The Picture


 

 
In this picture were two principal figures, the one a fine old man with silver locks, which seemed to inspire veneration; the other, a beautiful youth in whose arms he was supported.—Miss Stanley observed, that but for their position, they might have been taken for Mentor and Telemachus.—You say right, my dear, returned Mrs Berkley.—Observe, continued she, pointing to the young man,—what nobleness in his air! what majesty! what sweetness! what expression in his looks!—If the countenance be an index of the soul, in his I read every godlike virtue of that heroe. Mrs Stanley, turning to the housekeeper, begged to know for whom it was intended.—The woman replied, that it was occasioned by a very extraordinary accident, adding, if the ladies would please to repose themselves, she would readily relate the circumstances…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The insistence of booksellers and, increasingly, the circulating libraries upon multi-volume novels had a range of consequences for authors and publishers during the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of them is well-illustrated in this 1766 work by Susannah and Margaret Minifie.

It is not in the least uncommon to find novels which could, and should, have comfortably occupied two or even a single volume being dragged out to the necessary three via padding of sorts, including unnecessary subplots, overly circumstantial descriptions, repetitions, and our old friend, the interpolated narrative. That these tactics almost invariably resulted in a less effective work of fiction was, evidently, considered of less importance than the financial gains to be achieved by breaking a single novel into pieces for sale and hire.

And if this artificial inflation of a book’s length damaged an otherwise successful work, you can imagine the results when the same tactics were applied to a novel with a narrative so flimsy, it could barely have sustained a single volume.

Such is the case in The Picture, which is one of the most insubstantial works of 18th century fiction I have ever read, the era’s tendency to privilege emotion over plot notwithstanding. In fact, so lacking is this novel in any sort of real content, the publishers had to chip in with padding tactics of their own, achieving three volumes only by virtue of (i) narrow pages, (ii) wide margins, (iii) large font, and (iv) spaces between paragraphs.

To illustrate:

   

By 1766, the Minifie sisters had published one novel as a joint venture, The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—, and one as a solo effort—with Family Pictures released only as “By a LADY”, but in all likelihood written by Margaret.

Though it carries the ladies’ original attribution, “By the Miss MINIFIES, of Fairwater in Somersetshire”, I’m inclined to suspect that this third novel out of the stable is chiefly Susannah’s work: it has a slightly different “voice” from the previous two novels, and also from that of Barford Abbey. In fact, its style is one of the many irritating things about The Picture, with its inadequate story rendered even more so via a twee, chatty tone which becomes increasingly grating. The novel is poorly written even by the rather laissez-faire literary standards of its day, marked by a constant shifting of tense and perspective, and it resorts repeatedly to non-cliffhangers—that is, it tends to end its chapters with a dramatic interruption or a promise of important revelations to follow, which then turn out to be of minor importance if any at all.

As did Family Pictures, The Picture opens rather confusingly, with a generational shift. It begins by introducing us to a certain Mr Howard, as he receives a letter from the (we gather) newly widowed Mrs Stanley begging for his assistance. It then quickly falshes back to when Mrs Stanley was a Miss Dormer—who, between her father’s wealth and her own “most attractive sweetness”, was expected to make a great marriage.

It speaks volumes for the conventions of the 18th century sentimental novel that at this point, the authors felt compelled to stop and explain at length why, all those years before, Mr Howard did not fall in love at first sight with Miss Dormer. This passage also offers an excellent example of this novel’s overall style of writing—imagine this stretched out to about 600 pages:

By help of a little familiar named Fancy, who flies invisible, and whose flights are boundless, we are informed our readers have adjudged the sentiment proposed to love. Sorry as we are to contradict our ingenious friends, and universal as we acknowledge the power of that deity, truth bids us declare Cupid was not present at this interview, the reason of which can only be accounted for by the following incident. Some twenty years before this æra, as he was one day sporting near the sacred temple, a group of heavenly inhabitants moved towards it, surrounding two mortal figures; one appeared to be Mr Howard, conducted by Honour, the other a female of pleasing aspect, supported by Virtue. Cupid recollected and saluted his votaries. Hymen honoured in the presence of so many divinities, entered the temple before them, and performed his office in the most harmonious spirits. Which being concluded, and each bestowing on the happy pair some mark of celestial favour, Cupid presented the bride one of his best darts, rendering her husband invulnerable to the attack of any other in his whole feathered collection. Since Cupid stands acquitted, what then is the sentiment by which Mr Howard was agitated at this interview with Miss Dormer? Was it admiration? Was it compassion? Was it tender apprehension? It was not one, but all those passions blended in one…

Apparently a man feeling sorry for a girl whose father has just been ruined was far too straightforward a concept for readers of this sort of literature to grasp.

Anyway—her father’s ruination is simply an opportunity for Miss Dormer to display a whole new series of perfections. Discovering that Mr Dormer’s main creditor is Sir Thomas Stanley, she calls at his house intending to offer her jewels in part-payment of his debt, and ends up pouring out her story to someone she assumes is Sir Thomas, but who turns out to be a relative of his only—held silent because he has (of course) fallen in love with her at first sight.

Long story short, Miss Dormer becomes Mrs Stanley. We then begin our generational hopping again, with the Stanley marriage disposed of in a single sentence:

Happy in each other the thirteenth year returned, in which time she buried her father, one Son, and two daughters, and at that period Mr Stanley was also torn from her…

But the Stanleys are not the only ones subjected to a ruthless hand. Hilariously, having gone to all the trouble of introducing a Mrs Howard in order to explain Mr Howard’s otherwise incredible behavior, the lady having served her purpose the authors whack her in one off-hand phrase:

…and Mr Howard having lost his lady some years before, was retired to Rose-Hill, the sweet retreat in which our reader may remember we first discovered him.

What the reader is, in fact, more likely to discover is that the preceding fifty pages of this novel could have been dispensed with, at no cost to the plot, which (such as it is) begins properly here.

But then—we’re not going to make it to 600 pages with an attitude like THAT, are we?

The Howards and the Stanleys remained close friends over the years; and now that she is a widow, Mrs Stanley turns to Mr Howard for advice. We learn that Providence (and the Miss Minifies) has left Mrs Stanley with one living child, a daughter, Emily. She is also raising her husband’s orphaned niece, Louisa Orey, who is about Emily’s age.

It is with regard to Emily that Mrs Stanley wishes to consult Mr Howard. The Stanleys are a wealthy family, and Emily is a significant heiress. However, remembering her own plunge from affluence into poverty, Mrs Stanley has conceived a plan to raise Emily in the assumption that the family are in limited circumstances, so that she learns simplicity and humility before she comes into her fortune. Her intention is to carry the two young girls into the country, where she can supervise their education and ensure they are kept away from the pernicious influences of town life. And in order to obtain for the girls all the benefits of fortune without seeming to be able to afford them herself, Mrs Stanley makes an arrangement with a friend, a Mrs Berkley, who is herself in straitened circumstances: she will pose as the girls’ benefactor.

This complicated arrangement put in place, the all-female household retires to a cottage in the vicinity of Mr Howard’s country home, Rose-Hill. Their surroundings are exactly what we might expect, in a novel of this sort:

From this rising ground let us behold the beauties by which we are surrounded. The meadows how chearful, their robes are green-enliven’d with flowers of gold and azure; that hanging wood, which rears its lofty head, as if to overlook the distant hills, appears the seat of contemplation; the banks of yonder river, how fertile! how enriched! surely the inhabitants are nature’s favourites, and this its most luxurious garden. Mark the houses! how neatly elegant! and scattered hamlets, how gaily ornamented! the pure jessamine, and sweeter woodbine, blooms on the humble roof, regailing with their spicy breath the honest labourer, when at his threshold he eats his evening morsel…

And so are the characters:

Amazement! what do we see! two lovely forms! their actions still more lovely! Turn thy eyes to the next cottage, mark them well, with what tenderness they relieve that sick wretch, who with blessings follows them to the door; with what amiable smiles are they this moment caressing the children of poverty? Can it be any other than Benevolence and Humility descended upon this happy spot, in their own transcendent loveliness. But, hold! a friendly zephyr bears away from the most graceful, the envious hate which hid the beauties of her face. Let us examine if these can equal her fine height, easy shape, and majestic movement. Heavens! that dazzling complection, eyes black, sparkling and full of sentiment, animated features, and neck whiter than the down of swans, convinces us these are the infant charms of Miss Stanley, ripened by the hand of time… Take thy eye from Miss Stanley, to admire the modest vivacity of Louisa’s looks, her sprightly air, the delicacy of her forehead, the glossy auburne hair which shades it, the joy, the youth, the innocence that revel on her countenance…

It is, frankly, a relief to escape from these outpourings into The Picture‘s main subplot, wherein dwell our contrasting wicked characters and their criminal and venial transgressions.

Lady Edmonton, the late Mr Stanley’s half-sister, is a foolish, vain woman who contracts a second marriage with the dissolute Sir James Hallifax, and repents it soon enough. It is actually Sir James who occupies centre-stage in this plot, and in a curious way that would hardly have been permissible some years later: the baronet’s one redeeming feature is his passionate love for his illegitimate son.

However, this love leads Sir James to defraud his own young brother, Charles. The baronet intends, upon his own death, both to acknowledge his son and to leave him a fortune to counterbalance the stain of his birth. To this end, Sir James suppresses his father’s will, convincing Charles that he, as the elder son, has inherited the entire property. This situation impacts our main plot via Sir James’ scheme to see his brother provided for via marriage to Emily Stanley. Though the two are only children when the scheme is conceived, sixteen and ten respectively (this is some years before the effusions quoted above), Sir James considers there is no time to waste, and bullies his wife into doing all she can to promote the match.

Back in the country, we hear at length how Mrs Stanley’s scheme for shaping the minds and characters of the girls have been carried out. Confident in the success of her venture, when Emily and Louisa are of an age to make their debuts, Mrs Stanley begins to plan for their removal to London. However, these plans are diverted when Mrs Berkley’s pretended fortune becomes real, upon her unexpected inheritance of an estate. Mrs Stanley and the girls accompany her on her tour of inspection, the ladies stopping along the way to visit any place of note. Among these is one recommended by Mr Howard, the country-house of a certain Lord Eastley. It is here that Emily Stanley encounters her fate—or at least a representation of him:

Mrs Stanley seeing the door of another room open, imagined she might be there, stept back, and found it a little library which had been passed over in surveying many other splendid apartments.—Here then she found her daughter,—but found her with her attention so profoundly fixed on a picture which stood over the chimney, that she might be said at that moment to have resembled a fine statue of the goddess Contemplation…

Lord Eastley’s housekeeper then recounts the incident depicted in the painting, in which the household’s venerable old butler would have drowned, had not a young visitor to the estate risked his own life to save him:

    This piece of humanity had like to cost him dear, for soon after he was taken ill of a dangerous fever;—and when my lord expressed his fear that it was owing to this accident,—he replied,—that man is not worthy of life who would not risque it in the preservation of a fellow creature.—
    Unperceived even by herself, tears of admiration filled the charming eyes of Emily…

The ladies then press on to Mrs Berkeley’s house, which is situated near the estate of a duke (unnamed). While walking one morning, Emily and Louisa overhear a conversation between two young men, whom they deduce to be young Lord Eastley and the gentleman of the picture, whose first name only they learn, Harry. The subject of their conversation startles the girls: evidently Harry is engaged to a certain Lady Lydia, with whom Lord Eastley is in love…

Yet when there is an accidental encounter between Harry and the ladies, when he secures them seats at the playhouse in a nearby town, it is apparent that he is much struck with Emily. A second encounter follows:

[She] began to sing and play with a grace most enchanting.—Her soul imperceptibly softened by the Poet’s masterly representation of distressed love,—music added to that softness,—her skill inimitable,—her complexion dazzling,—her voice naturally melodious, accompanied with a more than usual sweetness;—the dove-like mildness in her eye;—her air the most melting;—her notes, her words, were all adapted to the present tenderness of her sentiments.—In this ravishing attitude she thought herself free from observation, but was undeceived by this sudden exclamation from a voice not unwelcome—Ah! Eastley, take Lady Lydia, but give me, heaven, this most perfect of thy creatures:—She rose to leave the room, covered with confusion.—Transported with admiration the inraptured Harry Prayed, nay, even kneeled, to prevent her design.—A secret emotion, a tender inclination, would have betrayed her; but considering such an inclination as stepping from that amiable reserve which she had made her standard, she retired precipitately, and ran to hide her sensibility in the bosom of Louisa…

The one really interesting thing about The Picture is how thoroughly its central love-plot violates the conventions—or at least seems to do so: naturally the authors find a way out of its worst implications, such as Harry’s pre-commitment to Lady Lydia, at the time he falls in love with Emily. Still, to have its heroine fall in love at first sight, on her own (albeit with a painting rather than the real thing), is remarkable—one of the most cherished of all literary tropes, through this century and the next, being that a proper young woman must remain unawakened until the right man asks her to love him; simultaneous love at first sight being the only exception, and even then she either has to hide her feelings or be unaware of their significance.

Meanwhile, as you have no doubt already deduced, the authors do indeed try to make a mystery of sorts out the identity of “Harry”, to the extent of stretching their narrative in improbable directions to avoid telling us who he is.

Emily makes a bid to regain her immaculate heroine status by confessing all to her mother, who warns her that for a number of reasons, she should try to overcome her “inclination”. Emily resolves to do so, but she is immediately thrown back into Harry’s vicinity when the ladies suffer a carriage accident, and he is one of those on the spot to help.

In the wake of this several odd things happen. Mrs Stanley is summoned to the duke’s castle—to see an old friend who is staying there, she tells her daughters, though the reader might doubt it—and upon her return announces that they will be departing immediately for the home of Mr Howard, who she claims is in poor health. He has, ahem, recovered by the time they get there; and Mrs Stanley again begins planning to relocate the girls to London.

But before they set out, the girls find a letter that has been smuggled onto their dressing-table:

    Its contents are weighty, replied Miss Orey; open it, whatever they are I claim a moiety.—Agreed, returned she, breaking the seal, when out dropped,—guess O! reader! it was not money, it was not jewels, but a fine resemblance of the amiable Harry.—Letter, picture, all fell from the trembling hand of Miss Stanley.—Louisa quite aghast, could only exclaim,—Heavens! what do I see?—Where am I?—What enchantment brought it hither?—Her fair speechless motionless cousin, neither hearing or answering her interrogations, she put the picture again into her hand, and applied to the billet for information;—the contents of which still plunged them into greater amazement.
    Mrs Stanley deceives you,—she is not indigent,—neither are you dependent.—You owe no advantages to the bounty of a stranger;—your own fortunes are immense.—Tax Mrs Stanley with these truths;—she cannot, will not, deny them.—These instructions belong equally to both; but to miss Stanley, the picture of a man who adores her.—

The girls immediately show the letter to Mrs Stanley, who admits the indictment it contains; the girls agree that she had good and sufficient reason for the deception, and that wraps up that unnecessary complication. Mrs Stanley then requires Emily to hand over the picture, which she does without hesitation, if not without reluctance. Confident that both girls are by now mentally and morally strong enough to resist the vanities and flatteries of the world, Mrs Stanley finally does carry them off to London.

Some of The Picture‘s most egregious padding follows, as the Hallifax subplot expands to encompass various friends and acquaintances, and their romantic – and more usually, financial – manoeuvring, and in this way fills out the rest of Volume II. The only minor relevance here is that Sir James is still trying to bring about a marriage between his brother, Charles, and Emily.

This causes much angst for the young lady we may consider the novel’s third heroine, Lady Lucy Carew. She is the daughter of Lord and Lady Castledale, but spends much time with Sir Thomas and Lady Stanley, as her parents rarely leave their Dublin home. Lady Lucy is secretly in love with Charles Hallifax, and is at first thrown into dismay by Emily’s perfections. However, reassured by her own observation that Charles cares nothing for Emily, Lady Lucy tries to attract his attention to herself and arouse his jealousy by flirting with a certain Colonel Stanhope, which causes numerous complications and allows for much tut-tutting and head-shaking by the authors.

(I’ll say this for the Miss Minifies: even as, in Family Pictures, they had the nerve to condemn fox-hunting, here they make a mockery of duelling, with a planned encounter between Charles Hallifax and Colonel Stanhope over a perceived grievance ending in the two young men agreeing that there’s really nothing to fight about, and becoming friends instead.)

After lengthy passages of courtship (honest and otherwise) and persiflage, the narrative suddenly take a dark turn. There is a violent confrontation between the Hallifax brothers when Charles positively declines courting Emily, on the grounds of his feelings for Lady Lucy. The brothers’ next encounter, however, finds Sir James wracked with guilt and remorse and misery, and obliquely confessing to having deceived and defrauded Charles, though he does not tell him why. Charles responds with brotherly and Christian forgiveness, and many solemn pronunciations of his own faith, his belief in heavenly forgiveness and the efficacy of sincere repentance; all of which which has a rather unexpected result:

    My dear brother, examine the materials of which your heart is formed: Is not the innate character of God impressed on it, however choaked or obscured by false opinions?
    Enough, enough, I am satisfied; your arguments have convinced meL retire, that I may consider and digest them: when I am disposed to hear you further, I will desire your company.
    This he spoke with so much composure, that Mr Hallifax withdrew; but hardly had he gone from the door, when the sudden explosion of a pistol recalled him.
    He ran back: The first sight with which his eyes were saluted, was his miserable brother weltering in his blood, and his brains scattered on the floor…

We then learn that Sir James had given in to impulse and revealed his paternity to his illegitimate son, who until that moment believed himself the son of the foster parents paid to care for him. Sir James did not, however, reveal the various disgraceful transactions that brought about the boy’s birth (seduction, abandonment, death in miserable circumstances, etc.)—but not understanding the reticences with which the story was told, the foster-father, Delany, later blurts out the whole ugly story. The double shock is too much for the young man, who collapses in a raging fever. A frightened Delany sends for Sir James:

    Roused by the sound of his son’s voice, he started from his drousy posture, and mad with ungovernable joy, ran to the bed, opened the curtains, and made himself known with so little caution, that he drove reason a second time from her throne, just as she was beginning to resume her empire.
    The sight of Sir James made so strong an impression on his imagination, that the idea of his unfortunate mother returned, on whom he was incessantly calling, during his delirium, in the most pathetic, the most melting terms.
    In short, a scene of so great horror is hardly to be described; or if described, scarce to be supported. Death at length stepped in, to drive these dreadful phantoms from his imagination. The twelfth day of his illness he expired in the arms of his distracted father.

This diversion having reached its conclusion, The Picture settles down to the resolution of its romantic plots. Colonel Stanhope and Louisa Orey fall in love, while Sir Charles Hallifax declares himself to Lady Lucy, which brings Lord and Lady Castledale to London. The countess and Emily are immediately drawn to one another, with consequences the latter neither expects nor wants:

    My dear, said Mrs Stanley smiling, can you guess what has been the subject of my conference with Sir Thomas?
    Nothing that displeases you, madam, I presume—
    Displeases! no, my Emily, you will be convinced I am not displeased when I tell you Lord Richmond, the son of our amiable countess, who already loves you as her daughter, Lord Richmond, the honour of our nobility, offers my child an alliance: an alliance that, I am satisfied, will make her happy: an alliance, on which all my hopes are founded.
    The dreadful knell which summons the guilty criminal to his fate, sounds in his ear less terrible than these words did in Miss Stanley’s…

Guess where this is headed? – although not, of course, before Emily gets jerked around one last time.

I’ve remarked on The Picture‘s tampering with the prevailing conventions in its main love-plot, albeit that the plot in question finally works itself out in the most predictable of ways. The only other thing of real note in this novel is the course of non-stop lying to which the girls are subjected.

One of the most cherished tenets of 18th and 19th century literature was that there was nothing worse than a lie: that lying could never be excused, and that the end never justified the means. There are entire novels devoted to depicting the inevitably disastrous consequences of even the mildest white lie.

Yet in The Picture, the supposedly wise and upright Mrs Stanley does nothing from start to finish but tell lies in order to achieve her ends. She lies to Emily and Louisa about their situation in life and their obligations to Mrs Berkley; she lies to them constantly about her conversations with the Stanleys and Mr Howard; she even lies about Mr Howard’s state of health, when she wants an excuse to relocate the girls in a hurry. It turns out that it was she who planted the letter in the dressing-room, as an indirect way of revealing to the girls their true status, and of testing Emily’s obedience and moral fortitude—giving her the picture of Harry purely in order to ask her to give it up again. The novel’s climax involves her deliberately leading Emily to suppose that she is to be compelled to marry one man while she loves another.

What the hell?

It is impossible to know how to interpret this example of what we might call education-through-deceit: whether it represents an early literary example of realism superseding didacticism, or whether – in light of what we know of the Miss Minifies’ involvement in some highly questionable transactions (considered here and here) – this aspect of The Picture is, rather, an unconscious illustration of the ladies’ own moral blindness.

 

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5 Comments to “The Picture”

  1. “That these tactics almost invariably resulted in a less effective work of fiction was, evidently, considered of less importance than the financial gains to be achieved by breaking a single novel into pieces for sale and hire.”

    By coincidence, I was just listening to Lindsay Ellis’s dissection of the Hobbit film trilogy…

  2. There’s nothing worse than Fea Fickness, is there?
    Seriously, reading this while pronouncing all the Fs would definitely improve the story.

    • It’s interesting how your eyes stop seeing that after a while, unless you hit a word which isn’t immediately decipherable.

      Of course as you note it does sometimes give rise to something that interrupts the flow with giggles. 😀

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