The Conquest, or a Mail Companion Review

SPOILER ALERT – This review includes information which may spoil your reading of the original story. To read The Conquest first – click here.

In January 1837 the Welsh newspaper the Monmouthshire Merlin published a short story by a writer who is only identified by the initials I.H. Although the Merlin features a number of short stories by writers using initials alone only one other story by I.H. can be found. Mistress Annabelle Herbert Struth Pelham appeared in December 1836. The story concerns a woman who falls in love, discovers her beau is married and so remains single. In later life she hears that his wife has died but declines to revive the love affair and continues to live alone. A story which fall outside of societal norms in that at this time most women would have been expected to get married.

The Conquest, or a Mail Companion appeared a month later. It is set in 1818 but published in 1837. As we do not know who the writer is we cannot know when it was written. This story concerns ‘a weeping female, in flimsy, spoilable array’ called Ethelinda travelling via mail coach to take up a new position. There is only one other passenger in the coach and the story revolves around the conversation they have during the journey.  What is interesting about this short story is that from a queer theory perspective it raises a number of points.

From the very outset the author establishes in the reader’s mind that the subject of the story is male. The first words are “The hero of the following sketch…” and within a few paragraphs we hear the elderly man who hands Ethelinda into the coach referring to the other occupant as ‘sir.’ When Ethelinda settles herself she examines her travelling companion who is, “still young, not too tall, with a dark and bright complexion, prominent profile, black curls, and short whiskers, deep set, swarthy eyes.” Once again there is the reminder of masculinity with the reference to ‘short whiskers.’ This concept is constantly reinforced throughout the narrative. The character is unnamed and so for convenience sake will be referred to as ‘Hero’ in this article. Hero is constantly referred to as ‘he’ including at one point ‘Monsieur’ and Ethelinda repeatedly calls him ‘sir.’

Hero himself enforces the perception when he brags that he is “a capital sailor” and is later referred to as a “hardy tar.” He takes a pinch of snuff and when the coach stops briefly Hero holds out a hand to stroke some dogs with “a manly, yet neither a large nor a coarse hand, decked with many a ring.”

However there are hints that not all is as it seems. When Ethelinda says, “I should not be ashamed of owning anything that was true to a perfect gentleman like yourself.” Hero teases “I fear I shall disappoint you before we part, or on better acquaintance.”

Despite all descriptions of Hero there is no intent to imply cross-dressing. The blanket that Hero spreads over Ethelinda’s legs covers them both and “so concealed the figure of their wearer, that not even the tip of a boot could be seen.” The history of cross-dressing is an old one and from the early 19th century stories featured in the media rose steadily. In the Welsh press alone from 1800 to 1829 there were 21 stories. By the 1830s there were 21 for the whole decade and the number continued to rise until the 1890s when 160 instances occurred. One of the reasons that women cross-dressed as men was for protection and travelling in a coach at night would be a good reason to do so. Hero at one point states, “many gentlewomen now go about alone, by stage.” However we learn later that Hero knows the coachman and would therefore not need protecting.

Throughout the story the author uses a number of devices to imply distance from normality. The departure point is “a stage out of London, in a dull little town, whose name I spare” and “nor shall I say whither the vehicle was bound.” Hero asks of Ethelinda “Do you go all the way to __?” leaving the name blank. We cannot know then if the final point is in Wales but what is made clear is that the destination is rural.

The time of the journey is at night in December a journey that was to “last from nine till twelve, three dark and drowsy hours.” Ethelinda is alone, almost an orphan the “elderly man” who handed her into the coach is unnamed as is her father. Indeed the elderly man may have been her father. She confides that he only calls “me Ethelinda, to quiz my liking for novels.” So this is not even her real name. We know she is late taking up her job as Hero points out that the assistant was “to have been on her post two days since” but the delay is not explained. The ‘assistant’ is, according to Hero, “thirty, is very plain, the daughter of an (sic) humble tobacconist, and leaves a home which is anything but comfortable.” It was the humble tobacconist who acquired the job with a Mrs M__, whose name again appears as a blank, as “he was known to the husband,” and “long had her husband’s acquaintance.”

Throughout the journey Ethelinda never enquires of Hero’s name or other personal details. She does however have an attraction to Hero. No sooner has the coach left than “over her tear-wiping kerchief, strove to ascertain whether her fellow passenger was likely to afford her one of those stagified romances of which she had read and dreamt, long and often.” Having assumed Hero was a married man the reply was “not I” and so Ethelinda took him for a bachelor.

Ethelinda describes her circumstances saying her father, “Poor man because he saved and spared to give me a boarding-school education, he insists on my accepting this offer, and has vouched that I am fit for it; but, oh sir! it is a sad pilgrimage for me; no friend to read my heart, to rescue me at the precipice’s edge; I go a victim to the sacrifice, a bear to the stake —a beast to the slaughterer!” To which Hero replies, “but don’t cry so I’ll rescue you.” Earlier Ethelinda had described herself, on meeting the stranger in the coach, as “a young, a single lady …” A description Hero plays along with when, despite knowing Esther to be thirty flatters Ethelinda by suggesting she is only 16.  Ethelinda continues “— to be thrown — unprotected — with an unknown —” Hero interrupts with the assurance that the “…unknown is bound to protect her. If, during our trip, any intruders arrive to mar the, tête á-tête, they shall not obtrude their flatteries on you while I am by…” To which Ethelinda felt faint and Hero offers her Eau de Cologne adding drops to the girl’s handkerchief. ““You are very good,” faltered Ethelinda, between love and fear.” At another point Hero implies he knows who Ethelinda really is: “your account to me of yourself, marks the strongest possible contrast between my fair Ethelinda and Esther Humphries.” ‘Fair Ethelinda’ belongs to Hero, Esther Humphries is someone else. Indeed both the story and the coach are called The Conquest with a play on the subtitle of ‘a mail companion.’

Eventually the coach reaches its destination and Hero leans out of the carriage and calls for the coachman to stop. Ethelinda peers out to see “a servant, lantern in hand, came from the garden of a cottage ornée.” The use of the term cottage ornée is an interesting one. This was a decorated or stylised ‘cottage’ popular from the late 18th to early 19th century. It was inspired by the Romantic Movement in a move away from a formal heavy architecture to a more ‘natural’ way of living. They were built mainly by the wealthy, and even royalty, as retreats or additions to their estates. The term was coined to distinguish structures that turned a labourer’s cottage into aesthetic artefact. The cottage ornée was seen as pure, rural, back to nature type of living where children could be brought up in a heterosexual and wholesome environment. This is emphasised in the story when Hero refers to the name of the cottage as ‘The Nest.’

However by the early 19th century the cottage ornée was also being utilised by women for their sole use. Designs began to reflect this and they were being deliberately marketed as appropriate dwellings for women without families. The Ladies of Llangollen’s famous house Plas Newydd was described as a cottage ornée and this emphasis on female only occupation began to undermine the heterosexual ‘pure’ concept. As more women moved into them the term began to fall out of favour.

As the coach stops and Hero leans out Ethelinda begins to wonder who this person is when she catches sight of a “petticoat of a dark cloth habit.” “So,” says the narrator, “vanished Ethelinda’s fairy dream.”

The story quickly moves to unravel the ‘dream’ and establish Hero as a woman, that Ethelinda’s “conquest had been achieved by the equestrian Mrs. M., who had gone to town on business for her husband, as he had recently lamed himself in a hunting leap. Though she had no desire to be taken for a man, or her side curls for whiskers, she, would not undeceive the blunderers; especially as she suspected, from the locale at which the young lady joined her, that this might be the very female whose disposition, for her children’s sakes, she thought it her duty to ascertain.”

As Hero’s identity is revealed the story moves into more ‘normal’ aspects. Although it would have been dark in the carriage it is not until the servant appears with the lantern that the first mention of light is made. Mrs M.’s husband is quickly identified as Frank and the servant as Matthew. At the start of the story the narrator had reassured readers that the hero is “now too wealthy to incur adventures,” so normality is restored as Mrs M never tries this again. Furthermore the narrator states that those who know the hero know she is so unchanged that they would have readily guessed her identity “even if they have not previously heard the tale from the original’s own lips” – the last implying that it had become a favourite story of Mrs M.’s.

The final paragraph abandons Ethelinda and her real name is substituted. “Esther, though no longer lady’s maid, yet lives with Mrs. (now Lady) M., her own woman, to Sir Frank’s French cook.” So although she is married she remains with Mrs M but no longer a servant. She is “though devoted to her mental, exemplary, and kind-hearted mistress, calls horse-riding, and its masculine costume, “dangerous and unmerciful for fine women.” The narrator ambiguously agrees, “I am, though not in her sense of the words, inclined to say so too.”

And so normality is restored.

What then is the point of the story? It’s hardly a warning against cross-dressing which was a great taboo at this period. The last paragraph confirms that Mrs M. continues to wear masculine costume when horse riding. And the portrayal of Hero is not a condemnatory one. Can we go so far as to call it a lesbian story? Ethelinda was under the impression she was talking to a man but Mrs M indulges in what can only be described as flirtatious behaviour. From the moment they met Mrs M encourages the girl to see her as an adventurer – someone who can and will ‘rescue’ her. Can anything even be read into the use of Ethelinda as a name? It was a medieval one but enjoyed a revival in the early 19th century and means ‘noble snake.’ Can we draw any parallels with the temptress Eve?

What is certain is that this story can be cited as an example of both gender and sexual blending and as such deserves a place in queer literature.


(With thanks to Kirsti Bohata for correcting some earlier mistakes)

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