Qui ne peut revenir;
tourment de ma pensée
Que n’ai je en te perdant, perdu le souvenir
In these gloomy moods, she was quite unable to remain a moment in company — Smith cannot break away from obsessive memories of her life as a girl, code for before marriage Celestina
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve read yet another novel by Charlotte Smith: her fifth published narrative, Celestina (1791). I can’t say I took no interest whatsoever in the pivotal central heroine and supposed central consciousness of the book, Celestina, or Willoughby, her hero and their unfolding story. I kept read-skimming to near the book’s end to find out whose daughter Celestina is, and how she came to be mistakenly regarded as the illegitimate daughter of Mrs Willoughby, her foster-mother (benefactress is the term in the novel), and thereby Willoughby’s half-sister and ineligible to marry him. I was engaged by his long semi-fantasy journey at la St Preux in La Nouvelle Heloise amid the mountains of Switzerland, his deep absorption in wild solitudes as he traveled about to Southern France, Switzerland, into Naples to discover who she is, and where this rumor that has estranged them from one another forever came from.
However, this journey was a detour from the book’s plot-design, and had no individual nuance, could easily have been attributed to some character invented for this journey, or better yet Smith herself as implied author, impersonal narrator. At the end of her life when she was dying, in pain from terminal ovarian cancer, and her husband had at last died, and she was getting the interest on her legacy, she dreamed of going to Switzerland, some cottage there. I imagine she thought of re-buying a library for herself once more.
And that’s part of the peculiarity of the pleasures of this novel. Its strong, compelling sections, passages are all those which have nothing to do with the central story. The most appealing engaging parts of the hovel are the several inset stories, of the “lamentable history” type told by a victim heroine: Jessy, much put-upon younger woman, harassed, exploited, seeks “service” where things do not get better; Mrs Elphinstone, the wife and then widow of yet another wildly extravagant, mercurially hot-tempered and intransigently stubborn husband, who (luckily we think) is drowned; Cathcart, Mrs E’s brother (who eventually marries Jessy, the lower middle class young man led astray by unrealizable ambitions in counterproductive jobs; Emily, their sister’s story, senselessly repressed, bullied, she flees with Vavasour, a handsome good-natured enough rake, who promised to marry her, does not but who loves and supports her even when she dies of consumption; of Lady Horatio Howard’s aristocratic life among corrupt circles she accepts (who stands in at moments for Smith’s beloved but probably prudentially conventional friend, Henrietta O’Neill); of Count de Bellegarde, a younger son of a reactionary punitive Italian Marquis, and his sister, Genevieve whose marriage beneath her her father refuses to forgive. Celestina travels as vigorously as any Radcliffe heroine, and I know I read the book for her sojourn in the Hebrides, which does not disappoint, and the inserted poetry in all the Scottish sections of the novel. I found the account of the early stages of the French revolution into Napoleonic era as played out in southern France, and Italy eye-opening as by a contemporary witness who thinks and reads. Did I say this is a long book?
I’ve come to the conclusion in this book Smith is a novelist in search of another form of novel, more than a different central story. She wanted another structure, another mode. As with her Letters of a Solitary Wanderer were the motifs and characters and themes and utterances anticipated those of Mary Shelley in her Frankenstein, I felt Smith was frustrated, hemmed in with these paradigmatic pathological familial romance-sex stories, semi-action adventure (Sophia Lee style, often with women at the center or feminized heroes), no matter how much more terrifying she managed to make them. Her next novel, Desmond, is epistolary. It’s a political treatise with its love story in the margins, and is balanced, symmetrical, satisfying, no tedium. But basically she changes content, reverses emphasis: the next three, Old Manor House, Emigrants (verse narrative), The Banished Man, are centered in inheritance, illegitimate and war, revolution, counter-revolution, stories of exile. Then the gothic Montalbert (about adultery, male violence, torrid climes, mother turning into daughter) and we read a story about debt, the prison system, some of it carried on by inset epistolary narrative, Marchmont. She does not take the generic leap she needed to.
Where the central narrative of Celestina comes most alive is in action-adventure moments of supreme suffering, but the problem is to get there we have to read distress upon distress and cannot forget the improbability of this. What she was seeking was some sudden frantic suffering, the sort of thing Outlander does weekly, as in the super-painful penultiamte episode where the sadistic homosexual Black Jack threatens to kill Claire until Jamie agrees to become his masochistic sex partner, and then smashes Jamie’s hand again and again.
Claire moans and groans, pushing her head against Jamie’s shoulder who tells her she must leave: he stands in for tortured prisoners today (in the perpetual war this earth’s colonialist capitalists and militarist dictatorships are waging against fanatic bands of excluded men and women mesmerized by a barbaric religion aka the war on terror) and what perhaps happens in prison systems like that of the US, China, Egypt (&c). So this film series knows what it’s doing and what it is conveying. We take this replacement as believable because done in the Lee mode, of historical romance with fantasy interwoven (what Diana Wallace in her Woman’s Historical Novel and Helen Hughes in her The Historical Romance describe). In her most powerful famous sonnets she is urging on herself such moments:
Swift fleet the billowy clouds along the sky,
Earth seems to shudder at the storm aghast;
While only beings as forlorn as I,
Court the chill horrors of the howling blast.
Even round yon crumbling walls, in search of food,
The ravenous Owl foregoes his evening flight,
And in his cave, within the deepest wood,
The Fox eludes the tempest of the night.
But to my heart congenial is the gloom
Which hides me from a World I wish to shun;
That scene where Ruin saps the mouldering tomb,
Suits with the sadness of a wretch undone.
Nor is the deepest shade, the keenest air,
Black as my fate, or cold as my despair.
The above is from Montalbert, the novel written in the wake of her beloved daughter, Augusta’s death. One of her sequences of poems is that of a mother grieving the loss of her daughter. Not enough has been written about these or Smith’s work in terms of a mother to a daughter.
But Smith is too conventional finally; too in her heart hopeful generally, not able to give up her progressive vision to move into the despair that would create an appropriate text.
I’m thinking that unlike Austen who could stay with conventional paradigms, not having a radical unearthing kind of vision, Smith needed to break them away. (Yes there is a sequence of double humiliation in a sort of assembly room dance that Austen could have had in mind in her S&S, but what is made intense height of shattering mortification in Austen, is a passing phase of your usual social suffering in Smith.) The feminocentric courtship novel was not for her (Emmeline). She writes in one of her self-reflexive critical comments that she cannot get herself to move to the supernatural (she is thinking of gothic fantasy) since she wants to stay true to the cause of the evil and harm she sees around her: natural, man-made, if by the end of her life she saw apparently not reformable. I was thinking today how Dickens’s great historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is not (like Barnaby Rudge, a weak book), rooted in historical detail accurately dramatized but instead has these long chapters of deep imaginative flights of bleak, tragic, pessimistic imagery to convey the nightmare horrors the ancien regime could inflict on the powerless. Most of her stories are set in the present. Maybe she needed some weaving technique whereby she could embed her inset narratives as letters, memoirs, from an earlier period, a version of time-traveling through having her characters do research and find letters and documents instead of wandering as desperate exiles. Something more integrated too, distilled. Maybe a Booker Prize type post-colonial book. She was 200 years too early. She reached for it in the opening of The Banished Man (which I’ve begun, a conflagration amid war of a house), but then fell back again when her daughter died.
Something visionary in a prose story yet grounded in realism. This is iconoclastic for Smith scholars as (like them) I love how she follows Cowper, but the problem with her much admired Beachy Head is it is too exquisitely a jeweled imitation of him. She cannot like Wordsworth tell her life directly: it is unacceptable what she knew. In one of her late stories she has a heroine whose husband murders her son out of sexual jealousy over their daughter remember her last years with him before separation:
when, far from other motives than those of real affection, he once more approached me, mingling resentment and doubt even with his caresses, I would gladly have returned to my dungeon, or even have sought shelter in the grave, rather than have become, as I was however gradually compelled to do, the mere victim of his animal gratification (from “Edouarda,” Tales of Solitary Wanderer)
This getting close to the heart of the matter. Her surrogates are all of her older; she omits the time inbetween and she needed to write out of that. As I read and reread her poetry, this silent core is what she seeks to erupt from herself looking to the wild storms and solitude of landscapes outside the control of men, to bring her to it.
ON this lone island, whose unfruitful breast
Feeds but the summer-shepherd’s little flock
With scanty herbage from the half-clothed rock,
Where osprays, cormorants, and sea-mews rest;
Even in a scene so desolate and rude
I could with thee for months and years be blest;
And of thy tenderness and love possest,
Find all my world in this wild solitude!
When Summer suns these Northern seas illume,
With thee admire the light’s reflected charms,
And when drear Winter spreads his cheerless gloom,
Still find Elysium in thy shelt’ring arms:
For thou to me canst sovereign bliss impart,
Thy mind my empire–and my throne thy heart.
— Celestina in the Hebrides
The lines to pay attention to are the last three: she does not find refuge, an alternative either through her mind or (being this realist), now without a friend (the death of Henrietta O’Neill is never far from her mind) in an envisaged practical future.
Faultering and sad the unhappy Pilgrim roves,
Who, on the eve of bleak December’s night,
Divided far from all he fondly loves,
Journeys alone, along the giddy height
Of these steep cliffs, and as the Sun’s last ray
Fades in the West, sees, from the rocky verge,
Dark tempest scowling o’er the shortened day,
And hears, with ear appall’d, the impetuous surge
Beneath him thunder!—So, with heart oppress’d,
Alone, reluctant, desolate, and slow,
By Friendship’s cheering radiance now unblest,
Along Life’s rudest path I seem to go;
Nor see where yet the anxious heart may rest,
That, trembling at the past—recoils from future woe.
Celestina in the Hebrides
Rob Miller, Outer Hebrides