an excellently-meant, elegantly-written Work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American River, is not the most natural, possible, every-day thing she does — Letter 91, Mon-Tues, 11-12 Oct 1813
Dear friends and readers,
As I remarked, I have not given up on my project of reading Austen’s letters, but rather mean to go about it differently. First, I decided before trying to ascertain what (if any) general value Austen’s highly partisan comments on her rival novelists might have, I should be sure and read the specific works she condemns. While working on the proofs of Sense and Sensibility, she writes (Letter 72, Tues, 30 April 1811), Austen comments on Brunton’s novel in a less abruptly vehement & partisan manner, with more frankness than usual:
We have tried to get Self-contoul, but in vain. — I should like to know what her Estimate is but am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever — & of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled
H. J. Jackson begins a Times Literary Supplement article (April 5, 2006) by telling us:
Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, was a serious collector of books and prints in her own right. Surely the only British queen ever to have learnt how to set type, she also set an intellectual example to the ladies of the kingdom. The sale catalogue of her library, auctioned by Christie’s in June and July 1819, included over 500 lots of prints and drawings and almost 5,000 of books, organized by subject; theology alone took three-and-a-half days to clear. While it is interesting to see just what the Queen and her daughters might have been reading (in English, French, Italian and of course German) on sundry topics in religion, law and history, the student of literature is naturally drawn to the pages that list plays, poetry and novels, and in this last category it is surprising to find two titles most of us have never heard of listed under the name of Jane Austen.
They were Self-Control and Discipline, both by Mary Brunton. Discipline has been repeatedly compared to Emma whose story line is close; Self-Control is strongly like Sense and Sensibility but has plot-designs like parts of Mansfield Park and Emma.
Well, Brunton is very like and very different from Austen. The central drive of the book is to tell the story of Laura Montreville, a young woman, heroine, erotically drawn to an immoral, cruel, and often stupid and distasteful man, Villiers Hargrave. Laura is physically so drawn to him that she bonds intensely and only when she discovers that he impregnated a married woman, dueled with that woman’s husband, and has no remorse and taken no responsibility for the woman whatsoever does she throw off her deep emotional engagement with him, and not even then. The plot-design is also structured on his male possessiveness; Hargrave wants her and if he cannot have her, no one else will. She becomes as a symbol the repository of his respect and pride, and by the end of the novel he is stalking her, ready to murder her and her alternative partner, Montague de Courcy, a Mr Knightley type, rather than give her up. Her sexual state of intense hidden longing is not so different from several Austen heroines (Marianne Dashwood, Jane Fairfax, Fanny Price); what is different is the frankness with which the themes are treated, the conscious and articulate language used to characterize Laura and the others characters nuance and by nuance. It is an original book insofar as the reflections are concerned. Freud before the imposition of moral readings and intense religious judgements are thrown off. Like Austen Brunton uses the ordinary language of everyday life, and for the most part tries to stay within the boundaries of common sense happenings, however dire the economic situation of her heroines becomes. (Her second novel, Discipline, also brings her heroine near destitution.)
It’s somehow indicative to me that the two long academic style essays that analyze Brunton’s novels both look at them from the point of view of business and the city (Sharon Alker on Brunton and “commerce”; Martha Musgrove, Brunton and the cityh); come up with the idea that the heroines show themselves to be assertive and coping very well insofar as they can. It’s an early 21st century form of avoiding the central subject which is tabooed even today and where the heroine’s behavior is not easily exemplary at all. It is true that Scot novels show this kind of exploration of city versus townL You find it on Oliphant and Ferrier. But for Oliphant at least the erotic story is much sidelined; the central story is the loss of a business in Hester (Oliphant’s most read English novel). She did see herself as writing in a Scots milieu. She apparently compared her depiction of Edinburgh to Walter Scott’s, wrote Joanna Baillie she was exploring the passions as Baillie had only in a different genre.
The short essay published in the Times Literary Supplement by H.J. Jackson cited above is closer to the mark: Self-control is heavily indebted to Richardson’s Clarissa and Burney’s Cecilia and the two further novels delve this erotic and intensely psychological examination of sexuality further. In McKerrow’s biography, she says Brunton lost her nerve momentarily but it was too late to recall Self-Control and so Brunton defended it to friend: what does she defend: the heroine’s continued intense attachment to Hargrave. She says it’s not unnatural at all. In the era the way moralists repressed such topic and frank treatment of them is to insists on an ideal of decorum which would prevent talking of such subjects, and a norm of plausibility which would deny that people feel or act these ways.
Self-Control does reveal why so many say of Austen’s novels they are gentle and retreating and light. There is no scene in anywhere of all Austen where we see someone try to seduce a girl directly, come at her physically and pressure her. There is no scene of abrasive encounter in the streets (Davies adds this in 2007 NA in Bath). All sorts of hard everyday occurrences are described or dramatized in Brunton. Real desperate poverty or cheating: Laura’s father, naive fool, has bought he thought an annuity for his daughter; he has yet to face up to the reality the man took the money and never bought any stock and he is being put off like the characters are in Dickens Circumlocution office (or we would be today).
In all sorts of incidents this is a realer novel, Miss Austen. Including the cruelty of the mother to the daughter before she died that is not ogre like: Laura’s mother was a dense materialist, bully, who saw in her daughter the sensitive type and took it out on her in chastisement and outright hitting. Thank Lady Luck she dies — after making her husband’s life a misery too and overspending (a realer Mrs Churchill here).
Hargrave actually directly tries to push Laura into having sex with him. Her horror and fear and repulsion is not unreal given her background and what she would pay were she to have given in (the “infamy” she speaks of would destroy her life as she is now living it), but her reaction is over-the-top. She so rejects Hargrave that it becomes unreal, ludicrous. I speculate this is the kind of improbability Austen saw “everywhere.” Especially when she’s broke, her father near death and then dead. Austen’s non-heroines cave in everywhere for financial need but they do it off-stage, we are told about it from afar: from Charlotte to Mrs Clay. Or they are foolish and don’t see what’s in front of them, or are amoral, from Lydia to Maria Crawford (who Austen writes a venomous paragraph about when she marries Rushworth). Brunton’s characters who are virtuous behave with improbable idealisms. But then Austen does not try her heroines so explicitly and hard.
These kinds of scenes are not what is original in the fiction, not making us see what was not dramatized by women of this class before. What Brunton has in mind is a Clarissa-Lovelace scenario (Christy you must put everything down and read Clary next): basically in stilted and uncomfortable language but yet there fully Brunton shows us that Laura is intensely erotically attracted to Hargrave and afraid that if she marries him, she will become abject to him because of the sexual possession he will exert over her, and her sexual needs. This is why Clarissa refuses to marry Lovelace: marriage will be the seal of corruption, the coffin top locking her into abjection to an immoral cruel man. Clarissa foresees she would allow Lovelace even to beat her rather than lose him. Brunton does not want her heroine raped, indeed she cannot bear to have her lose any virginity at all, even of the vague type of sexual experience we are to imagine Marianne and Willoughby, Jane Fairfax and Frank or even that paragon Anne Elliot with Frank Wentworth may have known as engaged or semi-engaged couples (touching, kissing). So like Burney (the same kind of inhibition) she brings her heroine to the brink and improbably calls the man off. He does not proceed. At the same time she wants to show the Knightley figure, Montague de Courcy, is not attractive to Laura. I have to admit this falls into the idea women like to be with mean rough men, like rough sex, but that’s not fair to the speifics. It’s that Laura has genuine erotic feelings and longings for both men, but more for Hargrave, partly because he came on the scene first.
Brunton shows what Austen keeps off-stage again and again and it’s riveting and yet presented in these old-fashioned terms. Religion is specifically woven in; it’s made part of the heroine’s moral motivations and thinking only much less skillfully and tactfully than say Anne Bronte. (The insight behind this book is the same as in Tenant of Wildfell Hall — why the heroine is allured by the “bad” man.) She explores the same areas as Austen, her paradigms are even at times literally close, but she then goes on to really penetrate the territory. Poverty, the complexity of psychological motivations. She also has ironic undercutting of literary formula.
One improbability is Laura’s rejecting marriage to Hargrave. Even if he tried to seduce her, and mortified and humiliated by such conduct, and would be an immoral husband, would she in her desperate state, with her father needing money refuse to marry him and make the kind of speeches she does. She’d cave – the way Mrs Clay does to Mr Elliot and so many of the non-virgin non-heroine Austen characters do.
There is a kind of closeness in theme and intimacy. Laura is a kind of Marianne Dashwood very much sympathized with: she’s got to learn self-control. There are incidents which are closely parallel to incidents in other of the Austen books beyond S&S: a saving from drowning like that of Jane Fairfax. It anticipates Anna Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall in the heroine’s trying to make money by painting and selling her paintings. The psychological astuteness is very good — much better in its nuances and language than say Radcliffe. I do think Austen would have seen these as her rival. Nothing gothic about them. The characters really pass days visiting and walking and talking.
The difference is a matter of tact. Austen knows how to hide improbabilities and hers may be said to be the large ones — like Darcy turning up to a country assembly in the way he does, marrying someone like Elizabeth, being quite as grave and apparently sexually reticent and contained (the apparently virginal Mr Knightley is a character taken further in this direction since we see him more intimately.
The religious talk is explicit and interwoven. Byron had read enough of the novel (in 1810 he was still very much a part of the Scottish world) to term it filled with “religious cant.” Brunton is really driven to make sure her heroine makes no overt sexual gesture, not even to Montague de Courcy. There is no religious talk in Austen’s novels (as there is no spiritual sublime as in Radcliffe). It is however not nagging, not pompous and not directed at the reader Elizabeth (Hamilton scolds and Hannah More threatens the reader), rather another mode of explanation justifying Laura the heroine’s conduct at moments and that of the good virtuous characters. It is striking how secular Austen is in comparison (the same holds true for Charlotte Smith, Fanny Burney, Inchbald, and most of the male writers of this era of novels).
Since I have no religious beliefs whatsoever (thorough atheist), I probably dismiss much of the religious talk. I can take it with better equanimity than the intrusions of didacticism in Hamilton and More because they are woven into the psychological moments and are part of the spirit in distress; as someone might make a character project a terror or ghost. Clarissa is another matter; I’ve studied it and am with those who take Richardson’s belief system to be (like Prevost’s tellingly) fideist. That’s quite different from evangelical Christianity of the later 18th century type which I take Brunton to be — anticipating the Brontes here too.
But it’s understandable for the author cannot quite face what she is doing the way Richardson or more secular novelists can. One of the reasons it reminds me of the Brontes is this religious Protestant strain combined with this intense exploration of the erotic. She’s earlier than the Brontes and more evangelical. Her books were likened to More’s as well as Austen’s.
At the same time there’s this paradox: Brunton really clearly articulates say the complex motives, or really shows us explicitly she is making fun and why, really brings home the mechanisms of capitalism. Now Austen rarely does this and we are left to attribute to her this complex of understanding. But we do not know it’s there and when we come to read her letters her way of talking about people can be embarrassing, narrow, unfair, very very rarely does she at all bring out a complexity of views and then only at a distance. Austen thus remains readable and can be read in modern terms because she just suggests and does not treat directly. We can assume what we would like because there is a genuine humanity and decency at the core of Austen’s ethics and we extrapolate out from that but we do not know at all that she applies it.
I’m not sure why Austen excluded so much experience that even belonged to her stories: that is to say, are part of female everyday experience. Bronte called her passionless for doing this; my view is 1) she intuitively or instinctively didn’t bring up or marginalized central aspects of women’s life at home, courtship because she was brought up that way, and she did steer clear of violence and open sex; 2) she was an unmarried woman and knew it’d hurt her reputation, and 3) her relatives would have stopped her from publishing (as perhaps they did Lady Susan). I suspect most of the time it was the first, but also the 3rd played into it.We have so few manuscripts and yet among them a long paragraph about how her mother was offended by Persuasion because the authority figure Lady Russell was questioned. A second piece of evidence is that beautiful fair copy of Lady Susan. I’ve seen that sort of thing before — many times in the Renaissance. Women longed to reach people with their writing and you find them literally imitating books. I continue to read her. But it is a paradox and shows us why in her era people like Smith, Radcliffe and the others were more valued.
Her fame and reputation and cult begin with the James-Edward Austen-Leigh
The last third of the book continues to hold me, but not quite as well in the first two-thirds. What happens is Brunton continually rehearses the Lovelace-typology in Hargrave and has him again and again assail Mary oops! — Laura, this time through her aunt. What interests Brunton is not so much Hargrave versus Laura, but Laura versus Lady Pelham and unlike Clarissa, where the interest is in the general family aggrandizement perspective versus marriage for love/affection/companionship and a woman’s right to say no to a corrupt man who will corrupt her (the perspective of Mansfield Park), but the two women, with the powerful one tormenting (Brunton’s word) and harassing the woman in her power. Laura does have an allowance now but she has spent it partly on Lady Pelham’s disiherited hated daughter and must wait to save and then flee to Scotland.
For women of the era this powerful woman who preys on the powerless sensitive one is a burning trope — it’s how they experienced violation, misery, and society’s inflictions. Austen has not just her Mrs Norris, but Lady Susan who terrorizes Fredericka for a time. Elizabeth’s defiance of Lady Catherine is after all easy since Lady Catherine has no authority over her — or Darcy for that matter
To her credit, Brunton carries on explicit analysis of nuances in ways Austen does not go near, and this does question authority figures and expose them. She revels in landscape and we have visits to houses very like the one to Pemberly. De Courcy is about to marry his dependent sister off, and we see her compromise in marrying a man she only likes somewhat, who is older than she but is a good man and will care for her. The sub-story reminds me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s sub-stories in Wives and Daughters as the whole trajectory of the book and mood seems half-way between Austen and Ann Bronte.
Hargrave has a gambling friend who means to live off Hargrave and the idea that once Hargrave marries Laura (if he can manage it), Hargrave will tire of her and go back to gaming. Shades of Henry Crawford who we are to feel would have tired of Fanny once he had her. Gambling is an bad vice in Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So too drink — but Brunton will not go that far and Austen drops that reality after the Juvenilia.
I do like these moral fictions. For that’s what this is — women’s issues and experiences. I was reminded of Jane Collier and Sarah Fielding’s The art of Ingeniously Tormenting, one of these books whose genre is hard to classify. Women read it it droves (as they did in our time GWTW and recently Byatt’s Possession and some of Margaret Atwood and Drabble’s novels: Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Surfacing; Needle’s Eye, Waterfall, Seven Sisters, the Jigsaw Puzzle memoir).
Brunton’s may fall off for others for other reasons, but for me this last part of the novel is less original. I realize it’s a burning issue for women of this era but it is not for me. I am not subject to an older woman in this way. For women today there is an escape from mothers, mother-in-laws, aunts, women you work for as companions. The first part of the book was highly original not just in its realistic kind of slant (Austen’s) and going farther than this but in its daring and penetration. Here we are back with the paradigm of Clary, anticipating the last part of MP where Austen also falls back on it.
It is a story of self-control and denial; they retain control over that much desired “rose” (their virginity; they don’t go all the way).
The very last part of the book shows her re-working conventoinal paradigms showing her heroine rising above these — when she is not drawn into debt I don’t think it’s a matter of probability but showing heroine’s strength; ditto when she is not drawn off to a lone place to be harassed.
We are given a series of rounds of Hargrave’s harassments and Laura’s inability to push him away partly because her aunt is on his side shows him stalking her. He is willing to murder her rather than she be the wife of de Courcy. He hates her at some level is made explicit. Austen called it improbable; this is the weapon used against this kind of story and Brunton’s problem is she does not resort to the Clarissa like gothic. When the aunt tries to trick Laura away, Laura finds out. When the aunt colludes in trying to put Laura into debtor’s prison, Laura is not out of her wits and remembers to call a lawyer and insists on her rights and escapes this. When they try to trick her into playing cars and getting into debt, her principles are against it. In each instance in a gothic novel we’d be whisked into another realm, not here. It does make the paradigm obsession transparent. The fights over money are kept quite specific, with specific sums and Laura reminds me of Elinor Dashwood at the close when she decides (despite the advice of Montague that they don’t need any of her aunt’s money) to keep 2000 pounds and give the rest to the proper heir (a daughter Lady Pelham hated and wants to disinherit). She has worked earlier to make ends meet in London.
I have no easy demonstration of this but I suggest that last one half-wild phase (which Austen lights upon to ridicule) where Laura escapes Hargrave by getting into a boat and risking her life over a fall is an religious allegory; God or providence is on Laura’s side. The whole of that last sequence is half-mad and reminds me of Cecilia. The heroine tells us under the harassment of her aunt (she does not use that word but it’s what she means) she blanks out, she has these periods of just sitting there and doesn’t remember what is happening, has nightmares and that is just before this final sequence.
Infamy and shame are central too. At the close where she feels her reputation is in shreds, Hargrave finally dies and writes a letter vindicating her innocence and so the last page and one half, she marries de Courcy and lives with him in retired contentment ever after. But to describe the novel (the way many do) as about this without making it clear how tacked on that is, is to misrepresent it. Brunton’s last novel, Emmeline, is apparently about a young couple who have undergone a divorce (the woman) and now marry. They have defied the taboo and now tried to live unto themselves. They find they are miserable; they cannot take the loss of respect everywhere and cannot find enough in one another without preying on one another.
To conclude by situating Self-Control generally: it exists somewhere between Austen and the Brontes. Brunton is developing the English tradition and keeping away from the subversive of the gothic and away from the Catholic (French) or radical Enlightenment and yet her interest or subject is the same. Without meaning to she makes a telling contrast to the French novels of the period, far more than the decorous Austen. Brunton makes an instructive comparison with the English novel in general by other women (Smith, Edgeworth, Austen) and the French novels of this era (Genlis, Cottin). Brunton’s book is quite a ride though. Beyond novels, she also has some plays: Moore’s Gamester and depictions of older women in plays of the era.
Brunton herself seems to have no knowledge of the French novels in Self-Control, no references to Rousseau which is telling. Austen did have that knowledge, did know the French, was herself a far more secular writer as was Smith, Edgeworth, Inchbald (a Catholic), Burney. For me the closest in tone and effect to Austen’s quiet is Charriere’s brief novella; the closest in character types and stories are found in Burney. The subjectivity is yet another version of the kind of thing one finds in Inchbald and Radclfffe — they either do not or cannot see as readily clearly what they are showing as Brunton can. And all these women were either French or influenced by the French.
I can see that Austen would see this as her rival and wants to dismiss it. It’s not the closest thing to her type texts that exists in this era; but I can see why Self-Control might be attributed to Austen (which it was).
Finally, as I read I compared it to Trollope’s powerful Clarissa-type tragic novella, Linda Tressel. Linda is destroyed by the hounding of her aunt, which feels truer in many ways. The harassments are not tricks, but incessant berating, and it makes more sense of it. Trollope’s mother/aunt is someone drives the girl this way because she hates her to have sexual fulfillment or any measure of power or control. Resents it deeply.