Senseless sensibility

Ah, the rewards of virtue!

I was doing some housework over the weekend – no, really – and as part of that I started culling my old, endless piles of photocopies, clippings, notes: all the detritus of the pre-electronic communication age; and in the middle of this process, I unearthed something I had been hunting for for literally years; something I knew I’d photocopied, but could never find again.

The bad news is, there’s no indication at all what I photocopied it from; no header, no footer; no scribble. Uncharacteristically slack of me, I must say. The good news, however, is that The Thing I Was Looking For is just as wonderful as I remembered.

Even back then I was reading books on books, although not at that time inflicting them on others. The book in question – whatever it is – wraps up one chapter with a lengthy quote from a novel called Munster Abbey, by Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, published in 1797. The author could not bring himself / herself to cut this masterpiece, and neither can I:

    At length arriving at the garden-gate, which, with equal precipitation, they entered, Mrs Belford, who was seated on a bench by her husband, at the foot of a sheet of water which parted them from the house, suddenly beheld her mother.
   Elated with joy at the unexpected visit, which hurried innumerable hopes and reflections over her tender mind in an instant, and forgetting all thought but that of flying swiftly to the embraces of a beloved parent, she rushed directly forward, pursuing as she fancied at the time, from the straightness of her course, the readiest road; and with her eyes fixed on Mrs Melville, whose appearance had thrown aside the usual caution of her footsteps, she plunged into the centre of the pond. Oh, Heavens!—what a moment!—Belford attempted to fly to her assistance; but he had not proceeded many steps before horror overwhelmed him, and he fell senseless to the ground: Mrs Melville and Julia, swooned in the same state of insensibility.
    The servant, unacquainted with the art of swimming, and apprehensive of his own fate, should he venture into water of such considerable depth, hurried with all imaginable swiftness to the house for assistance. What an awful moment was this!—what was to be hoped!—all aid for a time suspended, and yet not an instant to be lost!—The mind prone to vice would have despaired: but the soul endowed with morality and confidence in the mercy of Him whom we are justified in believing is all merciful, can never cherish hopeless reflections. All help was still suspended—the struggling fair, unable any longer to contend for life, yielded to her fate with that composure, which the virtuous only can experience in the moments of departing life.—She cast her eyes towards Heaven, where her mind and soul surely were directed. In this moment of serious meditation, she was perfectly sensible of her danger, but the blessings of a pure conscience constituted her a stranger to every fear; and, when she had reason to believe her dissolution was near at hand, it was with pleasure she reflected that soon she would be relieved of her dying agonies.
    At length, when on the verge of closing her eyes from the dim light of this world, to open them in a pure and perfect atmosphere, the kind and liberal hand of Providence waved its influence o’er the dismal scene, and cast away the gloom.
    How was it contrived?—Next to a miracle were the means by which the amiable Mrs Belford was restored to her distracted and disconsolate friends.
    Faithful Munster, an old favourite Newfoundland dog of Belford’s, named after the place, was the welcome instrument of deliverance.
    Approaching the pond in the critical moment, and viewing his mistress helpless in the humid space, he sagaciously plunged into the pool, and, seizing the end of her sash which floated, drew her cautiously to the side of the bank, where he contrived to raise her head above the surface of the water, by quitting the sash, and with anxious care holding her hat in his teeth, until more assistance could be procured.

It appears that this passage comes at the end of a consideration of the sublime and the ridiculous in the novels of the late 18th century. We get the feeling that the latter had come to predominate, and that our author had had enough. “Thirty-three pages of ladies and gentlemen, twelve hundred and fifty or more of them,” s/he comments in mingled exasperation and disbelief, “suscribed to this nonsense in 1797 because they thought it was written by a gentleman. They could tell he was a gentleman because he called a pond ‘a humid space’, and because when one of his characters wanted to say of another, ‘if he had died I should have known it’, the nearest he can come to it is:

“…had the well constructed organs of life ceased to play within his callous bosom, and had his heart, which never fluttered with compassion, yielded its long exerted pulse of the chill embraces of death, I should, doubtless, through some channel, have been apprised of the event.”

As for me, naturally my first thought was to make it twelve hundred and fifty-one…but as it turned out, I had already, and quite independently, added Munster Abbey to The List. (I think I may have been adding novels with “Abbey” in the title.) So instead of that, I sat down and came up with a new reviewing category: Novels I Have To Read RIGHT!! NOW!!!!

8 Responses to “Senseless sensibility”

  1. Goodness! And they weren’t even being paid by the word in those days!

  2. No, but unnecessarily dragged out novels were a common phenomenon; although mostly they just went for the tacked-on subplot. Milistina, published the same year, took me by surprise by being only two volumes; while in comparison, The Abbey Of Clugny (also ’97) struggled through a third.

    (“Abbey”, see?)

    Actually, speaking, as we were, of Milistina, there, too, I noticed this, what one might call, odd punctuation, which, although not, as such, a run-on sentence, does, nevertheless, deploy the comma, in a manner which, one might say, gives to the text, in the end, a most peculiar, and indeed, off-putting, rhythm.

  3. That quote is made of a perfectly forged alloy of awesome and fabulous.

  4. That exhausting comma crap in early modern English seems to be inherited from the Germanic side of the family. To this day, German uses commas in ways that have nothing to do with rhythms of speech and everything to do with inflexible rules of grammatical structure.

  5. The feeling I get reading these novels is that the comma was the late 18th century form of “um”, and we get one wherever the author hesitated for a word.

    Some years back I was supervising a student who had the same issue, except every time she stopped to think about what she was writing, she put in a fullstop. The first draft of everything she wrote was always a morass of half sentences.


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