Sometimes it seems like the heroine just wants to play the part despite everything. I’m currently reading Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine (Minerva, 1798). In the first volume we meet with Julie de Rubine, who has lived in relative seclusion in the Netherlands until the age of about 14. At this point her father dies and her mother soon follows leaving her as the orphan in the title.
Her mother, on her deathbed, extracts from Julie a vow that will prove fatal to both the heroine’s happiness and other’s lives.
I leave, you my darling alone and, almost unfriended, in a world in which you will find much occasion for the exercise of this estimable virtue. The only relation you will have left is Madame Laronne; and though for many reasons she is not the person I should have selected from all the others as the guardian for my child, yet as she is the only surviving sister of your father, it cannot easily be dispensed with.
I must demand from you, my Julie, before I leave you forever, a solemn promise, upon the performance of which depends both your temporal and eternal welfare.
You are not, my dear, sufficiently aware of the little respect that is paid to the religious, and even the moral, duties of life, amid the dissipation and gaiety of the world. Madame Laronne is a woman of rank, and undoubtedly, from a motive of kindness, but I fear a mistaken one, will introduce you into the most brilliant and fashionable circles. She will also desire, in the most commonplace acceptance of the term, to see you advantageously married.
Promise me then Julie, that whatever arguments may be employed to dissuade you from your purpose, never to unite yourself to a man, however estimable in point of moral, and however splendid in situation, who does not exactly agree with you in all the articles of the Catholic Faith. Say then, my child, that whatever trials and temporal distresses this resolution may involve you in, that nothing shall prevail on you to marry a Protestant.
Julie, who equally revered with her mother the doctrines of the Church of Rome, and whose zeal in the cause of her persuasion was not less animated, readily acquiesced in the proposal; and having assured her dying parent in a manner the most solemn and impressive, that she should consider this promise as sacred and inviolable, an exquisite expression of joy irradiated for a moment the features of Madame de Rubine….. who in a few hours breathed her last!
Following her mother’s death Julie is indeed collected by Mme Laronne and taken from her quiet Dutch backwater to mix with high society in Turin. Julie, unlike 99% of teenage girls that might find themselves in her situation, is duly horrified by the lifestyle into which she is introduced, the balls, the parties; the Contes and Marchesas; the intrigues are so unlike her own quiet home life.
Of course it isn’t long before the retiring, interesting and beautiful newcomer starts to attract the eye of a number of eligible and ineligible suitors. Chief amongst whom is Signor Vescolini, an eminently attractive, respectable, personable, responsible, — Protestant. After a respectful period he discusses with her aunt the possibilities of marriage.
Being a good match, probably much better than she might expect. Julie has little fortune of her own, and her aunt is all in favour, but the fatal vow kicks in and Julie feels unable to agree. Vescolini basically stops at nothing to pursue his suit, he even offers to appoint a private confessor for her in his household. But everything is in vain and she refuses the marriage.
Unfortunately, watching on the sidelines is the villain of the piece, the Marchese de Montferrat, old enough to be her father but at least he is a Catholic. He sees his chance. Alarming Julie with stories that her aunt and Vescolini are planning to abduct her and force her into marriage he offers her an escape route that really she shouldn’t ever have considered. He offers her protection from this evil Protestant plot if she agrees to elope and marry him instead.
This she does. Oh why, why, why weren’t the alarm bells ringing when the Marchese sets up a wedding at the dead of night officiated over by a strange monk? Six months later she is pregnant and the Marchese nowhere to be seen.
For the sake of a fatal vow Julie has given up a respectable, comfortable life in Italy, and becomes an outcast, fleeing from society with her child. Not only that, but the Marchese has Vescolini assassinated to cover his tracks.
Lives are lost; lives are ruined by the all too inflexible approach to the fatal vow. It recalls again the quotation from E S Barrett’s 1814 Gothic Spoof The Heroine
You know, Biddy, that a heroine ought always to snatch at an opportunity of making a fatal vow. When things are going on too smooth, and interest drooping, a fatal vow does wonders. I remember reading in some romance, of a lady, who having vowed never to divulge a certain secret, kept it twenty years ; and with such inviolability, that she lived to see it the death of all her children, several of her friends, and a fine old aunt.
Surely the heroine should ensure there is a get out clause, but as I suggest, sometimes maybe the heroine just wants to play up to her intended role.