Posts tagged ‘Margaret Minifie’

27/03/2015

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

Minifies1cWe 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 Susannah Minifie Gunning’s 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…

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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…

Gunning1bIt 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 of the author’s husband 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 Thomas 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…

Gunning2

 

 

 

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…