Yes, Fanny, I confess it! you have searched my bosom, and found the arrow rankling in my heart! Too cruel sister! better, sure far better, that you had remained ignorant of my disease, unless you can prescribe a cure! I now detest myself; and all that generous confidence, which is the true result and firm support of real virtue, is for ever fled! I shrink even from the mild eye of friendship—The tender, the affectionate looks of Harriet and Lucy, now distress me! How then shall I endure the stern expression of contempt and rage, from an offended husband’s angry brow! There is but one thing that could be more dreadful—I mean his kindness—That alone could add new horrors to my wretched state, and make me feel the humiliating situation of a criminal still more than I now do.
I am, I am a criminal! Alas! you know not to what degree I am so! But I will tell you all, lay bare my heart before you, and beg you not to soothe, but to probe its wounds…
I can only apologise for the recent deluge of lugubrious sentimental novels at this blog—it certainly wasn’t intentional, as evidenced by the fact that each of these novels has emerged from a different reading category. In the case of The History Of Lady Barton, A Novel In Letters it turns out that the categorisation was not really accurate. This novel came to my attention at the same time as The Adventures Of Miss Sophia Berkley, and like it was characterised as a proto-Gothic novel; but while the eponymous Sophia does indeed undergo various experiences that hearken forward to the travails of the typical Gothic heroine (including being abducted and imprisoned herself, while her fiancée is kidnapped by “pyrates”), the sufferings of Lady Barton are of an entirely domestic nature.
There are, however, a couple of distinctly Gothicky subplots along the way, chiefly affecting the supporting characters, which are the kind of thing that the Gothic novelists later seized upon and expanded into major narratives. In this respect we may indeed consider this novel another of the later genre’s forebears.
The History Of Lady Barton was the second novel published by Elizabeth Griffith, one of the more popular exponents of sentimentalism. (The title of her first novel, The Delicate Distress, suggests that Griffith hit the ground running.) Griffith is an interesting literary figure, and one who possibly deserves to be better known than she is. She was born in Dublin, and became an actress at the age of only seventeen, after her family fell on hard times following the death of her theatre-managing father. Her stage career lasted until her marriage to Richard Griffith (no relation), which occurred secretly due to the disapproval of the groom’s family—disapproval centred in the bride’s lack of fortune, ironically enough: Richard subsequently suffered a string of business failures associated with bankruptcy and debt, and Elizabeth, like so many of her literary sisters, took up writing in order to support herself and her two children.
It seems that Elizabeth Griffith may have been a case of “spoiled by success”, although given her circumstances we can hardly blame her for writing to the marketplace. She began as a playwright, and reports suggest that her early plays were startlingly feminist for the time, featuring strong-willed, intelligent female characters and overtly attacking the double standard and the social and legal inequities that attended woman’s place in society. However, after Griffith left Dublin for London in order to further her career, she found that her plays were attracting harsh criticism from the influential London critics. She responded by reining herself in, and although she continued to foreground her female characters, on the whole they stopped challenging the status quo and instead triumphed through patience and submission. (The History Of Lady Barton is something of an exception to that generalisation.)
Griffith ultimately had quite a varied and successful career. In addition to her plays and novels, she produced many translations of French novels, memoirs and collections of letters, and she became one of the first women to find success as a literary critic. And while at the time Griffith’s The Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated was her most well-received work, of more note around these parts is that she also edited a collection of works by female dramatists – including Aphra Behn – in which she tried to show how the plays in question, far from being “immoral” as accused, were intended to illustrate and criticise immorality.
The History Of Lady Barton is a three-volume epistolary novel originally published in 1771; it carries a preface which pretty much spells out for us the perceived “dangers of novel-reading”, namely, the powerful influence of fiction upon the minds and morals of the young (by implication, particularly young women), but which also argues for the power of the novel – the moral novel – as a force for good:
Works of this kind are in general of so captivating a nature to young readers, that let them run through but a few pages of almost any Novel, and they will feel their affections or curiosity so interested, either in the characters or the events, that it is with difficulty they can be diverted to any other study or amusement, till they have got to the end of the story.
From the experience then of this sort of attraction, such sort of writings may be rendered, by good and ingenious authors, extremely serviceable to morals, and other useful purposes of life—Place the magnet low, and it will degrade our sentiments; hold it high, and it elevates them…
In short, the didactic purpose of The History Of Lady Barton is made clear—which may strike us as rather amusing, considering that the novel’s plot features countless incidences of seduction, attempted rape, illicit sex, forbidden love and various other transgressions. Nevertheless, the unexpected aspect of The History Of Lady Barton is that it’s story is told from the perspective of a woman who (all the preceding notwithstanding) commits the ultimate sentimental-novel sin of marrying without love.
Additionally, in Sir William Barton we have a convincingly exasperating portrait of a man who marries a woman who he knows does not love him—and then gets mad because she doesn’t love him. Worse—in this case, it seems, Louisa told him outright before accepting his proposal that she did not love him—but he didn’t believe her—she was just being shy, delicate, modest; how could she not love him? When the penny drops, Sir William becomes morose, domineering, capricious and insulting; so that, with the best will in the world to be a properly dutiful wife and to love her husband, Louisa finds it impossible—which in turn makes Sir William even more self-defeatingly unkind:
Yet this I am convinced of, that had Sir William persevered, perhaps a few months longer, in wishing to obtain that heart, it might, I doubt not, have been all his own. But can it now bestow itself unsought, and trembling yield to harshness, and unkindness? Impossible! The little rebel owns as yet no lord, and it may break, but it will never bow, beneath a tyrant’s frown!
Louisa’s chief correspondent is her sister, Fanny Cleveland, who is concerned by what she call’s Louisa’s “propensity to unhappiness”, revealed in her remarks about her husband and her marriage; although her advice is unexpectedly pragmatic (not to say cynical) coming from the individual who will act generally as the novel’s moral touchstone:
I very sincerely join with you in wishing, since you have not yet, that you may never feel the passion of love, in an extreme degree; for I am firmly persuaded, that it does not contribute much to the happiness of the female world—and yet, Louisa, I will frankly tell you, that I am extremely grieved at some hints you have dropped, in your letters, which speak of a want of affection for Sir William.—It is dangerous to sport with such sentiments; you should not suffer them to dwell even upon your own mind, much less express them to others—we ought not be too strict in analysing the characters of those we wish to love—if once we come to habituate ourselves to thinking of their faults, it insensibly lessens the person in our esteem, and saps the foundation of our happiness, with our love.—
I am perfectly convinced that you have fallen into this error, from want of reflection, and through what is called une maniere de parler; for I will not suppose that my Louisa, tho’ persuaded by her friends and solicited most earnestly by Sir William, gave him her hand without feeling in her heart that preference for his person, and esteem for his character, which is the surest basis for a permanent and tender affection…
She did, though:
How often have my brother, Sir William, and you, seemed to doubt my sincerity, when I have declared I knew not what love was! and, O! how fatal has that inexperience been to my peace, since! Yes, Fanny, your sister is a wretch! and gave away her hand, before she knew she had a heart to transfer.—
This is simultaneously the most interesting thing about the novel, and its elephant in the living-room—because Louisa Cleveland’s decision to marry Sir William Barton is never satisfactorily accounted for, in spite of those references to her friends’ “persuasion” and Sir William’s “solicitation”. Certainly Louisa does not marry for title or position, nor is she pressured into it by her family (although Sir William neatly uses her conventional put-off of “I cannot do anything without my brother’s consent” against her, ingratiating himself with the brother and intimating that Louisa has given a conditional ‘yes’ to his proposal). The only thing that really approaches an explanation is a reference to Sir William’s “obstinate perseverance”; presumably he simply wore Louisa down and, in her ignorance, she thought it didn’t much matter, since of course she would learn to love her husband…
And while its overarching theme is a typical sentimental novel stance against marriage without love, this, I think, is what Griffith really intended to be the focus of her novel—an exposure and condemnation of the prevailing belief that any truly “good” woman would inevitably “learn” to love her husband – and, even more so, of the attending implication that a woman who cannot is bad – but the point ultimately remains frustratingly muted.
Be that as it may, right from the beginning of the novel we find Louisa courting disaster, attitudinally speaking:
You desired me, my Fanny, to write to you from every stage—this is the first moment I have had to myself—one of Sir William’s most favourite maxim’s, is, that women should be treated like state criminals, and utterly debarred from the use of pen and ink—he says, that “those who are fond of scribling, are never good for anything else; that female friendship is a jest; and that we only correspond, or converse, with our own sex, for the sake of indulging ourselves in talking of the other.”
Why, Sir William, why will you discover such illiberal sentiments, to one who has been so lately prevailed upon to pronounce those awful words, “love, honour, and obey”! The fulfilling the first two articles of this solemn engagement, must depend upon yourself, the latter only, rests on me; and I will most sanctimoniously perform my part of the covenant…
Immediately after their wedding, Sir William carries Louisa off to his estate in Ireland. They pass through Wales (the narrative stopping for a brief instance of rhapsodising about nature: a touch also seen in William Hutchinson’s The Hermitage, published the following year, and something which became increasingly common in the sentimental novel before being adopted as a hallmark of the Gothic), and along the way collect two friends of Sir William’s: Colonel Walter, who owns a neighbouring estate, and to whom Louisa takes an immediate dislike; and the young Lord Lucan*, by whom, conversely, she is impressed…though perhaps not quite as impressed as he is with her…
(*No relation, I’m sure.)
Disaster strikes on the party’s sea-journey to Ireland, and very nearly tragedy: as they approach their destination, a violent storm breaks, which lasts for hours, during which time their ship is in danger of being driven onto rocks. This situation provokes an extreme reaction from one of the party:
There was a great number of passengers on board, and their groans and lamentations would have affected me extremely, in any other situation; but the violent and continued sickness which I suffered, rendered me insensible, even to my own danger; nor did I feel the smallest emotion when Lord Lucan, who had seldom left my bedside, caught hold of my hand, with a degree of wildness, and pressing it to his lips, said, “We must perish!—but we shall die, together!”
Alas, the narrative does not reveal whether Louisa responded by throwing up on him; we can only hope.
Our main characters make it into a lifeboat and are cast ashore on a small island off the coast, from where they are shortly rescued. This experience has somewhat torn down the barriers between them, for good or ill.
A variety of new characters and sub-plots are now introduced, most of them acting as a compare-and-contrast backdrop to Louisa’s situation, as we are introduced to various people who are genuinely in love and miserable because of it.
Fanny Cleveland herself is engaged, but has the disturbing experience of her fiancée, Lord Hume, not merely spending much time on the Continent away from her, but now beginning to hint at a three-year Grand Tour. Lord Hume is a close friend of Lord Lucan, and through their correspondence we will learn that Hume has fallen in lust with a beautiful Italian adventuress and lost his taste for Fanny’s pallid perfections. Hume writes to Fanny and breaks off their engagement (without getting into specifics), with the result that her correspondence becomes all about the miseries of love, even as Louisa’s continues to be about the miseries of un-love.
Meanwhile, Sir George Cleveland, brother and guardian to Louisa and Fanny, is himself engaged to a Miss Colville (another bundle of pallid perfections). Here the impediment is Miss Colville’s ghastly mother, who refuses to consent to their marriage—because (we later discover) she wants Sir George for herself…and badly enough to facilitate her pursuit of him by immuring her daughter in a convent while faking her death to the world at large, while she tries to convince the stricken Sir George (via forged letter) that it was Delia’s last wish that they should be married.
This is, self-evidently, one of the Gothic-like subplots I referred to earlier, made even more so by the associated sub-sub-plot about the identity of the young woman buried as Delia Colville; but it is only a digression in the novel as a whole.
Back in Ireland, Harriet Westley, a young niece of Sir William’s, is received into the Bartons’ home and becomes a friend and companion to Louisa—who soon concludes that the girl is suffering from unrequited love. This sub-plot touches upon an interesting point from the literature of this time, the seriousness with which what to modern eyes is just a first crush tends to be treated. But then, in a society where girls were considered marriageable at fifteen, I suppose it’s not unreasonable to treat their emotions as likewise mature.
The object of Harriet’s passion is Lord Lucan—who has fallen in love with Louisa; while Colonel Walter, who is supposed to be engaged to a wealthy widow, Mrs Layton, also begins pursuing Louisa, though not out of “love”, exactly.
Fanny correctly deduces Lord Lucan’s secret passion from Louisa’s oblivious descriptions of his behaviour and change in demeanour—but that isn’t all she has deduced. Louisa’s letters have begun to evince an increasing tendency to compare Sir William with Lord Lucan, to the former’s discredit; perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since Sir William keeps going out of his way to behave like a dick an upright magistrate:
Lord Lucan flew directly into the garden, and explained the phenomenon, by bringing the basket and its contents into the parlour, which was an infant, about a week old, clean, though poorly clad, with a note pinned to its breast, which said, this child has been baptised by its father’s name, William.
This circumstance disconcerted Sir William who, after many unnecessary asseverations of his innocence, upon this occasion, at which the whole company smiled, as they knew he had been above a year out of the kingdom, determined to prove his virtue, at the expense of his humanity, by ordering the child to be left again in the garden where it was found, till the parish officers should come to take charge of it; and by commanding a strict search to be made for the mother, that she might be punished, according to law.
We all opposed the severity of this resolution, as the poor infant appeared almost perished with cold, and hunger; but Sir William persisted in acting like an upright magistrate, according to the letter of the law—till Lord Lucan declared that he was ready to adopt the little foundling, and promised to take care of it for life, though his name was Thomas…
In this particular instance, Louisa’s sensitivity to the situation and the behaviour of the two men may be enhanced by the fact that she is pregnant—something which, due to the increasing estrangement between herself and Sir William, she delays in telling him, with ultimately disastrous consequences.
Our main characters remove to Waltersburgh, Colonel Walters’ neighbouring estate, chiefly so the gentlemen can have some hunting, and there Louisa has a terrifying experience when a man intrudes into her bed-chamber and, um, takes liberties; though voices nearby stop things from going too far, and the intruder flees while Louisa faints. Since all the other men of the party are supposedly out, Louisa can only conclude that Lord Lucan (who has done an amusingly heroine-like thing by spraining his ankle) finally succumbed to his passion, and is both deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed:
I determined, on the instant, to return to Southfield directly, let the consequence be what it would; and never to suffer Lord Lucan to come into my sight again; but, alas! when I attempted to rise, I found it impossible; the agitation of my mind, had disorder’d my whole frame; my illness encreased every moment, a messenger was dispatched for a physician, but before he could arrive—
When Sir William was informed of my misfortune, he raved and stamped like a mad-man; said I must have designed to destroy his heir, out of perverseness, or I would certainly have acquainted him with my situation…
The estrangement between the Bartons naturally worsens from this point, and Colonel Walter, pursuing his own ends, is not slow to take advantage of it; intimating to Sir William, for instance, that the reason Louisa didn’t tell him about her pregnancy is that he was not the father…
While Louisa is recuperating, she receives a letter from Lord Lucan, full of regret and distress at her illness, but without the slightest hint of awareness of the cause, which makes her rethink her assumption; although in the circumstances she cannot see how anyone came to her room.
A secret passage, perhaps?—a rather Gothicky touch; while at this point our second Gothicky subplot also puts in an appearance. Via her maid, Louisa learns that a small child is a mostly-unseen resident of Colonel’s Walter’s house, and manages to make contact with her. The girl, who speaks no English, reveals to Louisa that her mother also is living in the house. First through an exchange of smuggles letters, then in a secret meeting, Louisa learns that the woman is Colonel Walter’s wife – possibly legally, possibly through a false marriage; she isn’t sure herself – and that out of fear for her own life and, even more so, for that of her daughter, she lives concealed in the attic, while her husband pursues various affairs and even tries to marry – or “marry” – a fortune.
(Paging Charlotte Bronte…)
As is common in sentimental novels, we then the get interpolated narrative of Mrs Walter’s entire life-story, and her escalating miseries at the hands of Colonel Walter and of society at large. Louisa of course repeats it all to Fanny in her letters and (showing a pleasing degree of backbone) the sisters plot to remove the unfortunate Olivia and her daughter from the Colonel’s dubious “protection”. In fact, in an unexpected and amusing touch, we get a full-on female conspiracy here, with Harriet Westley and Louisa’s friend Lucy Leister let in on the secret and offering their assistance, in addition to Benson the maid who has been the women’s go-between. Louisa succeeds in smuggling her new friends away from Waltersburgh and into a tenant-cottage at Southfield (Sir William’s property), and from there to Fanny in London.
Her interaction with Olivia provokes Louisa to the following suggestion—a topic that became quite common in sentimental novels, but which led to nothing in reality because of the stubborn refusal to see further than women’s refuge = convent = Catholic (the tone here makes me wonder if Griffith had been reading Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, an entire novel on the subject; particularly considering the radical suggestion of marital separation):
I should approve extremely of an establishment of this kind, in our own country, under our own religion and laws; both equally free from tyranny—An asylum for unhappy women to retreat to—not from the world, but from misfortunes, or the slander of it—for female orphans, young widows, or still more unhappy objects, forsaken, or ill treated wives, to betake themselves to, in such distresses…
Meanwhile, the continuous references in Louisa’s correspondence to Lord Lucan, her final conclusion that he could not have been guilty of the bedroom outrage, and her speculation about his connection with a Miss Ashford, a neighbourhood beauty to whom rumour has him attached, prompts Fanny to issue a stern warning:
Vigilant and watchful must that woman be, who has so many foes to shield against—the unkindness of Sir William—the passion and merits of Lord Lucan—the arts and malice of Colonel Walter—but the last and most formidable—shall I venture to speak of it?—is your own heart.
You have not yet begun to suspect it. It is therefore the more dangerous enemy. Examine it, my sister; call it to strict account; and if you find one sentiment or wish, that lurks in secret there, unworthy of yourself, banish it, I beseech you: thoughts, even without purposes, are criminal, where our honour is in question. Consider the slightest idea of this kind, as a young serpent; though stingless now, its growth will give it strength and power to wound the breast that nursed and cherished it! crush it, betimes, Louisa; and be at peace for life…
Louisa confesses that Fanny is right and suffers an agony of guilt and shame; although she cannot help wandering into the might-have-been, and offering another radical suggestion:
Flattering sophistry! Alas! I would deceive myself, but cannot! Have I not vowed, even at the altar vowed, to love another? Yet can that vow be binding, which promises what is not in our power, even at the time we make it? But grant it were, the contract sure is mutual; and when one fails, the other should be free…
(…particularly considering the countless 18th and 19th century novels in which an unhappy wife is told firmly by some authority figure or another that her husband’s neglect / cruelty / infidelity does not justify any failure in marital duty of her part.)
Much back and forth between the sisters follows, but for all of Louisa’s good intentions her practice keeps wandering away from her theory…until finally a concurrence of circumstances leads to a mutual declaration between Lord Lucan and herself, although also to a mutual resolve to do nothing dishonourable. They try to avoid one another, but their network of friends keeps unwittingly throwing them together, keeping both secret passions alive.
Meanwhile, Colonel Walter, experienced in intrigue, has seen what is going on between Louisa and Lord Lucan—sort of: he is incapable of believing that they might be in love without having sex; and likewise the type who assumes that if a woman is having illicit sex with one man, she’ll willingly have illicit sex with any man. When Louisa spurns his advances, he makes it his business to cause as much trouble as he can, partly as a way of blackmailing Louisa into his bed, partly out of sheer bastardry. The stresses of the situation bring about a collapse, and Louisa begins to suffer recurrent bouts of ill-health…
The History Of Lady Barton must necessarily devote much time and effort to the resolution of its almost innumerable romantic complications—although this doesn’t stop Elizabeth Griffith from taking up much of the third volume with yet another interpolated narrative, in this case the (of course) sad history of the young lady who ends up buried in Delia Colville’s grave (which contains yet another interpolated narrative). The true fate of Delia herself is revealed when Olivia finally decides to retreat into a convent, and discovers that she is a prisoner there, confined on the basis of false charges of immorality made by her mother.
Sir George Cleveland comes racing to the scene, in company with his new friend—Lord Hume, who was bled dry by his Margarita and her family and then, having outlived his usefulness to them, nearly murdered; a fate from which Sir George rescued him. Sir George is unaware of the former engagement between Hume and his sister, and unknowingly reunites them. By this time Hume has learned to appreciate Fanny’s modest virtues, and the two are married.
And so at last there is only our central complexity to resolve: will Elizabeth Griffith kill off the inconvenient Sir William Barton and let her secret lovers be happy, or will it be a case of broken hearts and ruined lives all around? Will Colonel Walter succeed in his evil machinations, or will he get his comeuppance? The matter stills hangs in the balance with very few pages to go:
About eight o’clock, this morning, there arrived a messenger from Waltersburgh, and in a few minutes after, Sir William rushed into my room, with an appearance of frenzy in his air and countenance.— “Vilest of women! cried he out, “you have now completed your wickedness—But think not that either you, or your accomplice, shall escape—That pity, which pleaded in my weak heart, even for an adultress, will but increase my rage against the murderess of my friend.” He then quitted me abruptly, as if bent upon some horrid purpose…