Lucinda Elliot

Brutal Barons and Caddish Counts: Aristocratic Villains in Popular Fiction

Here’s a very funny article about the wicked titled in fiction. Well, after the parliamentary expenses scandal of ten years or so ago, which unearthed appalling levels of politicians’ hands in the till in both the upper and lower chambers, perhaps these days it should be applied equally to life peers, promoted after a supposed life of service.

The wicked Sir Clement Willoughby making one of his countless attempts on Evelina’s virtue.

 It’s interesting, as the author notes, that generally Barons and Counts get such a bad press in classical English fiction. A good one is a rarity. Often they are lounge lizards, mere phildanderers and fortune hunters with questionable pasts and an eye for a low born heiress who might be attracted by their title; at worst, they are very evil if not in outright league with the Devil.

For instance, there is the Baron Adelbert Gruner Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, ‘The Illustrious Client’ (This is one of the later stories, being written in 1924, and like several of them, it does strike me has being more sensationalist than the earlier stories). Incidentally, with the acid throwing incident, I found this the most gruesome of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

This man is not only a philanderer and fortune hunter, but a wife murderer who got off on a technicality. His last wife very conveniently fell off the Spügen Pass in the Alps.  He schemes to marry the said illustrious client’s daughter, who is totally captivated by him. However, Holmes finds out one weapon he can use against the scheming baron, and that is a book in his own handwriting, where he recounts his conquests…

Another wicked baron whose evil schemes come to grief at the hands of Sherlock Holmes  is Baron Von Hering, the German diplomat and spy in the titular story of ‘His Last Bow’ (1917). He is a cardboard baddy, but the story is an entertaining read, presumably written to boost public morale during wartime.

Counts are generally depicted as being as bad as barons. The worst of them all, of course, is Count Dracula, who infamously gets fed up with the shortage of human prey in the Caparthian Mountains in Transylvania, and has his coffin transported to London. This being a piece of late Victorian (1897) gothic, the sexual element of the vampire legend remains only hinted at. In common with most very old people – he is hundreds of years old, though he doesn’t look it –the count likes to tell anecdotes about his youth, sometimes keeping his guest up all night.

Oddly enough, though Dracula is obliquely depicted as having a  dark sexual allure, this infamous count has been married less times in his hundreds of years than many Hollywood film stars in middle age. He’s had a mere three brides. If he had been a vampire with Hollywood tendencies, I suppose he would have got through about fitty at least.

 English earls and lords are not necessarily seen as baddies. The  heroes of most of Charles Garvice and Georgette Heyer’s romantic novels are earls, and while they might be wild and spendthrift, they usually are honourable and gallant.  

Interestingly, in Heyer’s ‘The Infamous Army’, the hero’s rival for the dubious prize of Lady Barbara Childe (the granddaughter of the awful Marquis Vidal in ‘Devil’s Cub’) is a count of disreputable character.  The Belgian Comte de Lavisse, however, shows his courage on the battlefield of Waterloo, besides his taste for histrionics. When his troops desert, he lays into them with his riding crop, shouting, ‘My honour is in the dust!’ He also carries the wounded hero off the battlefield, though he is frank enough to admit he regrets this when Lady Barbara Childe decides to marry him, rather than Lavisse. The caddish count must have bitterly resented being made to go in for this piece of self-sacrifice by his creator…

I mentioned the unpleasant Marquis Vidal anti-hero of Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’ (1933), who goes in for a spot of attempted rape and strangulation by way of courting the heroine. He is in fact, the son of the wicked Duke of Avon, who however, avoided attempted rape if nothing else.

A Marquis, in fact, can be a highly sinister antagonist in Gothic fiction. For instance, in Ann Radcliffe’s 1790 novel ‘A Sicilian Romance’ , the fifth Marquis Mazzini is a very wicked fellow: he spends most of his time in the book trying to kidnap his own daughter to imprison her. He is following a precedent here, as he has kept her mother falsely imprisoned for years in a tunnel. Still, he repents on his deathbed (again off topic, I like it when antagonists do that. It is quite alarming how many modern writers share Hamlet’s attitude towards their antagonists, and want them to die as sinful as possible: I think that’s barbaric).

Fictional baronets always seem to have been a shady lot. Perhaps they feel the need to take aristocratic assumptions of superiority and contempt for the lower orders to extremes. over-compensating for the fact that they aren’t proper aristocrats, being only halfway between commoners and peers. They are in fact, eligible to sit in the House of Commons. To get the general idea of their bad reputation, you only need think of the early example of Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belcher in ‘Twelfth Night,’ (not as if parliament existed in those days, so he didn’t have that over-compensating excuse) or the ones who dodge shadily through Restoration comedies, and the pages of later popular novels and Victorian comic operas.

The wicked seducer Sir Clement Willoughby in Fanny Burney’s Georgian novel ‘Evelina’ seems to be a typical precedent. He pursues the virtuous Evelina without having any intention of marrying her, given her questionable status as the unacknowledged daughter of another caddish baronet – Sir John  Belmont.  He later openly admits this to Evelina’s ideal man, Lord Orville, whose intentions are in this- as in everything else – entirely honourable. 

Lord Orville is, in fact, like a robot set up only to do the correct thing, whatever the circumstances.  In that he is very like another equally two dimensional aristocratic hero, Charles Darnay in Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Darnay is really the Marquis St Evermonde since the murder of his uncle, who treated the peasants so brutally under the Ancien Regime that Darnay renounced his name and inheritance. After that, and his subsequent trial for treason by the British Crown, where he falls in love with the one of the witnesses against him, one Lucie Manette, Darnay becomes robotic. Perhaps it is PTSD that turns him into a cardboard cut out goody, though what motivates Fanny Burney’s Lord Orville, apart from a desire to please his creator, is unclear.

Interestingly, dukes – either bad or good – were comparatively rare in popular fiction before the massive increase in Dukes in Regency Romance (a know-it-all aside: there were never more than twenty-five dukes in the UK, including the royal dukes, with most of them then, as now, far too elderly to have the energy to be very wicked).  Unlike the Evil Marquis trope, Dukes often feature as heroes rather than cads (though I agree with that article I linked at the beginning of this post, that Grand Dukes can be altogether another matter).

But this post is getting too long, so more of titled baddies and goodies in my next post.

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