Contemporary critical reception to the works of Eleanor Sleath
Initial critical reception to Sleath was unfavourable to say the least. A review of her first novel, The Orphan of the Rhine, appeared in The Critical Review of November 1799 and drew unfavourable comparisons with Ann Radcliffe. The critic, although praising Radcliffe's abilities, was scathing of ' vapid and servile imitations' such as they perceived Sleath's work to be, and considered reading these 'imitations' as a 'penance'.
Clearly not discouraged by this reaction to her first novel, Sleath went on to publish more novels which were received more favourably by the critics; they were willing to concede she did have some talent. The Monthly Magazine of July 1803 contains a brief review of her second novel to be published, Who's the Murderer? which was said to have produced some 'amusement' ; although the critic is keen to point out it was only a 'perusal' of the novel and not a detailed reading, giving some indication of the attitudes surrounding the novel at the time.The 'considerable talents’ which are attributed to Sleath here, include a convincing representation of Italian scenery, 'well supported characters' who are 'sufficiently uncommon to excite interest' and a 'richness of language’, which was unexpected from a work issued by the Minerva Press.
Sleath's third novel, The Bristol Heiress: or Errors of Education, some seven years later, warranted a more extended review in Le Beau Monde of October 1809. The review begins by recalling the moral of the novel, what the 'error of education' is, ' instilling into young minds the necessity of looking down upon everybody as beneath them, who are inferior to them in point of fortune.' The plot of the novel is recounted with a somewhat cynical tone from the critic, particularly when he concludes his synopsis with ' they live very happy ever after' (his italics). Although the praise is extremely faint,' the moral is good, and the style tolerable'. Sleath is, at least, given the honour by the reviewer of being singled out from her contemporaries and other Radcliffe imitators: ' we are more inclined to speak favourably of the work than otherwise. It is superior to many we have been obliged to read through, in the performance of our critical duties.'
The general reception, then, seems to be one of an overall dislike, as the result of snobbery, of the kind of novel Sleath, and many others, were producing. Sleath was perceived as perhaps a little better than several of her contemporaries but a great distance from the talents of Ann Radcliffe whom she so closely imitated in her first novel.
With regards to popular reaction to her work there is little solid evidence to be procured. She is notable by her absence in the 'Forgotten Favourites' section of Dorothy Blakey’s The Minerva Press, which cites the ten best selling authors of the day, and no further editions are to be found in the publishing details of the firm in the same book. Without doubt Sleath's most widely known contemporary reception comes from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey whose opinion coincides with the critic of her first work in Critical Review who condemned Sleath as simply one among many second rate Radcliffe imitators.
Austen,J. Northanger Abbey (1818), J.M Dent and Sons, 1950.
Blakey,D. The Minerva Press, 1790-1820, Oxford University Press, 1939.
Ward,W. Literary Reviews in English Periodicals 1790-1820. Garland Publishing, 1972.
Critical Review, vol. 27, November 1799.
Monthly Magazine Supplement, vol. 15. July 28th, 1803.
Le Beau Monde. October, 1809.