Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Oliphant’

From The Graphic, Women reading in the London Free Library, from Lady’s Pictorial, 1895)

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Nine Monday late mornings into early afternoon, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm
4801 Spring Valley Building, near American University main campus, Northwest, Washington DC
Dates: Classes start Sept 26th; last class Dec 5th, 2015; Oct 17th cancelled.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (gothic, 1818), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (“condition of England” novel, 1849), George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance” (a Clerical Tale, domestic fiction, 1857) and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester: A Tale of Contemporary Life (1883, not quite a “new woman” novel). We’ll also read on-line excerpts on women artists and the theater, travel writing by Harriet Martineau (abolitionist, de Toqueville-like US travels), journalism at mid-century (from Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, 1854), and 1890s suffragette writing (Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” 1913, and from an online Sylvia Pankhurst archive).

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. Maurice Hindle Penguin, 1992. ISBN: 0140433627
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, ed Macdonald Daly. Penguin, 1996 ISBN: 0-140-43464-X
George Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance,” from Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. Jennifer Gribble Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 0-14-043638-3
Margaret Oliphant, Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life, introd. Jennifer Uglow. Penguin/Virago, 1984. ISBN: 0140161023


Harriet Martineau, from her Autobiography (The Fourth Period). http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7103&doc.view=print
Caroline Norton, from English Laws for Women: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/norton/elfw/elfw.html
Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” Great Speeches from The Guardian, 2007: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches1
Sylvia Pankhurst Archive: Selection, https://www.marxists.org/archive/pankhurst-sylvia/index.htm

Illustrations for Gaskell’s Mary Barton

Jem saving a man from the fire

Mary to Jem: “Oh, Jem, Take me Home” (1905, Ivor Symes)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 26th: Writing and other careers for 19th century women. Shelley’s Frankenstein (please have read the first third by this day).
Oct 3rd: For this week although we have no class, please have read the second third of Frankenstein.  Holiday
Oct 10th: Please finish Frankenstein for this day.
Oct 17th: Outside class:  read the first third of Mary Barton, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Part IV, Section 1 and 2, pp 206-17. Essays on Martineau’s life and early writing, and on O’Flinn on Frankenstein sent. Class cancelled.
Oct 24th: Mary Shelley and  Harriet Martineau’s career, we begin Gaskell and Mary Barton (begun)
Oct 31st: Mary Barton
Nov 7th: Mary Barton, from Caroline Norton and other cases (law & custom)
Nov 14th: Gaskell and Caroline Norton’s careers; Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance” in context
Nov 21st: Oliphant’s Hester (probably the first half)
Nov 28th: Hester and Oliphant’s Autobiography and career: editing, domestic realism
Dec 5th: The Pankhursts, suffragettes and “New Women” novels. Tentative final thoughts.

A photograph of Margaret Oliphant when young, shortly after she married (1852)

A quick drawing of George Eliot, late in life, leaving a London concert (1879)

Suggested supplementary reading:

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994. The best.
Coghill, Mrs Harry aka Annie Walker. The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant. NY: Dodd, 1899. Nothing better on Oliphant than this.
Clarke, Norma. Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love: The Jewsbury Sisters. Felicia Hemans, and Jane Carlyle. London: Routledge, 1990.
Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. NY: Knopf, 1975.
Flint, Kate. The Woman Reader, 1837-41. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.
Lupack, Barbara, ed. Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film. Ohio: Bowling Green State UP, 1999.
Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women (1861). Broadview Press, 2000.
Peterson, Linda ed. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing. Cambridge, 2015.
—————-. Traditions of Women’s Autobiography: Poetics and Politics of Life Writing. Univ Press of Virginia, 1999.
Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert: suffragette and new women novels. A blog: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2015/04/05/elizabeth-robinss-the-convert-excellent-suffragette-novel/
Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. London: Picador, 2000. Superb, original research.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. NY: New American Library, 1987. Short version of the life, insightful.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Very good short life and works.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
————. George Eliot. NY: Virago, 1987. Short life.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. NY: St. Martin’s, 1987. Excellent.


Shoulder to Shoulder. Script: Ken Taylor, Alan Plater, Midge Mackenzie. Dir. Waris Hussein, Moira Armstrong. Perf: Sian Philips, Angela Downs, Judy Parfitt, Georgia Brown. Six 75 minute episodes available on YouTube. BBC, 1974.
Suffragette. Script. Abi Morgan. Dir. Sarah Gavron. Perf: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Marie Duffey. Ruby, Pathe, Film4, BFI, 2014

Talking Books: On CD:

For Frankenstein, Gildart Jackson the reader (Dreamscape, available at Downpour)
For Mary Barton, Juliet Stevenson the reader (Cover-to-cover, available at their site)

Ralph Hedley, Seeking Situations (1904)

Read Full Post »

Margaret Oliphant as a younger author (about 1860, from The Bookman, 1897)

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter — Oliphant on Austen

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished a great novel, later 19th century (1883), and for the second time feel convinced Hester as much a masterpiece that people should read as any by George Eliot (but Middlemarch and Romola is in a different league), as any by Anthony Trollope, as many by Dickens, any by Thackeray (but Vanity Fair), yet I’m hard put to explain why or how because like Austen whom Oliphant understood so well Oliphant “never rises above the level of ordinary life,” and skewers “what is remorsely true.” The difference is that in this novel Oliphant is appalled and feels heart-broken over what she so despairingly sees.

Merryn Williams (in her literary biography of Oliphant) says of Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor (1891) what is true of Hester “its strength is in the way it explores and illuminates a painful situation.” In Hester we see how a woman make a shipwreck of her life because she behaves deeply well to someone near her (spouse, nephew, son), trusts him but because she also tries to control him, expects he will behave nobly in return, is deeply resented and out of bitterness betrayed. In Elinor the betrayer is a husband, and we discover that Elinor finds salvation in her relationship with her mother and her child. It’s not astonishing that what happens in Elinor parallels Oliphant’s imagined later life with her husband and mother (had either of them lived) but it is astonishing that relationship of the older single heroine of Hester, Catherine Vernon, with one of her much younger cousins, Edward Vernon, parallels Oliphant herself in her relationship with her sons. The novel can be read as showing that Oliphant understood that she was in part to blame for her son’s derelict irresponsible characters and yet that this outcome need not have happened; the son-nephew need not have responded with suspicion, mistrust, even anger at this high-minded giving of hers.


The novel is also about how hard it is for people to communicate with one another humanely. There are two parallel and admirable women characters: in character type, strongly ethical by instinct, highly perceptive, capable of reading with understanding people and books, not to omit business practices and courtship, Hester Vernon, is a young version of Catherine who is Hester’s mother’s cousin-in-law. As the novel opens, they are placed in hostile-feeling positions. Unknown to Hester, her father, John Vernon, was responsible for nearly destroying the family banking business and simply ran away (and died) to avoid having to cope; Catherine had also been in love with him when he chose Hester’s mother, a woman of feeble mind, obtuse, utterly conventional in all her ideas, thinking, feeling cant (as Samuel Johnson would have said). Catherine offers them a home, the house they had lived in, in the same spirit as she houses other of her indigent relatives. She is not generous spirited in mood to any of these relatives (in Vernonry) but then most (not Hester, who is too proud and decent, nor her mother who is too dumb) are endlessly spiteful, ungrateful, competitive. Catherine’s way of dealing with this is to smile at them; under the smile we can register Oliphant’s deeper sense of profound dismay kept at bay. What Oliphant shows us is a deep calm scepticism about all human professions of idealism, a justified cynicism. She’s been accused of being hostile to men: rather she is rare for not according them any deference when they are weak or lacking. In reality she can be just as hostile to women, but it’s not noticed. Hester then conceives a dislike of Catherine-Oliphant out a resentment similar to Edward’s, milder as the generosity is milder and the smiles not seen as often. Catherine herself cannot bear the remembrance of Hester’s father or his preference for Hester’s helpless hopeless mother. It is extraordinary how Oliphant is seeing through herself in this book.

The novel moves slowly. Hester at first tries to free herself by asserting she will take a teaching position. She finds no one will tolerate this: it lowers her, the family, she is told will make her miserable. All she is allowed is to live by her mother’s side and wait for some young man to ask her to be his wife. There is someone available in her small world’s stage and there are people who are capable of companionate supportive friendship. There are two further young cousins of Catherine, first, Harry Vernon, good-natured and as it emerges instinctively deeply ethical and far more generous spirited than any one else, but not perceptive, not active intellectually, energetic, or with much business sense (he has no competition in him) falls in love with Hester, courts, asks her to marry him, and is refused. His sister, Ellen, marries a weak man, Algernon Merridew, someone easy to lead, and sets up a housekeeping style well above their means, one which includes regular assembly dances. To these eventually come the grandchildren of two further pensioners (for once not Vernons) Captain and Mrs Morgan: Roland and Emma Ashton. Roland has all the intelligence, savoir-faire, and sophistication (it is he who tempts Edward to gamble in the stock-market without meaning to disrupt the Vernon bank) and he is drawn to Hester. Emma is a comical version (except ultimately it’s not funny) of the crass match-seeking impoverished young woman. The grandparents, and especially Captain Morgan provide Hester with meaningful talk, advice, companionship, daily small enjoyments of walking, eating together, passing time sharing whatever is passing.

The Morgans, in some moods, a further sensible young woman with children whom Catherine supports (Oliphant supported so many in her family, including brothers, brothers’ families when brothers died), Harry, and one of Catherine’s lower rank business associates, Rule (who works with her to save the bank twice) and at the novel’s close the sudden turn-around of Catherine when she has to take in that her beloved Edward hates her, and resumes her place in the bank, opens up to Hester and leans on her, all provide a foundation of believable sane and needed and natural reciprocal kindnesses. Nonetheless, the greatness whereof I speak emerges because the novel is also one of the bitterest realistic novels I’ve ever read. The intensity of inward pain, “her heart throbbing with wild suffering” (Chapter 51, p 453 in the Virago edition introduced by Jenny Uglow) Catherine experiences, the self-torturing anguish of realizing she has not been loved, not trusted, has been duped, deceived, not wanted all these years by her semi-adopted semi-son and heir, Edward, is as strong as any tragic emotion. That Catherine cannot allow herself to be beaten out of pride, because so many depend on her makes the weight of book have as much heft as Middlemarch.

Oliphant kept saying to herself in her autobiography, she wrote as well as George Eliot; she misses the greatness of Eliot’s book because her foundation for her tale is far narrower, and when she widens out (as in The Ladies Lindores) she becomes too defuse (see my review in “The Scottish Angle”). She does (to use Henry James’s phrase) “ful[ly], pleasant[ly], reckless[ly], rustle over depths and difficulties” (quoted by the Colbys in their The Equivocal Virtue, p 138). The novel’s sequel, Lady Car (which I’ve just begun reading), narrows the focus to an inward utter disenchantment of wife (“unable to contend with the wild seas and billows [of inner life] that went over her head”) with husband, of Lady Car’s subsequent bewildered self alienation, and alienation from her son, takes us again into this area of quiet brutality Oliphant excelled in and recognized in Austen. (See also my Phoebe Junior among others.)


As previous generations distorted Oliphant because she would not present herself as vatic (Woolf says she sold herself, is “smeared” by her willingness to be prolific to provide money for her son’s at Eton), so now I find there’s a strong tendency to praise novels whose heroines attempt and succeed at remunerative careers (Kirsteen. which is very good but not that typical); Elisabeth Fay (a fine biography of Mrs Oliphant as a writer) wants “resolution,” something upbeat and progressive, redemptive, hopeful. What then to do with Oliphant’s harrowing ghost stories? Arguably her The Beleaguered City, Camus-like in its despair, is her greatest work (a novella). If you can read Italian (I do with effort) Beatrice Battaglia’s essay on Oliphant’s gothic Dantesque “Land of Darkness” (in La Critica Alla Cultura Occidentale nella leteraturea idstopica inglese), makes a case for Oliphant as a gothic artist and in her ghost stories visionary.

“The Library Window”

I recommend also a chapter by Linda Peterson in her Traditions of Victoirian Women’s Autobiography, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, and Robert and Vineta Colby’s essay on “The Beleaguered City: A Fable for the Victorian Age,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 16:4 (1962):283-301.

To return to Hester. My idea is not to be discouraged because probably you (or I) will not get near reading all 147 of her volumes (that number is the Colby’s and includes Oliphant’s biographies and literary history), much less a good deal of her excellent scattered journalism. Henry James called her the “great improvistrice” (a female Trollope). Find and read the best: they are gradually making their way into print through the spread of facsimile editions. You will find as an anonymous Quarterly Review writer said “She approached very subject from a woman’s point of view … believing and professing that a woman’s estimate of life is generally to be preferred to a man’s” (Williams, p 57).


Kellie Castle

Read Full Post »

Flirting amid piles of plays (Maria and Henry with Tom and Yates in the background, the 1983 MP by Ken Taylor)

Dear friends and readers,

Herewith my second blog report on the gist of the individual papers delivered on Saturday, October 10th, at the JASNA AGM in Montreal. Looking over the 7 to 8 break-out sessions on against the one I chose, I again regret that so many papers were on against one another.


I went to hear Br. Paul Byrd’s paper comparing Mansfield Park with Margaret Oliphant’s Perpetual Curate because I’m a reader of Oliphant’s fiction, and know she was influenced by and wrote a perceptive essay on Austen’s fiction and Austen’s nephew’s memoir of his aunt. He brought the two novels together as by two Anglican women who saw the need for reform in the church with clerical heroes who suffer repeated attacks. Mansfield Park: Edmund is distracted by his personal involvement from his vocation; his religion though more often discussed than portrayed; pluralism and absenteeism condemned. He is contrasted to Dr Grant. Mary argues priests have little influence on people, represents a segment of society that no longer believes thoroughly in the Christian religion; mercenary considerations strongly influence her judgement; Henry Crawford is sensual, self-indulgent. Edmund’s relationship to Fanny shows him thoughtful, meaning to be reflective though he fails to be an accurate observer. The Perpetual Curate: Frank Wentworth presents a Victorian ideal and knows what a clergyman ought to be; but is his own worst enemy, not politic, handles a scandal foolishly, yet remains true to himself; Br Byrd brought in each author’s male relatives who were clergymen, and seemed to believe that Austen assumed her readers believed that Anglicanism could be an effective force in the world while Oliphant delivers a blistering critique of Anglican church of her day: Br Bryd thought Oliphant was showing a cultural shift from a gentleman who is a clergyman to clergyman who have a calling; he also read Mansfield Park as seriously about religion and religious failings in Austen’s characters and the cultural world they belonged to.


I went to hear Kathryn Davis’s “Charles Pasley’s Essay and the ‘Governing Winds of Mansfield Park,” because during the long course of reading and analyzing Austen’s letters (see my blog analysis of Letter 78) I became aware of how she admired the ruthless imperialism of Pasley through what she said in a letter and Southam’s analysis of Pasley’s career and writing (in his book on Austen’s brothers) and how narrowly partisan Austen could be when it came to what she thought were her brothers’ interests. Ms Davis talked of Austen’s admiration for this man, and of his life as retold in the ODNB, and then presented Pasley’s writing in terms of his patriotic ideals and worry about the navy weakening; how he reminds his audience of the commercial good (profit, well ordered places) the military could lay the grounds for in conquest and expansion; she quoted eloquent passages (duty is service); he recognizes there is a loss of social and economic liberty but such bonds as are formed are a deterrent to war. I had not realized Pasley wrote specifically about the West Indies (e.g., Antigua must be held onto). I was much relieved when Robert Clark who had given a paper in the previous break-out session on the British empire at the time of and as reflected in MP (I heard a version of his excellent papers at the ASECS in Williamsburg last spring), when Mr Clark brought out the murder and destruction of societies found in these colonial places, the suffering inflicted on these native peoples; that Pasley’s is a ruthless militarist deeply anti-liberal argument, where the East India Company’s doings are an exemplary norm. Southam shows how he disobeyed orders to aggrandize himself. Mr Clark remarked that it’s telling that Pasley was republished around the time of WW1.

Fanny Price and Henry Crawford dancing foreground, Mary and Edmund just behind them, at the Mansfield ball (1999 MP by Rozema)

I went to hear Nora Stovel Forster’s paper because it was about film, specifically “dancing as a blueprint for marriage in Rozema’s MP.” Ms Forster argued that Rozema modernized MP by politicizing its themes to push her own agenda. Austen’s MP is relentlessly about money as intertwined with love (Mary sees everything in terms of money; Maria marries to gain the use of a great deal of money). Ms Stovel spent a lot of time on the Portsmouth episode in the movie where (Ms Stovel felt) the poverty of the Prices is exaggerated, and drives Fanny to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal momentarily. Slavery is brought in as Fanny journeys around England; through the horrors illustrated in Tom’s sketches of his father’s plantation in Antigua; the sexuality made explicit for us to see the corruption of the hollow characters. Fanny’s character is much changed and she is (in effect) made the author of the movie. I liked how Ms Stovel showed us some of her stills in slow motion. It was hard to tell but I thought the audience this time was more pleased by Ms Stovel’s talk about Rozema’s movie than they had by Sorbo’s presentation because it could be taken as implicitly criticizing the movie for not being faithful (but that is not why they dislike it so as other movies as unfaithful, say Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S is very popular among such people).

The Harp arrives (1999 MP)

I did not know that the session where Jeanice Brooks and Gillian Dow were listed was actually an attempt to present two papers in the 60 minutes. Ms Brooks’s paper was on French culture and music in Paris and as sold and mirrored in London and the provinces of England around the time of MP. I hope hers is one of those papers published in Persuasions for she presented much valuable information in a perceptive way applicable to Austen’s novel and life too (Austen played the pianoforte; Eliza, her cousin, the harp). She told of the invention and history of the harp in the 18th century, the music books in Austen’s household, and went over two volumes of selections from 18th century periodicals which only Eliza de Feuillide could have supplied. She gave a brief resume of Eliza’s movements in France and England from 1780 to 1813 when she died (1780 in Paris with harp; 1781 married, lived in Paris; 178-86 lives on husband’s estates; 1786-87 visits Steventon; Sept 1788 returns to Paris, back in 1789; death of Feuillide, of her mother, her marriage to Henry, the musical party Austen records in April 1811; Fanny Knight’s note on Eliza’s cancer); she then played a lovely piece of music to which one of the songs in the book was set at the time. I regret not having a copy of the text to share with others. I was unable to take it down in sten quickly enough.

Edmund reading to Fanny as children (he made her books meaningful to her, 1983 MP)

I was not able to stay for much of Gillian Dow’s paper which had to be fitted in to the tail end of the session. Ms. Dow attempted a speculative answer to the question, from what books did Fanny Price learn French? She talked of what we know of Austen’s interactions with Grandison (reading, alluding, the playlet) and how she uses Lovers’ Vows in MP, to show Austen’s interest in plays, and she suggested Austen may have meant us to think the Fanny learned French by reading the plays Madame de Genlis wrote for children. While I agree that Adele et Theodore is an important source in two of Austen’s novels (Emma and NA) and Austen seems to have been an avid reader of Genlis’s fiction (which we can see from her reading with her sister in her letters), but at the time I left the session I had heard no evidence Austen read these plays or meant us to feel Miss Lee would be a person who would teach from them. Sir Thomas seems to have instructed his sons through having them declaim plays but there is no sign his daughters or niece were encouraged in such self-displays (even if the texts were impeccably moral).

My daughter, Izzy, may have chosen more wisely than me.

Everyone reading and rehearsing playscript (2007 MP by Maggie Wadey)

On Saturday she listened to Nancy Yee outline how Shakespeare’s Henry VIII relates to MP (she had a sheet of passages from Henry VIII); she was amused by Arnie Perlstein’s paper on subtexts in the allusions to plays in Mansfield Park; she said she understood Susan Allen Ford’s paper on Hester Chapone’s Letters and their relationship to Mansfield Park (was persuaded there really was one), and she positively enjoyed Sara Bowen’s “Fanny’s future, Mary’s Nightmare, on Jane Austen’s understanding of a clergyman’s wife’s life in the context of all the clergyman’s wives that she knew, from her mother, to her sisters-in-law, her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy and many other kin, friends and acquaintances.

From 1982 Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater (the clerical families dining, Mr Harding and his daughter, Archdeacon and Mrs Grantley and Mr Arabin, adapted from Trollope’s Barchester Towers)

Izzy talked of (I imagine from this paper) Trollope’s presentation of the life of Archdeacon Grantly’s wife in Barchester Towers, Mrs Proudie across the Barsetshire series, and what we see of clergymen’s wives in his mid- to later 19th century books, and said Ms Bowen argued that the demands on a woman’s life as a clergyman’s wife were changing and are reflected in Austen’s books: we see little expectation of religious doings or doctrine in Elinor Dashwood; we seem never to see Henry Tilney do or think about religion or doctrine (even if he does not neglect his parish and preaches there of a Sunday); in Mansfield Park things are changing, expectations growing. Izzy was amused to try to count up all the female characters in Austen’s fiction who either might have or do become clergyman’s wives.

Mrs Norris humiliating Fanny over her refusal to play (1983 MP)

The most fun she and I had together while at the JASNA conference was when she downloaded all of MP onto my ipad (there is a library APP which permits this, offering free books out of copyright and books you must buy) and we read together parts of MP found suggestive hints in the first three chapters of the book tending to prove McMaster’s thesis that Mrs Norris loathed Fanny because she had wanted to have her as a vicarious child through Sir Thomas and found her personality one a vindictive, selfish, aggressive, competitive and greedy personality would bitterly resent.

I know I reported that my proposal to present a paper on the relationship of the four Mansfield Park films with the novel was rejected, though happily I wrote a brief elaboration of what I would have said and it was published on-line by BSECS, but I believe I never wrote about how I had had an idea to compare Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake with Mansfield Park. A well-meaning friend suggested to me my idea was too dry or scholarly or narrow (who reads Ethelinde?) and the MP proposal was more likely to find acceptance. I’ll end on this proposal I never sent: “Empire, Marriage, and Epistolarity in Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.”

I propose to give a talk on revealing parallels between Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake, and Austen’s Mansfield Park. First, the novels both use visual space, be it a country, rural, town or city, a prison or a great house, to project the inner psychic and moral state of a character in the context of a larger exploration of empire. Characters in both value male work which is part of a professional career to gain money and rank; whether they travel widely or spend their days in a local parish, the two novelists justify and/or critique the means by which the characters succeed or fail. Second, the novels contain slowly evolving love stories which end in an unexpectedly welcome misalliance for one couple and adultery for another, destroying the destined hopes of some of the characters, all seen in the context of arranged, mercenary, and far-flung marriage, further career moves. Last, the development of the novels’ plot-design relies on epistolary situations, characters who reach others only through letters, and reading with all the tension, misunderstanding and critique from afar distance creates and facilitates.
In other words, I’ll be discussing these novels from a post-colonial standpoint. Smith’s central characters are openly driven by economic need, caught up in wars, bad marriages and illegitimate yet loving liaisons, exile and painful and distant correspondences; while most of Austen’s characters’ circumstances are economically comfortable, and adultery is only adumbrated; nonetheless, her characters go through the same paradigms of need, war, mismatch and have to force themselves to write and read their letters Whether it’s a question of intertextuality or influence, a comparison of the way Smith’s and Austen’s characters discuss, dramatize and solve their career, marital and social or moral needs, will shed light on these novels and contemporary attitudes towards the demands of the local mercenary and rank-based and global commercial worlds as these intersect with the people’s private needs and desires.

After Harvest Storm, Richard Westnall by R.M. Meadows (early 19th century)


Read Full Post »