Archive for February 16th, 2011

16/02/2011

Masterclass with Miss Austen

Okay, time to come clean.

I spoke at length about my enjoyment of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Rosabella; but while it’s true enough that I enjoyed the book on its own merits, as I was reading it I began to enjoy it simultaneously on a different level entirely; because the further I read, the more I became convinced that when Jane Austen was making her various comic attacks upon the excesses of the popular novel, Catherine Cuthbertson was one of the authors she had in mind.

Granted, at first glance this may seem unlikely – the writing and publication dates of the ladies’ respective efforts, for one thing, would seem to rule this possibility out. So perhaps it’s all just a coincidence. I did, after all, describe Rosabella as “a typical 19th-century sentimental novel”; if Miss Cuthbertson was, likewise, a typical 19th-century sentimental novelist, she may have been only one of many guilty of the transgressions which Miss Austen mocks.

And some of the issues in question are certainly generic. Pardon me for quoting this passage from Love And Freindship in full, but it cracks me up every time:

A Gentleman considerably advanced in years descended from it. At his first Appearance my Sensibility was wonderfully affected and e’er I had gazed at him a 2d time, an instinctive sympathy whispered to my Heart, that he was my Grandfather. Convinced that I could not be mistaken in my conjecture I instantly sprang from the Carriage I had just entered, and following the Venerable Stranger into the Room he had been shewn to, I threw myself on my knees before him and besought him to acknowledge me as his Grand Child. He started, and having attentively examined my features, raised me from the Ground and throwing his Grand-fatherly arms around my Neck, exclaimed, “Acknowledge thee! Yes dear resemblance of my Laurina and Laurina’s Daughter, sweet image of my Claudia and my Claudia’s Mother, I do acknowledge thee as the Daughter of the one and the Grandaughter of the other.” While he was thus tenderly embracing me, Sophia astonished at my precipitate Departure, entered the Room in search of me. No sooner had she caught the eye of the venerable Peer, than he exclaimed with every mark of Astonishment –“Another Grandaughter! Yes, yes, I see you are the Daughter of my Laurina’s eldest Girl; your resemblance to the beauteous Matilda sufficiently proclaims it. “Oh!” replied Sophia, “when I first beheld you the instinct of Nature whispered me that we were in some degree related–But whether Grandfathers, or Grandmothers, I could not pretend to determine.” He folded her in his arms, and whilst they were tenderly embracing, the Door of the Apartment opened and a most beautifull young Man appeared. On perceiving him Lord St. Clair started and retreating back a few paces, with uplifted Hands, said, “Another Grand-child! What an unexpected Happiness is this! to discover in the space of 3 minutes, as many of my Descendants! This I am certain is Philander the son of my Laurina’s 3d girl the amiable Bertha; there wants now but the presence of Gustavus to compleat the Union of my Laurina’s Grand-Children.” “And here he is; (said a Gracefull Youth who that instant entered the room) here is the Gustavus you desire to see. I am the son of Agatha your Laurina’s 4th and youngest Daughter…”

The sentimental novel is notorious for its belief in this kind of sympathetic recognition, of course, and was so long before Catherine Cuthbertson ever picked up a pen. Just the same, it is an indisputable fact that, almost thirty years after Jane Austen wrote her burlesque of the genre, the same sins were still being committed in the same sorts of novels. Rosabella does not have an outright “Gustavus scene”, as I like to call them, but its heroine spends the whole five volumes being “drawn” to particular people, to whom she is at length revealed to be related (one at a time, though, not all at once); and the girl who starts out as a destitute orphan ends up at the centre of an extended family of quite remarkable proportions.

Then there’s the fainting. We recall Thomas Macaulay keeping a tally of the fainting in Miss Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano, published in 1814, and we certainly know that her taste for fainting scenes hadn’t dissipated at all by 1817. Miss Austen’s own opinion of fainting was also made clear in Love And Freindship, wherein the characters spend an inordinate proportion of their time indulging in that particular pastime, to their ultimate cost:

It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself —We fainted alternately on a sofa…

“Beware of fainting-fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreable yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… One fatal swoon has cost me my Life… Beware of swoons Dear Laura… A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequences—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—“ 

Miss Cuthbertson’s faints, on the other hand, are executed with great gravity. What’s more, her men faint, too. Here, for example, is Egremont hearing Rosabella’s story:

As she proceeded, his sympathizing and attentive preceptor beheld horror and despair diffusing itself overy every line of his expressive countenance; and when Rosabella came to her final close of all she yet knew of her sad history, he fell on the sofa beside her in a death resembling swoon…

What would they do without sofas? 

Much as I wanted to believe that this was not a coincidence, that it was not simply a case of Miss Cuthbertson being a sufficiently generic novelist to commit all of the revelevant crimes against literature, I didn’t see at first how a more direct relationship between the two women was possible. But then two points occurred to me: firstly, that Miss Cuthbertson may have maintained the same style of writing all throughout her career, which began in 1803; and secondly, that the main source of my suspicions, Northanger Abbey, while mostly written as we know around 1798, was revised twice before it was published, the first time also in 1803, the final time as late as 1817 – the year of Rosabella‘s publication.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen repeatedly draws a contrast between behaviour that is “natural” and behaviour that is “heroic” – that is, the behaviour of a heroine. No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine, Austen remarks at the outset, then goes on to tell us why. It is the entire lack of heroine in her composition that first attracts, then captivates Henry Tilney: “You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature.” When the odious John Thorpe manoeuvres Catherine into what seems like an an act of great rudeness towards the Tilneys, who are subsequently cool towards her:

Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.

In other words, Catherine doesn’t create trouble by dramatising everything, least of all herself. This is most significantly illustrated when after her first enjoyable encounter with Henry Tilney, she sees him a second time, but in company with another young woman:

He looked as handsome and lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasant-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already. But guided only by what was simple and probable, it had never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married… And therefore, instead of turning of a deathlike paleness, and falling in a fit on Mrs Allen’s bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses…

It was this specific passage that anchored my suspicions about Miss Austen and Miss Cuthbertson, because Rosabella (and for all I know, Miss Cuthbertson’s other heroines) is repeatedly guilty of exactly this kind of melodramatic misinterpretation. Compare the language of this following passage to that in which we hear of Catherine Morland’s “simple and probable” reaction, and you’ll see what I mean:

…for in that very chaise Rosa beheld Lord Montalbert performing a têteà-tête journey with Lady Meliora Monson! Could Rosa doubt what sanctioned this? No, she could not; and in heart-rending agony poor Rosabella fainted.

And okay, maybe seeing a young man and woman alone together might lead you to assume an intimate relationship; but there’s no excuse whatsoever for this:

    But instead of these eager glances encountering her whom they sought, or any of the fugitive party, she suddenly beheld those whom of all the world she expected least to see there—Mr Trench and Egremont—not the Egremont overpowered by horror and distress she had last beheld him, but in all the brilliant bloom and animation of health and happiness; on whose arm familiarly hung a young female of uncommon loveliness, elegantly attired, and to whom his attention was wholly devoted at the moment, listening to what she was uttering with the most intense interest and a countenance beaming with affectionate admiration.
    To the prompt apprehension of the dismayed Rosabella this lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation; and with this belief a pang, stunning to every faculty, shot through her anguished bosom; and whilst endeavouring at articulation, to inform her companion she was not well, she fell, bereft of sense and power…

And the young woman on Egremont’s arm? His friend’s wife, who he has been asked to escort. Bereft of sense, indeed…

Just look at the parallels between this passage and that describing Henry Tilney escorting his sister: parallels that last right up to the denouement of each, when they abruptly part company. Amusingly, although the satire is Miss Austen’s, the exaggeration is all Miss Cuthbertson’s. Thus, for Catherine, It never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married, while to Rosabella, with her “prompt apprehension”, This lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation. You’ll never find a better illustration of the difference between “natural” and “heroic” behaviour.

I could go on – and on. There are plenty of other specific examples I could quote – like the fact that when Rosabella’s motives are misunderstood, instead of trying to fix things regardless of who is at fault, like Catherine Morland, she stays silent, In the pride of conscious rectitude… – but in the end it’s not the details themselves which are convincing so much as the cumulative effect of, as it were, reading this novel through the prism of Jane Austen’s teasing.

I might also add that while I believe that Miss Austen read Miss Cuthbertson’s novels, Miss Cuthbertson apparently did not return the favour; or at least, she couldn’t have read Emma. I refuse to believe that if she had done so, she could possibly go on to write a novel wherein all the married people are referred to as cara sposa / caro sposo – and with a straight face:

“…which, I trust, may prove a happy one,” said Lady Derville; “and that Mrs. Dolittle will, by the safe convoy of your treasure home, restore you to yourself; as I very much wish my old cheerful friend, Mrs. O’Dowd, and her gallant caro sposo, to give me the pleasure of their company this day at dinner…”

“…my head was so empty of mundane knowledge, that, had you managed me, instead of turning me out of doors, I would have flown with you from the aforesaid Myrtle’s Town to the land of uncontrolled marriage. So, rely upon it, child, it was all your own romantic sentimentalities, that alone prevented your being now my cara sposa…”

“You could not have a better counsellor than my sposa,” said Lord Flowerdew; “adopt her plans, and the pelf will fly. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, liberate the debtor from prison, visit the sick, comfort old age, and provide refuge for the destitute for that is the way my cara spends her sposo’s money in the country…”

Unbelievable.

Now…although through reading Rosabella I became convinced in my own mind that I was on the right track here, I might have kept all this to myself if it were not for one final touch – not the last straw so much as the cherry on the sundae. I’ve gone on trying to dig up some biographical information about Catherine Cuthbertson, although with no success. However, it did occur to me that while I call her, and was searching for her, under the name “Catherine”, her contemporary readers tended to refer to her as “Kitty”. And it was when I was searching for “Kitty Cuthbertson” that I came across this, in an essay by Martin Steinmann Jr, one of the editors of the book From Jane Austen To Joseph Conrad:

There was only one novel-reading public, and every novelist had this public in mind. Today the publics of Dr Cronin and Joyce are quite discrete (how odd it would be to find that Kingsley Amis reads Faith Baldwin, as Jane Austen did Kitty Cuthbertson, with pleasure)…

My friends…I could not even BEGIN to tell you how utterly full of myself I felt, when I came across that passage.

Mind you, that remark of Steinmann’s comes completely unsupported; no source is given for his assertion. However, its very matter-of-factness gives me confidence in its accuracy. I’m guessing that Miss Cuthbertson is discussed somewhere within Jane’s letters, which shame on me, I’ve never read. Does anyone out there know for certain?