Richard Glover, Cattle Watering
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve some happy news. I’ve agreed with the publisher of Valancourt books to produce an edition of Charlotte Smith’s second original novel, Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1789). There is no standard scholarly 20th century edition of this novel available for an affordable cost. The novel has been reprinted by Elibron in a 5 volume facsimile of the 2nd edition of 1790 (corrected by Smith) and as part of the horrendously expensive 20+ volume set produced by Chatto and Windus. You cannot buy the volumes separately. I have the Elibron reprint, have downloaded from ECCO a second copy of the same edition text printed in 3 volumes. I’m told I can google and put together an e-text that way. It would save me typing and I could correct against the other three copies I have, for I do have the volume in the Chatto and Windus set out from a university library.
It’s a startlingly good book, strong, despite its languors the result of over-the-top emotionalisms, especially when a character is deprived of some treasured project (that can be marriage too). Thus far all the friends I’ve told about it, they come back grateful for now knowing a new author to turn to. This is the fourth text by Smith I’ve read in the last few months. The others; translation and adaptation of Prevost’s Manan Lescaut, of Francois Gayot Pitaval’s and Francois Richer’s, published court cases, Celebres et Interessants (1735-44), and her late long Rousseau-supporting novel, The Young Philosopher)
What follows is a summary, evaluation account of the novel as I read it in the context of the politics of the era, its economics, Smith’s own life, and the aesthetics of the novel. In the comments are an explanation of one way of reading it as a picturesque novel. Landscape is central to the text morally as well as aesthetically.
I know my deep abiding interest in this book comes from its tone: one of corrosive reflections (a phrase which echoes throughout). I don’t deal directly with this aspect of the book here.
Volume 1 & 2:
Richard Westall, Harvest Storm
It opens with impressive beautiful descriptions of Cumberland — using a technique of glimpsing visibility and intertwining eyes seeing something and movement in a landscape that has been attributed to Radcliffe:
At length they came within view of Grasmere Water, and passing between two enormous fells — one of which descended, clothed with wood, almost perpendicularly to the lake; while the other hung over it, in bold masses of staring rock — they turned round a sharp point formed by the root of the latter; and entering a lawn, the abbey, embosomed among the hills, and half-concealed by old elms which seemed coeval with the building, appeared with its gothic windows, and long pointed roof of a pale grey stone, bearing every where the marks of great antiquity. The great projecting buttresses were covered with old fruit trees, which from their knotted trunks seemed to have been planted by the first inhabitants of the mansion. In some of the windows, the heavy stone work still remained, and they were totally darkened at the top by stained glass: in others, the sashes had been substituted; and the windows had been contracted by brick work, to make them appear square within; but, even in these, the stained glass had been replaced, which generally represented the arms of Newenden with those of Brandon.
Smith’s hero, Sir Edward Newenden is unhappily married to a narrow cold shallow society type (think of a cross between Fanny Dashwood and Lady Middleton), and slowly falls in love with her cousin, Etheline Chesterville. It’s a story of adulterous love. Etheline is innocent of such feelings, but she is their cynosure. Desmond tells a similar story but in the case of Desmond the married woman with children loves a man she is not married to (Desmond, the hero).
Smith is very good at depicting uncongeniality, misery, hurt — no one does mismarriage better than she, though she does not develop the outlines quite inwardly enough in the way of a 19th century novel. Then again respectable 19th century novels don’t tell this tale.
The recluse of the lake, Mrs Montgomery, the mother of the hero who appears suddenly and saves the heroine in much the manner of Willoughby in S&S, though she is saved as was Jane Fairfax from drowning; the moment resembles the first meeting with dozens of heroines saved o the brink of disaster (see Caroline with hers in Caroline de Lichtfield). This is utter archetype.
Mrs Caroline Montgomery has had a chequered history. Her mother had been married to a wealthy nobleman killed fighting on behalf of Charles Edward in 1745; she was cast off and ignored by her husband’s family and could not get them to pay her jointure nor did she have means to force them. This is reality in the period. In London she meets a man who had been forcibly married to someone else; they fall in love and she goes to live with him — as a financial support and protector and has two further children by him.
He dies, and now her daughter and sons have no resources or connections without begging and harassing his family; a male friend of her now dead companion takes them in, a Mr Montgomery. The woman’s husband’s brother attempts to seduce the daughter, Caroline (the woman who tells the story) as the daughter of someone who fell from rectitude can demand no respect. Montgomery succours them and helps them, and Caroline falls in love with him'; he is the father of her son — and they marry. Montgomery is Catholic so he cannot hold an office and has little money. When we meet this second generation of gentlewomen, her beloved husband is dead and she too has been refused succour and endured insults by someone who offered to keep her in a relationship which would subordinate and humiliate her (“Pretty affectation in a girl who has been brought up on the wages of prostitution”).
I admire Smith’s analysis of family as well as social life. She delves more deeply than Austen in the way she takes account of sexual motivations and the clarity of the class and money clashes underlying her characters behavior. I really do feel her working with a sense of ideal hope that this book will be good and meaningful and speak to people — after her two successes. Not yet at this point is she beginning to pretend she doesn’t care about her novels and writing them but for money. In this sense of giving it her all I’m reminded of Mansfield Park. Desmond would correspond to Emma as attempts to do something new or other from the previous three.
The novel moves slowly and gravely — she worked hard on it. There is an equal weight given to interior life that I miss in her later novels and the transitions are carefully done. She is especially good at developing the sort of thing Austen only implies: how bad someone feels when someone else hits at them in teasing or quizzing: so Ethelinde (like Elinor) has to endure teasing, and it’s not good-natured over her love for the impoverished but handsome Montgomery: “uttered in a sort of malicious raillery, as they frequently uttered it, gave her the most unpleasant sensations of impatience and sometimes resentment. She is very daring to enter into Edward’s mind and his love for Ethelinde as a married man.
Montolieu’s remark that Austen’s curious pattern of having a heroine in love forbiddenly, tabooed against utterance for a variety of reasons stops love scenes comes to mind. Smith falls down when it comes to these; the way the characters talk is unreal, something that happens only occasionally and at the close of Austen’s novels when the lovers come together as when Darcy says “by you have I been properly humbled.” Montolieu was aware how hard a love scene is to do — Trollope is unusually good at it.
Smith has set up a pattern of intense marital disappointment and temptations to adultery as well as much else destructive in society; we find ourselves in a world of gambling, drinking, parties which is not at all extravagant (or a vortex of dissipation) but reads as a probable imitation of how the gentry and upper class spent their lives. The very quietness with which Smith traces agons and losses makes them more intense. Once you have read her other novels you realize there is not more variety of patterns (like Austen the patterns obsessively repeat themselves and can be linked to Smith’s life), but the patterns are more active and they bring to the fore genuinely risky behaviors that are part of everyday life and how these continually impinge on women in particular — as well as vulnerable males.
The volume closes with Edward’s misery. He has done the right thing: he has insisted that Danesforth leave the house and said if Lady Neweden follows him, she will not be allowed into his house again. He asks her if she thinks about what will happen to her children by him. She appears not to care a jot about them. This is a misogynistic portrait in part: she is made too bad, too one-sided, but her quarrels with her father who is horrified at her indifference to scandal and then her children are powerful.
Montgomery as we know has not yet gone to India; he comes back to the house and leaves with Mr Chesterville and Ethelinde whom rumours about (with Edward) have made it impossible for her to say. Her father continues playing for high stakes (he cannot resist for every once in a while he makes badly needed money even if on the whole he’s losing) and we hear her brother has is a financial burden.
This is a strong book, highly original really, exposing the realities of this world before any reforms that mattered (social programs, redistribution of income) or changes in patriarchal, militaristic hierarchical norms had taken place, even a little. It’s power is in the analysis of the psychology though in these last scenes which are not idealized emotions, Smith rises to the challenge and writes believable enough dialogue.
Canaletto, Lord and Lady (detail)
I’m beginning to wonder why the novel is called “the recluse of the lake.” As far as I can tell the only character who fits that description is the hero’s mother, and although she told a moving story of her life in Volume 1, she has not been seen since; all we’ve had is the occasional letter to her son now in London.
The heroine’s brother is now in debtor’s prison and there have been some remarkable persuasive pictures of his confinement — and his hysteria. The depiction is overtly presented as an argument against imprisonment for debt.
It looks forward to 19th century fiction in this.
There is a troubling anti-feminism in the book despite it’s being a heroine’s text by a woman. Most of the men in the book are good to very good; most of the women except for the heroine and the hero’s mother are variously awful. The heroine’s cousin has committed adultery and the cousin’s husband left her cousin; he is in love with the heroine and very deeply. This adultery theme recurs in Desmond and is deeply felt. The husband is dissatisfied; the wife is
frivolous, mean, cares little about their children. It’s done with intense emotion and is persuasive, but this cousin and other females we meet are used to mock women as such. When a male in the book is a gambler or rake or mean, somehow the criticism seems directed at him individually; when an erring female is presented, we get shaping comments which direct the invective at females as such.
Smith’s Bath is a different place in this book: one which includes high gambling, drinking, sex too. Austen’s heroines never have any such overtly vivid active experiences as Ethelinde or the cousin’s husband, Sir Edward, who is the second most dominating character in the book. The ostensible “lead male,” Montgomery who loves Ethelinde and whose mother lives deep in Scotland (and is thus far the only recluse of the lake in sight) are really far more marginalized in the action and scenes and emotion. Ethelinde’s family is made of gamblers and they bring her to debtor’s prison. Sir Edward’s family which includes the adulterous wife accounts for the other half of the vivid sharply satiric scenes of social life. I find this interesting too. There is a pull in an unusual direction for Smith.
The real hero is Edward Newenden who is in love with his wife’s cousin. He endures as humiliation his wife’s taking a lover (a cavalier servente in public) so Smith explodes the idea that’s enjoyable. It’s he who can be reasoned against not duelling (again important in the era). It’s his strength and heart and ethics that are at the core compass of the book — and yet how he longs to leave the wife that withers his soul, ignores his children and go take up life with Ethy.
An extraordinary energy emerges when Smith flowers in smaller stories, plots within plots, lyrically and simply told. Chesterville, the brother has a wife, and Victorine’s story again includes a mother who had sex outside marriage. I see this as a pattern in Smith. She does not have the courage to have her heroine have sex outside marriage, or a present living women, but one just dead, a mother, and she’s free. (This is also the pattern of Montalbert.) The full story of Victorine’s mother taking place on Jamaica is moving.
We also get a multiple adulterous pattern too – with unhappiness in marriage and the inability to separate underlying what is protested against here. Now in French novels this inference is made explicit — Madame de Stael comes to mind (Delphine especially which Napoleon singled out for particular hate): during the 1790s a more liberal divorce law was put in place by the Parlement than has been in France until the last 20 years and a huge percentage of women (it was mostly women) filed.
Ethelinde is absurdly virtuous to us when she refuses to marry Montgomery because he has no money even after her father recognizes marriage to Montgomery is her only safety. but we might remember how many of us will give up our lives to 5 day a week jobs we might detest or not respect at all at any time in order to make money.
I did not go over the life of Victorine’s mother: yet another woman who defies the sexual prohibition before marriage. Mrs Royston, but rather like Lady Newenden, she is presented as amoral, aggressive, and just awful in her adulterous behavior. She seeks Montgomery as a lover and when he refuses her, she is angry.
Most novels that are artful will have a core of repeating patterns or some set of interrelated themes: this one is about the sexual angle of dysfunctional social and familial life as experienced under the inhumane and unjust conditions of the time and our own time insofar as it mirrors then. Again and again we are shown sexual transgression in all its forms, sometimes moral and understandable, sometimes amoral and cruel.
Money is so central too: when Mr Chesterville dies, his brother at long last shows remorse, but when he attempts or thinks to go to the corpse to give it decent burial and perhaps take his niece and nephew in — he had refused this in life when Montgomery approached him — very like Chapter 2 of S&S his wife argues him out of it (pp. 236-43). I think the scene is actually stronger than Austen’s because the terms of what she is saying are made more explicit, the underlying vicious impulses and overt social norms brought out. But Austen’s lives because her dialogue is more dynamic and ironical, less obvious and it opens a book of concise art, while this is lost in the back of Volume 3 after a series of impossibly neurotic (over-the-top) sentimental scenes few but 18th century specialists will endure.
Smith carries on this delving into the inner lives of people driven by these sexual mores that destroy their very fibre: we get a sense of why characters are so often presented as sickening in novels. Here we see the process. The ending includes: Sir Edward finding that the Chesterville brother-lord type is willing to misrepresent all that has happened — the adulterous wife, the woman who abandoned her children (and the tenderness there is Smith remembering how she couldn’t live her children) and accuses the impossibly virtuous Ethelinde — this is so appalling to him hat he can hardly contain himself from murderous anger. Edward wants to murder the man who is now exploiting the sexuality of his vicious wife.
Before I get too over-the-top irritated at Ethelinde for refusing to marry Montgomery out of stupendously virtuous concern for what will happen to his finances — I have to remember how I allow the norms of other people to drive me wild and make me feel bad about myself. These are not about sex for me but money and position, but the insecurity and self-obsessive thoughts are the same. Luckily I live with someone who tells me to ignore them and myself know I should. Ethy does not.
I also like how Smith exposes the whole patronage system. We are expected to remember the young Chesterville cannot save himself and Victorine by going to India because he hasn’t begun to have it in him to exert the self-control necessary to rob all the people he comes across through the means the company provides.
Volume 4: the powerlessness of women.
Caspar Friedrich, Woman at a Window (1822)
Ethelinde’s father dies and since he gambled leaves her nothing a reflection of Smith’s father). Her brother, another inveterate gambler ends up in debtor’s prison and is freed because the hero, Sir Edward, pays his debt; Sir Edward also helps the brother find a post in India. The story is presented as Sir Edward’s love for Ethelinde when his vicious wife commits adultery, but the way the action of the plot works out is the reader is worried about Ethelinde succumbing to Sir Edward’s love because she has nowhere else to turn to because of her gambling father and brother.
Smith’s secondary hero, Montgomery, the young man who is justifiably in love with Ethelinde and to whom she is in effect engaged, must travel to India to make his fortune. The hardship of this kind of thing comes out. This is colonialism
from the point of view of those who do the work. Austen’s brothers had to go to sea; reading about Rosalie de Constant, a French woman artist of the very early 19th century, you will find a story of her brother who went to India several times and suffered much from loneliness and boredom and the social conditions in India. He came back more than once; he never made anything more than enough to support himself. In Ethelinde our young man doesn’t want to go any more than Rosalie de Constant’s brother did.
So Montgomery, is being driven by everyone he knows to leave England, sail for India and attempt to make his fortune there. Every instinct in him finds this course of action repellent, from his knowledge of what making money from India means. to his fear for what will happen to Ethelinde when he leaves her without any source of income or shelter but what Sir Edward can offer.
At the climax of Volume 4, Montgomery turns to Ethelinde and makes an impassioned argument on behalf of dropping out of their caste, of taking a job which requires manual labour which will leave him dependent on a wage (but free of a patron), which will require them to return to Scotland to live very modestly. She is just about yielding, when she is pulled away by his mother who through her experience, her own tiny income (which is inadequate for her own needs and would be pulled upon by these two young people) and her knowledge of what can happen (visions of too many children hover over the text), counsels Ethelinde to urge her Montgomery to go to India. But before she is pulled away, Montgomery erupts into French and quotes a long passage from a text by Rousseau (which I don’t recognize) but which argues for breaking from their caste:
Soyons heureux et pauvres; ah! quel tresor nous aurons acquis! J’ai des bras, je suis robuste; le pain gagné par mon travail te paroitra plus delicieux que les mets des festins. Un repas appreté par l’amour, peut — il jamais, être insipide?
This scene between the hero and heroine is followed by one between Montgomery and Sir Edward in which Montgomery tries to enlist Sir Edward to argue Ethelinde into at least marrying him before he goes to India. This climax is to me slightly astonishing because as the emotion between the two men becomes overwrough, Sir Edward confesses to Montgomery his intense love for Ethelinde. This is the equivalent of the Princess de Cleves’s confession of her longing for Nemours to her husband. The Princess’s confession has often been called improbable, but my experience tells me this is not true. It is probable for a certain kind of sensitive sincere person who wants to live a life of candour.
I have come across more modern variants of the Princess’s confession to her husband, e.g., Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?where Lady Glencora Palliser confesses her love for Burgo to her husband. Trollope solves the crisis by having Plantagenet, her husband behave as ideally as Lady Glen: he forgives and blames himself; as narrator, Trollope also suggests to the reader who may doubt this scene an out: the husband is not taking his wife seriously; she does not really want to commit adultery; this enables readers who would get upset at their favorite heroine wanting to commit adultery to dismiss the scene as trivial or non-serious.
I have never before come across it between two men. Mrs Smith, as narrator, is well aware the reader will expect an explosion from Montgomery much worse than the Prince de Cleves inflicted on the Princess. Montgomery almost does this, but he controls himself when he is told by Sir Edward that he will leave Ethelinde with his sister, return to his wife and travel with his wife to Europe. He feels deeply sorry for this man and appreciates his candour. The scene of course enables Smith to pour out what a person who longed to marry another and couldn’t might feel when stuck with someone who is betraying and treating them awfully — and is simply uncongenial.
In Ethelinde, after the scene where Edward Newenden confesses his love for Ethelinde, Montgomery does not know what to do. Certainly it’s an ambiguous gesture; again in La Princesse de Cleves the heroine confesses her adulterous longings to her husband and by so doing destroys his peace; he cannot forgive and understand. She is innocent and means well and perhaps Edward does this to control himself; it also keeps Montgomery’s suspicions at bay.
Mrs Montgomery is at risk of losing all her money and thus Montgomery must go to India. Smith means to expose the intense hardship and loss the global colonial system inflicts on ordinary people — it only comes out indirectly in Austen say. I keep likening Ethelinde to MP and then Persuasion, only Austen is apparently comfortable with such demands on men. She protests against the forced marriage (sale) of women in India (Catherine or the Bower), but that’s all.
Edward is an ambiguous figure. As I say, we can’t really feel for his wife since she is presented so negatively but were that not the case and she allowed to speak for herself (we never see into her mind), we might see her as having been sold by her parents for this man with a title. Smith’s Sir Edward anticipates the males which begin to inhabit the books as of Desmond: the selfless older man who does everything for the heroine, loves her and asks nothing. One I remember well in Montalbert was very moving. But they are kept at a distance; this first time she is allowing us to see inside the figure to understand why she is so sympathetic to him.
When we get to Volume 5 we realize that Montgomery was not wrong, for what has happened is Ethelinde has gone to live with Sir Edward’s sister who is indifferent to her. In her house are living her ruthless amoral husband and a man who attempts to seduce and then brutally to force Ethelinde to
have sex with him and become his mistress. The scenes here read as what could easily happen
Then we have the astonishing shake-down savage talk between Sir Edward Neweden and Lady Newenden’s parents, the Maltravers': the frank needling accusatory conversation over who brought what money to the marriage and who owes who what, the open lying of the mother and father are utterly modern. The thought that comes to mind is we don’t experience this so directly in marriage since we have — through our norm of marrying for love — to some extent freed the marital relationship of such viciousness.
I found myself also moved by the over-sentimentalization in a way of Montgomery and Ethelinde and Mrs Montgomery’s goodbye where they think they may never met again. In a way it’s better than Austen’s almost automatic mockery of emotional goodbyes. Why should people not mourn and deeply at such forced emigrations, trips, ejections. It’s Austen who should justify her refusal to acknowledge these destructive wrenches.
Less interesting is the attack on Ethelinde by Davenent and his salacious friend at Ellen Newenden’s. Ellen is Edward’s sister. Ellen’s portrait, as horsewoman of a lesbian tendency is one that carries on through the 19th century into our own time. In the last quarter of the Poldark novels, the villain-protagonist, George Warleggan marries such a woman, Harriet, and we see how Harriet’s cold carelessness can destroy a semi-vicious man, Stephen Carrington because he is someone who buys into the class and hierarchical values.
Until reading this novel I had the impression it was filled with beautiful landscape and high sensibility. It’s famous for its descriptions of Scotland. In fact while these are good, they are very few and far between. Most of the book takes place in London or in houses in countryside comparable to the ones Austen uses.
It is every bit as realistic as Burney’s Cecilia. For example, as part of the threads in Volume 4 and 5 Montgomery’s mother goes to Lyons when she hears that her income in an investment is threatened by a bankruptcy. A letter comes in which she reports this is what happened. A hard cash mentality is what lies behind most novel-stories and at one point Mrs Montgomery puts to Montgomery what is the problem: can he and Ethelinde live on £70 a year with her and what income he could get given that he has no education to do anything under his caste? It is this sort of hard detail that characterizes numbers of the scenes in Ethelinde and helps make it the strong serious book it is.
Bifrons Park, Kent (1695-1700), artist unknown
It ends in a mood or atmosphere that is reminiscent of Austen: a few close good people make a small circle of friends, the center of which is a wedded couple. The central male of the book, Sir Edward, goes to Europe with his wife, but she finally leaves him for the rake-villain of the novel.
Ethelinde endures a realistic near rape. She flees Ellen Newenden’s house with the help of servants and we see her take lodgings where she pays small amounts of money. We get the sense of what a gentlewoman walking alone in the 18th century might fear. She is driven to take residence in an unpleasant aunt’s (Lady Ludford, see below) where she is despised (this is in the vein of Austen’s books). The whole adventure of escape, including the servants’ fear of the master who wants to help his friend get at Ethelinde is persuasive.
I find this a painful book to read. I end up dreading what’s to come, at the same time as it’s moving, I find grasting the endless passages of mixed distress, and that the characters do what’s expected of them by the society (however vicious it may be). This makes for this pain. So Edward goes abroad ostensibly with his wife (she never appears again on the stage of the novel) but it’s all misery the ugly scenes with her parents he endures. Mrs Montgomery loses all her money so Montgomery must go abroad.
Then what I expected to happen happens. The near rape. Why does no one in the book think of it? who is to protect Ethelinde? she seems incapable of a job. The book turns to a Clarissa mode where Ellen Newdenden having made the mistake of marrying Woolaston allows Davenant to prey on Ethelinde. Ethelinde of course is as cagey as Clary and she has no problem in rejecting a man she has never felt any attraction to.
This is a bit of improbability surely: given how realistic Smith has tried to be it doesn’t make sense that no one foresees this determined pursuit. I realize Smith wanted it to occur to keep interest up and involve flight with landscape.
Henry Fuseli, Romeo and Juliet
I found some of this novel so painful in the last parts of Volume 4 to read, I really hesitated in going on with Volume 5. Once Ethelinde was safe outside the compound which contained Davenant, I was relieved and somehow don’t find the scorn that she receives from Lady Ludford and aroused jealousy from the daughter, another cousin, Clarinthia Ludford, hard to take. I am driven to wonder why. I know there is an analogy with the Clarissa story in that the men at Brackwood (Ellen Newenden, now Mrs Woolaston’s house — or should I say her husband’s) were planning to abduct and one had tried to rape Ethelinde — at least that’s what is implied. But I don’t think that’s it so much (though I was apprehensive lest she should change her mind and not flee). I can read other very painful kinds of stories (recently Doris Lessing’s Grassing is Singing) I don’t feel this.
It’s the peculiar form of feeling in Ethelinde that the humiliation wrests that is probably so hard to take. Her pride so seared by these sexual-social attacks. Her erstwhile protector, Ellen Newendon now become Mrs Woolaston, comes in and asks how dare she be so choosy? What does it matter who she fucks with? or marries for that matter? individually? Partly also that she is so obedient; I can’t stand how she buys into some of the norms used to control and destroy her.
The book has a transcendent beauty in the fifth volume too — that kept me going. When Ethelinde goes walking along the beaches by herself, into the wilds, Smith writes prose akin to her poetry (see the 2nd edition, 1790, Vol 5, Ch 3, one sequence on pp. 75-76).
Unfortunately when she meets up with an interesting ethical looking man who likes solitude like herself, he turns out to be not another Edward Neweden type (the kind of male heroines meet in the other novels seen from outside) but we are back to the more sentimental improbable tripe: the older man is a long-forgotten uncle, Mr Harcourt seeking out his long lost daughter, Victorine, now in the East Indies with Ethelinde’s brother.
Smith does not seem aware that in the West Indies money is made based on slavery as she is that in India it’s made by wresting it corruptly from the natives (not paying taxes for example). Victorine and Ethelinde’s brother have gone to the West Indies to recoup their fortunes.
An illustration of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, 18th century: a prison
The deus ex machina of the novel is money — which has lain at the center of the action all along. Not only does Sir Edward return with his, but so does this long-lost uncle, Mr Harcourt, who turns out to be brother to the widowed mother, Mrs Montgomery of the young secondary hero, Montgomery. Mr Harcourt has grown very rich in the West Indies. This is not a novel where the source of this wealth — slavery — has reached the novelist’s consciousness. So two males with money solve most of the problems of the family.
Some individual bravery and moral decisions come into play. Montgomery himself returns on his own from India after he discovers that the kind of work and behavior he will have to enact in order to become rich is beyond his reach. It’s not put morally but rather in terms of his character. His return occasions some of the suspense of the action. His ship becomes lost and he is thought dead for a while. Ethelinde almost marries Sir Edward. There are several paragraphs which make it clear that the moral of this is the young man and young woman should have married without money. They had something worth taking a risk for and what they thought was out there was not except at terrible moral cost. Further, their concern was over “false” ideas of status. This then takes the theme of Persuasion up (one finds it also in Crabbe, the young couple advised to be prudent who destroy their happiness in life for nothing) very strongly and does not qualify it in the manner of Austen’s novel. The only character to come near this in Austen is Edward Bertram when in Mansfield Park he tells Mary that it will cost him a price he doesn’t want to pay to become rich. And the conversation is buried and all we are really asked to pay attention to is Mary’s deflating and mockery of him to see how her moral character is wanting.
The introduction of Mr Harcourt with his huge wealth produces a series of turns and twists in the plot-design which allow Smith to show us how each of her characters reacts to the presence of great money. Her real strength is in just this sort of exposure of the greed and manipulation and hypocrisies of social life.
The Ludfords: Mr becomes obsequious, Mrs intensely envious and raw with resentment, Clarinthia only glad that the money will remove Ethelinde from Southampton where she attracts suitors. Clarinthia rejected a nice man, Southcote, because he was decent, yet when she sees him turning to Ethelinde, she is livid.
They return to London and meet Mrs Montgomery who is presented as unable to lift herself above anxiety; whatever happens in the letters from her son, it’s a new reason to dread the future. Had Smith represented this attitude of mind as what’s engendered by her history and circumstance it would have been effective, but it’s just represented as innate (as kind of typical universal characteristic). Montgomery writes he is well but not making money as he can’t do what’s asked; she worries he is unhappy; he writes to Ethelinde he is and she worries he will sicken, and then he will drown on the way back.
Ethelinde’s brother, Chesterville, resumes his selfish profligate ways and his wife is a vain creature. Another dialogue emerges about sharing the money with their uncle’s half-sister’s son — so Ehtelinde’s brother and his wife become just like John and Fanny Dashwood, only much bitterer and more is explained. Ethelinde’s brother does not want to share any of the uncle’s wealth with anyone and he talks in language strongly reminiscent of Chapter 2 of Austen’s S&S. What could his sister and her widowed friend possibly need more than a tiny income? This suggests Austen need not have heard what her brother wrote in a letter after their father died. This dismissive callous way of talking was commonplace. The brother does gamble and his wife is frivolous: the gambling is a behavior we don’t find in Austen, but an attempt on the part of other relatives to ensnare Mr Harcourt into marriage recalls the marriage manipulations of Austen’s novels. (The analogue in life is again Smith’s father.)
While some of Volume 4 takes place in a countryside and among houses very like what we find in Austen’s P&P, a good deal now takes place in Scotland. This includes a sequence out in the landscape which has some brooding lovely poetry, and two near visions one of which takes place in a church burial ground. These visions are not ghosts but are projections of Ethelinde’s loneliness and distress. She almost sees her dead father and has a sense of Montgomery’s presence. These two sequences are very well done.
Wm Turner, Abingdon
The qualified happy ending at last. Montgomery miraculously survives and returns to marry Ethelinde; they get enough money from Mr Harcourt, Mrs Montgomery’s fantastically rich half-brother, and Sir Edward Newenden whose wife has died. We are not told of the hinted terrible circumstances: miscarriage, abortion (?) childbirth, Danescourt beating the hell out of her, or tossing her into the streets to survive as a prostitute. Even Ethelinde’s brother begins to behave when he sees that Mr Harcourt might marry a cold-hearted gold-digger, conveniently part of the Ludford group. Woolaston has spent all Ellen Newenden’s money and fled so again Sir Edward comes forward to do the right thing for his sister.
It’s in some of the realistic working out of the stories that the novel manages to hold this reader. I had remembered Ethelinde’s visit to her father’s tomb. That is a gothic-picturesque scene – and is found in other women’s novels of the era, to my memory close is a scene in Sophie Cottin’s Amelia Mansfield. Again Austen skirts this (her NA).
I was most moved by Sir Edward who when he thinks that Montgomery is dead offers his hand in marriage to Ethelinde. Of course she refuses: her reason is not unsound: Montgomery has become ‘interwoven” in her existence,” Vol 5, Ch 13, p 294. She is so aware of his moral nature and goodness and pressure is about to consent to stay by him as friend and semi-sister. They also have the one believable love dialogue: for a moment she almost yields and says “Sir Edward, my dear Sir Edward — ” and he “Dear! …” (p. 296) One of the few believable erotic love gestures is that of Ethelinde and Edward as they say goodbye after Montgomery has returned. She does respond at last: “almost involuntarily she lifted his hand to her lips …” (and then a paragraph follows of their quiet gestures and his departure) (Vol 5, ch 13, p 305).
So much better than all the verbiage the novel subjects us to. Real feeling for a moment. He is the presence in the novel that most moves me — a variant on Smith herself who seems ever to have dreamed of finding some mate in marriage when it was closed off forever by her terrible marriage. It’s been suggested that Smith did have a chance to have a partner after she left her husband, but refused this because it would hurt her children’s future.
I was involved enough to hope that Montgomery was dead and Ethelinde and Edward would marry. But I knew it was hopeless. Smith would not permit it — as she knew that this would be unacceptable. I don’t know that people would see it was her, but she just couldn’t let herself go.
And so it ends with the same sort of language of quiet resignation and happiness with a qualifying note that one finds at the close of several of Smith’s and Austen’s mature books.
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