Posts tagged ‘French Revolution’


Isn’t it romantic?

    There are faults in the sentimental novel other than the lack of variety and depth in characterization. The poorer sort of author catered to the tastes of the circulating-library reader and to hold her attention he pandered to her yearning for excitement by providing material that grew more and more stimulating, and so ran the scale from the pathetic through the journalistic, the bizarre, the pathological, and finally, after jettisoning almost all intellectual cargo, arrived at melodrama. And he used stock themes and situations, such as the prodigal’s return, the benevolent tableau, the call of the blood, the tearful farewell, the fainting fit, and tear tracking.
    However, not all of the sentimental novelists were mediocre. Some had remarkable ability, and nearly all of them are still interesting. Their novels picture the life of the eighteenth century as seen from the point of view of writers whose estimate of man was generous—too generous, as it proved—and are significant because in them there was a notable development of the sensitiveness which is essential to progress in narrative fiction.




From the open-mindedness and willingness to engage with minor novelists expressed in his introduction, I was prepared to enjoy James R. Foster’s work, History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England – but I was not necessarily expecting to find it perhaps the most unusual “rise of the novel” study I’ve ever encountered. Almost all such studies go to immense pains to draw distinctions between the English “novel” and the European “romance”, and are predicated upon the assumption that it is possible – indeed, necessary – to define the former in terms of its difference from the latter. James Foster, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that far from being separate forms with nothing in common, the novel and the romance were inexorably linked, and that the influence of each upon the other zig-zagged back and forth for some 150 years.

It is in this context that Foster takes his study far beyond the narrow bounds of those novels and novelists generally taken these days to properly represent the 18th century. The usual suspects – Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, Burney – are given their due here, but are presented as standing shoulder to shoulder with now-forgotten writers whose works did not outlive their day. Foster contends that, during the second half of the 18th century in particular, sentimental novels dominated the English literary scene, and that the few, more realist works now accepted as “classics” give a skewed impression of what people were reading. While the more romantic works have not survived the way their realistic brethren have, in Foster’s opinion they nevertheless better reflect the contradictory and warring attitudes of their time.

Another unusual and interesting thing about this book is the way that Foster organises his study. After a background section (to which we will frequently refer) discussing sentimentality as a backlash against the perceived coldness and calculation of the Age of Reason, and related factors such as the rise of Deism, Foster works chronologically through the 18th century, nominating what he considers to be the most influential work of each time and type, and then discussing the novels they influenced. Writing in the dim, distant, pre-electronic access days of 1949, Foster not only assumes that his readers will not have read most of the works he is analysing, but that they will never have a chance to do so. Consequently, he pauses frequently in this book to provide lengthy summaries of various novels so that the reader can follow his analyses. Personally, I chose to skip over most of these synopses, because of course I’m eventually going to read EVERY SINGLE NOVEL discussed in this book—right??

Although we have already discussed the pros and cons of the sentimental novel at this blog, and will doubtless do so again, Deism as such is not something we’ve yet encountered. Briefly (I hope not too inaccurately), Deism is a form of religion that finds its faith through a combination of reason and appreciation of the natural world, and which rejects the idea of man as inherently corrupt; believing, rather, than man is corrupted by society and its institutions. It can be imagined how in the 18th century Deism stood in opposition to many of the tenets of the Age of Reason, and that it attracted scorn and criticism as a consequence. Furthermore, since the established church was one of the institutions considering corrupt and corrupting by Deists, denouncing from the pulpit was common. While the principles of Deism were increasingly disseminated during the 18th century, it was never an accepted viewpoint, but rather one to be espoused with caution. James Foster makes the amusing point here that many novels of the time derided Deism, even while their characters were clearly embracing its beliefs.

Foster begins his study of the novel with a brief overview of pre-18th century literature, which he designates likewise “pre-sentimental”. The focus here is upon the French romances of the time, those by Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame de La Fayette, and others, and their influence upon English writers – the most important of whom he considers to be Aphra Behn. Although in Foster’s opinion Behn was not herself a sentimentalist (he’s right!!), he shows both how her Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister paved the way for the sentimentalists’ main vehicle, the epistolary novel, and how in Oroonoko she crystalised the idea of what would become one of the sentimentalists’ most cherished icons, the “noble savage”.

When I reviewed History And The Early English Novel, I objected to Robert Mayer’s attempt to position Daniel Defoe as the ur-figure in the history of the English novel on the grounds that, among other things, he failed to demonstrate Defoe’s influence upon subsequent novelists. But perhaps there was a reason for that failure; not that it didn’t happen, but that it took an unfortunate form. Here, James Foster wraps up the introductory phase of his work by nominating two authors who clearly were influenced by Defoe: Penelope Aubin in England, and the Abbé Prévost in France – neither one of whom showed the slightest interest in copying Defoe’s harsh realism, but instead lifted a variety of incidents from his works, chiefly the shipwrecks, and wove around them extravagant romances.

In time, as Foster demonstrates, Prévost’s tales circled back and influenced a number of English novelists including Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke and, perhaps above all, Henry Mackenzie, whose The Man Of Feeling represents the ne plus ultra of the sentimentalism movement. Hardly the effect Defoe was striving for, one imagines. Foster suggests that the overriding sense of inescapable destiny in Prévost’s tales appealed to the English sentimentalists, particularly those fond of an unhappy ending.

However, it is another writer upon whom Prévost  modelled his writing that Foster tags as the most critical influence upon the early English sentimental novel: Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, author of the unfinished novels, La Vie de Marianne and Le Paysan Parvenu:

    …he was not much of a philosopher. In Marianne he wrote that the intellect was too much of a fanciful dreamer to be depended on in learning about ourselves. The real clue to human nature was sentiment. His point of view was conditioned by deistic ideas, yet in his novels these were pushed into the background by the all-absorbing interest which he took in human conduct. Doubtless his insistent disapproval of authoritarian ethics and religion derived from deistic anti-clericalism, as did also the large number of false devotees and selfish and stupid spiritual directors in his novels. But there was no bitter hate…
    He was interested in the common people; his sympathy for them was genuine. Because all men are interdependent, he thought the rich under an obligation to relieve the poor. The rich man or the aristocrat who had nothing to recommend him but power or rank disgusted him. Marianne is partly an attack on the privileges of birth. Portions of this novel reveal a surprising interest in domestic life and its problems… In Marianne he gave realistic pictures of the social conditions of the poor and studies of the mentalities of the common people…

La Vie de Marianne, known in its English translation as The Virtuous Orphan, was published in eleven volumes across eleven years, 1731 – 1741, and in fact was never officially “finished”. The story of an orphan of uncertain birth, whose nobility therefore lies in her conduct rather than her family, Marianne embraces two of the sentimentalists’ most cherished beliefs, the lack of connection between “virtue” and “rank”, and the moral superiority of the country over the city. However, the most significant aspect of this novel, which came over time to be referred to (not always with kindly intention) as “marivaudage” was the characters’ tendency to analyse in the most minute detail their thoughts, feelings and motivations. Marivaux displays similar attention to detail in his presentation of domestic, chiefly middle-class, life.

An argument begun in 1740 and still flaring up from time to time in academic circles to this day is the influence of Marivaux upon Richardson—something that Richardson himself always denied, and a number of critics have likewise disputed. However, it is hard not to see something of Marianne in Richardson’s virtuous servant, Pamela, and more than a little of his style in the circumstantial accounts of themselves given by the characters of Sir Charles Grandison and Clarissa.

But whether we consider them one influence or two, Marivaux and Richardson were  largely responsible for the direction subsequently taken by one significant stream of English novel-writing. While many of the important English writers of the time, chiefly Fielding and Smollet, were turning the picaresque tale to their own purposes, others were drawing upon the detailed accounts of day-to-day life of the two arch-sentimentalists to give new power and interest to the female-focused, domestic novel. Fanny Burney, whose Evelina and Cecilia, in particular, won new respectability and admiration for this brand of writing and paved the way for both Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, did not hesitate to acknowledge her profound indebtedness to Marivaux; a fact that highlights the fundamental difficulty of trying to separate (surgically, as it were) the English realist novel and the French romance.

James Foster’s main interest, however, lies less with these these well-known, acceptable writers, as with the second tier that flourished during the second half of the 18th century, when the novel came into its own as England’s dominant literary form. In a chapter rather charmingly titled “Some Early English Sentimentalists And Some Odd Ones”, Foster takes a running look at the works of Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, and Mary Collyer, who “wrote the first out-and-out deistic novel in the English language”.

Collyer in fact published one of the first English translation of Marianne, a free adaptation in which, according to Foster, “She omitted some of the marivaudage, added reflections of her own which are an interesting blend of Richardsonian and deistic moralizing, and furnished a happy ending.” Collyer’s deistic work is Letters From Felicia To Charlotte, an epistolary novel published in 1744. Collyer herself draws a distinction between “romances” and her work, emphasising her devotion to “truth and nature”; and this would be the line of argument used by most subsequent writers and critics. The subtitle of the novel declares: Containing a series of the most interesting events, interspersed with moral reflections: chiefly tending to prove that the seeds of virtue are implanted in the mind of every reasonable being. The moral reflections, observes Foster, which are:

…usually put in the mouth of the hero Lucius, constitute a complete handbook of deism. Indeed, the discussion of ideas often weighs down the story part of the novel…The Letters From Felicia is notable chiefly for its oriiginality, yet it should also be remembered for its unassuming modesty and its keeping within the bounds of ordinary life… Her novel demonstrates how the head and the heart function in perfect harmony. The villain, as is usual in a deistic novel, is a religious hypocrite. The praise of Nature, “equally lovely in all her works,” disquisitions on the moral sense, tolerance, providence and similar topics, interest in the child and education, and a belief in the dignity and essential goodness of man—all these are deistic.

Foster’s “odd ones”, by the way, are John Shebbeare, Thomas Amory and William Dodd, “the macaroni parson”, all of whom deserve more space than I can give them here.

In “The Great And Near-Great”, Foster considers Richardson – Grandison and Clarissa, rather than Pamela – Fielding, Goldsmith, Smollet and Sterne. On a personal note, I don’t thank him at all for this chapter, which has almost persuaded me that I need to take another look at Smollet, who I hated with a passion during my first sweep through “the history of the English novel” some twenty-odd years ago. (Here I will pause to make the exception that everyone always makes about Smollet—except for Humphry Clinker.) Foster makes a persuasive case here for the influence of Smollet upon a range of interesting second-tier novelists—although seeing his virtues requires the reader to look past his misanthropy and tendency to wallow in nastiness, no easy task, as Foster admits. (These days, I tend to look upon Smollet as a descendent of Richard Head.)

In respect of Sterne, it his not his Tristram Shandy that Foster highlights here, although he draws attention to the influence of its generous humanism, but rather A Sentimental Journey. The former was inimitable, but the latter provoked an explosion of imitations, and was indirectly responsible for the tear-soaked school of sentimental writing headed by The Man Of Feeling. Sterne, says Foster:

 …wished to make his audience cry and then laugh, for he thought life without the spirit of humour intolerable, just as without feeling it was cold and empty… The man without a sense of the ridiculous is to be pitied as much as the man without a feeling heart. 

Unfortunately, most of Sterne’s imitators disagreed with his opinion of the importance of humour, or perhaps lacked the necessary literary skills. During the following decades, even the better writers tended towards unhappy tales of afflicted heroines; while less talented one produced tales so exaggeratedly lachrymous and full of death and disaster that they very often became inadvertently funny. Of the more respectable imitators of Sterne, Foster highlights Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Susannah and Margaret Minifie, Elizabeth Griffith, Hugh Kelly, Edward Bancroft, Arthur Young and Henry Brooke, before paying some reluctant but necessary attention to Henry Mackenzie:

he was all for seemliness, propriety, verbal delicacy, piety, and decorum. But he did not have a tenth part of Sterne’s sprightliness or a sign of his wit. He was a solemn, stuffy person, precisely the type Sterne most detested. He allowed but one indulgence—luxuriating in tears and the damp atmosphere of lachrymous effusion… In The Man Of Feeling the author asks the reader to pity a hero whose feelings are so intense and delicate that they devitalize his will… He really prefers having the odds against himself heavy, for then his self-esteem will suffer less if he loses. His are not the pleasures of success but of resignation…

Foster describes The Man Of Feeling‘s infamous closing scene, in which the emotion of finding out that the woman he loves returns his affections kills the delicate Harley, as:

…the apotheosis of sentimental passivity and so forced that it seems almost farcial to the modern reader. Sentimentalists of that day, however, revelled in its semi-morbid emotionalism.

Indeed. The Man Of Feeling ran through no less than forty-six editions (!?). Foster goes on to point out a number of novels inspired by Harley and his determination to finish last at every possible opportunity:  John Chater’s The History Of Tom Rigby, John Heriot’s Sorrows Of The Heart, William Hutchinson’s The Doubtful Marriage, Edward Davies’ Elisa Powell; or, The Trials Of Sensibility and the anonymous Wanley Penson; or, The Melancholy Man and The Amiable Quixote. And while no-one, to my knowledge, had ever made a claim for these books in terms of their literary merit, I must say that I find it fascinating that this particular sub-branch of the sentimental novel, in which the most extreme and exaggerated emotionalism is lauded, is almost exclusively the work of men.

In parallel with these nakedly emotional works, another important form of the sentimental novel was beginning to develop, in response to startling world events and the increasing demands of the reading public for fuel for their imaginations as well as their emotions:

In the seventeen-eighties there appeared still more signs indicating how far the drift away from Augustan serenity, restraint, and disposition to preserve what was established had borne the minds of man. As classical ideals receded, emotional temperatures rose and imaginations soared. The atmosphere was charged with the expectation of great ansd sweeping changes soon to come. The hopes of the deists and other liberals in sympathy with French reform movements were raised by the train of exciting events climaxed by the fall of the Bastille. This decade and the next marked the heyday of the ultra-sentimental novel and the romain noir or “Gothic” romance…

Here, in contrast to what we might call the “realist” sentimental novel, we find the ladies almost entirely in charge – at least in England. Here again the French romance intrudes, in the shape of the influential works of Baculard D’Arnaud, “the French Mackenzie”. Foster quotes the European Magazine, which described D’Arnaud’s works as, Characterized by their moral tendency as well as for the energy and beauty of his diction. His colouring is frequently tinged with melancholy; a melancholy, however, that makes the deepest impression on the reader’s feelings. Foster follows this by giving an overview of those English writers who he believes were most strongly influenced by D’Arnaud—our old friend Clara Reeve, Sophia and Harriet Lee, Anna Maria Mackenzie, and Elizabeth Blower, whose novels constitute a sliding-scale from genuine historical novels, to heavily romanticised works in which “history” is merely an excuse, to the Gothic novels set in an entirely imaginary past.

The third significant branch of late 18th century novels come under the simple chapter heading, “Liberal Opinions”—the works of the so-called “radicals”. Of course, like most labels, the term “radical” ending up embracing a wide spectrum of beliefs, from a forthright embrace of revolutionary principles to a patient conviction of the eventual triumph of the better side of man. What these works do have in common, however, is that they are works of ideas—sometimes to the detriment of their ability to entertain. Invariably, they express a philosophy of the interconnectedness of man, and man’s responsibility to man, while scorning the notion that virtue is a function of birth or wealth. There is often a generosity of spirit about these works that is unexpected and appealing, particularly in their expression of views that were perceived at the time as genuinely radical and dangerous, such as the equality of the sexes. While they rarely espouse mainstream Christianity, these novels do evince a deistic view of God in nature; their leading belief is “benevolence”.

These “radical” novels were, as you might imagine, not always well received. Three writers who did find literary success, or at least notoriety, are considered here: Robert Bage, Charlotte Smith, and Thomas Holcroft—all of whom, I am happy to admit, I enjoy very much; call me a revolutionary. What the three had most in common was not their specific beliefs, but their appropriation of the sentimental novel as a vehicle for their political views.

Thomas Holcroft’s novels suffer from his inability successfully to translate his theories into convincing stories, but his Anna St Ives is a curiously compelling work in which the upper-class heroine prefers a well-educated farmer’s son to the local rake-aristocrat, who takes the situation as an unforgiveable personal affront.

(What I always remember most about Anna St Ives, however, is that it is the only—and I mean the ONLY—English novel I have ever read that has its hero refuse to fight a duel on principle, and then stand firm in the face of scorn and ostracism. Most of them – including Sir Charles Grandison chicken out of taking a moral stand on the subject, out of fear of their hero looking “unmanly”: “Duelling is wrong! – but if you insist…” )  

Robert Bage’s novels, on the other hand, although wordy and rambling and over-reliant on coincidence, are readable and often startlingly progressive. Moreover, Bage clearly liked women, and his heroines are flesh-and-blood people, not mere moral constucts. Though he disapproved of many aspects of society, Bage was a peaceful man who also disapproved of violence. His tales often involve a self-contained community operating on principles of equality and mutual support.

The one genuine radical to be found in this crowd is Charlotte Smith, who despised the English class system and imperialism, and openly supported the American and French Revolutions. Smith got away with her extreme views chiefly because most of the time she was forced to subsume them in novels written almost entirely for financial gain: she was a victim of the 18th century marriage laws, who took up novel-writing to support herself and her twelve children after she was deserted by her husband – who nevertheless turned up from time to time to demand she hand over her earnings, as he was legally entitled to do. (Smith’s first publication, a volume of poetry, was written while she and Benjamin Smith were confined in a debtor’s prison.) While Smith’s larger beliefs are on display more openly that you might anticipate, given her need to appeal to a broad public, her novels most often deal with what Fanny Burney called “female difficulties”—the struggle of women to maintain themselves and their self-respect in a harsh and predatory world.

Smith’s novels were also a way for her to channel her “unwomanly” anger with her husband and his family, against whom she fought for countless years a lawsuit over a property that she believed hers by marriage settlement, and which would have given her both a home for her children and an income. Says Foster with wry sympathy:

Perhaps Charlotte Smith…could have borne in decent silence the burden of bringing up her dozen children under the untoward conditions caused by their father’s proclivities for squandering his money, getting into debtor’s prison, or flying to France to escape prosecution, had it not been for lawyers. Very likely the lawyers received some of the blows she would gladly have bestowed on her husband and his relatives could she have done so without stepping out of her role of the exemplary wife. Yet she did not spare her spouse entirely as she put him in many of her novels as the hare-brained, selfish husband of a long-suffering, clever, sweet and saintly wife—that is, herself. To her mind lawyers were legalized ruffians who deprived her of what was rightfully hers—vampires who sucked the blood of her children. There is no fury like a woman trying to collect, and she was that woman during most of her writing years.

Lawyers do NOT fare well in Charlotte Smith’s novels.

The final novelist considered in this study, who gets a chapter all to herself—and rightly so—is Ann Radcliffe, who across the 1790s made the Gothic novel her own. Foster spends some time analysing the Gothic as a uniquely exaggerated offshoot of the sentimental novel:

    Of course, one can find moral instruction in Mrs Radcliffe’s pages, but she dared to give up pretending that each page was written for edification. Although she did not wish to encourage superstition, she played such a convincing game of “Wolf-Wolf” that she made the hair stand on end and the goose pimples come out. And citing Burke’s Inquiry, she pretended to believe that the effects of such strenuous emotional exercises were beneficial because they expanded the soul and stimulated all the faculties… But she was not really much of a philosopher. Her forte was the imagination. She was the inventor of melodrama in technicolor, the great impresario of beauty, wonder, and terror.
    Her novel stems from the line of Richardson, Prévost, D’Arnaud, Mackenzie, Clara Reeve, the Lee sisters, and Charlotte Smith. It is a special development of the sentimental novel and retains its main features… The atmosphere of her novel is more melodramatic and “wondrous strange” than in the regular type of sentimental narrative. Her heroine, instead of dwelling in a modest cottage in Surrey or Dorset, spends nights of insomnia and nightmare in a Gothic castle in the Apennines or Pyrenees. Strange lands and unfamiliar things take the place of the old familiar surroundings of London and Bath. The heroine who used to have desperate trouble with obdurate papas and mammas whose worst threats were to send her to a convent or to confine her to her room and take away all her writing materials now finds herself menaced by dangers so terrible that the mere thought of them brings on fainting fits. Instead of macaronis and young men about town, sinister villains with sin and despair written on their faces plot her undoing… It is a world of the romantic imagination and one that is most effective at twilight and after dark…

Radcliffe, too, had her copyists, of course; and Foster concludes his study with a brief look at the most successful of them: Elizabeth Helme and Regina Maria Roche.

The French Revolution, which began with such high hopes and ended in a bloody nightmare, was a shattering blow to the sentimentalists and their desire to think well of all mankind. Most of them retreated, mortally wounded, and so left the field clear for the cynics and the misanthropes. Yet the sentimental novel did not entirely go away, even as satirical portraits of a corrupt society grew in popularity. Many domestic novelists still embraced elevated principles and high-flown emotions, although they tended to integrate them into tales of young ladies fording the shoals of London society, rather than living in isolation in “Surrey or Dorset”. The Victorian era preached self-control and restraint, but it also embraced the extravagances of Charles Dickens, who managed to turn the sentimental novel into a weapon. “Sentiment”, as a genre, may have died under the guillotine, but “sentiment”, as an abstract, continued to be cherished throughout the 19th century—

—at least until Oscar Wilde had the final word on Little Nell.



Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 3)










The “recent events” referred to in Agatha‘s subtitle, then, are those of the French Revolution. Britain’s reaction to the upheaval in France was peculiarly contradictory. The corruption, licentiousness and brutality of the French system was taken for granted across the channel and habitually held up as the symbol of everything to be depised, as everything that Britain and its government was not – but from 1789 onwards, the Ancien Régime became regarded as the lesser of two evils. The early years of the French Revolution were deeply disturbing to a nation that had not yet recovered from the humiliation of its own Revolutionary War and the subsequent loss of its colonies (in which, of course, the French had played a significant role).

Initially, although the ruling class was  alarmed and horrified by the possibility of revolution spreading to its shores, many in Britain supported and even celebrated the events in France. All that changed, however, when the perversion of the principles upon which the revolution had been founded led first to the execution of Louis XVI and then to the bloodbath of 1793 – 1794. By the time that Elizabeth Jervis was writing Agatha, late in 1795, Louis had been dead for nearly three years, the new Constitutional Republic was a few months old—and Britain and France were at war. Some things the Revolution had not changed.

Agatha’s taking of her vows occurs late in 1789, when the Revolution was in its earliest phase; but we hear nothing about that. Instead, we are given a sketchy and not entirely convincing account of the new Sister Constance’s adjustment to her life, in which her secular interests figure as prominently as her religious duties. Agatha’s main pleasure in her new position is acting as the convent’s chief almoner, dispensing its not inconsiderable wealth amongst the deserving poor and in the process earning herself a third identity, becoming known as “the Angel of Auvergne”. Otherwise, we hear a great deal about the presents she receives from Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, who have relocated to France and bought an estate near to the convent, and about the visits of Agatha’s friend, Mrs Herbert, who has joined a travelling party in order to have the opportunity of seeing her. Again, the main thrust of this is to remind us of what Agatha has given up to fulfil her mother’s vow, and the extent of her self-sacrifice.

Agatha has been Sister Constance for two years before Mrs Herbert’s visit, and another passes fleetingly before the story settles down to be told again in detail. It is only when “the Revolution” starts to become “the Terror” that Elizabeth Jervis takes an interest in the events going on outside the convent. What follows is a staggeringly one-sided view of the situation. Jervis ignores the early revolutionary phase because, as it soon becomes clear, she has no intention of conceding that the revolutionaries had the slightest justification for their actions. Apart from an admission from the Abbess that, “The power given to the Nobles of our country over the peasantry, however temperately they have used it of late years*, is such as no one, for the honour of human nature, ought to have”, there is hardly a hint in the novel that pre-revolutionary France was anything less than a utopia.

[*emphasis mine]

Elizabeth Jervis was by no means the only English writer to react like this to the Revolution, which provoked a wave of astonishingly rose-coloured looks back at traditional French governance; and like many of them, Jervis’s keynote is ingratitude. At one point, the story of Agatha becomes a series of anecdotes about generous, right-thinking, self-sacrificing French aristocrats who dedicated their fortunes and their lives to looking after their peasants, and this is the thanks they get for it? There is a reference to “the sublime spectacle of a King giving liberty to his subjects – a King, whose humanity, and desire to make them happy entitled him to the adoration of his people”, without any indication of the series of events that brought about that particular “spectacle”. Later, a peasant family takes Agatha in and hides her from the pursuing mob: it comes as no surprise at all when we learn that they are fallen nobility, “degraded to the rank of Plebians”. Finally, we are repeatedly told that the revolutionaries who arrive to sack the convent, and who subsequently shun or attack its former inhabitants, were the very people who queued up to take its charity. Even as we hear of none but completely unselfish nobles, there is no hint here that the wealth of the covent was accumulated for any reason but to disperse it in charitable works.

As events in France threaten to engulf the convent, Agatha is beset on two fronts. First, Sir Charles and Lady Belmont are denounced as aristocrats, and must flee for their lives, their attempt to arrange Agatha’s removal from the convent thwarted. Cut off from her parents and in ignorance of their fate, in danger as both an aristocrat and as a nun, when the revolutionaries storm the convent Agatha manages to escape but is separated from her companions and must begin her dangerous journey on her own, still dressed in her habit. Seeking assistance from the those along her way, Agatha is either rejected in fear of the consequences, or ridiculed and abused. Jervis gets herself in a bit of a bind here: her use of irreligion to emphasise the degenerate state of the peasantry is undermined by the fact that the peasants’ attitude to nuns really isn’t that much different from her own: “Une Fanatique – une Religeuse!

From the perspective of literary history, this section of Agatha is rather intriguing. Two years earlier, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries Of Udolpho had defined a new genre, the Gothic novel, inspiring imitations by the score. For almost a decade, English circulating libraries were awash with tales of distant lands, gloomy castles, evil monks, persecuted damsels, and supernatural events that were (usually) explained away at the end. My own favourite consequence of this movement is the subset of novels that in desperation sold themselves as Gothic via titles like “The Secret Of The Abbey“, and then turned out to be completely domestic and realistic.

In Agatha, Elizabeth Jervis also exploits the conventions of the Gothic novel. Thus, Agatha must make a series of frightening journeys in the dark, being pursued through the woods surrounding the convent. She takes refuge in a hidden cavern beneath a ruined monastery, where she discovers living in retreat another victim of the situation, Father Albert (he who advises her to forget her vows). Later, captured by the revolutionaries, Agatha finds herself sharing a prison cell with a dead baby; while Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, forced against their wills to accept “hospitality” from another group of revolutionaries, are confronted by their own imminent fate when they discover a secret “murder room” containing the dead and mutilated bodies of their hosts’ earlier victims. These sudden detours into graphic horror in what is otherwise an extremely hardcore didactic novel, and the fact that Jervis goes in that direction when the reality of the Terror offered, surely, enough factual opportunities for graphic horror, are a clear indication of the contemporary dominance of the Gothic novel. You are sure they are all horrid?, indeed.

There are shifts and twists throughout Agatha that hold the interest even when it stumbles as a piece of writing, and we get another one when the novel abruptly forsakes Gothic horror for politics. However, even as Elizabeth Jervis’s own religious prejudices undermine her depiction of the revolutionaries, her reluctance to admit that the peasants may have had a point interferes with her various expressions of patriotic fervour: she keeps comparing France unfavourably with England, even while refusing to admit that things were really all that bad in France.

The same speech in which she concedes that the French aristocracy may have had just a leetle too much power finds the Abbess admitting to Agatha and Mrs Herbert, “I have often looked with envy towards your country, where the same laws protect the person and property of the peasant as of the lord.” St Valorie, the fallen noble who tries to save Agatha from the mob, also utters an empassioned speech about England: “Happy, happy country, if you knew your own happiness… Had this been the government, these the laws of France – !”

St Valorie’s next words are even more telling:

“Even this government, excellent as it is, may not be perfect; there may exist faults which you say it is the opinion of many might be rectified; but it is not the season to begin to repair your own house when its foundations have recently been shaken by the shock given to the surrounding earth when that of your neighbour fell…and when the imperfections of yours, if not imaginary, are, at least, so trifling that you may reside in it with comfort and convenience in its present state…”

Here we find Elizabeth Jervis’s rose-coloured glasses perched firmly on her nose again. This time of trifling imperfections of government was that of a yawning gulf between the rich and the poor, and of parallel abuses of the law. Not for nothing did the ruling class of England fear that the revolutionary fever might take hold there. What’s more, the further this passage goes on – and it goes on – the louder becomes the tone of reproof, the more obvious the finger-wag at the working classes, who should just accept their narrow lot and not be so ungrateful as to ask for more. 

Note, too, the simultaneous finger-wag at the home-grown reformers – one that is almost comically familiar: Hey, if you don’t like it here, go live in— Wherever. In this case, Revolutionary France. I’ve never quite understood why conditions being worse in some other country frees a government from any obligation to try and improve conditions in its own country, but it seems that they do – and, apparently, always have.

There’s a closing point I want to make about Agatha, but before I do, it is necessary to first take a look at another of Elizabeth Jervis’s prejudices. There is a curious passage – curious in light of Jervis’s subsequent marriage to an abolitionist – in which an acquaintance of Agatha’s remarks, “There are two kinds of people I have always wanted to talk to, and those are, nuns and negroes” – going on to add that she has often wondered, “Whether negroes are really so cruelly treated as Mr Sharp and Mr Wilberforce say they are.” This is not the first reference to slavery in the novel. As you may recall, Edward Hammond is himself enslaved in Algiers, the single white man amongst a host of black slaves. His eventual rescue puts Elizabeth Jervis in another of her personal binds, as the fact that Hammond ups and leaves without any attempt to free his companions hardly gels with her depiction of him as “the soul of nobility and sensibility”.

To get around this (she thinks), she has Hammond pause on the brink of freedom and reflect, “Had the companions of my toil evinced the smallest traces of compassion for my sufferings, or even appeared sensible of their own, I could not have parted from them without compunction of heart…but they had always seemed unconscious of their own misfortunes and regardless of mine, which at this minute was a consolation to me, and prevented even the shadow of a regret at leaving them behind me…”

The native insensibility of its victims was a common justification of slavery at the time, of course, and this sophistical manoeuvring on the part of Hammond / Jervis would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for an unexpected piece of juxtapositioning. One of the subplots of Agatha concerns a long-term friend of Hammond’s, a Jew named Aaron Israeli, who was “hated and ridiculed by every other in the school” when Hammond took him under his wing. We don’t see much of Israeli ourselves over the course of the novel, but we hear quite a bit about him – and he is unfailingly generous, noble and loyal. It is he who rescues Hammond from slavery, and at considerable personal cost.

Casual, and not-so-casual, anti-Semitism would be a common feature of English literature for the next 150 years, with even otherwise liberal writers often lapsing on this point. We would hardly call Elizabeth Jervis “liberal”, considering the rest of her novel. Agatha in its entirety is a strange mix of piety and prejudice. Some of its excesses we laugh at, some (I hope) we wince at; but with her sketch of Aaron Israeli, she takes us entirely by surprise. In and of itself a welcome piece of generosity, in the context of the novel that contains it, it is nothing short of astonishing.



Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 2)








While Elizabeth Jervis gets points for coming up with so unexpected a plot twist as confronting her heroine with the prospect of life in a convent, it is upon this twist that her novel founders – or rather, upon the attitude that underlies her handling of it.

During this time and, indeed, across much of the 19th century, the English anti-Catholic novel was nothing uncommon. Many of those novels were virulently negative in their view of “the Romish faith” and sincere in their belief in the threat it posed to England…but Agatha isn’t really like that. It has few good words for Catholicism as such, granted, but the overriding feel of the novel is a perfectly English and perfectly Protestant bewilderment as to why anyone would want to be Catholic – let alone a nun. It’s not hostile, merely confused.

This confusion undermines the story. We are told in passing that “Agatha had been raised in her mother’s faith”, but there is absolutely no sense of either she or Lady Belmont as a devoted, practising Catholic; no hint as to when or where they attend Mass and go to confession. We hear much about Agatha’s “religion” but it’s all very generic. Nothing in the early stages of the novel prepares us for believing that Lady Belmont would make and keep such an oath.

The other major problem is the character of Sir Charles Belmont, who despite retaining his own faith accepts the necessary sacrifice of his daughter and acts in concert with his wife to raise Agatha so as to prepare her for it. We in turn must accept that he believes that his wife will be eternally damned if she does not succeed in persuading Agatha to enter a convent – or at least that he believes that she believes it – but as the character is sketched, it is easier to imagine him putting down a Protestant foot and exclaiming, “Nonsense!”

However, Elizabeth Jervis’s failure to convince the reader on this point actually creates an extremely interesting tension throughout the rest of the novel. It is clear that Jervis could think of no greater sacrifice in life than entering a convent; no more extreme way for Agatha to exhibit her self-control, her mastery of her own passions and her filial devotion. In short, Agatha wins her author’s unqualified approval by doing something that meets with her unqualified disapproval.

Once Lady Belmont has explained the situation, Agatha is left to make her decision as to whether or not she can and will renounce the world – which means renouncing Edward Hammond, and life as a wife and a mother. Her choice is made no simpler by the fact that every other character in the novel thinks that becoming a nun is wrong, not just for Agatha, but generally.

Agatha takes the usual* Protestant standpoint that entering a convent is not an act of devotion, but an act of cowardice, a retreat from the temptations and challenges of the world; while the choosing of “a Heavenly Spouse” over an earthly one is both wasteful and unnatural. Almost every person that Agatha encounters expresses this opinion to a greater or lesser degree, reacting to her dilemma with unconcealed horror and sympathy.

(*Usual in this era, anyway, some fifty years before the founding of the first English Anglican convents, which were in any case viewed with similar if not equal disapproval.)

These scenes climax in a series of sickly comic passages involving Hannah, the Belmonts’ Malaprop-spouting housemaid, who upon getting wind of the scheme denounces “these nasty abominable nun notions” and encourages Agatha to run off with either of the young men seen lurking in the vicinity of the house – marriage being “a holy constitution”. (The second is William Milson, for whom Agatha is his latest hopeless passion.)

More seriously, Agatha is confronted by a vision of what she is giving up in the shape of Jemima Simmonds, who becomes the object of her sympathy after circumstances force the young woman to choose between her lover and her duty to care for the grandmother who raised her, and who is now ill and unable to be moved. The always over-the-top Mr Ormistace intervenes in the situation and reunites the estranged lovers, and Agatha is later forced to listen to Jemima’s panagyric on a life of earthly, wedded love, literally love in a cottage, where, “Our brown loaf and homemade cheese eats so sweet a lord might envy us… O Madam, them only that love and are married know what it is to be happy!”

This scene leads to one of the novel’s most drily funny moments, when Lady Belmont, who has listened to this and seen its effect upon Agatha with dismay, deflates her dangerous emotion by remarking to her daughter, “A white loaf and Parmesan cheese would not have excited a tear in either of us”, then in a flash of inspiration points out that Jemima has, in fact, been rewarded for her filial devotion. Agatha, to her credit, sees through her mother’s tactics, but is too worn down to combat them. It is, in fact, the very next day that she gives Lady Belmont the promise she seeks, and agrees to fulfil her mother’s oath by becoming a nun.

Now, you might think that upon leaving Protestant England for Catholic France, Agatha would find some support for her decision, but you’d be wrong. No-one in France thinks she’s doing the right thing, either – including the others in the convent – where if anyone has taken the veil out of a sense of vocation, we’re certainly not introduced to them.

The motives of the Abbess, who becomes “a second mother” to Agatha (I’m honestly not sure if that description was intended ironically or not), are not explored, so we’re at liberty to believe in her religious sincerity. Be that as it may, the Abbess seems to put most of her energy into discouraging her noviciates from taking the veil. Among the nuns themselves, we meet only two, neither of whom has renounced the world with a free heart or an easy spirit. Agatha’s closest friend, Sister Agnes, entered the convent following her betrayal by, and the subsequent misery and death of, her fiancé. Later, at a moment of high drama, Agnes will endanger Agatha’s life and her own by returning to her cell for her one earthly treasure, a miniature of her former lover to which she still clings.

Meanwhile, there’s Sister Frances, who drew the short straw amongst her overly numerous sisters. Frances makes no bones about her belief that, since her vows were made under compulsion, they’re not binding – nor of her intention to swap the convent for the world and a man at the first opportunity. (Frances also likes to amuse herself by dressing up in men’s clothes and wandering around the convent grounds, putting the wind up her companions in the process.) The ludicrous climax to this particular plot thread is reached later in the novel, when a Catholic priest who has befriended Agatha admits to her that he does not consider entering a convent as being devoted to Heaven in “the truest sense of the word”, and advises her to just forget about her vows and get married.

However – all of this is intended not to dissuade Agatha from her intention, but to delineate the magnitude of her self-sacrifice, and the depth of the devotion to duty that makes it possible. It is, nevertheless, something of a shock to the reader when Agatha concludes her probationary period undisturbed, and proceeds to the taking of her vows. Even as Lady Belmont screams and faints and has to be carried out of the chapel, Agatha emerges from beneath the black pall as Agatha no longer, but as Sister Constance.

It is now late in the year of 1789 – and the French Revolution is underway…

[To be continued…]