There’s nothing like a letter from beyond the grave! In the September 1776 issue of The Lady’s Magazine one item in particular stood out: ‘Letters from the Dead to the Living: Letter II. From Lothario, to his perfidious Mistress, giving an Account of the Manner of his Death, in defending her Reputation.’ While the title makes clear that the deceased Lothario has met an untimely end in defense of a woman who clearly did not deserve his chivalry, it also serves the dual (no pun intended) purpose of signalling a confusion of genres. The title and subtitle hint that the tale to follow will include a didactic element regarding the dangers of duels, instructing young men to remain calm when provoked and to be cautious regarding the women they choose to defend; it points to the potential for a sentimental tale of disappointed love while also establishing its position as a supernatural tale with a ghostly presence. Running through all this is an unmistakeable vein of humour.
The Lothario’s mistress, though shedding ‘many pearly drops’ when he announces his departure to Lisbon for his health, nonetheless urges him to go (478). He is wilfully ignorant of the reasons underlying her desire for his trip to the continent, and refuses to listen to his friends who warned him to ‘shake off a passion for one who did not deserve it’, remaining, in spite of their cautions, Matilda’s ‘captive’ (479). He misses her while abroad and, when out drinking with a group of young, travelling Englishmen who all take turns toasting their favourite ladies, the narrator names his lady Matilda. He is immediately mocked by the sneering and somewhat inebriated Sir Thomas H—- who ‘began to throw out aspersions […] injurious to your character.’ Filled with anger Lothario draws his sword, but in the face of Sir Thomas’s immediate silence, no duel commences. Rather than dying from a wound received in a duel from a worthy opponent, as the reader expects given the tale’s subtitle, the reality is much more underwhelming (and amusing, if you have a slightly dark sense of humour).
The party ends and the revellers leave, but the narrator sees the sneering Sir Thomas in a dark alleyway, and, overcome with righteous indignation at the comments levelled at his Matilda, he draws his sword and ‘made at him a furious pass’ (479). Sir Thomas, however, nimbly leaps aside and the Lothario’s sword breaks against a wall. In the unlucky (and physics-defying) response of his steel to the impact, a shattered piece of sword rebounds off the wall and strikes him with such force that it wounds his arm severely. His would-be victim, Sir Thomas, comes to his rescue upon seeing the ‘vast effusion of blood’, and assists the narrator to his lodgings where he subsequently undergoes an amputation.
The Lothario’s attempt at a chivalrous defense of Matilda is undercut on multiple levels: first, the woman is demonstrably neither virtuous nor pure, and secondly his masculine sword thrust is foiled by little more than a nimble leap and a wall that turns back upon himself the violence he would have committed against another male body. This shift, from the expected mortal wound at the hands of a masculine foe, to the actual self-wounding resulting in amputation, abruptly severs readerly expectations. If the sword represents the penis, than the narrator’s failure to use his weapon effectively, resulting in its destruction and the loss of his ability to attempt its use again, is striking. The undeserving woman has caused his emasculation at his own hands, rendering him eternally impotent. The danger of believing the false tears of a perfidious woman is that a man runs the risk of being cuckolded. The would-be Lothario’s sufferings rehearse those he would feel as a husband betrayed: humiliation, emasculation, and impotent rage. There is much to be said (and I will do so in my chapter) about the complex blending of genres here and the criticisms directed at certain constructions of masculinity alongside the shoring up of specific representations of women.
After the amputation the narrator is thrown into agonies by a fever but these pains are unrivalled by the mental anguish inflicted when Sir Thomas visits him and tells him of Matilida’s treachery: ‘How light were the pains of my body now, to the excruciating tortures of my mind!’ (480). But it is what comes next that marks the short tale as stranger than the usual. Lothario repents of his sins to an English clergyman and dies: ‘I was immediately surrounded by an innumerable company of angelic spirits […] With speed we winged our aerial flight, and quickly passed the planetary system’ (480). After entering Heaven he spends most of his time spying on his perfidious lover, Matilda, stating that he pays her a visit: ‘though an invisible one’ (481) and watches her while she is ‘plunged in dissipation and pleasure […] surrounded by a set of worthless coxcombs, the disgrace of human nature, you was treating my name with the greatest disrespect, recounting the conquest you had made, and the ascendency you had gained over my affections, in a manner most insulting’ (480). In spite of his ascendency to Heaven the narrator has clearly not left behind his very earthly ability to feel disrespect and insults, and rather than rising above it (the puns are hard to avoid, I apologize), he continues his voyeurism.
Locating Matilda as a spectacle of unbridled female sexuality, Lothario views her guilty passions with amazement. The reader may be meant to understand his amazement as akin to horror, but there is also a hint of jealous, frustrated lust in his description. ‘I was a witness then to your secret retirement, where you indulged in a guilty and lascivious passion. I stood amazed!’ (480). The voyeurism is presented as what will be an ongoing activity rather than a singular incident. Having watched Matilda react with sorrow to news of his death, the narrator believes that she is not wholly lost. Her ability to feel remorse proves her capable of reformation and thus cements his invisible, ghostly presence, that hovers over Matilda in order to read her corporeal actions for signs of moral improvement. ‘I had often the thought of making a visible appearance; but, lest it should alarm and terrify you, shall be content to remain as I am, an invisible observer of your actions’ (481). His decision to remain invisible so as to not terrify her is a disingenuous assertion given that its real accomplishment is to allow him to remain her voyeur. Lothario’s perspective assumes the feel of an it-narrative or narrative of circulation, with his ghost form serving as the ‘object’ that delineates, not its own life story, but Matilda’s. The author plays with distinctions and boundaries, particularly between the physical, mental and spiritual, and also between genres and genders. Given the presence of sexual displays in certain it-narratives, an alternative motivation for the ghost’s observation of Matilda’s conduct (and circulation), is certainly scopophiliac.
With the desire to end on a laugh, I will allow the tale’s postscript to do that work for me. The ghost-Lothario’s narration, written in the second-person throughout, concludes with a short statement that draws attention to the epistle’s audience and the experience of reading multiple textual forms and genres: instructive and romantic letters, the Bible, the personal, the religious, and the supernatural. The letter’s appearance within Matilda’s closet – a female space of dress and privacy – reiterates the voyeurism. The postcript also defies whatever rules dictate that invisible ghosts should not be able pick up quills and books in its seemingly unnecessary statement that is rich in nuance: ‘P. S. You will find this epistle deposited in a Bible in your closet’ (481).