The First Violin by Jessie Fothergill


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From this rather enthralling if somewhat melodramatic mid-Victorian tale of romance and scandal around an orchestra in the Rhineland, I have learnt that many of the Germanic names in the Chalet School series were taken from a controversial novel by an author from Cheetham Hill. It took me ages to put that sentence together ;-).

May Wedderburn, a, 18-year-old vicar’s daughter living in a quiet part of northern England in 1869, is invited to accompany Miss Hallam, a well-to-do older lady, on a trip to Germany. Whilst they’re waiting from their train from Cologne to their final destination of Elberthal, a fictional town somewhere in the North Rhineland area, May becomes separated from Miss Hallam and her maid, misses the train, and is left stranded with no ticket and no money and unable to explain herself in German. Fortunately, as it wont to happen in books, she’s rescued from her plight by a kindly stranger, a handsome, charming and somewhat mysterious young man.

Once everyone is safely in Elberthal, Miss Hallam arranges for May, who has a good singing voice, to take lessons from a local music master, Herr Max von Francius, director of Elberthal’s orchestra. It turns out that the first violinist of the orchestra is none other than the handsome stranger from Cologne station, Eugen Courvoisier. May of course falls madly in love with Courvoisier, and he with her, but there are all sorts of misunderstandings, each thinks that the other doesn’t like them, and Courvoisier is reluctant to become involved. This is clearly linked to the mystery surrounding him, which deepens when first we find out that he has a young son, whom he adores, and then the child is taken away to live with relatives even though it obviously breaks Courvoisier’s heart to part with him.

It then comes out that Courvoisier is alleged to have forged his brother’s signature on a cheque in order to cheat him out of a large sum of money. Although May and all his friends are sure that he’d never have done anything so dishonourable, he doesn’t deny it. Then various things happen, May falls ill and returns to England to recuperate, Courvoisier and his friend and housemate Friedel von Helfen move away, the Franco-Prussian War breaks out, and it looks as if Our Heroine and Our Hero are doomed never to meet again.

However, Miss Hallam conveniently dies, and leaves May some money with which to return to Germany and resume her musical studies, Courvoisier comes back to Elberthal to visit and, without giving away what happens (although it’s pretty obvious!), everything is resolved happily.

It does have to be said that a fair bit of what happens would strain anyone’s credulity, even given that most Victorian novels are full of amazing coincidences! It reaches pretty ridiculous proportions when May is caught up in a hurricane which has suddenly struck without warning (as no doubt happens on a regular occurrence in that well-known hurricane zone, north west Germany), accidentally steps on to a boat (as you do), finds herself being swept down the Rhine, and then realises that there’s someone else on the boat and, what do you know, it’s Eugen Courvoisier, who just happened to be visiting Elberthal that day and just also happened to accidentally step on the same boat in the middle of the sudden hurricane! Come on J.

Silliness aside, though, it’s quite an interesting story, even though you always know that May and Eugen are going to get together and that it’s going to turn out that Eugen is completely innocent of the dastardly deeds of which he’s been accused. Also, some of it was quite controversial in its day, and the book was rejected by the first publisher whom Jessie Fothergill approached – because of the sub-plot involving May’s sister, Adelaide, and Herr von Francius. Adelaide marries an unpleasant man for his title and his money, but soon regrets her decision when he treats her badly. Whilst she’s visiting Elberthal, she and von Francius fall in love. They don’t actually “do” anything other than declaring their feelings to each other, whereupon von Francius immediately does the decent thing and leaves town, but Adelaide’s husband finds out and divorces her.

She and Max then marry, she redeems her character by her sterling service as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian war, and they get a deus ex machina punishment when poor Max dies young. However, May, rather than being shocked when her married sister becomes involved with another man, is obviously very sympathetic towards her, and the reader’s obviously meant to feel the same, and in the mid-Victorian world that didn’t go down very well .. and it was brave of Jessie Fothergill to write it.

I thought some of May’s own behaviour was a bit questionable by the standards of the times, as well! She gets quite a lot of freedom, staying behind in Elberthal on her own when Miss Hallam and her maid return to England, and going about on her own much of the time even before then. When she initially learns that Courvoisier is in Elberthal, she goes round to his home, on her own, at night, to try to pay him back for the train ticket! Nothing improper happens, and she’s only trying to do the right thing, but I’m sure that young single mid-Victorian ladies shouldn’t have been going round to gentlemen’s homes without a chaperone, especially at night! Then she goes off skating on her own, falls through some thin ice and is rescued from the cold water by, you’ve guessed it, Eugen Courvoisier … and we hear all about how much she’s enjoying being held and carried by him! Again, nothing improper goes on, but I don’t think mid-Victorian young ladies were meant to admit to having thoughts like those, LOL. Mind you, it’s pretty mild compared to some of what goes on in the Brontes’ novels!

On a different note, there are no actual comments about it in the books but it’s interesting to see Anglican vicar’s daughter May enjoying all the Carnival festivities and to hear that she enjoys attending services at a Jesuit church. That would certainly have appealed to the author of the Chalet School books, but it’s not something you’d particularly expect to find in a book written in the 1870s.

Anyway. Eugen, being a man, is allowed to have had a bit of a naughty past, although we’re assured that it was only whilst he was very young, and that it didn’t involve wine or women, only overspending and gambling. He apparently managed to lose all his money through betting on the Derby – couldn’t he have found anything in Germany to bet on?! By the time we meet him, he has of course mended his ways, but I still thought that some of the comments about how noble and honourable he was, and even at one point May wondering how she was going to cope with being married to someone so perfect, were a bit overboard, given that he had had this wild youth!

He’d also been married before. Friedel von Helfen wonders about the mother of the child, but, strangely, May apparently doesn’t! We eventually learn that she was Courvoisier’s wife, that it’d turned out that she’d only married him for his money, and that she’d later conveniently dies. It’s quite interesting how some novels do have these heroes who’ve been married before, although it generally turns out that there were major issues with the first wives and that they’ve therefore never really known true lurve before, etc etc – think Mr Rochester, or Max de Winter. Never happens the other way round, though, with a young widow attracting the attention of a dashing man (unless he’s after her money). And the heroines/second wives are always so young. Oh well.

Something else about this book, which is more unusual, is the “bromance” between Eugen Courvoisier and Friedel von Helfen. The book’s narrated partly by May and partly, not by Courvoisier, but by von Helfen, who is devoted to him and refuses to believe any ill of him. It’s Friedel, not May, who gets to narrate the ending. Some of it’s very poignant: the part in which Courvoisier’s son is sent away and von Helfen reflects sadly on how the light of two lonely lives has gone is probably more moving than any of the romantic passages. It’s common for books to show a close friendship between two women, but unusual for them to show such so deeply a friendship between two men.

In amongst all the tangles of romances and friendships, we do learn quite a bit about the workings of the orchestra, and we see various concerts and rehearsals, as well as May’s singing lessons. Of course, this was at a time when the German states were the place to go for well-to-do British ladies wanting to study music. “Deutschland, land of music,” May thinks to herself … and a lot of people at the time would have had that image of Germany. Land of music, philosophy and literature. The book was published in 1877 and set in 1869-72, so we’re looking at a crucial time in the development of what became the German Empire. The Franco-Prussian War, the third of the three wars in which Prussia fought and won in the mid-19th century, actually takes place during the book – both Eugen (whom we later learn was previously a cavalry officer) and Friedel serve in it.

This is really the point at which Germany’s image abroad starts to change big style, although that doesn’t come across in the book … it was probably too soon for that. I frightened myself when it dawned on me that we’re now as far removed from the Second World War as the Second World War was from the Franco-Prussian War: how did I get to be so ancient?! Going back to Germany, there’s always a lot of food for thought when you think about how this country so much associated with high culture, the country which Prince Albert hoped would join with Britain in leading the world to some sort of wonderful liberal future – and, who knows, maybe things would all have been different had Friedrich, Albert’s son-in-law, not tragically died so soon after becoming German Emperor – became the land of the Nazis, the people who perpetrated the most horrific atrocities the world has ever known.

This has all got rather heavy now. On a lighter and completely different note, how about all the names from this book which were “borrowed” by Elinor M Brent-Dyer for her Chalet School series, we have Eugen Courvoisier, Herr Helfen (I don’t think the first name of the Herr Helfen in the Chalet School books is ever given, but there’s a mistake in one book in which Friedel von Gluck is referred to as Friedel von Helfen!), Karl Linders (in The First Violin, a friend and colleague of Herren Courvoisier and Helfen), Herr von Francius and the von Rothenfels family. I know that it can be difficult to think of surnames in foreign languages, but you would think that “EBD” would at least have mixed up the first name-surname combinations! I also assume that this is where she got the idea of German women wearing tartan from: I don’t think I’ve ever come across that anywhere else!

Also, whilst I’m wandering off the point of The First Violin itself, I was interested to learn that Jessie Fothergill was born in Cheetham Hill, the daughter of a cotton manufacturer. She later spent many years living in Littleborough, after her father’s death forced the family to move to a smaller and cheaper home, before sadly dying – in Switzerland, of lung disease – at the age of only 40. Most of her books are set in Lancashire, and I’ve managed to find a copy of Probation, set in Rochdale during the Cotton Famine. The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic and there are very few historical novels about it, so I’m rather excited to have found I’ve never come across before! Incidentally, one point that’s made towards the end of The First Violin is that Eugen’s learnt that the true heroes of society are not the upper-classes but the lower middle-classes. How brilliantly mid-Victorian Manchester is that 😉 ?!

Also, whilst I’m reminiscing about my university days, there were various references in the book to “Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter” (“Prince Eugene, the noble knight”), a German folk song. The idea was to show that people thought of Courvoisier as a perfect gentleman, but the Prinz Eugen of the song is Eugene of Savoy, a hero in Austria because of his role in various campaigns against the Ottomans but best known to British historians as the Duke of Marlborough’s oppo during the War of the Spanish Succession – my university “special subject”. Not something that would excite anyone else, but it excited me, LOL!

Anyway, this is now rapidly approaching the length of a university essay, so I’d better stop waffling and go and do something else, but this book, even if some of it is rather daft, has certainly given me a lot to think about.  Now to read Probation!



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