (his faithful Scottish ghillie?), is completed in 1812, when Hogg is still just twenty, and printed by Shelley’s publisher, Thomas Hookham, in the autumn of 1813.

Yes, the memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff. The title seems scarcely credible. It echoes the very name I gave myself in trying so vainly to impress Marie-Claire only a few short weeks ago. The obvious conclusion is that I must have encountered this text somewhere before, or perhaps simply the title, and the name has seeped into my subconscious, although I have no clear recollection of ever having seen such a book before. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, also first published in 1813, it is not a novel that has been reprinted a thousand times in a hundred languages (it sank almost without trace). But it seems reasonable to suppose that there is a copy somewhere in the college library. I must have picked it up one day and registered its unusual title, possibly because later editions are attributed to Hogg and I would have been impressed by the family name.

The alternative explanation, that some filigree of DNA coding has been passed down the family line and inspired both of us to adopt the same alter ego, does not bear thinking about. Even atavism has its limits.

If any copies from Hookham’s original imprint survive, I have not been able to trace them. The ‘first editions’ of Prince Alexy that you will encounter these days are from the Folio Society’s reprint of 1952 which features a number of startling wood-engravings by Douglas Percy Bliss. The dust jacket tells us that only two copies of the original are known to exist but does not say where. I have been reading Hogg’s extraordinary novel alongside Prince Felix Yusupov’s memoirs, also written (in French – perhaps his Latin was not quite up to the task?) in 1952 and published as Lost Splendor in Britain and America in 1953.

It is hard to believe that the two texts are not the creation of the same febrile imagination.

It is certainly possible that Yusupov could have encountered the Folio Society’s dusty tome while he was brushing up his own memoirs in 1952, even if he is unlikely to have encountered the Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff during his chilly sojourn at Univ between 1909 and 1912. It is a little fanciful to imagine him purloining the college library’s only copy and devouring it in the shadow of the brand-new Shelley Memorial and borrowing  from Hogg’s narrative the very first inklings of the plot to kill the ghastly Rasputin.

Yusupov was not a great reader of English novels, as far as we know – perhaps he never encountered Hogg’s one and only novel. If so, we must flip the question on its head: how did Thomas Jefferson Hogg come to write a novel which so accurately foretells the life story of history’s second most famous assassin and a Univ graduate to boot?

Prince Alexy Haimatoff is a romanticised version of the college friend Hogg thought he had loved and lost in the Battle of York. Many of the episodes in the Memoirs, notably the initiation rites in the haunted chapel, are a lightly fictionalised version of anecdotes that Shelley had told about his own life. Is it simply that Shelley himself became a figure of fascination during Yusupov’s lonely vigil at Univ? Should it then be surprising that Prince Felix resemblees Prince Alexy as well? But the equivalence seems to go well beyond mere second-hand emulation.

Let us consider just a few of the similarities. Both these princes are born in St Petersburg, Felix amidst the soon-to-be-lost splendour of the Moika Palace and Alexy in rather more mysterious circumstances, a prince who does not know the identity of his parents. We may note in passing that Felix was a name traditionally given by Russians to illegitimate sons.

At a young age, Alexy is despatched to Lausanne in Switzerland under the care of a French clergyman called Gothon to commence his princely education. Like Felix after him, his teenage years will take him across Europe and beyond, surviving a series of improbable escapades in Paris and other “exotic” locations, overcoming numerous temptations, pitching up in England and encountering a charismatic supra-religious figure who seems to challenge his very identity.

Both Alexy and Felix are somewhat sickly children, they say. Alexy’s ankle is severely sprained as a baby when his nurse falls on some ice and this disqualifies him from any sporting activity thereafter. This sedentary life was “not without its inconveniences; by never suffering fatigue, I became effeminate’ (p. 30). Felix’s childish sickliness leads him in a similar direction:

‘I was ashamed of my skinniness, and longed to find a means of fattening out. Then, one day, I happened to see an advertisement which gave me high hopes. It extolled the merits of Pilules Orientales, a French patent medicine warranted to turn the flattest breasted lady into a harem beauty of opulent charms. I managed to get bold of a box of these pills and took them on the sly, but, alas, without result.’ (ch. 5)

Never mind the HRT, it is not long before Felix is dressing in his mother’s clothes and parading around the streets and clubs of St Petersburg. Did he really pass muster as the most glamorous girl in town? Felix insists this was the case but it seems more likely that the denizens of that demi-monde were happy to humour the gender-confused young plutocrat.

The Yusupov boys, Felix and his older brother Nicholas, are also taught by a “kindly” Swiss tutor, Monsieur Penard. Hogg’s Alexy, meanwhile, embarks on a grand tour of European cultural centres and arrives in Florence where a fellow-student called Schwartz is in love with a lass named Viola whose brother, Corvini, has treated her shockingly and accused Schwartz of seducing the girl. Schwartz feels compelled to challenge the brother to a duel with pistols and asks Haimatoff to accompany him as his second. Alexy is forced to witness his friend being killed. Corvini has the first shot and misses. Schwartz then fires directly upwards in a bid to end the proceedings in a peaceful fashion but his adversary, unaware that the miss was deliberate, now shoots and kills him.

Fast forward a hundred years and Felix’s elder brother, Nicholas, falls in love with a girl who, inconveniently, is already engaged to an officer in the Guards regiment. Nicholas and the girl become passionately involved but Nicholas is unable to prevent the wedding taking place, despite dining with the girl on the evening before her nuptials and planning an elopement. The married couple honeymoon in Paris but Nicholas is unable to restrain himself from pursuing them there (rather like Hogg in Edinburgh) with Felix in tow, attempting to ensure that the matter does not get out of hand. Felix neglects to intervene as the jilted bridegroom challenges Nicholas to a duel and kills the first-born heir to the vast Yusupov fortune. Felix is not present but learns later what occurred:

‘It had been agreed that the weapons would be revolvers, and the distance thirty paces. The signal was given, Nicholas fired in the air; his adversary fired at him and missed him. He then insisted that the distance be reduced to fifteen paces. Nicholas agreed, and again fired in the air; the officer took careful aim and killed him instantly. Thus ended an encounter which was not a duel but a murder.’ (ch. xii)

Nonetheless, Felix is now the sole heir of the Yusupov empire and the weight of perceived responsibility that goes with it. Not long afterwards he meets, and forms an instant dislike to, Rasputin, and then knocks on the door of University College, Oxford, in order to conclude his gentlemanly education.

Hogg, meanwhile, has his Russian prince sent not to an English but to a sinister German university (a precursor of Mary Shelley’s Ingolstadt), where the spartan collegiate life is plainly a reflection of his Univ experience. Just as the closed minds of his tutors and college officials had been a grave disappointment to the 18-year-old Durham boy, so Prince Alexy is alarmed to discover that there is no opportunity for free thinking and scientific investigation as the ‘university’ is actually a front for the Eleutheri, a fanatical cult based on what Hogg knows of the Illuminati.

The head of this university is the Eleutherarch, a man who commands the unquestioning obedience of his followers. Hogg repeatedly uses the same word, “mysterious”, to describe this cult figure as Yusupov assigns to Rasputin. Like the Russian starets, the Eleutherarch has a mesmeric effect on his young followers and his ultimate objectives remain obscure.

The Eleutherarch tells Prince Alexy that he must endure a novitiate of three years before he graduates and becomes a fully-fledged member of this arcane society. Alexy agrees to these terms, swears an oath in Latin and is forced to endure a series of tests and initiations. He studies hard for a year and is summoned back to the Eleutherarch’s office where, to his surprise, he is accused of excessive pride and weakness as far as the female sex is concerned.

Is he prepared to swear another oath of total obedience to the Eleutherarch? He is given three days to think about this but his mind is made up:

‘In the evening I could bear this suspense no longer. I concealed a dagger under my garments, and wildly ran to the university. I inquired for the Eleutherarch. He was alone in his study. As soon as I entered, I bolted the door, seized him by the neck, brandishing my dagger … The venerable man, with a serene countenance, bared his breast, and pointing to his heart, said, ‘Strike there, Alexy; thy blow will then be effectual.’ I trembled in every limb. ‘Nay, if thy hand is unsteady, let me guide it,’ he continued, taking hold of my hand, and raising it, as if to strike. The dagger fell to the ground. I could not endure his penetrating gaze; he saw the nakedness of my soul; I covered my face with my hands.’ (pp. 128-129)

So much of this foreshadows the black comedy of the December night in the Moika Palace – the bolted door, the secretly armed assailant preparing to murder his spiritual leader, a man he both admires and loathes, the sense that the victim has both anticipated and accepted his fate, the homoerotic undercurrents, the penetrating gaze that deflects our hero from his task, and so on.

There is one key difference, of course. Prince Alexy cannot bring himself to finish the job whereas Rasputin does not survive his ordeal. Reprieved and surprisingly lenient, the Eleutherarch promises to keep the incident to himself and sends the young prince down for a year (a rather shorter sentence than the one imposed on Shelley and Hogg, we note). Alexy must go to England and there his story concludes after a series of further adventures and a disappointingly conventional marriage.

So much for Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s literary revenge on the college officials who had expelled him in 1811. Half-baked picaresque or a work of astonishing prophecy? I cannot decide.

The Memoirs of Prince Alexy Haimatoff sold a handful of copies and earned one solitary review and that by Shelley himself in the Critical Review of December 1814. If he was attempting to do his old college pal a favour, it was of a very mixed kind and Hogg must have laughed at some of Shelley’s criticisms, including this one:

 

‘But we cannot regard [Bruhle’s] commendation to his pupil [Alexy] to indulge in promiscuous concubinage without horror and detestation … He asserts that a transient connection with a cultivated female may contribute to form the heart without essentially vitiating the sensibilities. It is our duty to protest against so pernicious and disgusting an opinion.’ (Prose, p. 304)

 

This is a bit rich coming from a man who has recently abandoned his pregnant wife and moved in with not one but two teenage girls.

But there is no doubt that Prince Alexy gave Hogg a certain kind of street cred when the time came for him to be introduced to Mary and Claire. If he seemed a little dull and conventional in person, the novel was the proof of an exotic imagination and a commitment to liberal ideals, including Godwinian free love. The girls were happy to conflate the stolid legal clerk and his fictional alter ego, soon dubbing the new lodger ‘Prince Alexy’ rather than ‘Mr Hogg’. In their more private moments, Mary took to calling him ‘Prince Prudent’ and Hogg was happy enough to accept the moniker – indeed, he subsequently called his own daughter, my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Prudentia.

There is little reference to Hogg’s own state of mind during the Hans Place days at the end of Volume 1 of Hogg’s eventual Life of P.B. Shelley (pub. 1858, like Lost Splendor, 36 years after the star turn’s death), and little sign of the notes he must have written to his bedridden “dormouse”, Mary. But we do have Mary’s many missives to her gallant prince during her pregnancy and after the loss of her baby. Here is one from 7th January 1815, not long before the premature parturition:

‘My affection for you, although it is not now exactly as you would wish it will I think daily become more so – then, what can you have to add to your happiness, time which for other causes beside this – phisical causes – that must be given – Shelley will be subject to these also, & this, dear Hogg, will give time for that love to spring up which you deserve and will one day have.’

That dreamed-of day never comes, despite Hogg’s gauche opportunism and Shelley’s undoubted connivance. Mary’s first thought when she loses her baby is to send for Hogg rather than her husband. But the ménage-à-quatre was never likely to survive that bereavement and Mary has little difficulty fending off Hogg’s increasingly tentative physical advances thereafter. Perhaps his heart is never really in it. I suspect he is still more than half in love with poor abandoned Harriet who, like Hogg in the preceding years, now spends much of her time contemplating the young poet’s gilded goldfish bowl from the outside, alternately horrified and entranced by what she sees. Perhaps Hogg recognises Harriet as a kindred spirit, a fellow outsider.

Through the winter of 1814-15, Hogg trots dutifully to and fro between Shelley’s neglected leading ladies, hoping for a morsel of affection here, a crumb of comfort there. If he can’t have Shelley to himself, one of these sleeping satellites would make an agreeable substitute.

Of course, very little of this figures in Hogg’s whimsical biography, ironically berated for including too much of Hogg and too little of Shelley.  Hogg’s commission from Lady Wrennie (Shelley’s daughter-in-law) was for a hagiography, especially in its account of the Shelley-Mary “romance” which, it was hoped, would out-schmaltz the Browning version. Too honest and yet not honest enough, Hogg was summarily sacked before he could embark on Vol. II.  From Lady Wrennie’s perspective, the first volume read more as character assassination than apotheosis.

Was Hogg envious of his old friend’s posthumous success while he languished in obscurity? The same could be asked of Felix Yusupov. However many times the Russian émigré told his story and however much he overplayed his own role in the assassination, the more Rasputin’s fame grew and his diminished. His own vituperative character assassinations had precisely the opposite effect from the one intended, elevating his subject to ever greater fame. He was right all along – the old devil really was unkillable.

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