Family Pictures (Part 1)

 

Virtue is here its own reward, nor is it a deception or false colouring; for though success may not always be the attendant on well-doing and well-meriting, yet the peace and satisfaction that result from conscious virtue, are superiour to every other support or dependence: for however prosperous the villain may continue for a period, his prosperity is mere;y external. That worm, which never dies, preys perpetually upon his heart, nor can he either bribe or compel it to spare him, though but for a moment: whereat the meanest condition my be rendered truely great, by a perseverance in justice and integrity; for whosoever possesses an honest soul, capable of disdaining, and industriously shunning the paths of vice, is greatest, wisest, best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So having spent a ridiculous amount of time pondering the correct attribution of various 18th and early 19th century novels to Susannah Gunning, Margaret Minifie and Elizabeth Gunning, I picked up a copy of the next book in line for this section of Authors In Depth—and immediately concluded that I’d made a mistake.

Published in 1764, Family Pictures, A Novel. Containing Curious and Interesting Memoirs of several Persons of Fashion in W—re opens with one of those familiar, female-authored novel-prefaces, which simultaneously admits the pernicious qualities of some novels while protesting the moral value of this particular novel.

I had concluded previously that Family Pictures was probably written by Margaret Minifie; but all of a sudden I was confronted by this:

I myself have children, and unfeignedly lament the danger their morals are exposed to, from the trash and obscenity the Press is daily pouring forth for their amusement, as it is called…

…which unthinkingly led me to conclude that this novel must, perforce, have been written by Susannah Gunning…

…until it occurred to me that (i) Susannah didn’t marry until 1768; (ii) that in any event, she only had one child; and (iii) that this, consequently, was a big fat lie—and therefore quite in keeping with what we know of the Gunning / Minifie menage.

In any event, referring to the author as “Miss Minifie” is, given the novel’s 1764 publication date, correct regardless.

Family Pictures is a minor work, quite without literary value, but not uninteresting in some of what it has to say; and its preface is, oddly, one of the things worth noting. There is a significant gap between its the-lady-doth-protest opening and the content of the narrative—which in fact something I’m learning to look out for. That said, the questionable content doesn’t really appear until the second of the two volumes…when, presumably, the publisher had committed to that volume’s appearance. (As we have noted before, at the time novels were sometimes published a volume at a time, to test the waters, with the publisher retaining the right to pull the plug.)

At the outset the author states her position:

The tale is literally true; the morals and sentiments are very opposite to the generality of productions of this nature. I was induced to publish it from a tender regard to the female part of this Metropolis, whose more immediate province I apprehend Novel-reading to be.

Curiously, high-flown – and highly artificial – sentiment then becomes interwoven with some fairly shrewd observations on human nature: the fact that anything being “forbidden” makes it automatically more desirable, for example, and consequently the pointlessness of “banning” novel-reading, as young people will doubtless find a way; and that therefore the sensible thing is not less novels, but better novels. We also get a lengthy criticism of what passes for female education, and its ongoing consequences with regard to both individual women and society in general of a focus upon appearance and superficial “accomplishments”:

Should Miss have the misfortune to be handsome, she is early taught to hold her person in the greatest estimation… She must not learn to write, for fear of becoming round-shouldered, or work, lest she impair her fine eyes. Therefore a little imperfect French, an easy (and too frequently an insufferable) assurance, to tingle a harpsichord, and play quadrille, includes the whole of female education.

Mind you, she’s little more impressed with the nature of boys’ education (or, for that matter, boys per se); though in that respect, she does have an interesting theory about the origins of girls’ addiction to novel-reading:

Whereas the rougher bred boys, by having acquired a superficial knowledge of History and the Classicks, assume the privilege of laughing at their illiterate sisters, who instantly resolve to be upon an equality with the affected pedants. In consequence of this resolution, they get their Mamma’s waiting-woman to enroll them members of some circulating-library, where they obtain an easy and inexhaustible supply of such authours, as it had been better for them, (for the bad effects of their works,) they had never been born.

Present company excepted, of course, and our author – or “Editor”, as she styles herself, this being yet another novel to masquerade as a true story – says of her own work:

This performance has the single merit, (the Editor flatters herself,) that, at worst, it will prove inoffensive; a merit which the sensible and ingenuous will not deny it, whatever may be the opinions of some few over-nice cavillers…

How DARE you call me an over-nice caviller!? Hmmph!

It is interesting though, how sensible argument and misplaced self-congratulation are interwoven here. So that every time the author makes a reasonable point (however sarcastically)—

As long as the world continues to be distinguished into the learned and unlearned, male and female, young and old, performances in the Novel-way will never be unseasonable; for it is no less absurd to suppose pedants capable of dipping into so mean a work as a Novel, than ridiculous to imagine the larger part of Novel-readers capable of comprehending the Classicks: consequently, unless our capacities and educations could be reduced to one common lesson, amusements of this inferiour kind will be essential. The grand point, therefore, is to render them, if not improving, at least innocent.

—she undercuts it by making herself her own illustration:

The characters introduced to the readers acquaintance in this little work, are not fictitious ones, nor the several remarkable incidents of their lives merely the product of a fertile brain. I would, therefore, recommend the serious consideration of them to the young and inexperienced…

Family Pictures opens…confusingly…with a couple of potted histories that jump back-and-forth over generations and leave us momentarily confused about who we’re actually dealing with. When the fog clear, we are presented with two young men, Anthony Bentley and Frank Taylor, whose close friendship is disrupted when the latter is dispatched to India by his father, with orders, basically, to stay there until he has made his fortune, no matter how much he hates it. The two young men agree to maintain their friendship via the sort of minutely detailed correspondence usually associated with young women in epistolary novels.

Anthony, meanwhile, is a properly moral and principled individual, thanks chiefly to his tuition from the Reverend Mr Parker. The latter, a very good man, is also a very poor one, as he married for virtue instead of money. The Parkers have one child:

    The little Eliza, their daughter, had a person, which, though it could not come under the denomination of beautiful, was perfectly agreeable. In her countenance was displayed a most charming sensibility, every feature glowing with visible emanations of an intelligent and capacious mind. He eye spoke softness and love, but modesty sat enthroned on her brow, while meekness, gentleness, and simplicity of manners were her amiable characteristics.
    Besides the advantages of education before observed, she had in her father and mother the daily and striking examples of conjugal affection, universal philanthropy, and charity in all its loveliness and attendant graces…

However, what we think we see coming is prevented, or at least forestalled, when Mr Parker receives the gift of a new and better living, and the family moves to Herefordshire.

Some years later, Anthony’s father dies, and he inherits the family property. His loss is all the more severe since it leaves him with no relative but a brother with whom he has nothing in common, and who in turn resents him as the elder son:

The ruling passion of Daniel (such was the brother’s name) was an unbounded avarice; his nature was groveling, suspicious, and revengeful. Master of a deep cunning, he directed himself by that, and endowed with no inconsiderable share of low ambition, made use of his craft, as the means to rise… He, therefore, prudently resolved to make the utmost of his brother’s generosity, (which, in his heart, he deemed weakness) by living upon him, in many particulars, beyond what could be done with a good grace. This was his motive for treating his brother with an outward show of respect…

This passage is juxtaposed with one of Anthony’s letters to his friend, Frank Taylor, wherein he comments that, despite being an uncongenial companion due to his obsession with sport, Daniel is behaving better generally. This is supposed to illustrate for us Daniel’s “deep cunning” but, such are the various descriptions of his conduct, the reader comes away thinking, rather, that Anthony must be a bit thick. Since a major plot-turn later depends upon Anthony being completely deceived by his brother, this is all rather problematic.

Nevertheless, Daniel’s sporting habits make home unpleasant for Anthony, and he decides to visit the Parkers in their country retreat. This interlude (conveyed in more letters to Frank) is shot through with the by-now familiar sentimentalism of the period; albeit we’re more accustomed to hearing it from young ladies. Naturally Anthony falls in love with the perfect Eliza; although he does not recognise the state of his heart until she falls ill with smallpox.

In Barford Abbey, four years later, there is also a subplot in which the heroine contracts smallpox. This in itself is not an issue: the disease was endemic in England, and killed up to 10% of the population each year, leaving countless other sufferers scarred for life. What I do object to is the miraculous way in which, in these novels, the disease keeps refusing to disfigure attractive young women—Eliza escaping here as does Fanny Powis in the later novel.

At the same time, the plot takes an unexpected turn with respect to Anthony. When Eliza falls ill, and he realises he loves her, he keeps quiet about the fact that he has not had smallpox, preferring to remain in danger rather than be away from Eliza at this critical time. And sure enough, no sooner is Eliza on the mend than Anthony falls dangerously ill—and we discover that smallpox is less considerate when dealing with young men. We also get intimations of an exasperating but realistic double-standard:

    Eliza…was extremely shocked at the unhappy alteration in him, which had occasioned the poor lover himself an infinite share of chagrin. He had too much good sense, indeed, to suffer the least mortification from any value he set upon his person, but he was not sure, that it might not injure him in the eyes of the only woman he had ever been ambitious of being approved by; and as lovers are always tormenting themselves with unnecessary fears, he imagined she could not behold him without both horrour and disapprobation.
    He did the young lady, however, great injustice in his conjectures, for notwithstanding she really felt some concern at his sudden metamorphosis, yet she had a mind incapable of being very deeply affected by externals, and consequently whatever effect that alteration might have upon her with regard to her person, her esteem for his internal qualities still remained unshaken.
    These were the attractions that had wrought upon her, attractions whose lustre was not to be impaired by disease, and therefore she felt not the least abatement of that cordial approbation she had begun to entertain of him before her own and his illness. She secretly thanked heaven, however, that her face had not undergone the same fate…

Anthony soon declares himself to Eliza, and the two become engaged after many pages of high-flown speechifying, first between the young lovers, then between Anthony and Mr Parker.

The author is conscious that, in having Anthony speak to Eliza before her father, she has sacrificed propriety to romance; and she hurriedly interjects the following. The fact that this is supposed to be Anthony speaking – and that he has been meeting, not secretly, but certainly privately, with Eliza – gives an amusing edge to this display of Miss Minifie’s evidently low opinion of the male sex:

Were I writing for the press, I would here warn the tender, unexperienced maid from consenting to private interviews, even with the man whose intentions were truely honourable, as the dexterity, which clandestine meetings require, would but too probably rise in judgement against her, at a time, when she might least expect it; for life is subject to such and infinite variety of changes and chances, and the mind of man so frequently affected by them, that it is twenty to one but the same action, which was by the obliged lover magnified into the into the generous and meritorious, would by the reflecting husband be condemned, as the effect of a too fertile invention, and a mind turned for intrigue…

(This is a milder example of an infuriating scenario depressingly common in 18th century novels, wherein a man will relentlessly pursue a young woman in the name of his unalterable love, demand her sexual surrender as proof of her unalterable love—and then dump her because, if she surrenders to him, obviously she’s a whore who’ll have sex with anyone…)

Anthony is soon pouring out his happiness on paper (a typo has him announcing his engagement to “Louisa”, i.e. his prospective mother-in-law), and is disconcerted, to say the least, when he gets no response from his friend. He reminds himself that there have been lapses in his own correspondence, after his father’s death and during his illness; but eventually he begins to fret that either Frank so thoroughly disapproves his engagement, he won’t even respond, or that he too has fallen ill, or worse.

He finally does get a letter—one which severs their friendship, not because of anything Anthony has done, but because Frank has succumbed to temptation and his desperate desire to return to England (which his father will not permit him to do until he has made his fortune), and married a rich woman whom he despises; although not as much as he now despises himself. However, he promises Anthony an explanation when he does return to England…

Meanwhile, the announcement of his brother’s engagement does not exactly fill Daniel with fraternal joy:

Daniel was greatly chagrined at the unexpected news. He cursed his intended sister most heartily, and wished, his brother had had a taste for the pleasures of the chase, as that would have secured him from bringing home a pert minx to subvert all the ancient customs of Bentley-hall. The marriage, indeed, was a stroke he little expected. He had experienced during his brother’s absence what he called a full enjoyment of life, which amounted to an exemption from expense, a daily hazarding of his neck in the noble pursuit of a miserable defenceless animal, and closing the evening in a total subversion of reason. Anthony’s cellar (in the refined language of this sportsman) had bled freely; his horses had been harassed to death, and his servants had hourly trembled at oaths they were utterly unaccustomed to hear…

Anthony and Eliza are married, but spend their first weeks together with the Parkers. Daniel, therefore, has the opportunity to throw one last bash for his sporting friends—

—and we get a fabulous piece of accidental meta-humour, when Miss Minifie observes tartly of the debauched gathering:

Had Mr Hogarth been admitted to a view of these mid-night-revellers, the Publick might have been presented with a piece by no means inferiour to the greatest of that ingenious artist’s productions.

—recalling as we do that it was Hogarth’s chief pupil / competitor, James Gillray, who dragged the Gunning scandal out into the light of day.

On the other hand, I was interested and to a degree won over by the realisation that Family Pictures is one of those 18th century novels in which we can see the treatment of animals beginning to emerge as a social issue. Most commonly at this time, this was expressed with respect to dogs and horses (we saw the latter in the anonymous 1797 novel, Milistina). What we have here, however, is one of the earliest protests against fox-hunting that I have so far encountered.In fact, Miss Minifie makes a love of hunting a signifier for deficiency of heart and character. For 1764, that is remarkable.

When the newlyweds return home, Daniel does his best to seem pleased and to get along with Eliza, but he is incapable of regulating his behaviour. Indeed, he barely sees the need to; and tries to entertain his sister-in-law with a graphic description of his day’s hunting:

    When he came to [the fox’s] death, a savage ardour sparkled in his eyes, and the cries of the poor tortured animal but furnished him with witticisms.
    The tender-hearted Eliza was shocked to a very great degree at the inhumanity which displayed itself in every circumstance of this description. She was at first silent, but as he still continued his encomiums on the chase; “Can the worrying of a poor animal, said she, out of its existence deserve the commendations you bestow on it? Excuse me, Sir, if I take the liberty of saying, that there is rather barbarity in it. The exercise may, indeed, conduce to the bodily health, but the mind, I am afraid, is often hardened by it to a degree that renders it much less sensible of the feelings of humanity.”

Of course, as far as Daniel is concerned, she might as well be speaking Martian. The immediate consequence of this little scene is that he accepts that the good times are over, and that he needs to find somewhere else to live. He therefore courts and wins a Miss Bowling, who shares his views on hunting, and has five thousand pounds and a weak-willed brother, who Daniel duly persuades into letting him take up residence under his own roof. The marriage produces four children in as many years, three girls and then a boy; the latter named “Anthony” in the hope of a creating a financial as well as an emotional tie to his uncle. It is the eldest girl, however, named Arabella for her mother, who is closest to her parents’ hearts:

…notwithstanding her early time of life, [she] had betrayed such a complication in her nature of both father and mother, as promised to render her a most complete character. She was absolute master and mistress at home, had several unfortunate animals in her possession, which she tortured at her pleasure; fear, tenderness, and affection having the least share in her composition… She was accustomed to follow her father in the visitation of his hounds and horses, without either fear or dismay, and taught to examine the wounds of the various game, sent home weltering in gore, with all the transports of savage delight…

Meanwhile – without even pretending sorrow at Daniel’s departure – Anthony and Eliza settle down to a life of conjugal bliss.

However—this is an 18th century sentimental novel, after all, and – as we well know – they like dishing out absolute misery as much if not more than absolute happiness. That said, the misery in Family Pictures takes an odd form. Inevitably the novel is framed within the dictates of Christianity, and many solemn protestations of religious duty and submission to God’s will pepper the early stages of the narrative.

Yet the one thing all the characters share – even Mr Parker, the minister – is a complete inability to move on from a death. Instead, they either become almost permanently catatonic with grief, or outright die of it: the triumph of sentimentalism over conventional religion.

The novel’s shift in tone is announced with an almost hilariously perfect sentimental-novel “mission statement”:

The days of the happy pair were now one uninterrupted scene of happiness for some time, but fortune had only smiled to make her frowns more terrible…

Eliza falls pregnant (and the novel uses the p-word!), which after four childless years initially brings everyone great joy. However, when this first phase has passed, Anthony is seized with a terrible premonition—one marked by an unusual dwelling upon the contemporary dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, and by the pragmatic separation of Anthony’s roles:

Mr Bentley’s delight at the engaging name of father was checked and allayed by the apprehensions of the fond husband. The bare possibility of his exchanging for a dear infant his much dearer wife shook his very soul, and this painful reflection still continually intruding itself, as the time advanced that must determine the event, his anxieties were not a little augmented by it…

Eliza herself is in a state of mixed optimism and properly religious submission; and gently lectures her husband on his duty:

“Subdue then, my dear Anthony, these terrours so unbecoming a breast enlightened by a single ray of that religion we profess. Endeavour to acquire an implicit resignation to that power which bestowed, and consequently has a right to recall, if improperly used, every blessing you are now in possession of. Beware of that too frequent practice of idolatry, nor imagine, whilst you cherish in your heart a superiour affection to that of your great creatour, that you are innocent of a breach of the commandment, which so positively says, Thou shalt have no other God than me.”

As it turns out, Eliza survives the birth of her daughter, named Louisa for her own mother; and for three years, all is well—or so it seems. In fact, Eliza is in that mysterious condition known as “a decline”:

She had felt some inward decay, but forbore complaining, from a too tender consideration for her husband’s repose, until it was advanced beyond the power of medicine to remedy…

So Eliza dies; and, showing how deeply he took that pre-childbirth lecture to heart, Anthony reacts by going into a decline himself, and dying of grief.

Now— During the first four years of Anthony and Eliza’s marriage, Daniel and Arabella gradually taught themselves to look upon the family property as their own, or at least as ultimately belonging to their son. The advent of Louisa, therefore, in the absence of an entail, was a shock and a mortification.

The succeeding deaths of Eliza and Anthony, however—well, that’s a different matter. Daniel is summoned to his brother’s death-bed, where he is assured of a “generous” legacy, though the bulk of the property goes to Louisa. He also learns that – really, Anthony? REALLY!? – he has been appointed Louisa’s joint guardian, along with her grandfather.

The solemnity of the situation prompts a promise:

“Your child, said he, shall be considered by me as my own, and may God so deal with me and mine, as I shall acquit myself with respect to her.”

However—

Daniel was a little affected, but soon got the better of it…

 

[To be continued…]

 

 

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4 Comments to “Family Pictures (Part 1)”

  1. Wow, it isn’t often you encounter a truly cruel little girl in classical literature.

  2. “Trash and obscenity of the Press”? There really is nothing new under the sun.
    As soon as I read that description of fox-hunting, I knew you’d be giving at least that line a big thumbs up.
    The description of the fine young lady, who can’t write for fear of becoming round-shouldered (huh? try better posture) or work for fear of ruining her fine eyes (shades of Eliza Bennett!) reminded me of a passage from “The Daisy Chain”, the epitome of Victorian novels. One of the daughters is near-sighted, but is strongly discouraged from wearing any type of eyeglasses (she usually tries to borrow her father’s) for the sake of her appearance.

    • She might, after all, be thought a bluestocking…

      “a minor work, quite without literary value” – ah, that’s what we came here for. 🙂

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