A Blot in the 'Scutcheon

by Robert Browning
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1611

First published: 1843

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Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Romantic tragedy

Time of work: Eighteenth century

Locale: Rural England

Principal Characters:

Thorold, Earl Tresham, a proud nobleman

Mildred, his younger sister

Henry, Earl Mertoun, her suitor

Austin Tresham, brother of Mildred and the earl

Guendolen, the Treshams' cousin and Austin's betrothed

Critique:

This drama was published in one of the eight small volumes of poetry issued by Browning under the title of BELLS AND POMEGRANATES between 1841 and 1846. It had been written at the request of Macready, the famous actor and producer in England during the nineteenth century. The play, though written expressly for the stage, has never been popular on the boards. While the drama is obviously Browning's invention, the similarities to ROMEO AND JULIET immediately call the Shakespearean play to mind. The quarrel between two great houses, the duel, the love affair between a young man and an extremely young girl, and the multiple deaths of the principals at the end all are paralleled in the two plays. Interesting to most readers of the play are the comments by the retainers of both houses about the main characters and the great families they represent.

The Story:

Thorold, Earl Tresham was a middle-aged, active man, the epitome of courtesy and honor, and extremely proud of his family's record through the generations. So proud of that reputation was he that he resolved to keep it untarnished throughout his life, and to see that other members of the family bore themselves as honorably.

The earl's parents had died many years before, leaving a younger sister in his care. Mildred was now fourteen years of age and ready for marriage. She was loved by her brothers and her more distant relatives, who regarded her as an innocent, guileless, and beautiful young woman.

Henry, Earl Mertoun, having seen Mildred, came one day to ask her hand in marriage. Tresham was at first hesitant, but when he had talked with the young man and looked over the Mertoun family record, he realized that no more honorable and personable young suitor could have sought Mildred as a wife. He therefore gave his consent to the marriage if the girl herself agreed. Mertoun left Tresham Castle after promising to return at the end of two days, during which time the Treshams and their cousin were to broach the subject of marriage to Mildred.

In the library, that same night, Tresham, his brother Austin, and their cousin Guendolen acquainted Mildred with Mertoun's suit, but she seemed indifferent to the nobleman's proposal. Later, in Mildred's room, Guendolen continued the discussion, describing the personality and appearance of the young earl. The girl still remained hesitant. When Guendolen left the room she was confident, however, that her cousin would soon look kindly on so desirable a suitor.

Shortly after Guendolen's departure the clocks struck midnight. Mildred placed a candle in her window. A short time later a man dressed in a long, flowing cloak and a slouch hat entered through the window. The hat and cloak were swept away, revealing Henry, Earl Mertoun. Mildred declared that she could not bring herself to agree to a marriage with him under the conditions known to both, for she and Mertoun had been lovers for many weeks. She said she could not appear at a wedding under the guise of a virgin and a stranger to a man whom she had long since taken as her lover.

Seeing no real sin in what they had done, the lovers felt that their youthful years had betrayed them. They had met when Mertoun had wandered into the Tresham domain after wounded game, and they had fallen in love immediately. Within a short time Mildred had admitted Mertoun to her bedchamber.

After a lengthy discussion the young nobleman left Mildred, with her promise that she would talk to him once again on the following night before announcing her decision to her brothers and cousin.

The following morning one of the retainers went to Tresham and told that he had seen a man leaving Mildred's chamber window late at night. Pressed by Tresham, the retainer admitted that the man had been there on previous nights and that the nocturnal visitor obviously had Mildred's aid in visiting her. Tresham was dumfounded and then angry, for he saw the whole reputation of the family about to receive its first blot in generations. He also thought he saw why Mildred had appeared hesitant in giving her consent to marry Mertoun.

After talking over the matter with Guendolen, Tresham sent for Mildred. Accused by her brother, Mildred admitted by her silence that she was guilty of transgression, but she steadfastly refused to acknowledge the identity of her lover. Tresham was furious that she could have even permitted her relatives to consider a match between herself and Mertoun after she had fallen into sin. Mildred's only defense to her brother was that she had not had a mother's guiding hand, that she was too young to know what she had done, and that God must have deserted her at a crucial time.

Mildred's brother, refusing to recognize the defense she offered, disowned her in the presence of Austin and Guendolen. But they, feeling only sorrow and sympathy for Mildred, remained loyal to her. Guendolen took Mildred to her chamber and tried to comfort the girl as best she could. While the two women talked, it became evident to Guendolen that Mertoun was not only Mildred's suitor but her lover as well. Guendolen realized that Mertoun's suit was the way taken by the lovers to hide their transgression. As soon as she realized the situation, Guendolen went at once to tell Austin and the earl. Tresham, however, was nowhere to be found; he had gone to the farther reaches of his estates.

Tresham had wanted to be alone while he tried to find some solution to his problems. At last he decided to lie in ambush for the lover, in case the man tried to visit Mildred that night. He was unaware that Mertoun was Mildred's lover, and Austin and Guendolen were unable to find him in time to tell him what they had learned.

That night Earl Tresham concealed himself behind a tree to watch. Shortly after midnight a figure wearing a cloak and slouch hat raced across the lawns and clambered into a yew tree which grew just outside Mildred's window. As the figure started into the tree Tresham seized him and pulled him back to the ground. Mertoun then threw off his disguise and revealed himself. Too angry to realize the implications of Mertoun's identity, Tresham engaged him in a duel. Mertoun did not even try to defend himself and was quickly run through by Tresham. Seeing his opponent downed and mortally wounded, Tresham lost his anger and became filled with remorse. His regrets knew no bounds when Mertoun revealed how he and Mildred had been led innocently into sin. Tresham realized that haste and anger had undone both of them, as well as Mildred.

The noise of the duel had attracted Guendolen and Austin, who tried unsuccessfully to save Mertoun's life. After Mertoun died, Tresham went to tell Mildred what had happened. Her dismay at hearing of her lover's death at the hands of her brother was too much for the girl; she died within a matter of minutes. As she died Guendolen and Austin appeared to see if they could be of assistance, and they saw that Tresham, too, was as white as death. He told them that they came too late, for he had taken poison. His last words before he died were that he left his name, title, and estates to them unblemished; he felt that three tragic deaths had obliterated the sinful blot on his family escutcheon.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

Robert Browning did not write outstanding tragedies, primarily because the techniques which he used so well in his sophisticated poetry obscured the action. His love of soliloquy, for example, renders his plays somewhat slow moving and tedious. His command of the language certainly enabled him to explore the most intense emotions, yet that very strength tended to hinder the dramatic movement. In no way an exception, A BLOT IN THE 'SCUTCHEON, although containing some effective scenes and a considerable amount of romantic action, including a duel, a suicide, and the tragic death of the heroine, is best viewed as an investigation of character and motive.

Thorold, Earl Tresham, represents the Victorian aristocrat, who in his dedication to the family honor is prepared to sacrifice the feelings of his sister, Mildred. Mildred herself, tyrannized by the idea of respectability, also helps bring about the tragedy by refusing to pretend to virginity by appearing at the altar in a white wedding gown with Henry, Earl Mertoun. Henry invites his own death by refusing to defend his life because he has been caught in a compromising situation. The three separate ideas of honor, conceived to venerate outmoded social mores, all combine to lead to the senseless tragedy.

Ironically, A BLOT IN THE 'SCUTCHEON details a situation not unlike one in which Browning was to discover himself two years later with Elizabeth Barrett. Forbidden to marry by her domineering father, he and Elizabeth were forced to wed secretly and live in Italian exile. Mr. Barrett died twelve years later, only four years before Elizabeth herself died, never having been forgiven for her own "blot" in the 'scutcheon. From this incident it becomes clear that the Victorian themes of domestic tyranny and the power of respectability were not confined to literature, but dominated the entire mentality of bourgeois society.

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