A Modern Telemachus


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Charlotte Yonge's Preface      Charlotte Yonge's bibliography  
Among the Moors
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Online text of A Modern Telemachus

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Publication details, summary and further reading

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and prepared for the website by Esther McGilvray


January to December 1886 in The Monthly Packet vols 1 and 2 of the New Series, published by Walter Smith (late Mozley) with the title A Modern Quest of Ulysses.
1886 A Modern Telemachus published by Macmillan.


According to the preface to the book, the tale is based on an historical incident. In 1719 a French lady, the Countess de Bourke, travelled by sea to join her husband in Spain. Her ship was taken by Algerian pirates and then wrecked on the coast of North Africa. The Countess, her young son and some of her servants were drowned, but her brother-in-law, an abbé, her nine year old daughter, her maitre de hotel, and a man and woman servant reached the shore only to be captured by savage tribesmen. The little girl and the maitre de hotel managed to send messages to the French consul in Algiers. He informed the local ruler, the Dey, who engaged the help of a Muslim religious leader, empowering him to find and ransom the captives and return them to safety. This was done.

C. M. Yonge made one major alteration in her version. A 'M Arture' who was thought to have been drowned after saving the little girl, becomes Arthur Hope Maxwell, a Scottish Jacobite exile, and the hero of the tale. He rescues Ulysse, the countess's little son, from the wreck but they are carried along the coast by strong currents and fall into the hands of peaceful Moors. They are saved by a renegade Scot, and taken on board a British ship which returns to the area of the shipwreck. The captives have been taken into the mountains but have left a plea for help. This is taken to Algiers. The authorities act on it, and Arthur accompanies the rescuers and is re-united with the rest of his party and they then return to safety in Algiers.

C. M. Yonge does not mention the Mathurines, a religious order devoted to the rescue of prisoners of the Moors. Members of this order worked to save the captives in the tale, though they did not take part in the actual rescue. As C. M. Yonge explains in the Preface, when she wrote the tale she was unaware of their activity, or that their account of events was the one used by her source, though without acknowledgment.

Her narrative begins in Paris, with the formality and grandeur experienced by the characters, before their slow-moving journey through France to the Mediterranean. The action proper then begins with the voyage, capture by pirates and shipwreck, all graphically described. The next chapters give an account of the dangers and privations of the little girl and her companions. The readers (like those of the serial) who have not read the Preface, are then left in suspense as to their fate, while they follow the fortunes of Arthur and Ulysse, which become no less exciting. The tension is little slackened when Arthur reaches Algiers and increases during the rescue attempt and is only finally released when the companions reach safety and take part in a service of thanksgiving.

The two principal characters are Arthur, and the little girl, Estelle. She is shown as a highly intelligent, courageous and imaginative child, devoutly Catholic. Her favourite reading material is the lives of saints whom she longs to imitate, and Fenelon's Télémaque which also makes a great impression on her, and indeed an allusion to this works provides the titles of the book and serial. (However, as C. M. Yonge points out in a footnote in the serial (vol. 1, p. 7), 'the story is not intended as such a parody of either the Odyssey or Télémaque as Love and Life is of Cupid and Psyche'). While Estelle frequently compares a situation with aspects of Télémaque her deeper religious enthusiasm induces her to hope for and even seek martyrdom. However her gentleness and ingenuity and fondness for very young children rather win her favour with the tribe, and she leaves with some regret.

Arthur first appears as a tall, shy awkward eighteen year old. However when danger comes he shows courage, resource and responsibility. He quietly resists the attempts to make him renounce Christianity and by doing so deepens his faith and awakens that of the renegade. His Scottish pride at first makes a relationship with the latter a difficult one, but he comes in time to feel not only gratitude but affection for the low-born Scottish outcast.

The minor characters are well-drawn, particularly the Countess, a capable, energetic young woman, intelligent and knowledgeable, but a prey to irrational fears and premonitions. The Irish servant provides humour as well as being a model of loyalty and courage.

The manners and dress of the period are important in understanding the characters. Their dialogue is convincing and varied, from the formal exchanges between the Countess and Lady Nithsdale to the prattle of the two children. However, one major improbability consists the hero and heroine's ability, after a period of only six weeks, to converse in languages previously unknown to them.

The extremely varied scenery experienced by the travellers offers a series of contrasts and parallels, the formality and grandeur of the Tuileries gardens in which the tale opens, and that of Algiers, the pastoral richness and peace of Provence with that of the Moorish villages, which contrast with the wild mountains of North Africa. The African descriptions owe something to one H. I. Arden whose 'A Few Weeks in Algeria' appeared in The Monthly Packet between July and December 1886.

The tale is highly informative, particularly about the international politics of the period, the customs and costumes, and the various geographical locations. There is no explicit moral teaching. Failings which in earlier works would have met with overt or implied criticism here escape censure. The religious tone is generally benign. Episcopalian Arthur is amused by the Irishman's trust in relics, but the faith of the Countess and Estelle is treated with respect. The Muslim religious leader is described as venerable and shows himself to be benevolent and effective. Muslims are shown as devout and orderly in their lives and Tam, the Scottish renegade, is morally improved by embracing their faith. The Dutch pirate captain, another renegade, is considerate and courteous to the Countess and these two men escape condemnation by the author. Indeed Tam's ignorance of Christianity, the fault of Scottish Calvinism, is seen to excuse his turning to Islam. Arthur's Episcopalianism is mentioned, but it is not shown as having any tenets peculiar to itself. The only religious group to be condemned is the Scottish Calvinists, bigoted and severe. Members of this group do not appear in person, but have a catastrophic effect on the early lives of both Arthur and Tam.

The texts of the serial and the book are practically identical. The same minor errors appear in both. Only the name of an English Jacobite is substituted for that of a Scottish one, at one point, a matter of minimal importance.

Further Reading

For contemporary reviews see L. Madden, 'J B Shorthouse and C. M. Yonge' unpublished thesis, University of London Diploma in Librarianship. 1964.

Charlotte Yonge's own Preface
to A Modern Telemachus

The idea of this tale was taken from The Mariners' Chronicle, compiled, by a person named Scott early in the last century—a curious book of narratives of maritime adventures, with exceedingly quaint illustrations. Nothing has ever shown me more plainly that truth is stranger than fiction, for all that is most improbable here is the actual fact.

The Comte de Bourke was really an Irish Jacobite, naturalised in France, and married to the daughter of the Marquis de Varennes, as well as in high favour with the Marshal Duke of Berwick.

In 1719, just when the ambition of Elizabeth Farnese, the second wife of Philip V. of Spain, had involved that country in a war with England, France, and Austria, the Count was transferred from the Spanish Embassy to that of Sweden, and sent for his wife and two elder children to join him at a Spanish port.

This arrangement was so strange that I can only account for it by supposing that as this was the date of a feeble Spanish attempt on behalf of the Jacobites in Scotland, Comte de Bourke may not have ventured by the direct route. Or it may not have been etiquette for him to re-enter France when appointed ambassador. At any rate, the poor Countess did take this route to the South, and I am inclined to think the narrative must be correct, as all the side-lights I have been able to gain perfectly agree with it, often in an unexpected manner.

The suite and the baggage were just as related in the story—the only liberty I have taken being the bestowal of names. 'M. Arture' was really of the party, but I have made him Scotch instead of Irish, and I have no knowledge that the lackey was not French. The imbecility of the Abbé is merely a deduction from his helplessness, but of course this may have been caused by illness.

The meeting with M. de Varennes at Avignon, Berwick's offer of an escort, and the Countess's dread of the Pyrenees, are all facts, as well as her embarkation in the Genoese tartane bound for Barcelona, and its capture by the Algerine corsair commanded by a Dutch renegade, who treated her well, and to whom she gave her watch.

Algerine history confirms what is said of his treatment. Louis XIV. had bombarded the pirate city, and compelled the Dey to receive a consul and to liberate French prisoners and French property; but the lady having been taken in an Italian ship, the Dutchman was afraid to set her ashore without first taking her to Algiers, lest he should fall under suspicion. He would not venture on taking so many women on board his own vessel, being evidently afraid of his crew of more than two hundred Turks and Moors, but sent seven men on board the prize and took it in tow.

Curiously enough, history mentions the very tempest which drove the tartane apart from her captor, for it also shattered the French transports and interfered with Berwick's Spanish campaign.

The circumstances of the wreck have been closely followed. 'M. Arture' actually saved Mademoiselle de Bourke, and placed her in the arms of the maître d'hôtel, who had reached a rock, together with the Abbé, the lackey, and one out of the four maids. The other three were all in the cabin with their mistress and her son, and shared their fate.

The real 'Arture' tried to swim to the shore, but never was seen again; so that his adventures with the little boy are wholly imaginary. But the little girl's conduct is perfectly true. When in the steward's arms she declared that the savages might take her life, but never should make her deny her faith.

The account of these captors was a great difficulty, till in the old Universal History I found a description of Algeria which tallied wonderfully with the narrative. It was taken from a survey of the coast made a few years later by English officials.

The tribe inhabiting Mounts Araz and Couco, and bordering on Djigheli Bay, were really wild Arabs, claiming high descent, but very loose Mohammedans, and savage in their habits. 'Their name of Cabeleyzes is said—with what truth I know not—to mean 'revolted,' and they held themselves independent of the Dey. They were 'in the habit of murdering or enslaving all shipwrecked travellers, except subjects of Algiers, whom they released with nothing but their lives.

All this perfectly explains the sufferings of Mademoiselle de Bourke. The history of the plundering, the threats, the savage treatment of the corpses, the wild dogs, the councils of the tribe, the separation of the captives, and the child's heroism, is all literally true—the expedient of Victorine's defence alone being an invention. It is also true that the little girl and the maître d'hôtel wrote four letters, and sent them by different chances to Algiers, but only the last ever arrived, and it created a great sensation.

M. Dessault is a real personage, and the kindness of the Dey and of the Moors was exactly as related, also the expedient of sending the Marabout of Bugia to negotiate.

Mr. Thomas Thompson was really the English Consul at the time, but his share in the matter is imaginary as it depends on Arthur's adventures.

The account of the Marabout system comes from the Universal History; but the arrival, the negotiations, and the desire of the sheyk to detain the young French lady for a wife to his son, are from the narrative. He really did claim to be an equal match for her, were she daughter of the King of France, since he was King of the Mountains.

The welcome at Algiers and the Te Deum in the Consul's chapel also are related in the book that serves me for authority. It adds that Mademoiselle de Bourke finally married a Marquis de B-------, and lived much respected in Provence, dying shortly before the Revolution.

I will only mention further that a rescued Abyssinian slave named Fareek (happily not tongueless) was well known to me many years ago in the household of the late Warden Barter of Winchester College.

Since writing the above I have by the kindness of friends been enabled to discover Mr. Scott's authority, namely, a book entitled Voyage pour la Redemption des captifs aux Royaumes d'Alger et de Tunis, fait en 1720 par les P.P. François Comelin, Philemon de la Motte, et Joseph Bernard, de l'Ordre de la Sainte Trinité, dit Mathurine. This Order was established by Jean Matha for the ransom and rescue of prisoners in the hands of the Moors. A translation of the adventures of the Comtesse de Bourke and her daughter was published in the Catholic World, New York, July 1881. It exactly agrees with the narration in The Mariners' Chronicle except that, in the true spirit of the eighteenth century, Mr. Scott thought fit to suppress that these ecclesiastics were at Algiers at the time of the arrival of Mademoiselle de Bourke's letter, that they interested themselves actively on her behalf; and that they wrote the narrative from the lips of the maître d'hôtel (who indeed may clearly be traced throughout). It seems also that the gold cups were chalices, and that a complete set of altar equipments fell a prey to the Cabeleyzes, whose name the good fathers endeavour to connect with Cabale—with about as much reason as if we endeavoured to derive that word from the ministry of Charles II.

Had I known In time of the assistance of these benevolent brethren IL would certainly have introduced them with all due honour, but, like the Abbé Vertot, I have to say, Mon histoire est écrit, and what is worse—printed. Moreover, they do not seem to have gone on the mission with the Marabout from Bugia, so that their presence really only accounts for the Te Deum with which the redeemed captives were welcomed.

It does not seem quite certain whether M. Dessault was Consul or Envoy; I incline to think the latter. The translation in the Catholic World .speaks of Sir Arthur, but Mr. Scott's 'M. Arture' is much more vraisemblable. He probably had either a surname to be concealed or else unpronounceable to French lips. Scott must have had some further information of the after history of Mademoiselle de Bourke since he mentions her marriage, which could hardly have taken place when Père Comelin's book was published in 1720.


Charlotte Yonge's bibliography for A Modern Telemachus

Where did Yonge get the historical information for her novels?
Here some details of the authors and works that Yonge cites in her Preface to A Modern Telemachus

Many of these details are still quite skimpy – do tell us if you can supply more details (especially websites)!

The Mariner's Chronicle
: Containing Narratives of the Most Remarkable Disasters at Sea, such as Shipwrecks, Storms, Fires and Famines: Also, Naval Engagements, Piratical Adventures, Incidents of Discovery, and Other Extraordinary and Interesting Occurrences. By Archibald Duncan. 1804.

"Contains accounts of the last voyage and death of Bering, the destruction of the whaleship Essex by a sperm whale (the inspiration for Melville's Moby Dick), and a narrative of Captain Ross' Arctic expedition, among other tragic occurances."

The Mariner's Chronicle now back in print!
Originally published in 1804, The Mariner's Chronicle was the first comprehensive collection of disasters at sea in the English Language and was an immediate best seller. Now made newly available, these stories of suffering and survival will have lost none of their resonance for all those interested in maritime history. With an introduction and notes by Nigel Pickford, author of The Atlas of Shipwreck and Treasure. For full details and the text of Nigel Pickford's introduction, visit the publisher's website: www.germinalproductions.co.uk/ba/mariner.htm

Voyage pour la rédemption des captifs, aux royaumes d'Alger et de Tunis.
COMELIN François, De La MOTTE Philemon, BERNARD Joseph.
Paris 1721.
Suivi de Première liste des esclaves chrétiens, rachetés à Alger; avec le journal de leur route, et de leur réception dans les principales villes du royaume Suivi de Seconde liste des esclaves chrétiens, rachetés dans la ville et le royaume de Tunis, etc... Suivi de La Tradition de l'Église pour le soulagement ou le rachat des captifs.
P, Sevestre & Giffard 1721, Pt. in-8 de : portrait de Louis XV en front., (8 ff.), pl. gravé H.T. (Le Rachat des captifs), 169 pp. et une pl. dépl. entre les pp. 112 et 113 (Audience du Deï d'Alger); LX pp., (1 ff.), 306 pp. et 3 ff. (privilège).

Victorian reviews and related material

1881 - An extract from this book, translated into English and entitled Among the Moors, describes the adventures of the Comtesse de Bourke and her daughter. It was published in The Catholic World, New York, in July 1881. Making of America Books has placed this article (and much else from The Catholic World archives) online.

To read Among the Moors, click this link.


1887 - Review of A Modern Telemachus
Catholic World. Volume: 44, Issue: 262, Jan 1887, pp. 554-564
(A Chat About New Books by Egan, Maurice F.)

To read a facsimile of this review from Making Of America books, click here

Modern printed texts of A Modern Telemachus

Cover of 2002 edition of A Modern Telemachus

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