Posts tagged ‘Margaret Minifie’

10/05/2018

Family Pictures (Part 2)

 

    The good man opened the fatal epistle, therefore, with a trembling hand and a heart deeply agitated, and found this new calamity more insupportable than any he had before experienced. He blamed himself as a kind of accessory to the untimely blasting of this tender flower, was amazed at his own remissness in not immediately transplanting it to a more natural soil, and saving this tender pledge, this emblem of their beloved child, from being subject to the capricious flights and giddy management of young unthinking relations, who had not the same call, to watch with carefulness over her.
    Mrs Parker said in a heart-wounding accent, that her Eliza had exhausted all her tears, nor had she one left for poor Louisa; but, continued she, I hope, the measure of my affliction is now completed, and that it will not be long before we are all re-united in that glorious state, exempt from misfortunes, where sin and sorrow are no more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first volume of Family Pictures, as we have seen (and quoted), opens with a standard scree about the rewards of virtue—part of a preface declaiming the high moral purpose of the novel and its fitness for reading by the young and innocent.

This is how the second volume opens:

Mrs Bentley was so kind to her niece, as to suffer Arabella to beat and pinch her, without check or controul. The poor infant was uneasy for some time, at the great change she experienced, and would alternately call upon her Papa and Mamma to save her; but at length custom began to reconcile her even to the cruel usage…

We’re left to ponder whether the novel’s title was intended to be ironic, or just baldly honest.

The shift in tone and subject matter between the two volumes of Family Pictures, from the familiar sentimentalism of the romance / tragedy of Anthony and Eliza, to the cruelty and crime that set in motion the second half of the narrative, is jolting. We seem, suddenly, to have picked up a different book. Again, we can only wonder if the period’s volume-by-volume publishing style prompted authors to hide their more sinister lights under a bushel, until they were safely into the marketplace—and if readers knew to stick it out through a dull or soppy first volume, in expectation of something better.

Having lost both her parents (mostly, we have to say, through their own faults), poor Louisa emerges as the new focus of Family Pictures, with an all-new plot set in motion by her father’s incredibly stupid decision to leave her to the tender mercies of her uncle, aunt and cousins—who are, as we have seen, devoted to casual cruelty even without the added motivation of Louisa standing between them and the family property.

It is true that Anthony meant for Louisa to be left predominantly with her grandparents; but he took no steps to ensure that this happened—instead trusting the parties involved to take care of it. However – and with a distinct lack of submission to God’s will – Mrs Parker is so devastated by the death’s of her daughter and son-in-law, she isn’t fit for the task of caring for her granddaughter; and since Mr Parker is unfamiliar with the true characters of Daniel and Arabella, he sees no harm in leaving Louisa with her uncle and aunt, at least for the present.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

    [Daniel] judged it very hard to be kept out of seven hundred pounds a year by such a little child. This noble sentiment he frequently revolved in his own mind, before he was so far abandoned as to communicate it to his wife; nor did he abruptly open his heart even to her, but just insinuated that it was a mortifying circumstance, that his brother and sister had not been taken off three years sooner than they were, as Anthony would not then have been excluded from his right by a little snivelling girl…
    Daniel had so much artifice as to leave her to reflect upon what he had hinted, in hopes of drawing a proposal from her of some kind or other, which might bring his purposes to bear, as he chose to appear to follow in this respect rather than lead.

Nope: nothing immoral in THIS novel.

Much oblique back-and-forthing between Daniel and Arabella follows, the upshot of which is a sudden journey to London, the Parkers being left in ignorance of this step until it is too late for them to countermand it. The Bentleys take up residence with Arabella’s aunt, a Mrs Blackiston, a widow in dire financial straits, and without the means to protest the uses she is put to, even if she had the inclination.

It is Mrs Blackiston who proposes an alternative to the outright murder of Louisa. She suggests farming the child out—that they find a poor woman in low circumstances who is willing to take the child in and, effectively, raise her as her own. She further sketches a cover-story that makes Louisa the illegitimate child of an unnamed “great man”, such that the need for secrecy may be stressed without raising questions.

Mrs Blackiston even knows a suitable candidate; though here she perhaps does better than her co-conspirators would have preferred, in that Mrs Brisco is a kind and honest, if rather simple woman, who has suffered many personal misfortunes including the loss of her husband and child. She willingly takes in Louisa, swallowing the story fed to her, and obediently passing the girl – who is now known as “Susan” – off as her own. The two retire to a small cottage in Bedfordshire.

But of course, this is only half of the plot. In order for the Bentleys to gain the property, Louisa must die. They therefore concoct a serious illness, of which they inform the Parkers by letter, along with many expressions of fear and grief, and contrition for having carried such a young child to London. Then the terrified Parkers receive another letter announcing the death of their grandchild…

Here too Mrs Blackiston proves invaluable:

    She applyed…to a body-stealer, to furnish her with the body of a female infant of Louisa’s age… Accordingly the next evening a flag basket was provided for the conveyance of the departed babe, recently committed to the earth by its afflicted parents, but which was almost as speedily taken up by this disturber of the dead.
    The poor little sacrifice to their ambition and avarice had a gentle opiate administered to her that evening, which, taking effect at nine o’clock, they knew would continue in operation ’till twelve the next day… At length the hour of deliverance arrived, and the sleeping babe was successfully conveyed into the carriage, destined to remove her from the knowledge of her relations, friends and fortune. This great work completed, the basket was unpacked, and the lifeless imposition dressed, by the hardened Mrs Blackiston, in a cap and bed-gown of Louisa’s, reserved for the purpose, and being laid in the bed…

Okay. I know that this isn’t our usual scenario, but I’m calling it anyway:

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

For Mrs Parker, this third blow is almost the end, and she sinks into a permanent stupor of grief; while Mr Parker, with a distinct lack of resignation, is in a condition little better.

Despite the violent upheavals in her circumstances, Louisa / Susan revives under the loving care of Mrs Brisco; and she begins to forget her past in her new life as a humble cottager.

Some eleven years are then skipped over, until the next significant landmark in Susan’s life: the coming to her neighbourhood of a wealthy family, the Banstons. The husband and wife have nothing in common and are bitterly estranged; while their peculiarities of temperament and constant warfare make life unpleasant for their children, a boy and a girl of around Susan’s own age. In particular, Mr Banston is a domestic tyrant: his abrupt passions, his instantaneous likes and dislikes and their violent consequences, impacting his entire household:

He was extremely ambitious, and from an anxious pride, that his children should surpass every other person’s, he sometimes led them an uneasy kind of life… He was so accustomed to disapprove of their behaviour and conversation, that when he was present, they acted under continual fear and constraint. It seems, his disposition had been early soured by disappointments, and the loss of a beloved friend, which he had never overcome, so that he, who at twenty was an easy and most amiable youth, now at fifty was become a capricious and intolerable old man.

Mrs Banston, meanwhile, is a kind if underbred woman, weak-minded and easily influenced by stronger wills, who prefers the company of her own servants to that of her husband’s social acquaintances. The family money is hers, though, which only increases the state of ongoing tension.

The mother of Dame Brisco was the the nurse of Mr Banston’s father, and a connection has always been maintained. With her quiet tact and willingness to serve, Dame Brisco makes herself useful to the Banstons in a variety of ways, not least in helping to manage a household where daily tasks are often neglected. Seeing the need for a sewing-woman, she ventures to recommend Susan who, with her neatness of person, steady habits and fine work, is soon a fixture in the house. She becomes, indeed, almost a companion to Caroline Banston, and shares some of her lessons; acquiring smatterings of both education and accomplishments.

Consequently, when Charles Banston returns home after an absence of some months on a visit to his grandmother, he finds his family rather startlingly supplemented:

Master Charles soon informed himself by his sister’s means of all the internal graces and valuable endowments of this young girl, whose person had so exceedingly engaged his admiration, and he secretly wished, that fortune had been more liberal in her favours, so as to have enabled this master-piece of Nature to have shone in a less humble light. In consequence of these impressions he treated her with the utmost respect and kindness on every occasion; for two years together that this brother and sister were inseparable, now in all these youthful pursuits and diversions Susan had a share along with them, nor, indeed, could they enjoy any pleasure without her, her modesty, humility, and good nature recommending her most irresistibly to their favour.

But of course this pastoral interlude cannot last; and after a visit to some old acquaintances in Worcestershire, where he spent his youth, Mr Banston comes home to announce that he has arranged an advantageous marriage for Charles—or at least, he has arranged it with her father; he expects Charles to seal the deal when the family comes for a visit.

With visions of Susan dancing in his head, Charles is anything but delighted; though under his father’s scowling gaze he manages to mumble something that might be compliance. Undeceived, his father reacts with one of his volcanic outbursts:

“Ungrateful and insensible wretch, cryed he, is this the utmost sensation thy groveling heart is capable of; this the return for my sollicitude for your advancement? Your veins, I find, are replete with the mean blood of your mother, not one spark of my spirit being in your whole composition; but mark me well, continued he, darting a furious look at the poor dismayed youth, you have but this one alternative in your power, viz. either to marry the lady whom I have chose for you, or to turn out, for I will harbour no disobedient children.”

Charles has little option but to play along. Caroline soon notices his disturbed state of mind and, when he explains to her his situation, tries to console him by suggesting he might like the chosen young lady—which of course prompts him to blurt out his feelings for Susan, much to his sister’s dismay, as she knows that any such connection is impossible.

But whatever apprehensions Charles might be experiencing, the reader has them one-hundred-fold—for there is little doubt about the identity of the young lady in question, given her first action upon arrival at the Banstons’:

…but, added she, this sick beast, turning about and hauling at the same time a poor little puppy out of the carriage by one leg, has made my journey very uncomfortable. Mr Banston would have relieved her of her charge, and expressed some obliging concern for her (as he supposed) little favourite; but she soon gave him to understand, that she was superior to every weak attachment of that kind, and only kept the poor animal for the pleasure of tormenting it.

Sure enough, the visitors are none other than the Bentleys; and the contrast between the attractive but brazen and unfeeling Arabella, and the gentle Susan, is almost too much for Charles—who sees with despair that Arabella is fully informed of the purpose of the visit, and expects his co-operation. His embarrassed shrinking and timid demeanour provoke Arabella, who takes a dislike to him; but she resolves to conceal her feelings until she can see if there is meat more to her taste in the neighbourhood.

Arabella and Caroline are likewise antipathetic; the latter longing for the companionship of Susan, who has been banished to Dame Brisco’s cottage to free up room at table for the visitors. The brother and sister count the minutes until the conclusion of the planned fortnight visit, only to learn that while the senior Bentleys must depart – Mrs Bentley expressing concern over the health of her only son, who (it is implied) is drinking himself into an early grave – Mr Banston persuades Arabella to stay for the entire summer.

The only compensatory aspect of this for the young Banstons is that Susan may now be recalled. Caroline drives over to collect her, in company with Arabella who, mostly out of spite and snobbery, but also having taken one look at Susan’s pretty face, refuses to have a servant admitted to the carriage and orders her to walk instead. The mortified Caroline hastily intervenes, telling Susan to stay at the cottage overnight and to come to the house in the morning, and to bring Dame Brisco with her.

From this incident an infinity of misery results. Recounting the matter to Mrs Banston, Arabella turns it around, complaining of Susan’s “sullen refusal” to walk when denied the carriage. The dull-witted Mrs Banston sees nothing odd in this assertion about a girl well-known for her retiring modesty; and when Susan does arrive, she is stunned to be rebuked for misbehaviour and pride:

She was as yet but a novice to the injustice and unkindness of the rich; nor did she imagine that they conceived themselves licenced to treat their inferiours with occasional contempt and disregard, (without being accountable for their actions) merely from their superior possessions; that the wind was not more uncertain than their favour; that they were out of reach of expostulation, and deaf to conviction; that from their determinations there was no appeal, however disgracefully or unjustly they might discard their favourites; and that the world was prepared to acquit the mighty and condemn the weak, even without a hearing; that in the single epithet rich was comprehended all merit, beauty, grace, and that consequently the horrid sound of poverty conveyed sentiments diametrically opposite…

Ouch! I wonder who Miss Minifie had in mind when penning that passage? – and if this is why she and her sister started writing: because they had to, after someone let them down?

From this point matters go from bad to worse. Arabella doesn’t want Charles, and in fact begins a secret liaison with Mr Banston’s steward, who is the kind of “man of spirit” she prefers (in other words, a coxcomb and a cad); but the fact that Charles doesn’t want her is mortifying; while his evident preference for a servant is intolerable. Consequently, she sets about destroying Susan: a task simple enough, between Mr Banston’s insane pride and Mrs Banston’s weak will; and she succeeds in the first instance in having her banished from the house altogether.

Meanwhile, the sneaking Mr Letcroft, who can barely believe his own luck, persuades Arabella first into correspondence and clandestine meetings, then into a secret marriage:

The ceremony over, the happy pair spent a short time together at a farm-house, and then returned to Mr Banston’s with as hardened a countenance, as if nothing had happened…

Soon afterwards, Arabella receives word of the death of her brother, Anthony. She is personally unmoved; and the main consequence is that she becomes, in Mr Banston’s eyes, an even more desirable daughter-in-law, since her brother’s fortune will now augment her own. Naturally he increases the pressure on Charles—who, however, has a secret weapon in his armoury. The local parish-clerk is a relative of Dame Brisco’s, and informs her of Arabella’s marriage; and she, in turn, lets Caroline know. Charles, therefore, is able for once to face his father with relative equanimity; replying coolly to his menaces:

“Time and reflection have removed all my objections, and I am ready to receive Miss Bentley’s hand, whenever she shall be disposed to bestow it upon me.”

Mr Banston is so pleased with this, he grants Charles a three-month stay of execution (so to speak). Charles makes prompt use of the time and, finally giving in to temptation, declares himself to Susan by letter. She is moved and touched by this but, in spite of her own secret feelings, she immediately declares that there can never be anything between them. When Caroline finds out, she is furious with her brother; but she knows she can rely upon Susan’s strength of character, if not Charles’, to prevent the matter going further.

And fate has another bitter blow in store for Susan, when Dame Brisco suddenly dies:

The old woman had got her relation, the parish-clerk, to scrawl out a kind of a will, by which she bequeathed to the poor girl all she was worth. This all, after everything was sold, (Mr Banston burying her at his expense) amounted to eight guineas…

Susan decides that she must leave the country for London, in order to find a way of supporting herself—and to put distance between herself and Charles. Her departure and its circumstances are widely discussed amongst the Banstons, in the course of which Mrs Banston makes reference to Dame Brisco “countenancing a bastard”, much to Arabella’s delight. Her sneering response provokes a furious outburst from Charles—also remarkable for 1764:

“Was the poor bastard, you mention with such detestation, in the smallest degree accessory or a partaker in her parents guilt? I think, added this gentleman, the world is not more cruel or unjustifiable in any one respect, than in its consideration of such unhappy beings. Is it not sufficient, that a poor child shall be brought into existence involuntarily; and, from the culpable behaviour of those who ought to protect and provide for it, not only be excluded from the comfort of relations, and every title to property or provision, but also that a considerable share of the contempt and shame, incurred by the authors of its being, should devolve upon its innocent and inoffensive head? Wickedness of heart is the same in marryed as unmarryed persons, and if the adulterers children are allowed to be uncontaminated by their parents guilt, why should the simple crime of fornication be hereditary?”

Nope: nothing in THIS novel that the moralists could object to…

We are then reminded that lawful sex, too, has its consequences:

    Six months had now elapsed since the marriage of Mr Letcroft, and Miss Arabella had evaded from time to time the importunities of her father and Mr Banston, to receive Mr Charles as a husband, when she suddenly became altered, to an uncommon degree, in her shape. The servants soon perceived it, and having easy access to the ear of their mistress, communicated their observations to her. She communicated them again to her son and daughter; but they were far from being either surprised or sorry at the event, as it would infallibly in a very short time deliver them from her disagreeable company.
    Mrs Banson was unable, long to conceal her suspicions from her husband, who resented them highly, and said, “that if he could fix upon the original authour of such a scandalous report, he would prosecute him at his own expense.” Miss Arabella, however, discovering by a hint, which, if she had been innocent, would have been perfectly unintelligible, that her condition was suspected in the family…retreated to the house of Mr Letcroft, whose marriage to her was then promulgated all over the country, to the inexpressible chagrin of Mr Banston, the diversion of his wife and servants, the satisfaction of his son and daughter, and the great disappointment and vexation of the lady’s own family.

No sooner has this departure occurred than another visitor arrives, the son of an old friend of Mr Banston and an acquaintance of Charles, who has come to invite the latter to accompany him to London. Mr Banston is persuaded, and gives Charles various commissions to carry out during his holiday, including delivering some letters for him. One of these in to a certain Mrs Blackiston, who Charles finds in extremely reduced circumstances, consumed by thoughts of vengeance against a party or parties who she blames for her miserable situation. Charles doesn’t really listen to her ravings, however: he just wants to get out of there and, having given the old woman some money, slips away as soon as he can.

He and his companion then set themselves to see all the sights of London.

Ahem. ALL the sights of London.

In the wake of a rather boozy dinner at a tavern, Charles allows himself to be led to “a certain house under Covent-garden-piazzas”:

    Their youth and genteel appearance soon gained them admittance, and a bottle of Burgundy being brought, Mr Rutland enquired, if they could not be introduced to some young ladies that were tolerably decent and not very old practitioners? The mother abbess who presided in this temple of Venus, after having presented two or three, without giving satisfaction, said, “she had one damsel under her roof, whom she feared they would find as objectionable for her coyness, as the others were for the opposite extreme; but as there were two of them, if they would make it worth their while, they should separately try what they could do with her.”
    The enflamed Mr Rutland emptied his pockets upon the table, and swore, if that was not sufficient, he would give his note for as much more; but the conscientious lady said, as he was a customer, she was satisfied with what was before her, and Mr Banston, consenting to be served after his friend, was accepted upon easier terms.

Nope: nothing in THIS novel you’d want to keep away from innocent young girls.

Wow. Seriously. I’ve encountered scenes like this before in novels by men, but I have never come across anything like it, let alone this explicitly rendered, in a novel by a woman—and that woman a clergyman’s daughter!?

Anyway—

The aptly named Mr Rutland, having paid for his privilege, tries his luck first. The lovely young girl, in ignorance of her true situation, is first shocked, then terrified and repulsed by his behaviour. Discovering to her horror that she is locked in, she can only weep and plead for mercy. Mr Rutland refuses to be dissuaded by what he perceives as “artifice”, driving his potential victim to extremes:

    “I must inform you, that you have a person to deal with, that is neither capable of being intimidated by threats, nor allured by promises, and that your triumph over her can never be completed whilst her power of resistance remains; nor will she survive such a calamity to become a prey again to avarice and prostitution, for this weapon, snatching his sword out of the scabbard, shall be more merciful than you…”
    “Well, Madam, said the half-vanquished hero, as I find I can do nothing with you by fair means, and detest a rape as much as you, I shall resign you to my friend…”

So saying, he retreats downstairs:

    The abandoned procuress, who was in the room, asked him, what success he had met with? “Why faith, said he, none at all; she is the most squeamish little b—h I ever met with: but come, Charles, continued he, she expects you, pray, do not make her wait.”
    Mr Banston was not in his nature a debauchee; but fearful of exposing himself to the laugh of his more hardened companion, he arose, and, with a reluctance and agitation he could not account for, suffered himself to be led in to the frighted prisoner…

Having sobered up, he has no intention of doing anything, though; and he tries to reassure the terrified girl he finds cringing away on the far side of the room, even promising her that he will be her protector if she needs one. This makes her turn around:

…to her unspeakable surprise, she discovered her young master Banston, and he his beloved Susan…

Yes, well. The reader is probably a little less unspeakably surprised.

Susan explains to Charles that she was betrayed by the wagoner who had conveyed her to London, who had told her that he was in a position to help her secure the assistance of “a good charitable lady”; that she had entered the lady’s house in all good faith, and spent a fortnight doing needlework there, in constant expectation of being recommended to a position; that the clothes she is wearing, she had been persuaded to don on being told that in London, even servants were expected to dress finely; and that this night had been the first time she received an inkling of her true situation.

Charles promptly proposes—pointing out that one month’s residence in any parish will enable them to marry, despite their both being under age. Susan resolutely refuses, insisting that the distance between them is too great, and that she must live single and earn her own living. However, she does accept Charles’ secondary offer of rescue—

(—a rescue, by the way, in which his drunken visit to a brothel and his participation in the purchase of a virgin go politely unremarked—)

—and a refuge under the roof of a respectable woman.

But as it turns out, Charles’ own acquaintance in London is so very limited, the only person he can think of to leave Susan with is Mrs Blackiston…

I think we can all see where this is headed.

The sudden resurrection of Louisa Bentley produces all sorts of fallout—including the belated revelation that “Mr Banston” is actually Anthony Bentley’s old friend, Frank Taylor, who changed his name as a condition of his mercenary marriage. Family Pictures then closes with the expected flourish of rewards and punishments; and while the former take up more space (a romance for Caroline Banston is hurriedly conjured up, for instance), the latter are more interesting for their sense of prosaic reality, in place of the expected speeches about the inscrutable ways of Providence, which generally close novels of this sort.

Despite her repentance and active assistance in exposing the cruel fraud, Mrs Blackiston is rather dismally killed off:

…vexation, disappointment, and the inconveniences that poverty exposed her to, in conjunction with her wounded pride, and turbulent and impatient spirit, brought a complication of disorders upon her, which kept her in a lingering state of misery and suffering, which continued for a whole twelve-month, and then put a period to her existence…

—while the Bentleys are allowed to get away with full restitution of their ill-gotten gains and a hasty retreat, their corporeal punishment consisting of having to share digs with the Letcrofts; with rather more focus given to the consequences of all this for Arabella:

Mr Letcroft and his lady, and Mr and Mrs Bentley, led a very uncomfortable life. The goddess Discord had established her seat under their roof. His being disappointed in obtaining the immense fortune he expected, notwithstanding Mrs Letcroft was likely to inherit some few thousand pounds, changed the meek, servile adorer into the morose, untractable husband. He contracted many improper intimacies, and when his weak brain was heated by a too frequent repetition of the social glass, he was wonted to bestow some rough compliment upon his lady’s delicate bones…

And sure, there is some speechifying; but even here we are struck by the matter-of-fact admission that life doesn’t usually work out as neatly – or as justly – as novels would have us believe:

Thus did the chain of events, derived upon this family, run. Agreeably to our limited notions of rewards and punishments, and though many instances in life are the reverse of this equitable distribution, it must nevertheless by acknowledged, that villainous practices are frequently discovered and detected, and that a perseverance in well-doing is productive of the most happy and agreeable consequences.

And as if this shruggingly half-hearted moralising isn’t odd enough, we are then offered this thoroughly unconvincing closing argument:

Mrs Banston was the only person who remained unchanged, uninterested, and consequently unaffected by these happy revolutions, though I really do her injustice when I say, she did not partake in some measure of the general satisfaction; for her house was clear of every imcumbrance for a long season, and she at liberty to pursue her particular inclinations without interruption, which self-enjoyment was derived from an insensibility of mind, neither to be envyed nor coveted, as surely, to a rational being it must be highly satisfactory to possess a heart capable of generous sympathy, and every humane and tender disposition; for whatever exemption from the participation of others calamities this selfish narrow principle may confer upon its possessor, it can be by no means adequate to the reflected joys of friendship and benevolence.

You know—I rather find myself in sympathy with Mrs Banston…

 

 

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08/05/2018

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…]

 

 

18/04/2018

Attribution confusion

Having succeeded in getting Chronobibliography moving again, I wanted to see, while I was on something at least resembling a roll, whether I could get another neglected blog section kick-started. And for obscure reasons with which I need not bore you, I came down upon the Authors In Depth section, and specifically the next novel by one or both of the sisters, Margaret Minifie and Susannah Minifie Gunning.

And almost immediately I hit a speed-bump…which my OCD promptly magnified into a brick wall.

It is known that the sisters wrote novels both separately and together, but correct attributions are difficult to the range of ways in which they referred to themselves on their title-pages, and by Susannah changing her surname when she married (naturally enough, for the time).

Another complication is that Susannah’s daughter, Elizabeth, also became a novel-writer; and though she is referred to correctly as “Miss Gunning” in some quarters, in others her works have been attributed to her mother, that is, as by “Mrs Gunning”.

So instead of relying upon what seem, frankly, to be some people’s best guesses, I thought I would try to access the ladies’ books online and see what the title-pages actually say; and, working with the knowledge that Susannah got married in 1768 and that Elizabeth was born in 1769 and married in 1803, see what I could pin down, and what remains obscure.

The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— (1763) : “Written by the MISS MINIFIES, of Fairwater, in Somersetshire”
Family Pictures (1764) : “By a LADY”
The Picture (1766) : “By the MISS MINIFIES of Fairwater in Somersetshire, Authors of The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—”
Barford Abbey (1768) : Neither the Dublin first edition nor the London second edition carries an attribution, although the latter carries a handwritten note, “By Mrs Susannah (Minifie) Gunning” (NB: this is the year Susannah married) [NB: epistolary]
The Cottage (1769) : “By Miss MINIFIE, Author of Barford-Abbey”
The Hermit (1769) : “By a LADY” (NB: the 1770 edition is attributed to “Miss MINIFIE, Author of Barford-Abbey, The Cottage, &c”; the 1771 edition is attributed to “Miss MINIFIES”, which we can cautiously assume to be a typo rather than a joint-attribution)

Apparently both Margaret and Susannah then fell silent for some eleven years (during which time, some of their works did appear in second and third editions; incredible as that may seem if you’ve actually read them).

The Count de Poland (1780) : “By Miss M. Minifie, one of the authors of Lady Frances and Lady Caroline S—” (the latter suggesting that the ladies’ first novel had been reissued under a revised title; though I can find no record of it)
Coombe Wood (1783) : “By the author of Barford-Abbey and The Cottage” [NB: epistolary]

More silence followed, until the eruption of the Gunning scandal in 1791; in which Margaret was (rightly or wrongly) implicated. And it was after that – after John Gunning had booted them out in an attempt to save his own skin – that both Susannah and Elizabeth began writing to support themselves.

Susannah died in 1800; Elizabeth married John Plunkett in 1803, and after that published as “Mrs Elizabeth Gunning Plunkett” (or a variation thereof). Margaret, meanwhile, almost certainly died during the 1790s: the date of her death is not known, but the last records to show her alive are from April 1791.

Anecdotes Of The Delborough Family (1792) : “By Mrs Gunning”
Memoirs Of Mary (1793) : “By Mrs Gunning”
Delves, A Welch Tale (1796) : “By Mrs Gunning”
Love At First Sight (1797) : Reviewed by Tobias Smollet in The Critical Review as “From the French. With Alterations and Additions. By Mrs Gunning”
Fashionable Involvements (1800) : “By Mrs Gunning”
The Heir Apparent (1802) : “By the late Mrs Gunning” (Susannah died in 1800, leaving this unfinished; Elizabeth finished and published it; it is sometimes listed as “Revised by Miss Gunning”)

The Packet (1794) : “By Miss Gunning”
Lord Fitzhenry (1794) : “By Miss Gunning”
Memoirs Of Madame de Barnveldte (1975) : “Translated from the French by Miss Gunning”
The Foresters (1796) : “Altered from the French by Miss Gunning”
The Orphans Of Snowdon (1797) : “By Miss Gunning”
The Gipsy Countess (1799) : “By Miss Gunning”
The Farmer’s Boy (1802) : “By Miss Gunning” (in some editions; others have it as “By the author of Love At First Sight–Gipsy Countess”, which is just confusing)
The War-Office (1803) : “By Mrs Elizabeth Gunning Plunkett”
The Exile Of Erin (1808) : “By Mrs Plunkett, late Miss Gunning”
Dangers Through Life (1810) : “By Mrs Plunkett (late Miss Gunning)”; may have been reissued in 1815 as “The Victims Of Seduction”

And an outlier: The Union (1802), listed as “By Miss Minifie”, at a time when Susannah was dead, and Margaret presumed so.

We can appreciate that, cashing in as they were on the family scandal, both Susannah and Elizabeth wanted their authorship known. It is those earlier novels where the mystery remains—and while most of them have traditionally been attributed to Susannah (probably because her name is better known), the weight of that title-page evidence suggests that Margaret wrote all of the earlier solo efforts; and that Susannah did not write a novel on her own until the 1790s. It also makes more historical sense, if I can put it that way, that the unmarried Margaret went on writing, while Susannah did not take it up in earnest until she had to earn her own living.

One of the consequences of this research is that I now believe that, in originally attributing Barford Abbey to Susannah, I was probably wrong; and that I need to revise my post about the novel to reflect this.

As for the book that brought me to all this, 1764’s Family Pictures – “By a LADY” – the jury is out. Granted, it’s one of the works usually attributed to Susannah—but then, nearly everything is. And if I needed any more of a reminder to tread cautiously in that respect, I have it in The New Cambridge Bibliography Of English Literature, edited by George Watson, which on one page of the second volume lists both Family Pictures and Barford Abbey, attributing both to Susannah—and offering of the latter the following synopsis:

Heroine, disfigured with smallpox, rewards hero with riches.

…when in fact:

  • she catches smallpox but is not disfigured;
  • she has no riches;
  • she marries the hero.

 

27/03/2015

The Histories Of Lady Frances S— And Lady Caroline S—

Minifies1c

 

We who have indulgent parents, or such as supply their loss, like the aunt of my Juliet, ought to think them the richest gift of Providence.—An incident has happened since my last, that gives more force to this reflection, than any other I have met with.—Scarcely am I yet recovered from the hurry of spirits it occasioned.—Sitting alone this morning, I was told that a young lady desired admittance to me, with great earnestness; but being suddenly taken ill, was obliged to drink a glass of water, before she could deliver her request… What was my astonishment to find there Lady Frances S—, whom but two days since I saw at the masquerade, inspiring all who beheld her, with respect, even to veneration, now unattended; in appearance all terrified, and ready to sink; her feet being scarce able to support their trembling burden.—Unable to speak, I received her in my arms; her head fell on my shoulder, while her hidden grief found vent in a most violent gush of tears…

 

 

 

 

 

Margaret and Susannah Minifie were the daughters of the Reverend James Minifie of Somersetshire. Margaret was born around 1734, and Susannah around 1740. Not much is known about their early lives; from our point of view, the most cogent fact is that in 1763, the sisters began writing novels: a profession in which they were later joined by Susannah’s daughter, Elizabeth.

It should be stressed at the outset that the bibliography of the Minifie sisters is confused and contradictory when it comes to individual authorship—in short, it is not at all clear who wrote what. Sometimes they put their name, or names, or the title page and sometimes they did not; while certain works have been differently attributed by different academics. We should note that while it is canon to list Susannah Gunning as the author of Barford Abbey, the novel has been attributed by some to Margaret Minifie; though I’m not aware of any solid reason to do so. (We might recall that during the Gunning scandal – the first – Gunning scandal – Susannah denied writing this novel; although if that were true, “my sister wrote it” might have been a more cogent response than “I never heard of it.”)

The Minifies, separately and together, found a certain measure of success as writers. They specialised in “novels of sensibility”, usually featuring the stock wish-fulfilment fantasies of poor girls either marrying into the aristocracy, or discovering they are of the aristocracy, or both (ironic, considering their connection to the Gunning sisters, who did exactly that). Their over-the-top sentimentality saw them paid the backhanded compliment of having the term “Minific” coined to describe that type of writing; in which respect, Clara Reeve singled out Margaret Minifie for criticism in her study of the novel, The Progress Of Romance. However, while it is generally agreed that the Minifies’ early novels are fairly weak, there is also some feeling that they improved as writers over time.

The Minifies’ first novel, published as by “the Miss MINIFIES of Fairwater, in Somersetshire”, appeared in 1763. The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— is, as we might expect, a sentimental epistolary novel, and entirely typical of that branch of writing, inasmuch as there is a lot of talk, and a great many outpourings of “sensibility”, but not a lot actually happens.

Overall, however, the main weakness of the novel lies in its handling of one particular plot-thread.

Lady Frances S—, having fled from her parents’ house and taken refuge with the Lady Lucy Walton, daughter of the Earl of — (I’m not sure why Lady Lucy gets a surname and Lady Frances doesn’t; though their parents are equally title-less), feels obliged to give a circumstantial account of her entire life, in order to justify herself. This account Lady Lucy, naturally, transcribes word for word and sends to her chief correspondent, Miss Juliet Hamilton. At the outset of it (page 17 of the novel), Lady Frances declares:

About this time died my sister Caroline, two years younger than myself.—Had she lived—but for her sake I ought not, will not wish it…

But on the other hand, there’s this dream sequence:

Back again to town, my father spurning me from him, my mother frowning, and ordering me from her presence:—all insulting me, except my uncle, who with a look of mingled pity and resentment, took my hand, and convey’d me from them.—Once more at Audley-castle, Mr Worthley with us; all harmony. My father and mother both caressing him. To compleat all, a lovely creature rush’d into my mother’s arms, who presented her to me, bidding me embrace my sister…

What could the truth possibly be!?

Here’s a hint – take another look at the title of the novel.

Yes. Not a lot of suspense there. Basically we spend the whole novel waiting for the female version of The Suspiciously Superior Peasant to show up, which she duly does.

Anyway. The first half of The Histories— deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Frances; and the second half, although apparently we’re not supposed to realise it, deals with the trials and tribulations of Lady Caroline. The plot, such as it is, has various of its characters being caught between love and duty; and though I doubt this was the moral that the Minifies intended to convey, things tend to work out whichever of those options is chosen. I can’t even really say that choosing love over duty brings more suffering, just a different kind.

One of the most unexpected things about The Histories— is the situation of Lady Frances who, though she would appear to be everything her aristocratic patents could desire in a daughter, is hated by those parents: or rather, she is hated by her mother, a former famous beauty suffering from poisonous jealousy of the young and even more lovely girl, while her father goes along with the resulting persecution because of his blind obsession with his wife. Most of what Lady Frances suffers is the direct result of deliberate cruelty from her mother and father, which in turns leads to the novel’s most exasperating aspect – exasperating in 1763, exasperating when Dickens did it about a hundred years later – the insistence that no matter how viciously a “good” girl is treated by her parents or, conversely, how entirely she is rejected by them, she will bear no feelings of resentment whatsoever, desire only to be reconciled, and (if and when that happens) evince nothing towards them but gratitude and love.

Groan.

Lady Frances’s father, though inheriting a dukedom, was otherwise deprived of everything he could be deprived of as a result of marrying against his father’s wishes, with all unsecured property and money devolving to his younger brother, Lord Henry: a situation which not unnaturally caused deep resentment in the new Duke. Nevertheless, seeing Frances neglected by her mother and left to the servants (at that time not out of jealousy, just because of the Duchess’s passion for her social life), Lord Henry arranged for her to be sent away to school, where she spent the next ten years; it was shortly after she left that the Lady Caroline died {*cough*}.

Returning home, Frances finds her parents’ passive hostility has become active, resulting in her being, in effect, kept in solitary confinement; while Lord Henry’s attempts to make the Duke and Duchess see their injustice backfire as often as not:

His Lordship remonstrated to my mother on my too strict confinement; and at length got her to promise she would introduce me to some of her acquaintance… About six I was summoned to the drawing-room, and found there my father, Lord Henry, and my mother: his Lordship, with an air of affection not visible on any other countenance called me dear good girl; see brother, see sister, leading me to them, how your condescension has made her eyes sparkle with gratitude. Her Grace looked at me in a manner that made me tremble. In my agitation I dropped down on one knee, took her hand and put it to my lips; being so much affected by her unkind silence, that I felt the tears falling in a shower on my face.—What does the girl mean? said my mother; this indulgence spoils her.—Indeed, brother, you persuade me to take a wrong method.—Go, madam, walk back to your apartment; I shall not carry you abroad to expose me…

Repeat ad nauseum.

Eventually Lord Henry persuades the Duke and Duchess to let him take Lady Frances home with him, where she is loved and appreciated; though of course she never stops repining over her parents’ neglect and indifference. At this point (with Lady Lucy repeating Lady Frances’ account of herself to Juliet Hamilton), the narratives-within-narratives start to intrude. We are first given the life-story of the subtly named Mrs Worthley—severely abridged version, she is widowed when her soldier-husband is killed and left almost destitute. She is succoured by an aristocratic woman who turns out to be Lady Frances’ grandmother, the late Duchess; and here allow me to quote a couple of short passages which, I think, convey perfectly both the overall tone of this novel, and its more-than-occasional amusing clumsiness of expression:

Recovering, I found myself thrown on my bed, a lady standing by me, with a smelling bottle in one hand, in the other my daughter…

The sight of [my daughter] made me wish to preserve that life, which was become less valuable, by being deprived of its richest comfort. The greatness of her joy shewed what her sorrow had been. From my arms she ran into the person’s by whose means I had been restored. O, madam, (she cried, locking the child in them, and kissing her with an affection like my own) what a child is this! never did I see such sensibility…

Mrs Worthley has a son as well as a daughter. Charles eventually follows his father into the army, while Sophia becomes the object of Lord Henry’s affections—but dies shortly before they are to be married. Lord Henry buries his heart in her grave and devotes himself to Good Works, in which he is assisted by Mrs Worthley.

Lord Henry is one of this novel’s more interesting aspects and, as with most of what is interesting here, it feels accidental. Lord Henry becomes, progressively, the moral centre of the story, everyone’s touchstone for what is honourable; yet to the reader it appears that Lord Henry has a talent for placing those who love him in the wrong, or for being away when his advice is most needed; so that (given the kind of novel this is) we end up with a series of big emotional scenes in which someone – usually the unfortunate Lady Frances – acts on their own judgement and then – of course – has to throw themselves at Lord Henry’s feet and beg his forgiveness for the heinous crime of being a little less perfectly perfect than he, in the kind of public display that novels of sensibility eat for breakfast.

Lord Henry’s Good Works also smack of killing with kindness. Even allowing for the shifts in language that have occurred since this novel was written, it is hard not to laugh when Charles Worthley, discovering that it was Lord Henry who bought the small estate that his mother sold following her husband’s death, and that he intends to restore it to him along with twenty years’ of collected rents, describes himself as being, “Oppressed by benefits.”

While on leave from his duties, Charles Worthley visits his mother, who now lives upon Lord Henry’s estate, and is introduced to Lady Frances. Naturally, these very nearly perfectly perfect young people fall in love, much as they struggle against it, and much as they struggle to conceal the fact from one another. Eventually, however, they confide in Lord Henry. Although he knows – or ought to know – that the Duke and Duchess will froth at the mouth at the very idea of Lady Frances marrying a mere soldier, he nevertheless asks their permission on the young couple’s behalf, hoping that a fervent description of Charles’ manifold virtues and the news that he, Lord Henry, has made Charles his heir will sufficiently make up for his lack of birth.

Naturally, the Duke and Duchess respond by calling their daughter home, violently abusing her non-stop for her wilfulness, disobedience and lack of proper pride, and try to force her into a hateful marriage—partly because the party in question is a member of the aristocracy and therefore (whatever his personal failings) a proper suitor for Lady Frances…but mostly just because it is hateful.

And having played no small part in bringing about this situation, Lord Henry then fades from the scene, leaving Frances to fend for herself—to decide on her own, firstly, whether “duty” – the perfect “duty” so beloved of Lord Henry – really dictates that she must marry as her parents bid her, whatever her feelings; and secondly, what to do when Charles Worthley tries to persuade her into a secret marriage…

So much for Plot A. Plot B concerns Lord Ormsby, the brother of Lady Lucy, whose erratic behaviour has been referred to at intervals during the transmission of Lady Frances’ story. At length – at length – it transpires that Ormsby has fallen under the influence of the dissolute Lord Edgmore, who has made it his business to lead him away from the path of virtue. As with Lady Frances’ parents, there is a proximate and ultimate reason for Lord Edgmore’s behaviour: on one hand, he likes corrupting virtuous young men; on the other, he is plotting his revenge against a venerable old country clergyman, Mr Nevison, who discovered his wicked intentions with respect to a certain young girl and intervened. Mr Nevison is to be punished for his temerity, the target of Lord Edgmore’s vengeance being the old man’s own beautiful, innocent young granddaughter, the weapon Lord Ormsby…

Ormsby, masquerading under a false identity, and at this stage imbued with Edgmore’s own vicious immorality, does indeed lay siege to Miss Dalton, with the intention of making her his mistress via a false marriage. He finds the task rather more difficult than anticipated; Miss Dalton is not what he expected, particularly in light of her lowly situation:

Can a girl unacquainted with riches, resist the charm they bring? may she not have some sparks of vanity in her composition; and may I not, by the breath of flattery, blow those sparks into flames? but in vain did I try that common and generally successful battery; she was proof against all my arts: my visits, through frequent, were never placed to her account; though I could discern I had by my assiduity gained her esteem. With pleasure have I seen her with an additional chearfulness, and the warmest filial duty imprinted on her face, exerting all the powers of sense and eloquence to entertain her aged and almost decrepid grandfather; which seem’d to soften the rigor of his pain, and banish the remembrance of his misfortunes.—How different from what is called the well-bred of her sex, who make the most desirable and necessary duties of life subservient to the least of their amusements. Often have I regretted, that so many fine women should lose, in the stream of pleasure, a sympathising softness, which nature has originally implanted in them, as a soil more capable of improving those tender seeds, than in us, whose minds are cast in a rougher mould. Difficult as I found it to proceed, I found it as difficult to retreat…

Ashamed of going on with his plot, yet more ashamed to back down in front of Lord Edgmore, Ormsby retreats to his home, when his strange moods attract the notice of his family and friends. He realises that he is in love with Miss Dalton, yet does not relinquish his plan. He proposes and is accepted, then turning his mind to how to lure her away from home. He ends up forging a letter from Miss Dalton’s mother (of whom, more anon), in which she reveals she has been ill, and asks her daughter to come to her. Lord Ormsby offers to escort her to the meeting place, and so manages to remove her from her grandfather’s care and to a house that he has prepared for the occasion. Having got Miss Dalton into his clutches, Ormsby gets to work:

In that time I intended to discover to her my quality, the impossibility of my marrying her (which had made me act as I had done) to tell her that I would study her happiness; and that if my fortune and entire affection could bestow it on her, they were both at her disposal. This considered, I hoped would induce her to forgive the deception I had used, and listen to those sophistical arguments which I had made myself master of, till her virtue should be lull’d asleep by them.—I took a lodging near hers, which was a small distance from the town, and seeing my scheme now at its crisis, I ventured to laugh at those sacred rites which I had before seemed to venerate, called them priestcraft, talked of her sparkling with jewels in a side-box; and being distinguished for her beauty wherever she appeared. When she thus interrupted me— Certainly you are not Mr Beaumont! The Mr Beaumont that honoured me with his regard, was good and generous. Leave, leave me, sir, I will not be insulted; if you entertain those opinions, leave me, and know that I detest the one, and despise the other…

Lord Ormsby does leave her; and, once home again, he finally confesses all to his best friend, Sir William Hamilton (brother to Juliet, who is courting Lady Lucy), asking his advice and that of their respective sisters as to how he should proceed.

Juliet, who recounts all this to another correspondent, her cousin Miss Wentworth, is moved, if not quite to poetry, at least to elaborate analogy:

After all, my dear, what a dreadful thing it is, when any of our sex, who really love virtue, are so unhappy as to fall into the hands of men, who glory in bringing it on a level with vice; of which principles is the hateful Lord Edgmore, especially in the case of Miss Dalton? Like the villain spider, he had artfully spun his web of so fine a texture, as to make it imperceptible. Hid in the close recesses of his wicked machinery, with malicious pleasure, he saw the innocent unsuspecting fly enjoying the sweets of content, and the liberty of roving from flower to flower, and sucking the sweets of education; till at last allured by a sunbeam, she is entangled in the net of vice.—The spider now shews itself, creeping out by slow degrees, eyeing its prey; who, at his approach, sends out a feeble cry of pity to its destroyer.—Bloated with imagined success, methinks I see him just ready to seize the victim of his revenge, when behold she is miraculously delivered by her own virtue…

As is also the case with the later novel, Barford Abbey, some fairly twisted morality emerges at this point in The Histories— When Lady Frances’ parents go berserk at the thought of her marriage to Charles Worthley, and try to force upon her an individual loathsome for everything but his title, we naturally take it as a typical sentimental novel view of birth-vs-worth. And naturally, when Lord Ormsby falls for a girl of low birth, but who is otherwise “the most beautiful and the most virtuous of her sex”, we expect their union to be held up approvingly as an example of the triumph of proper values. But it doesn’t happen.

Both because he is in love with her, and to make reparation, Lord Ormsby proposes to Miss Dalton, even though he knows his father will be utterly enraged when he finds out. (To modern eyes, “the best of parents”, as he is repeatedly described, is both a domestic tyrant and a terrible snob.) Miss Dalton, however, is steadfast in her refusal—not, we gather, so much because of Ormsby’s transgressions, but because she is now aware that he is the son and heir of an earl. And instead of disputing her stance, Lady Lucy thanks her for it, praising her generosity and self-sacrifice in preventing Lord Ormsby from disgracing his family, and promising to love her as a sister provided she never actually becomes her sister.

So much for Miss Dalton’s beauty, innocence, virtue and courage, which are brushed aside as of no importance. It’s a pity, they all agree, but her marriage with Lord Ormsby is impossible.

Well. Almost impossible.

Before I move on to the question of how we turn an impossibility into a fait accompli, we must digress a moment for an extract from Mr Nevison’s letter to his granddaughter, upon his becoming aware of her various travails. Apparently he and Juliet Hamilton had the same English teacher:

Suspicion and innocence seldom meet; how could you then suspect that under the appearance of merit, was hid a subtil poison, calculated to fascinate the senses, and bid us both asleep? Few they are that can fly from this serpent, under the disguise of a friend; but often when too late discover the deception, and the force of its baneful influence. For innocence, like the playful squirrel, skipping from bough to bough, unmindful of its safety, discerns the beautiful speckled serpent, attempting to climb the tree, which affords her liberty, food, and shelter. Not mistrusting it for an enemy, it descends nearer, whilst the sly reptile rolls himself in a thousand different ways, the more to attract her notice. Sometimes it towers its head, fold upon fold, shewing its glittering scales, and then again baking in the sun of prosperity, licks the dust, attempting, by devilish cunning, to bring his designed prey to the low level of his desires; till at length the poor animal, lured by deceitful appearances, having her head made giddy by them, drops into the extended jaws of the baneful snake, who exults in loud reproachful hisses, on the misfortune he had occasioned…

Lady Frances and Lord Henry have been popping in and out of this plot-thread, but we don’t hear much of the Duke and Duchess until Lady Frances is summoned home by her father, who is stricken with grief and remorse in the face of his wife’s possibly fatal illnesss; and even at this early acquaintance with the Minifies, we are not in the least surprised to discover that the illness in question is smallpox. In Barford Abbey,  the heroine being both beautiful and virtuous, she survives unmarked; the Duchess, being beautiful but rather lacking in the virtue department, survives but has the looks she has always been so vain about completely ruined. This brings about an almost instantaneous reformation, and reconciles her to the daughter she has always hated as a rival—while Lady Frances, of course, is overcome with dutiful joy at this outcome.

Not so fortunate is the Duchess’ tirewoman—a certain Mrs Dalton. She catches smallpox from her mistress, and soon knows she is going to die. This prompts her finally to reveal the Terrible Secret she has harboured for many years…

Come not near me, Madam, said the poor creature, I am a wretch, unworthy this condescension, or your forgiveness. I assured her I did not recollect any offence towards me, but such as I could easily pardon.—O blessed sound! she replied, am I forgiven?—Then staring up, she wrung her hands, and with wild vehemence cried out, O my good Lady—the Duke—Lady Caroline—they—they;—have mercy, heaven, hide—hide—my guilt…

That’s right, folks! Say it with me now, loud and proud—

BABY SUBSTITUTION!!!!

We haven’t had one of those plots for a while! Personally, I’ve missed them.

It turns out that Mrs Dalton has left a written confession behind, so we get the details as well as the facts. She starts by assuring the Duchess that her long-lost daughter, Still lives; she lives, an honour to you, an honour to your sex! concealed by me under a fictitious name, her noble birth shines out in obscurity.

Yeah, for all the good it’s done her.

Mrs Dalton was Lady Caroline’s wet-nurse. When the baby became ill, she was ordered to take her into the country, as well of course as her own daughter, Elizabeth. There she conceived the idea of swapping the children, and giving her own all the advantages of birth and wealth – an imposture she was sure she could get away with:

Such a mother as yourself, who had never seen your own, but once from its birth, would not discern the changeling…

(This is the second time we’ve encountered a baby substitution plot facilitated by disinterested 18th century motherhood.)

And so Elizabeth Dalton was received into an aristocratic nursery, while the Lady Caroline was banished to the country, to be raised by Mr Nevison, Mrs Dalton’s father. The scheme worked admirably—at least until the false Lady Caroline died…

Despite these outrageous revelations, Mrs Dalton doesn’t hesitate to read the Duchess a lecture on her own conduct:

Now I fear not your resentment, yet implore your forgiveness, and that of my dear Lady Frances Worthley. Your Grace too well knows the part I have acted towards that excellent Lady; it was when I saw your Grace’s treatment of the gentle sufferer in sending her from your house, that a sincere repentance first entered my heart; it was then  that I resolved to write what you now read; not only to restore Lady Caroline to your arms, but to endeavour to convince your Grace that, had you acted like a mother, you would never have lost the one, nor driven the other from you…

The revelation of Lady Caroline’s identity of course removes all barriers between herself and Lord Ormsby, and her steadfast clinging to duty is rewarded…while Lady Frances, who defied her parents and contracted a clandestine marriage to a man out of her own social class is…also rewarded, with reconciliations and friendships all around.

I’m just a little confused right now…

 

15/11/2014

Gillray vs the Gunnings

By the late 1780s, James Gillray was England’s leading political satirist. His caricatures, prepared as prints and etchings, were enormously popular and demonstrably capable of influencing public opinion. It is of note, however, that Gillray rarely took sides; or rather, he would satirise both sides of any given issues—for example, caricaturing both George III and the Prince of Wales, or presenting William Pitt as either a hero or a villain, according to whether his topic was international or domestic. Gillray’s work was heavily influenced by that of William Hogarth, and in addition to politics per se he produced any number of confronting images about various grim realities of contemporary life, often opposing the excesses and immorality of the upper classes with the miseries of the poor. The third stream of his work, the one that most concerns us at the moment, finds its subject matter in the scandals of the time.

The Gunning Mystery“, as it was called, inspired Gillray to three different caricatures. The one which we have already highlighted, The Siege Of Blenheim; or, A New System Of Gunning Discovered, not only combines outrageous images and obscene jokes (“Mother, mother, my masked battery is discovered!” exclaims the spraddle-legged and obviously underwear-free Elizabeth Gunning), but is an example of Gillray’s habit of presenting both sides of an issue. Although the Gunnings were the main target, the barrage of faeces emanating from Blenheim Castle is an acknowledgement that many people believed that the Duke of Marlborough or his son, Lord Blandford, were not as innocent as they claimed. Meanwhile, the reverses suffered at this time by the British army, widely blamed upon a corrupt and incompetent command, are referenced in the words given to John Gunning, as he slinks away from the scene of his family’s disgrace: “I find our Stratagem won’t take effect, & therefore I’ll be off; & manoeuvre;—any common Soldier can lead on, to any attack, but it takes the skill of a General to bring off his forces with honour after a defeat…”

The Siege Of Blenheim is a comparatively straightforward effort. Far less so is another of James Gillray’s attacks upon the Gunnings, which ties them to an earlier 18th century scandal. In my post addressing Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History Of Georgian London, we touched briefly upon the bizarre story of Elizabeth Canning, who in 1753 claimed to have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, but who was eventually proved to have made up the whole story. In Betty Canning Reviv’d, Gillray recasts the Canning scandal with members of the Gunning family; beyond the sheer similarity of the names “Elizabeth Canning” and “Elizabeth Gunning”, both scandals involved a young woman of good family solemnly swearing to the truth of their version of events and then being proved a liar. Betty Canning Reviv’d is an example of Gillray’s more complex humour, not only requiring people to understand the connection he was making, but to spot the various subtle visual details scattered around his image. The signpost to Blenhein in the background is clear enough, but in addition we have such touches as Elizabeth Gunning kissing a deck of cards instead of a bible as she swears an oath. My favourite detail, however, is the presence of a copy of that best-selling novel, “Waltham Abbey by Peg Niffy”.

Gunning3b

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This particular caricature introduces into the Gunning scandal Margaret Minifie, the sister and aunt respectively of Susannah and Elizabeth Gunning: that’s her on the far right in Betty Canning Reviv’d. She is even more prominent in Gillray’s third Gunning caricature. Here again he works the Gunnings into a different context, in this case referencing “Margaret’s Ghost”, a popular ballad from the first half of the century about a young woman who dies of a broken heart, and then appears as a ghost to reproach her lover with his broken promises and false oaths. In Margaret’s Ghost, Elizabeth Gunning’s “Auntee Peg” comes to break the terrible news that “Dishonourable-infamous-false-accusations” have been made against the three of them.

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NPG D12414; Margaret's ghost' (Elizabeth Gunning; Susannah Gunning (nÈe Minifie); Peg Minifie) by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey

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I have been unable to come up with any specific reason why people were so convinced that Margaret Minifie was involved in the plot of the forged letters…which makes me wonder whether the rapidity with which the public seized upon the three women as the perpetrators of the forgery was that all three of them were novelists?

If this is true, we can understand why Susannah Gunning might have felt she had to defend herself by denying that she was guilty of the heinous crime of novel-writing…although the sad reality is, her doing so certainly made things worse, and not better, for herself, her daughter and her sister—besides confirming all Society’s worst suspicions about women who write.

The first novel to emanate from the Minifie household was The Histories Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S—, which was published in 1763. Below is the title page.

How on earth could she think she’d get away with it?

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Minifies1b

08/11/2014

An apology for going off-topic…

Gunning1b

 

It cannot have escaped the reader’s observation, that, in the picture of my life, I have omitted the representation of one object, which is generally esteemed the principal figure in a domestic drawing: I mean my wife. This solecism in point of attention is not to be imputed to any want of respect towards that lady. My dear Mrs G— knows that I have the utmost veneration for her virtues, and the tenderest affection for her person: but after the commission of so great a folly as matrimony, the best thing a man can do is to cast a shade over it, as Ham and Japhet did over the nakedness of their father, and conceal it if possible from the knowledge of the world. It is now too late, I confess, for me to screen myself, beneath such a cloak. Mrs G— has already published our union to the world, and I might justly be accused of rudeness and a want of gallantry, were I to deny a connexion with so charming a woman. Her sprightly wit has beguiled the insipidity of many an hour (for she certainly is a woman of extraordinary genius, though she has the modesty to deny it); and it is to her happy invention and romantic enterprises that I may attribute the downfall of my family, and the honour I have acquired in becoming the laughing-stock of the nation…

 

 
 
In the background section of my post on Barford Abbey, I commented that, “John Gunning is a story unto himself.” It turns out that this was something of an understatement: the Gunning family is a story unto themselves.

This has been a strange year for seeking out obscure 18th century novels and then discovering that they are related to a piece of contemporary historical research and part of a bigger picture. Following on from discovering the debate about the true identity of “Mrs Meeke” as a consequence of researching the publication of The Mysterious Wife, my examination of Barford Abbey led me to a recent reassessment of the scandal – scandals – that engulfed the Gunning family during the early 1790s.

In 1792, a short publication appeared that promised an explanation of the circumstances that had forced John Gunning to flee England for Naples – though as it turned out, An Apology For The Life Of Major General G—, Containing A Full Explanation Of The G–NN–G MYSTERY, And Of The Author’s Connexion With Mr D–BER–Y’s FAMILY Of SOHO-SQUARE is barely an explanation, and certainly isn’t an apology.

And in 2012, the small publisher Tiger Of The Stripe released an edited and annotated edition of An Apology For The Life Of Major General Gunning, which not only reproduces the original text of the Apology, but also sets the story in its historical and social context and offers a potential solution to the so-called “Gunning Mystery”. The person responsible for this edition is recorded as Gerrish Gray, although elsewhere we find the comment, “Gerrish Gray is a retired historian who prefers to remain pseudonymous.”

John Gunning, as we have seen, was the younger brother of the famous Gunning sisters. Despite his celebrity connections, John seems at first to have lived in relative obscurity: he joined the army, rose through the ranks and, in 1775, was mentioned in despatches after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Overall, however, his military career seems to have been undistinguished. Gerrish Gray gives us a glimpse of Gunning’s social career by quoting an early 20th century American historian, Harold Murdock, whose specialty was the War of Independence. Murdock’s Earl Percy’s Dinner-Talk, from 1907, contains this reconstruction of a dinner-party:

The Earl is chatting with a strapping officer on his left whose handsome face is a fair legacy from the race of which he comes. This is Lieutenant-Colonel John Gunning of the 43rd Foot, who has the honour to be the brother of the famous Gunning sisters, and through them a brother-in-law to the Duke of Argyll and to the Earl of Coventry. “My sister the Duchess,” and “My sister the late Countess of Coventry,” are well-worn phrases with Colonel Gunning, and within a year his pride has been stirred again by the marriage of his niece with Lord Stanley, the heir to the affluent Earl of Derby…

Meanwhile, no-one seems to be able to account for John’s own marriage to Susannah Minifie, the daughter of a Somerset clergyman, who had neither looks nor money as a recommendation. It seems a peculiar step for a young man who had already contracted some very expensive habits. The marriage produced a daughter, Elizabeth, who in 1790 became the pivotal figure in a scandal that rocked British society.

As a young woman, Elizabeth lived predominantly with her namesake aunt, the Duchess of Argyll, and apparently became romantically involved with her cousin, George Campbell, the Marquess of Lorne. When the Duchess died in 1790, Elizabeth returned to her parents; after which (and assuming there had really been anything going on to start with), the Marquess of Lorne seems to have cooled off.

Meanwhile, newspaper gossip linked Elizabeth with an even greater marital prize, the Marquess of Blandford, the heir of the Duke of Marlborough. What happened next, no-one can ever be sure—though it has been suggested that Elizabeth and her mother were the source of the rumours about Lord Blandford, a story concocted to reignite the interest of Lord Lorne. However, the matter did not stop at gossip: in 1791, a letter supposedly from the Duke of Marlborough to General Gunning expressing his approval of the proposed match between Lord Blandford and Miss Gunning was denounced as a forgery. Other letters subsequently emerged that suggested an amorous correspondence between Elizabeth and Blandford, which the latter denied being involved in.

The newspapers pounced upon this juicy story and gave it a thorough airing, much to the shocked delight of society at large. Various factions emerged, condemning and supporting the different suspects. The sheer senselessness of the attempted imposition seems to have baulked some commentators, who were inclined to dismiss it as a malicious prank rather than a serious attempt either to force Blandford into marriage by compromising the Churchill family, or to provoke a proposal out of Lorne by making him jealous. However—it was widely observed that neither Elizabeth nor her mother was exactly conspicuous for brains, and there were many who were certain that one or both of them had taken this outrageous step in an attempt to capture an heir to a dukedom; any dukedom. Other observers were inclined to put the blame upon John Gunning, seeing the forgery as part of a campaign to aggrandise his sadly-lagging branch of the Gunning family.

John Gunning’s response to this was to turn his wife and daughter out of his house.

Whatever people thought about the matter, Gunning’s attempt to save his own skin at the expense of his womenfolk was widely condemned. The Gunning ladies were taken in by the Dowager Duchess of Bedford (aunt to the Marquess of Blandford), and from this refuge Elizabeth wrote a letter to her father protesting her innocence, and also swore an official affidavit to the same effect.

Conversely, Susannah Gunning was doing her daughter’s cause no good whatsoever. In her own account of the matter, she not only denied being involved, but went so far in trying to prove her own honesty that she also denied she had ever written fiction: a statement which, given that her name could be found by this time on the title page of several novels, was to say the least counterproductive…

Why have the combined plotters, for none but the tools of mischief would so meanly employed themselves, amongst their other ridiculous assertions, in the news-papers accused me of Novel writing; particularly a book called Waltham-Abbey; which is made up they say of tricks, of stratagem, and of forged letters. I must assure them their mistake is a very palpable one, for though to have been the author of that book might possibly have done honour to my genius; yet, as I never have seen such a book written, I cannot without great injustice, and greater presumption, lay any claim to the credit of being its author.

Presumably by “Walthan-Abbey” she meant Barford Abbey: was she pretending to be so divorced from the publication as to not even know its correct title? Curiously, the novel, as we have seen, does not involve “tricks, stratagem and forged letters” at all. My own observation is that, based upon their mutual and highly idiosyncratic addiction to italics, Susannah Gunning and “the author of Barford Abbey” were certainly one and the same.

(Waltham Abbey is a real place, by the way, a town in Essex.)

Speaking of novel-writing— Another party to weigh in on the scandal was the sister of the Marquess of Lorne, the then-Lady Charlotte Campbell, whose letters not only reject the idea that there was ever anything between her brother and Elizabeth Gunning, but contain several spiteful references to Miss Gunning’s lack of physical attractions; their very hostility suggesting that she saw something to worry about in that direction. Years later, twice a widow and needing to support the four children from her two marriages, the Lady Charlotte Bury turned to novel writing, becoming a leading practitioner of the so-called “Silver Fork” school.

Meanwhile, in conjunction with denying her own guilt, Mrs Gunning was busy denouncing her husband as the author, or at least the originator, of the forgery. Her version of events adds yet another bizarre twist to the story, as it brings into proceedings a certain Captain Essex Bowen, a relative-by-marriage and hanger-on of John Gunning. Mrs Gunning seems to have believed (or pretended to believe) that letters were forged by one or other of the Bowens at the instigation of John Gunning, either to make Lord Lorne jealous by suggesting that Elizabeth was being courted by Lord Blandford, or to divert Elizabeth’s affections away from Lord Lorne by dangling an even more attractive suitor before her. (Both of these contradictory scenarios were offered up at different times.)

Without attempting to plumb the depths of these bizarre accusations, we should note that Captain Bowen plays an indirect role in another remarkable bit of history: his mistress was one Mary Ann Talbot, who – or so the story goes – disguised herself as a boy, “John Taylor”, and enlisted in the navy in order to stay near her lover. After Bowen was killed in battle she maintained her disguise, being wounded twice and serving time as a prisoner of war. It was not until after her discharge, when “Taylor” was seized by a press-gang, that her sex was discovered. Or so, as I say, the story goes; her version of events has since been demonstrated to be inaccurate, to say the least.

Anyway—

The Gunning scandal gripped the public imagination for quite some time. Correspondence from the period preserves a variety of opinion upon the subject. For example, our old friend Horace Walpole clearly believed that mother and daughter were in it together. In a letter to his friend, Miss Agnes Berry, he gave an account of a supposed confrontation between Susannah Gunning and the Marquess of Blandford:

…she inquired where the Marquis was, and pursued him to Sir Henry Dashwood’s: finding him there, she began about her poor daughter; but he interrupted her, said there was an end put to all that, and desired to lead her to her chaise, which he insisted on doing, and did. I think this another symptom of the Minifry being accomplices to the daughter’s enterprise…

Accomplice-s, because by this time another common assertion was that Elizabeth’s aunt, Margaret Minifie – another novelist – was also part of the conspiracy.

Public reaction to the Gunning scandal reached its apotheosis in a series of outrageous illustrations by the caricaturist James Gillray. In particular, the one titled The Siege Of Blenheim; or, A New System Of Gunning Discovered shows a bloomer-free Elizabeth astride a cannon which is firing letters into the stronghold of Blenheim Palace, while the Duke of Marlborough retaliates with a barrage of—well, perhaps we shouldn’t inquire too closely into that…

At the time the “Gunning Mystery” remained unsolved, and eventually the scandal died away; or at least (as we shall see) got supplanted by a different scandal. In his edition of An Apology For The Life Of Major General Gunning, Gerrish Gray examines the evidence on all sides and weighs the potential guilt of all parties (pointing out that there could have been more than one forger at work, given the contradictory nature of the letters in question), before bringing new evidence to the table; or rather, putting the forgery scandal into the context of later events which, in his opinion, make the guilt of one particular person highly likely, if not exactly certain.

In 1803, a certain Mrs Plunkett was arrested on charges that she had “committed divers forgeries, and among others issued bills on Major Plunkett, her husband, as accepted by him, but which acceptances he denies to be in his hand-writing”. The complainant, a money-lender named King, eventually dropped his charges, presumably after financial intervention from the defendant’s relatives. A month later, Mrs Plunkett was back in court on similar but separate charges, this time in company with her husband. After investigation, Major Plunkett was discharged, but Mrs Plunkett was held in custody. However, as not infrequently happened under the prevailing laws, although there was plenty of evidence of the lady’s guilt the grand jury declined to proceed with a case where a guilty verdict would send a woman to the gallows, and she escaped a second time.

We know Mrs Plunkett rather better as Elizabeth Gunning.

No-one at the time seems to have connected the “Gunning Mystery” with Mrs Plunkett’s penchant for signing her husband’s name. Whether it was a case of the former Miss Gunning learning nothing from her experiences, or whether she thought what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander, it is hard not to agree with Gerrish Gray that this revelation about her after-life puts a different complexion upon the earlier scandal.

Meanwhile, another consequence of what we should probably call the first Gunning scandal was that John Gunning found himself unable to hold off his creditors. By this time both of his ennobled sisters were dead, and his in-laws wanted nothing to do with him. Gunning ended up in a debtor’s prison, from which ignominious position he was rescued by a James Duberley, who had a contract to supply uniforms to Gunning’s regiment. In fact, Duberley not only paid Gunning’s debts, he invited into his own home until he got back onto his feet.

John Gunning proceeded to repay his benefactor by seducing his wife.

The affair was eventually exposed, and Duberley brought a suit against Gunning for “criminal conversation”, as it was called. Despite no lack of evidence, the judge (who seems to have been a man rather ahead of his time) suggested to the jury that since Duberley himself was keeping a mistress, Mrs Duberley’s infidelity shouldn’t be treated too harshly. The jury, however (a far more traditional bunch), rejected this liberal interpretation of the situation and awarded five thousand pounds damages.

Those damages were never paid, though: John Gunning fled the country, taking Rebecca Duberley with him to Naples. Abandoned to their fate, both Susannah and Elizabeth Gunning, like many other women before and after them, turned to (or turned back to) novel-writing, in order to earn a slender living.

After all this, you might be surprised to hear that we have not yet hit rock-bottom with respect to the Gunnings. John Gunning’s crim. con. trial and his abrupt departure from England occurred in February, 1792. A couple of months later, British society was scandalised yet again by the publication of An Apology For The Life Of Major General G—, Containing A Full Explanation Of The G–NN–G MYSTERY, And Of The Author’s Connexion With Mr D–BER–Y’s FAMILY Of SOHO-SQUARE.

While it is possible that John Gunning was indeed the author of this bizarre document, it seems unlikely that he would have gone to the trouble of publishing something, the sole purpose of which seems to be to expose him as an even bigger skunk than everyone already thought he was; although it is just possible that, desperate for money (and having no particular track record of sensitivity or tact), he too picked up a pen.  Far more probable, as Gerrish Gray suggests, is that the thing was a hoax, perpetrated by someone close enough to the Gunning family to get most of the details right: not only does this narrative offer anecdotes from the General’s life that are actually plagiarisms of old Spectator stories, but certain peculiar details in the text only make sense if the thing was meant as a joke.

And surely at this stage of the game, however much he used to like bragging about his background and titled relatives, John Gunning himself could not be so utterly oblivious to reality to pen the line—

It would be superfluous to mention my birth and splendid connexions…

In its original format, An Apology For The Life Of Major General Gunning was 114 pages long. Imagine my horror when it turned out that a full 75 pages of that were given over to an account of the General’s apparently infinite seductions and betrayals, in a manner horribly reminiscent of the rogue’s biographies of the 17th century. We can hardly be surprised at the outcome of the War of Independence, given how the British military evidently spent most of its time:

…my friends, alarmed at the dissipated course of life I was leading, and apprehensive of the ruin which threatened me, procured me a commission in the army—in hopes a change of place and difference of society might cure me of my extravagance. But this was only removing me from the stream to the fountain head. I had before tasted of folly; but here I drank my fill, and was initiated into the more refined mysteries of the debauchee. I now despised my former superficial knowledge of iniquity, which had been gleaned in the brothels, gaming-houses, &c. in the metropolis; and sat down to study methodically a system of seduction

Gunning (or at least, “the author”) then favours the reader with numerical tallies of both his affairs and the numerous progeny resulting from them, as well as describing the lengths to which our military Casanova was prepared to do to gratify his desires:

As it suited my convenience, I have been an atheist and a devotee – a philosopher and a rake – a parson – a player – a cynic, a conjuror – a patriot – a courtier – a footman – a mountebank – a pedlar – a mendicant and a prince – and almost every other character that is to be found in the extremities of human nature.—I have been of all religions, and all sects – I have kneeled with the Roman catholic at the figure of her saint, and cursed with the pious protestant, in the devotion of my heart, all idolatry and superstition.—I have raised my voice with the violent declaimer of eternal damnation, and – have groaned in spirit, and professed charity towards all mankind, with the self-humiliated quaker.—I have renounced the articles of faith, and talked of predestination; and have broke the bread and drank of the cup of the modest puritan.—Nay, I have been drenched in a consecrated horse-pond, for the sake of a pretty anabaptist; and actually suffered the pain of circumcision, to obtain a fair jewess, who possessed some of the prettiest diamonds and sweetest features that I ever met with in any one woman…

It is during the tallying of the offspring that the Apology‘s tongue seems furthest in its cheek. An affair with a sour old maid (just to see if he could) produces a son “begotten in disgust, and brought forth in a fit of spleen”:

I have paid severely for my curiosity, by giving being to a dogmatical cynic, that has been pestering the world with his schisms and quibbles ever since he could snarl. This extract of verjuice seems only to delight in the contempt of the laws, the ruin of nations, and the rooting up of monarchies; and we may say of him, as some wit said of the famous Dr Kenrick, “He drinks aqua-vitae, and spits aqua fortis.” The fellow appeared at first with a tolerable share of Common Sense, but it has all evaporated, I fear, in his ridiculous fables of the Rights of Man

It seems impossible to take that as anything but a swipe at Tom Paine—who was born three years before John Gunning.

Eventually we get around to discussing the scandal of the forgeries:

    The Marquis of L— was still backward, and there was only one way to bring him to the point desired; and that was, according to my dear Mrs G—‘s opinion, to write a few passionate epistles to her daughter, with the signature of the Marquis of B—, and dispose of them in such a manner that they might fall into his rival’s hands, and thus leave him no alternative.
    I was now too far engaged in the business to recede, or boggle at trifles; I therefore gave my consent and assistance in the affair. The letters were written in Mrs G—‘s best manner, and might probably have met with the most flourishing success, had not some evil spirit counteracted our design, and, by conveying some intimation of the plan to the Marquis of B—, ruined the whole project at a blow…

From this failure we pass to the Duberley affair:

    It may be justly said, that a life of gratitude, devoted to the service of such a man, could scarcely repay him for such exalted and disinterested friendship; but my heart, shut to the tender feelings of humanity, and hardened in the most depraved scenes of the world against every sentiment of gratitude, sought but the gratification of its own unjust desires, and means to accomplish the infelicity and dishonour of my benefactor…
    Mr D—, little suspecting what serpent he was fostering in his breast, still continued his attention to my ease and welfare, and gave me a general invitation to his house, where I used constantly to dine &c. when I had no particular engagement elsewhere, I was by this means able to indulge my passion for Mrs D— in all its licentiousness…

The account of John Gunning’s trial in the Apology, seen indirectly through a commiserating letter from a friend back in England, seems to mix sufficiently shocking fact with outrageous fiction. Firstly (truly), we hear that Gunning’s defence repeatedly presented him as older than he was (over sixty, as opposed to the real fifty-two), and too crippled and full of disease to have possibly seduced Mrs Duberley. Simultaneously (falsely), an affair between Duberley and Mrs Gunning was hinted at, with a scandalous suggestion of spouse-swapping, or at least quid pro quo. The defence also apparently tried to argue (truly) that a damningly disturbed living-room was the result of a strenuous game of blind man’s bluff, rather than the result of an equally strenuous roll on the carpet. This defence evaporated (falsely? – we don’t know!) in the face of what we might call a piece of Clinton-esque evidence left on the carpet:

Your old friend Betty H— swore like an angel, and rolled you on the carpet with admirable dexterity. The game of blind-man’s-buff went off with infinite eclat; and though Erskine mauled you most divinely, I really believe we should have come off with flying colours, in spite of the crusty old puts on the jury, had it not been for that damned sacred deposit.—Why, ’twas like taking the earnest of your ruin!—Ah! General, General! no other man would ever have split upon that rock; but you men of honour, forsooth, can never, as you yourself say, even in the most desperate situations, deviate from the punctilio which is the rule of your conduct…

The letter ends with reassurance to Mrs Duberley that they are appealing the verdict, and thus holding the whole business up for as long as possible; meaning that her child will be born while she is still married to Duberley and therefore be legitimate in spite of everything:

A-propos, I beg I may be looked upon as the sponsor of the sweet embryo that is coming. I claim the preference in this particular relationship in principle.—As it will be the child of iniquity, where can you find so proper a god-father for it as an attorney?

Some apology.

So there’s the Gunning family for you, people!—from whom you’ll be hearing rather more in the future: I have added Susannah Gunning, and Elizabeth Gunning, and Margaret Minifie to my “Authors In Depth” list—being unable to resist the temptation of reading their sentimental / didactic fiction in the light of nearly fifteen years of continuous family scandal…

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19/10/2014

Barford Abbey

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How was I surpris’d at ascending the hill!—My feet seem’d leading me to the first garden,—the sweet abode of innocence!—Ten thousand beauties broke on my sight;—ten thousand pleasures, before unknown, danced through my heart.—Behold me on the summit;—behold me full of surprise,—full of admiration!—How enchanting the park! how clear the river that winds through it1—what taste,—what elegance, in the plantations!—How charmingly are Nature’s beauties rang’d by art!—The trees,—the shrubs,—the flowers,—hold up their heads, as if proud of the spot they grow on!—Then the noble old structure,—the magnificent mansion of this antient family, how does it fire the beholder with veneration and delight! The very walls seem’d to speak; at least there was something that inform’d me, native dignity, and virtues hereditary, dwelt within them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Please note: When I originally posted this piece, I attributed this novel to Susannah Gunning, née Minifie. Although this is a common attribution, further research suggests that Barford Abbey was more likely written by Susannah’s sister, Margaret Minifie. This post has undergone minor revision to reflect this better understanding.]

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Barford Abbey, A Novel. In A Series Of Letters is another work that has been mentioned as a potential proto-Gothic novel, though as it turns out there is very little in the book itself to support this assertion; except perhaps (as is evident from its earliest pages) there is a secret to do with her parentage in the background of the novel’s heroine. However, since it eventually becomes evident that almost everyone except the heroine herself is in on that particular secret, it hardly constitutes the kind of mystery that would eventually become a trope of the Gothic novel proper. In fact, my suspicion is that Barford Abbey ended up on the list of Gothic progenitors purely because it had the word “abbey” in its title; thirty years later, this would indeed constitute a fairly reliable marker.

Barford Abbey is commonly attributed to Susannah Gunning who, under her maiden name, previously co-authored The History Of Lady Frances S—, And Lady Caroline S— with her sister, Margaret Minifie. In fact, neither of the book’s two editions, the first appearing in Dublin in 1768 and the second in London in 1771, carries an attribution; but an examination of the careers of both women suggests that Margaret Minifie was the more likely author. Susannah married in 1768* and, it appears, stopped writing for a period of years; Margaret continued to publish under a variety of attributions including “By a LADY”; while the title-page of several of her later works, which identify her as “Miss Minifie”, also describe her as “the author of Barford Abbey“.

And Margaret has one other claim to fame: she attracted pointed criticism from Clara Reeve in her The Progress Of Romance, who went so far as to coin the term “minific” to describe her melodramatic style of writing. That a contemporary critic focused upon her rather than Susannah is further support for Margaret as the author of Barford Abbey.

(*In 1768, Susannah Minifie married John Gunning, brother to the famous Irish Gunning sisters, who became the Countess of Coventry, and the Duchess of Hamilton and later the Duchess of Argyll, respectively. John Gunning is a story unto himself, to which I might return sometime…)

While there is no disputing that Barford Abbey is extremely flawed, there are one or two things it does well, and which are worth highlighting. In particular, and in contrast to the earlier The Adventures Of Sophia Berkley, this is an epistolary novel proper, with correspondence in various voices, and differing perspectives on the same events, so that the reader is made aware of various facts while the characters – or at least the heroine – remain in ignorance of them. This novel also does a good job creating suspense, albeit rather mild, by writing as people do write—that is, the correspondents don’t tell each other things that they already know. This is a an area where many epistolary novels fail, even falling into the fatal trap of including entire back-stories for certain characters under the guise of “dear friends” demanding to know each other’s life-histories.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that this approach sometimes makes Barford Abbey simply confusing—although in retrospect this might be more correctly attributed to another rookie mistake. Rarely for a novel of this type, sometimes there is simply not enough detail in the description of the characters. One subplot involves an estrangement between father and son. The context in which this plot-point is raised suggests that the son is a young man, perhaps in his early twenties; in fact he is some twenty years older, a detail which alters the implications of the situation altogether.

There’s also the fact that all of the novel’s correspondents favour the same peculiar punctuation style.

Overall, Barford Abbey is a sentimental novel par excellence, inasmuch as while very little actually happens, endless pages are devoted to the characters reporting and analysing their feelings. Its main failing is that the two people doing most of the analysing are neither of them very interesting. Our hero and heroine are, alas!—respectively a prat and a bore.

With respect to both, Mrs Gunning falls into the trap of the “informed attribute”. Every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her; through their correspondence we hear not only of her beauty and grace, but of her sensibility, intelligence and wit; of how “angelic”, how “bewitching” she is…but her own correspondence, which makes up the bulk of the novel, gives us no hint of anything out of the thoroughly ordinary. We are left to assume that everyone is reading whatever they want to into the tabula rasa of a pretty face. Likewise, though we hear from his first appearance about how Lord Darcy’s mind is “illumin’d with uncommon understanding, sweetness, and refinement”, what he reveals of himself directly and in his letters makes the reader want to slap him.

The opening of Barford Abbey gave me what proved to be unfounded hopes that it was going to be an exercise in hilarious misery like Valentine:

How distressing, how heart-rending, is my dear Fanny’s mournful detail!—It lies before me; I weep over it!—I weep not for the departed saint: no; it is for you, myself, for all who have experienced her godlike virtues!

But this was largely misleading, although though we do get a few agreeably absurd flourishes from time to time. The novel’s opening correspondents are Miss Fanny Warley and the Lady Mary Sutton; the latter, for her health, has been for some time residing at “the German Spaw”, although she now holds hopes of being permitted by her physician to return to England. Fanny’s dismal letter (not included) reports the death of one Mrs Whitmore, with whom she has been living. Lady Mary begs Fanny to join her on the Continent by travelling with Mr and Mrs Smith, who will be wintering at Montpelier; in the meantime, she is to be taken in by Mr and Mrs Jenkings, the former the steward to Sir James and Lady Powis of – ah-ha! – Barford Abbey.

What we notice chiefly about the early multiplicity of names is the distinct lack of Warleys in the immediate vicinity of Fanny Warley. In fact, Fanny is an orphan, and without either birth or money. Not to worry, though!—she’s beautiful, so I’m sure fate has something pleasant in store for her.

Fanny has barely arrived at the Jenkings’ before she finds herself an object of interest to Sir James and Lady Powis. The two ladies immediately discover that they are kindred spirits:

Then addressing herself to me, Will you, Madam, give me the pleasure of your company often at the Abbey?—I mean, will you come there as if it was your home?—Mr and Mrs Jenkings have comforts, I have not,—at least that I can enjoy.—Here she sigh’d deeply;—so deep, that I declare it pierced through my heart;—I felt as if turn’d into stone;—what I suppose I was a true emblem of.—The silent friends that trickled down my cheeks brought me back from my inanimate state…

The comfort that Lady Powis cannot enjoy is her son, who due to a disagreement with his father lives on the Continent (it’s crowded over there) and has not been home since his departure. Mr Jenkings also has a son, Edmund, of whom he is inordinately proud—to which, or so Fanny assumes (comparing her penniless condition to Edmund’s expectations from his well-heeled father), we can attribute the disapproval he evinces when he realises that (sigh) Edmund is falling in love with their visitor.

Fanny’s first visits to Barford Abbey serve to make the reader aware of another potential mystery, in addition to the vagueness of our heroine’s background. In conversation she naturally makes several references to “Lady Mary”; her subsequent revelation of her de facto guardian’s identity has a strange effect:

    A similitude of manners between your Ladyship and Lady Powis, particularly in doing the honours of the table, struck me so much, that I once or twice call’d her Lady Mary.—Pray, Miss Warley, ask’d she, who is this Lady Mary?
    What could occasion her confusion!—what could occasion the confusion of Sir James!—Never did see any thing equal it, when I said it was Lady Mary Sutton!—The significant looks that were interchang’d, spoke some mystery;—a mystery it would be presumption in me to dive after. Her Ladyship made no reply,—Sir James was eager to vary the subject,—and the conversation became general…

No explanation is forthcoming for some considerable time, while Fanny is reassured by Lady Mary’s evasive assertion that Lady Powis is worthy of her love. Meanwhile, we learn that the estrangement between Sir James and his son was caused by the failure of the latter to marry the wealthy woman his father picked out for him; though as it turns out, the lady refused his loveless offer.

Though separated from her son, Lady Powis does take some comfort from the visits to the Abbey of the young Lord Darcey, who Fanny is invited to meet, and of whose circumstances she first hears from Mrs Jenkings:

Mrs Jenkings informed me, his Lordship was a ward of Sir James’s just of age;—his estate genteel, not large;—his education liberal,—his person fine,—his temper remarkably good.—Sir James, said she, is for ever preaching lessons to him, that he must marry prudently;—which is, that he must never marry without an immense fortune…

So…a handsome young peer needing to marry for money thrown together with a beautiful but penniless young woman…what could possibly go wrong?

Barford Abbey’s second major correspondence is between Lord Darcey and his cousin, George Molesworth. While the letters exchanged between Fanny Warley and Lady Mary Sutton are full of sentiment and sensibility, those of the two young men offer a more cynical, if no less emotive, commentary upon the workings of society, in particular its attitude to love, marriage and money. Through these exchanges we also learn more of Lord Darcey’s position, and his relationship with Sir James Powis. Though “just of age”, Darcey is still subject to Sir James’s will thanks to a promise made to his father on the latter’s death-bed:

    Without his consent never can I give my hand;—the commands of a dying father forbid me.—Such a father!—O George! you did not know him; —so revered, —so honour’d,—so belov’d! not more in public than in private life.
    My friend, behold your son!—Darcey, behold your father!—As you reverence and obey Sir James, as you consult him on all occasions, as you are guided by his advice, receive my blessing.—These were his parting words, hugg’d into me in his last cold embrace…

Ew!

(So his last earthly thoughts were not of God or heaven, but of keeping his son in a state of permanent subjection? Such a father, indeed…)

But as Molesworth is quick to deduce from his cousin’s letters, Darcey has already fallen in love with Fanny. He helpfully clarifies the situation by explaining why Darcey’s raptures indicate more than mere friendship, using his unfortunate cousin as a negative example:

So it is necessary for every woman you think capable of friendship, to have fine eyes, fine hair, a bewitching smile, and a neck delicately turn’d.—Have not I the highest opinion of my cousin Dolly’s sincerity?—Do I not think her very capable of friendship?—Yet, poor soul, her eyes are planted so deep, it requires good ones to discover she has any.—Such a hand, George!—Such a hand, Darcey!—Why, Lady Dorothy too has hands; I am often enough squeez’d by them:—though hard as a horse’s hoof, and the colour of tanned leather, I hold her capable of friendship.—Neck she has none! yet need I the determination of another, to tell me whether my regard for her proceeds from love or friendship?

Some regard.

(One of Barford Abbey‘s most exasperating traits is its repeated contention that no-one who isn’t perfectly beautiful can expect to be loved—which is carried to the extent of creating a plain spinster character in every other respect even more boringly perfect than Fanny herself. At some points it even suggests that no-one who isn’t beautiful is capable of loving.)

This is the point when Darcey begins to evince some very unlovely character traits. In the first place, though he knows that Sir James will never permit their marriage—though Sir James has specifically and directly warned him away from Fanny—though he repeatedly declares that, as a consequence, he cannot marry her—Darcey not only declines to do anything as sensible (or unselfish) as remove himself from Fanny’s orbit, he continues to court her until she falls in love with him. Fanny’s letters become full of hope mingled with confusion, and eventually distress: Darcey’s behaviour seems to promise everything, but he does not speak…

This situation reaches an unexpected crisis when, thanks to the meddling of a busy-body visitor, Darcey is forced to make a public declaration that he has no intention of offering for anybody… Hurt and humiliated (not least because the circumstances ensure that everyone knows exactly who Darcey has “no intention” of offering for), Fanny tries to cut him out of her heart, evading him whenever she can, and treating him coldly when she cannot—which is most of the time. Despite his declaration, Darcey continues to pursue her, protesting (both to her and in his letters) about her “coldness” and “indifference”, repeatedly addressing her in public as “my angel” and “my dearest life”, and forcing his company upon her no matter how often or how firmly she lets him know it’s not wanted.

But this isn’t even the worst of it! Since every man who comes near Fanny falls in love with her, and since most of them are under no restriction about who they marry, from the very first Darcey is wracked with jealousy, which becomes even worse after his public crying off:

    Where are those looks of preference fled,—those expressive looks?—I saw them not till now:—it is their loss,—it is their sad reverse that tells me what they were. She turns not her head to follow my footsteps at parting;—or when I return, does not proclaim it by advancing pleasure tip-toe to the windows of her soul.—No anxiety for my health! No, she cares not what becomes of me.—I complain’d of my head, said I was in great pain;—heaven knows how true! My complaints were disregarded.—I attended her home. She sung all the way; or if she talked, it was of music:—not a word of my poor head
    Shall she be another’s?—Yes, when I shrink at sight of what lies yonder,—my sword, George;—that shall prevent her ever being another’s

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

(Actually, this aspect of Barford Abbey put me very much in mind of Fanny Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer, which also features a “hero” so intent upon claiming his romantic privileges, he all but ruins the life of the woman he’s supposed to be in love with.)

Finally Fanny is driven to drastic action. Keeping her intentions a strict secret until, as she knows is to happen, Darcey is forced to leave Barford Abbey for a time on account of business associated with his own estates, she makes arrangements to travel to London to join Mr and Mrs Smith, who are to escort her to Montpelier. Her hope is to be out of the country before Darcey even knows she’s left the Abbey. She sets out…

A flurry of shocks and revelations follow, with the correspondence flying back and forth between several parties and almost bewildering the reader. Some of this is intentional, some due (as I alluded to at the beginning) to insufficient set-up. In the latter category we have the abrupt revelation of Fanny’s true identity: she is the granddaughter of Sir James and Lady Powis, the daughter of the estranged Mr Powis and his wife. (You will now appreciate my confusion over Mr Powis’s apparent age.)

This aspect of Barford Abbey is nothing less than absurd. It turns out that the woman Mr Powis did not marry was – surprise! – Lady Mary Sutton who, though “possess’d of every virtue” (including the whacking great fortune that attracted Sir James’s attention in the first place), had the misfortune to be plain:

    Mr Powis’s inclinations not coinciding,—Sir James throws himself into a violent rage.—Covetousness and obstinacy always go hand in hand:—both had taken such fast hold of the Baronet, that he swore—and his oath was without reservation—he would never consent to his son’s marrying any other woman.—Mr Powis, finding his father determin’d,—and nothing, after his imprecation, to expect from the entreaties of his mother,—strove to forget the person of Lady Mary, and think only of her mind…
    The two Ladies set out on their journey, attended by Sir James and Mr Powis, who, in obedience to his father, was still endeavouring to conquer his indifference.—Perhaps, in time, Lady Mary might have found a way to his heart,—had she not introduc’d the very evening of their arrival at the Lodge, her counter-part in every thing but person:—there Miss Whitmore outshone her whole sex…

Well, now…that was silly.

Lady Mary, though in love with Mr Powis (God only knows why), accepts that he can never love her, and generously makes it look to Sir James as if she has rejected him. Furthermore, she then enters into a conspiracy to get Mr Powis married off to the beautiful Miss Whitmore, binding everyone involved to a solemn oath of silence. The plotters go so far as to (i) fake Miss Whitmore’s death; (ii) have her live on the Continent under an assumed name, never acknowledged as Mrs Powis, and (iii) giving up their child to be raised by her grandmother, Mrs Whitmore, with assistance from Lady Mary, rather than give away their secret.

All of which makes a lot more sense than Mr Powis saying openly, “Screw you, Dad, I’ll marry who I damn well please!”

(So if I’m understanding it correctly, the moral of Barford Abbey is: It’s fine to disobey your father, as long as he doesn’t find out you’ve done it…)

Anyway— The revelation that Fanny is his granddaughter reconciles the avaricious Sir James to pretty much everything, including her marriage to Lord Darcey. (The fact that Fanny is in fact neither an orphan nor penniless might also have something to do with it.) Darcey is instantly cast up into the heights of ecstasy—and then, this being the kind of novel that it is, instantly afterwards cast down into the depths of despair—for reasons conveyed by George Molesworth to another of our supporting characters, Captain Richard Risby:

    Oh Dick! the most dreadful affair has happen’d!—Lord Darcey is distracted and dying; I am little better.—Good God! What shall I do?—what can I do?—He lies on the floor in the next room, with half his hair torn off.—Unhappy man! fatigue had near kill’d him, before the melancholy account reach’d his ears.—Miss Warley, I mean Miss Powis, is gone to the bottom.—She sunk in the yacht that sailed yesterday from Dover to Calais.—Every soul is lost.—The fatal accident was confirm’d by a boat which came in not ten minutes before we arriv’d.—There was no keeping it from Lord Darcey.—The woman of the Inn we are at has a son lost in the same vessel: she was in fits when we alighted.—Some of the wreck is drove on shore.—What can equal this scene!—Oh, Miss Powis! most amiable of women, I tremble for your relations!—But Darcey, poor Darcey, what do I feel for you!—He speaks:—he calls for me:—I go to him.—
    Oh, Risby! my heart is breaking; for once let it be said a man’s heart can break.—Whilst he raved, whilst his sorrows were loud, there was some chance; but now all is over. He is absolutely dying;—death is in every feature.—His convulsions how dreadful!—how dreadful the pale horror of his countenance!—But then so calm,—so compos’d!—I repeat, there can be no chance—

Oh, really?

Sentimental novels, as we know, enjoy nothing better than wallowing in extreme emotion, and they frequently do kill off their heroes and heroines in order to dwell upon the misery of the survivors (sort of the literary equivalent of, Shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die…); but it usually happens towards the end of the novel, not only three-fifths of the way through. However, Barford Abbey lingers so long upon the grief of its characters that I began to be lulled into a belief in Fanny’s death, which a combination of cynicism and experience had previously prevented. Curiously, what restored my instinctive scepticism was this, also from George Molesworth:

I have neither leisure or spirits to tell you in what manner the body was found, and how I knew it to be Miss Powis’s…

A ship lost with all hands is one thing; a body washed ashore quite some time afterwards and identified via (presumably) clothing or jewellery is something very different. Sure enough, eventually we learn about an unfortunate young woman called Frances Walsh, who favoured initialled handkerchiefs…

So where is Fanny? Why has she not been in contact?

Having slipped away from Barford Abbey and Lord Darcey, Fanny is escorted to London by Mr Smith (remember him?), who on the way reveals himself to be—A VILLAIN!! Or at least an idiot, making improper proposals on the strength of his wife being sure to die sooner or later; hiding under the bed in Fanny’s room at an inn, in order to do it again; and then threatening to shoot himself if she won’t listen to him. Fanny’s screams bring an elderly gentleman also staying at the inn to the scene, who turns out to be Lady’s Mary’s banker. Mr Delves carries her to his own house in London, where almost immediately she falls ill with smallpox. There, after a series of coincidences, George Molesworth finds her—and relieves our minds of their most pressing concern in a letter to Captain Risby:

But let me tell you, Miss Powis is just recover’d from the smallpox;—that this was the second day of her sitting up:—let me tell you too her face is as beautiful as ever…

Phew! For a moment there I was afraid she might now be less than perfectly beautiful!

But as long as Barford Abbey spent dwelling on the misery of its characters following Fanny’s death, it spends twice as long dwelling on their incredulous joy after her resurrection. The only event of note that occurs in the final one hundred pages of the novel is Fanny’s marriage to Lord Darcey; although this is supported by a flurry of engagements amongst the minor characters—those of George Molesworth, Captain Risby and Lord Hallum to, respectively, the Lady Elizabeth Curtis, the Lady Sophia Curtis, and Miss Delves; all three young ladies being—I’m sure you’ll be astonished to hear—perfectly beautiful.

    How infinite,—how dazzling the beauty of holiness!—Affliction seems to have threatened this amiable family, only to encrease their love,—their reverence,—their admiration of Divine Omnipotence.—Blessings may appear, as a certain great man remarks, under the shape of pain, losses, and disappointment;—but let us have patience, and we shall see them in their own proper figures.
    If rewards even in this world attend the virtuous, who would be deprav’d?—Could the loose, the abandon’d, look in on this happy mansion, how would their sensual appetites be pall’d!—How would they hate,—how detest the vanity,—the folly, that leads to vice!—If pleasure is their pursuit, here they might see it speaking at mouth and eyes:—pleasures that fleet not away;—pleasures that are carried beyond the grave…

 
 

30/10/2010

Sisters under the dust-jacket

“I propose to trace Romance to its Origin, to follow its progress through the different periods to its declension, to shew how the modern Novel sprung up out of its ruins, to examine and compare the merits of both, and to remark upon the effects of them.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

I have learned, over the years, to keep my hobbies to myself – at least out there in the real world. I’ve learned to dread the look; that combination of puzzlement, pity and discomfort that seems to accompany any public admission of how I spend my time. Its bad enough, it seems, that I read at all, without reading, you know, old stuff. I shudder to think what a confession of my chronobibliographical aspirations would get me.

So it was with feelings of pleasant surprise and some comfort that I read Clara Reeve’s The Progress Of Romance Through Times, Countries, and Manners; With Remarks On The Good And Bad Effects Of It, On Them Respectively; In A Course Of Evening Conversations, which seems to have been inspired by an impulse similar to that which led to this blog.

Clara Reeve turned to writing comparatively late in life: her first novel, The Champion Of Virtue, written in disapproving reaction to Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, was published in 1777, when she was forty-eight; it was revised and reissued the following year under the title by which it is now much better known, The Old English Baron. Reeve subsequently wrote half a dozen more novels, none of which were anywhere near so successful as her first, and which today are virtually unknown. In between, she also published some poetry, translations and non-fiction. (Like every other woman writer of the time, or so it seems, she had a plan for the education of the young.)

The Progress Of Romance, published in 1785, had a double purpose and a unique structure to go with it. The book is fashioned as a series of conversations between three friends, the well-read Euphrasia (Reeve’s alter-ego), Hortensius, her main antagonist, and Sophronia, who acts as an arbitrator between them. This was a clever move on Reeve’s part, turning what otherwise might have resembled a series of lectures into a more easily absorbable form. It also allows Reeve to argue against many of the prevailing opinions of the day, most of which just happen to be Hortensius’s.

The premise of this work is that Hortensius has taken exception to, or at least been startled by, some remarks of Euphrasia’s in which she seemed to denigrate epic poetry. Euphrasia explains that, rather, she was merely expressing her opinion that romances are by no means necessarily inferior to “the works of the great Ancients”, as is usually asserted, but may be regarded as essentially the same works in a different format.

Hortensius is affronted by this comparison of the classics and a form of writing that he has no hesitation in condemning as “trash”. It turns out, of course, that he hasn’t actually read most of the works he condemns – plus ça change. Reeve’s response to this revelation, which she puts into the mouth of Sophronia – “I have generally observed that men of learning have spoken of them with the greatest disdain, especially collegians” – is, I suspect, an expression of her opinion of the narrowness and inutility of the classical male education. It is evident throughout this work that Reeve considers the results of her own autodidactism far more satisfactory, although she never says so outright. She does, however, while admitting the often pernicious effects of novel-reading on girls, take issue with basing the education of boys on the classics – thus familiarising them at a young age with the Ancients and, “Their Idolatry – their follies – their vices – and everything that is shocking to virtuous manners.”

Euphrasia then proceeds to make her case by examining the origins of epic poetry, romantic prose, and other related works such as ballads, tracing fiction of all kinds across countries and centuries, highlighting their handling of the same historical events and demonstrating how the same story-telling impulses underlie each.

We emerge from this section of her book with a mental picture of Clara Reeve as highly intelligent, astonishingly well-read and amusingly opinionated. She also strikes us as very much a woman of her time, a stern judge who condemns any work that seems to her to have an immoral tendency. Her main argument in favour of the old romances is that they were almost always aspirational works, which celebrated courage and fortitude, and featured heroes and heroines of unimpeachable virtue, and which therefore were appropriate works “to put into the hands of young people”. The same cannot always be said, alas, for the romance’s descendant, the novel.

One of the purposes of The Progress Of Romance is to tackle the question that so obviously greatly bothered so many analysts of the time – just what is the difference between “a romance” and “a novel”? The definitions offered here seem to have guided opinion on the subject for many years afterwards. At the outset, we have Hortensius (prior to his conversion to Euphrasia’s point of view) asserting that a romance is, “A wild, extravagant, fabulous story”, to which Sophronia adds the rider, “Those kind of stories that are built upon fiction, and have no foundation in truth.” The conversationalists return to the point following Euphrasia’s dissertation of the history of the romance, with Euphrasia giving her own definition:

“The romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that it is all real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.”

It is the “reality” of the novel that makes it such a double-edged sword. Its familiarity makes it a far more effective vehicle of “instruction” than the romance, but it also makes it more likely to do harm. We get the usual sketch here of “young persons”, particularly young women, being mindlessly influenced by what they read. The fear of what novel-reading could do to girls was so widely expressed at the time that I suppose people actually believed it – although we notice that “Euphrasia” seems to have emerged from the reading of the works she subsequently condemns without suffering any particular moral damage. Reeve must have been aware of this inherent contradiction in her stance, although she avoids engaging with it directly, merely having Euphrasia observe, not of her own but of Sophronia’s reading, that certain works are, “Apt to give a romantic turn to the reader’s mind, unless she has as much discretion as Sophronia.” Discretion, we gather, is a quality largely lacking in novel-readers.

The second section of The Progress Of Romance is one of the earliest serious studies of the novel, and a fascinating snapshot of the mindset of the time. To my infinite amusement, Euphrasia / Reeve starts out by expressing a doubt I know only too well, as she contemplates with obvious dismay, and possibly some feeling of panic, the magnitude of the task she has undertaken:

“At our last meeting, I mentioned some difficulties I apprehended in my progress…and I must now confess, upon relexion they increase… It is now that I begin to be sensible in how arduous an undertaking I have engaged, and to fear I shall leave it unfinished.”

Sister! I cried.

“I purpose in future to take notice only of such novels as are originals, or else of extraordinary merit… I will endeavour to go forward warily and circumspectly…”

Okay, I muttered, obviously one of us was adopted…

But even Reeve’s cut-down history of the novel is extensive and impressive. She starts out tracing its origins out of Italy and Spain, before discussing its flowering in France. Here she does something that many later critics are strangely loath to do (a point I’ll be returning to in a subsequent post), and admits candidly the strong influence of the French writers of that century and the preceding one upon the development of the English novel.

Of the English novelists, she starts, inevitably, with “the Fair Triumverate of Wit”, and offers an interesting perspective on the three ladies who would suffer so much abuse over the succeeding centuries. Poor Delariviere Manley comes off the worst, being dismissed as a mere scandalmonger. Reeve admits Aphra Behn’s “genius” but, striking the key-note of the rest of her analysis, argues that her genius does not make up for her immorality.

It is Reeve’s opinion of Eliza Haywood that is the most intriguing. As you might imagine, she condemns her early writings utterly – but then insists that Haywood be given a pass, “Because she repented of her faults, and employed the latter part of her life in expiating the offences of the former.” Haywood’s reinvention of herself in the 1750s as a didactic novelist is indeed one of the most remarkable phases of the lady’s serpentine career, regardless of whether it represents her “repentence” or merely her pragmatism; while The History Of Miss Betsy Thoughtless is one of the most important novels of its time, as I hope to be discussing at some unspecficied future date…

As you will have gathered, at all times in this review, it is less the quality of the novel that is considered important than its morality. Not surpringly, then, it is a discussion of the relative merits of Richardson and Fielding, those twin kings of the 18th-century novel, that shapes the rest. Reeve concedes that in Fielding’s novels, “Virtue has always the superiority she ought to have”, and that his books are superior to Richardson’s in terms of “wit and learning”. However, “As I consider wit only as a secondary merit”, Reeve contends that Fielding’s work is, “Much inferior to Richardson’s in morals and exemplary characters.” And indeed, “To praise the works of Mr. Richardson is to hold a candle to the sun.”

Reeve then goes on to consider most of the more successful novelists of the preceding fifty years. (She chooses discretion over valour, and refrains from giving an opinion of the writings of her immediate contemporaries.) Reeve praises Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Sarah Scott, Oliver Goldsmith and (with reservations) Tobias Smollett. The latter allows her to take another pot-shot at Hortensius: when he praises Humphry Clinker she marvels, “Then you do condescend to read novels sometimes, especially when they are written by men?” Hortensius also asks her opinion of Tristram Shandy, which she condemns – although not with as much certainty in her own judgement as she usually displays: “What value posterity will set upon [his writings] I presume not to give my opinion of, it is time that must decide upon them.” Sterne’s more sentimental works, however, she does approve.

From my own peculiar point of view, I was somewhat disappointed that Reeve did confine herself to the better-known novelists; I was hoping for a few more obscure works to add to The List, but for the most part it was not to be. The closest we get is some praise for Elizabeth Griffith, whose novels are allowed to be, “Moral and sentimental, though they do not rise to the first class of excellemce”; and on the other hand, a dismissal of “Miss Minifie’s novels”, which are tartly summed up as being, “In the class of mediocrity, if I were to mention such, it would make our talk too long and tedious.”

Given Reeve’s general reticence  in this respect, one does wonder why the unfortunate Margaret Minifie was chosen to represent “the class of mediocrity”. This probably wasn’t the reaction she wanted, but…I’m sorely tempted to go and find out…