“But you must be aware that when a young lady is (by whatever means) introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy the ancient housekeeper up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. . . . [Y]ou listen to the sound of her receding footsteps as long as the last echo can reach you—and when, with fainting spirits, you attempt to fasten your door, you discover, with increased alarm, that it has no lock.” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, 158-59).
The above images two remain my favorite of all the stills of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood: Jennifer Ehle walking along in the countryside meditatively, with a melancholy retreat feel into nature (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies); Hattie Morahan looking out to sea and painfully enduring what seems a long loneliness ahead (2008 S&S, scripted Andrew Davies). The passage from Austen’s NA, probably using Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or a Tale of Others Times as part of what is parodied and yet taken seriously is also one of my favorites …
Friends and readers,
Since I wrote about Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy, or the Ruin on the Rock (1795) here (some months ago), I’ve been wanting to recommend two further later eighteenth century epistolary novels I and another friend on my small WomenWritersAcrosstheAges listserv @ Yahoo read together last year on their treatment of women’s issues in the 18th century still of relevant today, Sophia Briscoe’s Miss Melmoth; or the New Clarissa and the anonymous Emma, or The Unfortunate Attachment: we read them because they have both been linked to Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, whose The Sylph (1778) we also read.
Prompted by the appearance of two new Austen films, P&P and Zombies and Love and Friendship (aka Lady Susan) as well as shoverdosing on a Scots TV production of Gabaldon’s Outlander, in reaction almost against, I recommend these 18th century epistolary narratives as well as The Sylph and Sophia Lee’s powerful gothic, The Recess (1783) as a better way to acquaint yourself with Austen’s world and context.
The first in time is Miss Melmoth; or, The New Clarissa (1771) by Sophia Briscoe, about whom little is known beyond that a second epistolary novel written in the following year was attributed to her (The Fine Lady, 1772), that The Sylph has attributed to her (a receipt for payment is in her name) and that the Critical Review and Monthly Review commended these novels as superior to some average they disdained, “entertaining,” amusing,” “not corrupting,” “instructive” and capable of “arousing powerful emotion.” She is also sometimes said to have been Scottish. Unfortunately no one has yet published a summary, and although I made intense notations on the letters (and they are in the archives at Yahoo) as we went through them (two novels which we read over some 6 weeks), I never put them together coherently.
What was most remarkable were not so much the on-going front continuous unfolding of the main characters, but the inset back-stories as it were, what was told all at once and intensely when one woman would sit down and tell her history to another, or one of our heroines report what she had heard of a new character in the novel’s history. I was struck by how seriously the novel took death emotionally; how the loss of a close relative or friend affects someone’s life irreparably. The front stories projected a sympathetic account of how women needs other women friends.
One of the inset histories was a hostile depiction of a woman whose elopement with a rake turns out so badly that she is driven to become a lady’s maid who then betrays her young mistress by marrying that mistress’s domineering shallow father and becoming herself a tyrannical step-mother; another, a deeply empathetic depiction of a stranded widow. The novel reveals a tenuous security for all eighteenth century women of whatever rank. A desperate need for marriage however painful that condition may turn out.
The second in time was published anonymously, Emma or, The Unfortunate Attachment (1773); it has (probably wrongly) been attributed to Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, and the modern edition by Jonathan David Cross continues the attribution. We agreed that all three novels (Sylph, Emma, and Miss Melmoth) were written by different people because the styles were so different. Emma; or the Fatal Attachment has far more stilted and wrought style than either of the other two, and its central story is the plangent and tragic one. This novel has many Richardsonian twists and turns, and again I wrote about the letters as we went through, ironic and juxtaposed section by section (and these annotations are in the archives). Its subject is coerced marriage; in this novel a previous attachment has gone so deep and the new relationship despite all efforts on the part of the heroine and reinforcement of social norms by her relatives and friends a violation.
Beyond what Gross writes of it, in her “Richardson and some Richardsonian novels,” Isobel Grundy (Samuel Richardson: Tercentenary Essays, edd. M.A. Doody and P. Sabor) writes of how the heroine is harrowed by the death of the previous man, shows she is capable of loving two men at once, includes a friend who offers “a strongminded feminist critique of wifehood,” and depicts a retreat to “a desolate domestic wasteland” (pp. 227-29). Again a deep sense of precariousness in life for women is conveyed.
Both Miss Melmoth and this Emma (as well as The Slyph) have multiple correpondents who write to one another and receive responses; both happy endings (as does The Sylph) but what happens along the way is not negated. A chime of many voices and presences.
I’ve been prompted finally to describe Miss Melmoth and Emma, or the Unfortunate Attachment and refer back to The Sylph because I’m almost finished with the 16 part mini-series film adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels as the closest thing I’ve come across to Sophia Lee’s The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times, a journalistic epistolary novel (the letters very long and only by the two sisters), to my mind the first self-conscious genuine gothic in English literature (1783). (This wikipedia article will lead you to good material on Lee and her novel, which deserve a long blog of their own. I also read it with a another friend on Eighteenth Century worlds @ Yaoo, and postings are in those archives. I have no room here lest this blog become overlong.)
Gabaldon’s book (or books) are a kind of cross between Frank Yerby “The Border Lord” type romances, with time-traveling fantasy taken from Daphne DuMaurier’s House on the Hill; a Dorothy in Oz longing to return to Auntie Em turned into a resolute desire to stay (Claire is told to click her shoes before the stones and recite “there is no place like love” in her efforts to return to modern England); and a plot-design which exploits overall Scottish history, Highland cultural artefacts and the Jacobite 175 rebellion and patina of 18th century English politics. They read somewhat woodenly but if you have watched the mini-series for a while and go back, you find they make good script ideas and dialogue for a TV film. If you want to understand Gabaldon’s Outlanders the books to read are Helen Hughes’s The Historical Romance and Diane Wallace’s The Woman’s Historical Novel. The distance between Gabaldon’s book and the literate eloquent script and remarkable realization reminds of the distance between the 1978 mini-series Love for Lydia, and H.E. Bates’s sub-Lawrentian novel.
The mini-series reaches out to contemporary wishes for spirituality by involving megalithic stones and the natural landscape in its depiction of “spirituality” and the nature of its characters. The central character, Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (two husband’s names) is a nurse from WW2 – this seems all the rage on these mini-series, nurses – is presented as pro-active and strong, a female hero who is as effective in action-adventure and yet needs rescuing, all the while doing a woman’s jobs of caring. Then you get plenty of blood, death, violence for the men. This is precisely what we find in Lee’s two heroines, Elinor and Matilda, Mary Stuart’s long-lost daughters, who learn to love as abjectly and erotically as Claire. The Scottish landscape and myths about the Highlands serves both Lee and Outlander.
The mini-series and Lee manifest the same attempt at an exploration of male high adventure (Lee is much influenced by Prevost) through the cyclical art, use of voice-over (daringly by the men too) so sensibilities of l’ecriture-femme movie-style. Some of the scripts were written by a woman who was also the executive producer, Anne Kenney. I do love all of this, Lee and the mini-series, the Scottish landscapes captivate me too.
I like to think and even assume that Austen read all three of these semi-realistic epistolary novels; there is some evidence in Northanger Abbey to suggest that Austen had the fantasy The Recess in mind when Henry Tilney produces his mock-gothic narrative for Catherine as they ride into the Abbey.
I was also prompted to tell of these novels finally because two new Austen movies have just come out, the utter nonsense of Burt Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a film adaptation of Seth Graham-Smith’s burlesque gay mash-up, and Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, a blending of Austen’s Lady Susan with her juvenilia burlesque, Love and Freindship. I link in a group of reviews in comments.
When I’ve seen the two new movies, I will write about them, but from what I’ve read thus far, you will learn far more about Austen’s world, get closer to her values and assumptions by reading any one of these four novels. And yet how close, how alike are the photos, the pictures stemming from both movies to the appropriate photos and covers of these four later 18th century novels, and stills from movies made from and appropriate illustrations for Austen’s novels. At the same time some essential element of sanity, of ironic perspective, of true ethical compass is either not there or muted. See comments for full disclosure or elaboration on this.
Again Jones and Feilds as Henry and Catherine, with Catherine Walker as Eleanor Tilney between them, this time all discussing Ann Radcliffe and “real history” as they walk through a real wood (this one happens to be in Scotland where most the film was done).