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The Fair Crusader

This anonymous opera, which appears to have never been performed, is one of several nineteenth-century works that bear this title. Others include Harriet B. McKeever’s Maud and Miriam; or, the Fair Crusader, published in Philadelphia in 1871, and William Bury Westall’s A Fair Crusader, published in London in 1888. The image of the female crusader, who was more effective than her male counterparts in both religious and imperial spheres, became very influential in nineteenth-century England. This is an important trend because it reflects a shift in focus from strictly military to domestic conquest: romantic love, frequently the primary weapon of the female crusader, trumps more traditional forms of imperialism. The minimal circulation—and apparent lack of performances—of the 1815 opera necessarily limits its influence, but this work nonetheless accurately encapsulates important trends in the nineteenth-century crusades romance. Furthermore, this work was published only a decade after Madame Cottin’s similarly-themed Matilda and Malek Adhel. Although the author’s anonymity precludes the identification of a direct line of literary influence, the heroines’ shared name and the similarity of the situations in which they find themselves suggest the power of these images over the nineteenth-century imagination.

This edition of The Fair Crusader is accompanied by critical commentary by the editor of this volume of The New British Theatre. This commentary merges conditional admiration for the subject with a gendered interpretation of the text that was produced. The editor writes that “This piece is the production of a Lady, and as such, has peculiar claims to the indulgence of our readers,” but proceeds to argue that the author’s gender precludes effective development of the topic's potential (330). He adds that “The story is generally well conceived, but it embraces incidents and situations, which would have required a masculine pen to have executed with due effect” (330). This editor does not specify what elements of the text are ill-executed—he instead inserts an objection to the author’s “affected” use of “ye” instead of “you”—but, given the nature of the text, it seems likely that he is referring to the many titillating encounters between Eastern and Western culture. Thus, he categorizes the opera as “a picturesque sketch, which with care and study might have been rendered an interesting and impressive play” (330-31). This criticism, however, tends to obscure the play’s transgressive narrative trajectory, which hinges upon erotic encounter with an Eastern other.

The dominance of personal relationships in this crusades romance underlines its domestic rather than military focus. These relationships, however, weave a tangled web that can be difficult to decipher. Djezzar, described as a “prince of the Saracens,” wishes to do away with his virtuous son Ali Mahmound, who hinders his father’s nefarious schemes with his notions of honor. The opera’s plot hinges upon the fate of the Christian captives held by Ali Mahmound and Djezzar. While Djezzar attempts to execute the knights and transfer the women to his harem, Ali Mahmound wishes to hold the knights with honor and protect the ladies from his father’s designs. Meanwhile, Matilda Douglas, whose brother Sir Ralph and sister-in-law Margaret are among the captives, has disguised herself as a boy and is making her way to Palestine with the double motive of finding her brother and escaping from marriage with an elderly baron. She is accompanied by Sir Hugh de Clifford and Sir William Montfort and their squires, all of whom, unbeknownst to her, have discovered her true identity—indeed, Sir William has fallen desperately in love with Matilda.

Although delayed by a shipwreck, Matilda, Sir Hugh, and Sir William make their way to the stronghold of Djezzar, where they discover a scene fraught with romantic and chivalric tension. Djezzar, who has fallen in love with Lady Margaret, offers to save one knight at her request. Lady Margaret, enamored of Ali Mahmound, abandons her husband to his fate and attempts to secure her beloved’s protection from the advances of Djezzar. Ali Mahmound, who does not return these sentiments, tentatively agrees to assist Lady Margaret, but subsequently penetrates Matilda’s male disguise and falls deeply in love with her during their first meeting. Margaret’s maid, Janet, informs Matilda of the lady’s treachery, and the Western women secure the aid of Ali Mahmound’s sisters, Zemyra and Abra. These sisters have interests of their own to pursue, since Zemyra has fallen in love with Sir Ralph and Abra has succumbed to the charms of Sir Hugh. Meanwhile, Djezzar tires of his son’s interference and attempts to persuade one of the Christian knights to murder his son, but, failing in the attempt, instead orders one of his slaves to do the deed. Matilda, still disguised as a boy, is captured, and, in a desperate attempt to save herself, reveals her true sex to Djezzar. Somewhat predictably, Djezzar is overcome by her beauty and determines to execute all of the other Christian knights and add Matilda to his harem. Matilda, counseled by Zemyra, attempts to use Djezzar’s passion for her in order to secure the release of her beloved, Sir William. Djezzar sees through her motives and instead attempts to force Matilda to kill Sir William, who implores his beloved to strike and save her own life. Instead, however, Matilda stabs Djezzar. The enchantress Ulin, to whom Djezzar has incurred obligations, arrives shortly thereafter to claim his soul. In the midst of this scene, Lady Margaret hears that Ali Mahmound is dying of a brain fever and flies to his side, where she also dies. These deaths pave the way for a triple wedding: Sir Ralph marries Zemyra, Matilda marries Sir William, and Abra marries Sir Hugh.

As this brief summery suggests, The Fair Crusader, like Sophie Cottin’s Matilda and Malek Adhel, highlights the links among romantic and imperial conquest. In the first scene of the opera, Djezzar consults the enchantress Ulin in order to rid himself of Ali Mahmound, his virtuous son. Ulin is herself unable to predict Ali Mahmoud’s fate—she declares that “there is a higher power that checks our dark ambition, and has set limits to our art. . . . I am forbid to practise on the life of Ali Mahmound”—she summons “spirits from the abyss of darkness” to answer their queries (289). The first prediction, which would have commanded the greatest political resonance in early nineteenth-century England, reads:
Britain’s star triumphant rides,
On the spangled zone of heaven;
To bear the palm from Palestine,
To her warlike prince is given. (290)
This romance, as the reference to the “warlike prince” of Britain suggests, is set during the Third Crusade, though neither Richard nor Saladin appears in the text. More significant, however, is the nineteenth-century imperialist imagery that the spirit associates with the crusade. Rather than referring to “England,” the anonymous author employs the designation “Britain,” thereby implying a historical degree of political unity. Furthermore, this articulation of the crusade’s destiny not only posits a successful crusade—an element of pure historical fiction—but also portrays Britain as the sole crusading nation, thereby eliminating the tensions among Western nations that characterize works such as Scott's The Talisman. These historical modifications render England’s medieval crusading enterprise in the Holy Land distinctly similar to that of nineteenth-century Britain in its Eastern Empire. The image of the palm borne from Palestine puts the seal upon this likeness: rather than attempting to liberate the Holy Sepulcher from the hands of their Eastern enemies, the crusaders, like the imperialists of the East India Company, bear products from the Empire back into their own lands.

In order to reformulate the medieval crusade as a modern imperialist victory, the opera’s librettist focuses upon romantic conquest rather than upon military combat. Palestine’s conquest, as the spirits summoned by Ulin predict, occurs through the dissolution of the nuclear Saracen family. In response to Djezzar’s queries about the prospective conquest of his son, the second spirit proclaims that “I see a gallant vessel sweep; / On its deck in quaint disguise, / Ali Mahmound’s conqueror lies” (290). Although Djezzar believes that the spirit’s prediction refers to a male western warrior who possesses the military might to overcome Ali Mahmound, the alert reader immediately realizes that the “quaint costume” suggests that Djezzar’s son will fall to a female hand. Similarly, the third spirit predicts that Djezzar’s two daughters will fall into Western hands:
Fate decrees that both shall be
Borne away in willing bands,
Far from Palestine and thee,
Into distant Christian lands. (290)
Like the palms of the Holy Land referenced in an earlier spirit’s prediction, Djezzar’s daughters are borne away as the spoils of war, conquered through romance rather than military might. The potential tension between the romantic and military modes of “crusading” becomes clear in the introduction of Matilda. Although fully aware of her true identity, Sir Hugh and Sir William teasingly charge the disguised Matilda with her inability to live up to the manly tasks of the crusader. After Matilda's opening song, in which she claims to be “weary, dispirited, and sad,” Sir Hugh chides her: “Come, come, this weakness ill suits the enterprize you have embarked in. How will you charge the Saracen, if thus you shrink from toil?” The military power of the male crusader, however, consistently proves ineffective, as Matilda’s response to discovering Djezzar's plot to strangle her brother demonstrates. She cries, “How can I counteract this? Alas, I am but a feeble girl—and if I were in reality a man, though the most valorous Knight in Christendom, what would my single arm avail? No, no, ‘tis policy alone can save him now” (309). Matilda’s ruminations suggest that victory in the East requires policy over might and, by extension, female agency over male. Matilda herself becomes the agent of both Saracens’ fall. Ali Mahmound’s fatal brain fever apparently results from his excessive passion for Matilda, and, despite the presence of several male crusaders, she herself wields the knife that ends Djezzar’s life. This conclusion of the opera thus revises the history of the Crusades by presenting a unilateral Christian victory, which hinges on female agency.

The Fair Crusader’s reliance upon its explicit erotic drive in order to achieve English victory in the East is one of its most unusual features. Even in the early pages of the romance, after Lady Margaret solicits the aid of Ali Mahmound, one of his aids warns that “this lady. . . is doubtless lovely. . . These Christian women are divinely handsome, and had the mad crusaders but the policy to send their women here, they'd soon subdue us” (295). Whereas the majority of nineteenth-century crusades romances eschew any overt reference to the sexual attraction of a Western woman to an Eastern man, this opera unabashedly develops this connection. Madame Cottin’s Matilda and Malek Adhel is an obvious exception to this typical taboo. Whereas Cottin’s romance consistently downplays Adhel’s racial heritage, however, positioning their religious differences as the only barrier between the lovers, The Fair Crusader marks early on Ali Mahmoud’s exotic appearance as a key feature that should serve as a barrier to any honorable Western woman. The conversation between Lady Margaret and Janet, her honorable and respectable maid, during Lady Margaret's first sighting of Ali Mahmound is particularly telling:
Lady Mar. Janet, have you enquired who is that graceful stranger that is arrived.
Jan. I had no need to enquire, my lady, for every slave was eager to announce his arrival, and very glad to persuade any one to listen to them while they talked of the happiness he would diffuse through this old castle; for my part, I can have no idea of pleasure here; and was I mistress of the poorest hovel in Scotland, I'd not exchange it for this uncouth heathenish place.
Lady Mar. What is his name?
Jan. Ali Mahmound—I think that is it, my lady; but they have such cramp names.
 . . .
Lady Mar. And he is very handsome, Janet?
Jan. Yes, if it were not for those queer things, I don't know what they call them, on his face.
Lady Mar. Mustachios.
Jan. Aye, that's what I mean, my lady; and then he smiles so kindly on all he meets. I've thought some of the slaves were stiff in the joins when I've seen them bending to the old prince, but they're as supple as a glove before Ali Mahmound—what an outlandish name!
Lady Mar. Ah, Janet, why did I trust my eyes? Why did you tempt me to witness the procession to meet the matchless form of Ali Mahmound?
Jan. Gracious, my lady, sure you would not love a Saracen! (292-93)
This conversation very effectively exhibits the irresistible bonds of ocular attraction that characterize The Fair Crusader's miscegenic relationships. Janet’s commentary, intended to resonate with the reader’s Victorian sensibilities, reinforces the impropriety of a relationship between a Saracen man—marked by both his Islamic faith and his racial heritage—and an English woman. Each of the maid's comments reiterates the strangeness of both the Eastern landscape and the men who inhabit it; the east is “an uncouth heathenish place,” the names are “cramp” (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century term for a word or object that is “Difficult to make out, understand, or decipher; crabbed”), and his face is marked by “queer things.” Lady Margaret’s responses, however, indicate her willingness to integrate these exotic elements into her world. In response to her maid’s insistence that the stronghold is an “uncouth heathenish place,” Margaret demands the name of the anonymous warrior who enters it. Names are, of course, important symbolic markers in this encounter with the Other; Janet’s reluctance to name either the man or his mustachios signals her inability to recognize him as an erotic subject. Lady Margaret, by contrast, readily names the mustachios and the Other to whom they belong, indicating her willingness to both assimilate and be assimilated by this alterity.

Lady Margaret’s willingness to condemn her husband to death, which follows closely upon this open acknowledgement of her sexual attraction to Ali Mahmound, solidifies the impropriety of this liaison between a Saracen man and an Englishwoman. Offered the opportunity to save a single Christian, Margaret hesitates: “Is this trial of my faith to be the cause of my damnation? To save him is in my power, he is my husband. ‘Tis that title robs me of Ali Mahmound! Let him die, then, I love him not: and Ali Mahmound is all my hope of heaven” (310). Margaret’s use of the phrase “hope of heaven” suggests, at the very least, the replacement of religion with erotic desire in her ethical paradigm; this sub-narrative signals the corruption of a Christian woman through her exposure to the East. This concern would have resonated particularly closely with nineteenth-century British post-colonial fears, which, as texts such as E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India suggests, feared the sexual corruption of British women in the East.
Therefore, through the interactions of Matilda and Ali Mahmoud, The Fair Crusader offers a “do-over” of this relationship which delineates the proper relationship between an English woman and an Eastern man. In order to complete this conquest of the East and implicit takeover of the Holy Land, this librettist reverses the paradigm. Eastern men fall quickly and easily to the influence of a virtuous woman, and Eastern women succumb equally quickly to the charms and virtues of Western crusaders. Abra, the beloved of Sir Hugh, quickly demonstrates her willingness to be converted to English standards of female behavior: “I fear I was too free to this Christian, for Edwin [the disguised Matilda] says the British maidens are reserved and coy, and therefore men prize them. I will endeavour to repair my fault” (306). By contrast, although Ali Mahmoud does develop a marked passion for Matilda—he describes her as a "bright houri who had stolen that form from paradise, to dazzle all my senses,” then demands of his attendant, Achmet, “Did not those soft notes wake a new sensation in your bosom”—there is never any sense in the text that he will attempt to pursue this relationship (297). When Achmet subsequently warns the prince that he is “doomed to love under adverse circumstances,” because Sir William’s love is already evident, Ali Mahmound entreats Achmet to “bid me . . . dwell on the graces of her lovely form. Let me, at least, be blest in an idea” (299). Despite Ali Mahmound’s references to Matilda’s “form,” the overtones of “new sensations” and “ideas” that mark this dialogue suggest that Matilda’s great beauty serves as the foundation for conversion rather than erotic enticement. Equally importantly, Matilda herself never demonstrates any sexual attraction toward Ali Mahmound; she regards him simply as a virtuous Saracen who can aid in her brother’s rescue. Matilda can thus appear as the virtuous “Fair Crusader” who can transform the east through her imperial beauty without partaking of its sexual corruption.

Primary Source:

The Fair Crusader. In The New British Theatre: A Selection of Original Dramas.  Volume IV. London: A. J. Valpy, 1815. 289-331.