John Sell Cotman (1782-182), Carnarvon — one vision of her poetry, geologic cataclysmic time
Oh, Hope! thou soother sweet of human woes!
How shall I lure thee to my haunts forlorn!
For me wilt thou renew the withered rose,
And clear my painful path of pointed thorn?
Ah come, sweet nymph! in smiles and softness drest,
Like the young hours that lead the tender year
Enchantress come! and charm my cares to rest:
Alas! the flatterer flies, and will not hear!
A prey to fear, anxiety, and pain,
Must I a sad existence still deplore?
Lo! the flowers fade, but all the thorns remain,
‘For me the vernal garland blooms no more.’
Come then, ‘pale Misery’s love!’ be thou my cure,
And I will bless thee, who though slow art sure.
Dear friends and readers,
A milestone on my edition of Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake for Valancourt: I’ve typed two volumes and have begun the third. I’m slowly accumulating material for an introduction and notes. It ought to have been titled Newenden (the way d’Epinay titled hers Montbrillant).
I cannot say my reading of the novel has changed much. It’s more a matter of emphasis. I had not realized quite how central & dominant to the novel are the slow devolution into a bitter loneliness on the part of Sir Edward and adultery on the part of Lady Newenden. I find the depiction more true to life on the part of both people and their slow interaction with others than anything in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: Smith gives us the how and why, the real feel of such a drift. Ethelinde a study in adulterous longing from a genuinely woman’s point of view: sexual fulfillment and companionship ached for.
She is Sir Edward and in later novels he as a figure will be given her poems. Her rotten marriage transposed sexually. I’m puzzled why Sir Edward does not kill himself. Outflanked by the social hypocrisies of his wife’s parents, the vicious rumors of Lord Danesforte about him and Ethelinde; a clever man the wife’s apparent lover, his misery because she is such a bitch (Lady Newenden), his relationship with Ethy a ruin, Ethy’s father taking the money loaned him and gambling and giving it to Lady Newenden’s lover. In other novels Smith’s greatest poetry is often attributed to such a male figure.
There is ever a male who is obsessively after the heroine. Whether his general behavior otherwise be reprehensible (Delamare in Emmeline) or noble & self-sacrificing (Montgomery), it’s this obsessive pursuit of the heroine that makes for the discomfort and misery of the story. In Emmeline, the heroine is not openly willing to reject him but rather flees; in Ethelinde we get these emotionally twisted scenes of her not being able to say yes or no. Could this be a version of her relationship with her husband? of what he was? these have an individuality beyond the typical portrait of the upper class male educated to be a vicious bully and amoral and yet think very well of himself — as we see in Stael’s and Epinay’s fictions — how Smith read the French! In the light of French women’s more explicit fiction, when we place Ethelinde’s wastrel selfish gambling brother and the father’s original behavior, the novel becomes feminist in the 18th century way.
Cotman: Normandy fantasy
I would have much preferred for Sir Edward to end up with Ethelinde: I almost believe in their relationship as much as any marriage. Her Manon is deeply transgressive in its sympathy for the lovers and Manon herself, The Romance of Real Life reveals families as they are and this book fits right into this trajectory too.
The recluse would have been left out at the end, but she would then have been a more tragic figure had the son drowned as we thought — a sixth volume had been in the works. Could it be she was planning to have Montgomery return after Sir Edward marries Ethy; it would have become an emotional version of the Martin Guerre story.
I was blaming Smith for marginalizing transgressive heroines, female characters led to live with men outside wedlock, for making her heroine super-chaste, but after reading Wollstonecraft’s really stinging attack on Adeline in that novel, and realizing how much time and space and sympathy Smith gives such heroines across her oeuvre (here Caroline’s unnamed mother, Montgomery’s grandmother) and the thoughts she gives her — in this novel several female figures have lovers and children outside marriage — to have some joy, they take a risk and pay.
The novel has little specific politics of Desmond and the later books. The wide landscape there, but here acid satire on the hypocrisies and snobberies of social life is central to her purpose. I just love it. It connects her to Thackeray. Long obsessive conversations between Ethelinde and Montgomery about how they cannot afford to marry, how this will “ruin” their chances in life go round and round. I can only think there is a personal element here, she must have been herself subjected to this morbid nagging. When she is pictured sitting on the stairs as her father and Montgomery talk, the scene feels like a memory — maybe when she was sold to Benjamin Smith. Austen’s Persuasion with its thrust to trust at the close, and several stories by Crabbe are aimed at just this kind of cruel prohibition — which in Crabbe ruins lives all the more, as the people haven’t got a chance of growing rich anyway. Whatever happiness they can have is in personal fulfillment.
I probably enjoy the novel more when it approaches from a frank and caustic point of view the kind of satire we find in Austen towards say Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Mrs Norris. For example, the hypocrisy and insolence (Smith’s narrator calls it) when Mrs Ludford, Ethelinde’s rich aunt pretends to forget her siblings’ ages and says how good it was Ethy’s mother’s other children except for the one brother did die (p 186 in 1790 ed, p 40 in my edition: Mrs Norris expresses the same idea only it’s presented more indirectly. (The line is later in MP than I thought). These intersections they bring out Austen for me where I could be exhilarated in a twisted kind of way as we both dig the imaginary knife in and so doing expose the pettiness meanness of the world — there is more truth in Smith’s opener version: paradoxically it’s true that Colonel Chesterville has not put his son to the right path; maybe he would have been better off apprenticed (p 187) than brought up in idleness and self-indulgence. But this establishment view is presented against a backdrop that makes us see the ugly nature of Mrs Ludford’s motives for saying this (unlike Trollope say where such establishment comments are not undercut in this way).
There are long similar stretches in Celestina.
It’s remarkable how many scenes in Austen occur in variation in other novels by women of the era. The difference between Austen and Smith includes Smith lets us feel the full bitterness of these. I’m struck by how the tone of the plangent section of Volume 2 when Montgomery comes to London, Edward is in love with Ethelinde and she more in love with Edward than she realizes, is close the mood and atmosphere of the 1983 S&S mini-series by Alexander Baron. The 1980s darker mini-series were more like these novels than any films before or since.
Irene Richards as Elinor Dashwood, Bosco Hogan as Edward — conversing over her drawings, the landscape, sitting together — perfect image for Smith’s Edward and Ethelinde (1981 BBC S&S by Alexander Baron)
What emerges in the latter part of Volume 2 is that Chesterville is a stand-in for Charlotte Smith’s own father who failed her so abysmally, who sold her, betrayed her. The acid in the soul of his novelist is Colonel Chesterville’s not caring for his daughter, and when Ethelinde’s aunt (it was an aunt who suggested to the father to marry Charlotte off and married Charlotte’s farther herself), Mrs Ludford, suggests Ethelinde needs another situation and her father would be glad to get rid of her (by implication) this touches upon how the orignal sin in her life was her father’s deserting her for a nasty woman and giving her up to an awful boy. If Charlotte was too young to know, Mr Turner was not (Elibon, Vol 2,, p 203, p 44 my typescript)
The novel’s scenery is all great prose poetry wants but it remains a framing.
The undermining of false stereotypes of masculinity.
Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in 1935 A Tale of Two Cities — perfect for Sir Edward
Sir Edward refuses to duel. After reading on Inimitable-Boz, a defense of Carton’s sexuality and courtship of Lucie Manette I began to see Sir Edward as anticipating Sydney Carton.
Sir Edward’s wife, Maria, is a cold tempered socialite, presented as nasty-tongued, nervy, bored with anything but her vanity, loving gambling, despising anyone who likes to read or walk in the landscape and mocking the depression marriage with her is causing Sir Edward. He married her for her money but also to be her husband, and she wanted his title, but now she is clever enough to throw this up to him and when he forbids her to see or be with Lord Danesforte any more — on the score of gambling debts too – she turns on him and accuses him of adultery with her cousin, Ethelinde. There is no adultery (both too virtuous) but he loves Ethelinde intensely and now feels he must cut himself off from her and her improvident father (a gambler) and brother (yet worse)
A long meditation of Sir Edward as he contemplates Ethelinde’s future as the wife of a man without any adequate monetary support and connections — his desire to help alleviate any of her difficulties at any cost to himself reminds me of Sydney Carton. We might historicize Carton too: this is a time when there is no state or gov’t or any kind of safety net. Reading the brilliant analysis of Charlotte Smith’s depiction of Edward’s selfless yet deeply selfish (she is so deeply congenial a spirit, so good) and sexual (she is beautiful ohim) love for Ethelinde, and how persuasive their relationship, teaches me that the problem we have in reading Dickens’s Carton and many other heroes of “sensibility” and depression, is that the time is indeed more than 160 years ago when women also had no means of getting decent support on their own either. I find Volume 2, chapter 10, pp 239-44, the long inward delving into this man astonishing still.
Smith provides the psychological underpinning that Dickens & other male authnors omit to understand this kind of male temperament — they are too embarrassed. Who would admit desperation at their class background in this way (except for Godwin). To call them men of sensibility is to use a label to erase what the text does: undermine masculine stereotypes.
It’s ridiculous to get too worked up over a novel but as I’m typing it I do bond with it, and did find myself intensely hurt when at the ASECS someone ridiculed Sir Edward and read the book as if we were to empathize genuinely with Lady Newenden when she is the cruel pernicious presence of the piece from her outward conduct.
Smith gives Edward a good phrase for his attitude towards Ethelinde: she has a sanctity of character. So much better than purity which brings in this baggage of asexuality no no sexuality in this woman for real. She’s not corrupted or corruptible because of her background and asocial-ability. Sanctity of character is a phrase I’d use for Esther Summerson as well as Jarndyce as played by Denholm Elliot (the 1988 Bleak House like the 1989 ATOTC written by Arthur Hopcroft).
How Edward feels about Ethelinde:
that her whole life might be exposed to trials, he could not soften, to difficulties he could not alleviate; all his sense, his morality, his resolution, hardly supported him when he considered it; and he sometimes fancied he could rather bear to destroy her, and then himself, than endure the certainty of that, the very idea of which inflicted anguish so acute
When she writes so moving and ably and subtly we have to see that she did value her fiction and talked denigratingly of it because others didn’t value it or wouldn’t admit they saw it what is there (p 241-43 of Elibron, pp 52-53 of my new edition)
Again the lone figure against time and nature.
John Sell Cotman, from a Dulwich exhibit of his Normandy watercolors
From her poetry: the autobiographical background: Her terrors for her children, several of whom predeceased her and did know hardship. I’ve no doubt she saw a version of this woman who lies at several removes behind this novel; Sir Edward’s terrors for Ethelinde’s future
The Female Exile.
WRITTEN AT BRIGHTHELMSTONE IN NOV. 1792. [from Elegiac sonnets (1797-1800)]
November’s chill blast on the rough beach is howling,
The surge breaks afar, and then foams to the shore,
Dark clouds o’er the sea gather heavy and scowling,
And the white cliffs re-echo the wild wintry roar.
Beneath that chalk rock, a fair stranger reclining
Has found on damp sea-weed a cold lonely seat;
Her eyes fill’d with tears, and her heart with repining,
She starts at the billows that burst at her feet.
There, day after day, with an anxious heart heaving,
She watches the waves where they mingle with air;
For the sail which, alas! all her fond hopes deceiving,
May bring only tidings to add to her care.
Loose stream to wild winds those fair flowing tresses,
Once woven with garlands of gay Summer flowers;
Her dress unregarded, bespeaks her distresses,
And beauty is blighted by grief’s heavy hours.
Her innocent children, unconscious of sorrow,
To seek the gloss’d shell, or the crimson weed stray;
Amused with the present, they heed not to-morrow,
Nor think of the storm that is gathering to day.
The gilt, fairy ship, with its ribbon-sail spreading,
They launch on the salt pool the tide left behind;
Ah! victims—for whom their sad mother is dreading
The multiplied miseries that wait on mankind!
To fair fortune born, she beholds them with anguish,
Now wanderers with her on a once hostile soil,
Perhaps doom’d for life in chill penury to languish,
Or abject dependance, or soul-crushing toil.
But the sea-boat, her hopes and her terrors renewing,
O’er the dim grey horizon now faintly appears;
She flies to the quay, dreading tidings of ruin
All breathless with haste, half expiring with fears.
Poor mourner!—I would that my fortune had left me
The means to alleviate the woes I deplore;
But like thine my hard fate has of affluence bereft me,
I can warm the cold heart of the wretched no more!