Critical Essay: 'Representations of Women in Two Works of Mary Charlton' by Elizabeth Dowen McKie
In the early nineteenth century, Amanda Vickery states that women’s lives ‘resembled a stately progression through recognised stations’ (1998: 8). The novels of Mary Charlton offer various representations of these established roles of femininity – those of ‘the maid, the wife, the mother… the widow, dowager and grandmother’, (Vickery, 1998: 8). However, Charlton’s female characters’ progression through them are often more tumultuous than ‘stately’. The following essay will explore these representations of femininity in two of Charlton’s novels, The Wife and the Mistress (1802) and Grandeur and Meanness (1824), with reference to how attitudes within contemporary society, and trends in literary styles, might have influenced them. In relation to this, Charlton’s strategies for foregrounding contemporary themes and issues, through her portrayal and discussion of women, will also be discussed. Finally, the ways in which women are represented differently in the two texts – which are, after all, written over twenty years apart – will be evaluated throughout the essay.
A concept which runs strongly through all representations of femininity in The Wife and the Mistress and Grandeur and Meanness is that which Mary Poovey refers to as ‘The Proper Lady’(1984). As Poovey discusses, by the end of the eighteenth century the image of the modest, virtuous ‘Proper Lady’ (or ‘Angel of the House’) was not only seen to be the feminine ideal, but also as the ‘natural’ way for women to be. It is noticeable in the texts that this is an ideal which Charlton sets her female characters against; a point which will be explored further in this essay.
Although like Burney, in Evelina (1778), and Richardson, in Pamela (1740), Charlton focuses (in these two novels) on the development and moral dilemmas of a young heroine, her heroines lack the acute sensibility of either Evelina or Pamela. They do, however, seem to have ‘natural’ virtues and adhere to the construction of the ‘Proper Lady’. As a child, Helen (the heroine of Grandeur and Meanness) is described as being ‘an amiable girl, who displayed the virtues that belonged to her years . . . who, without any idea of veiling her sentiments or propensities, yet checked even the natural follies of childhood’ (1824, I: 8). Similarly, the young heroine of The Wife and the Mistress, Laura, is said to have ‘infantine modesty, docility, and urbanity’ (1802, I: 52). Their moral superiority, as compared to other characters in the texts – not just their understanding of society’s rules - relies more heavily on their education and cultivation, than was prevalent for heroines of many earlier novels. As well as reflecting changing attitudes to sensibility, this may also have been an attempt by Charlton to disassociate her writing from the ‘"irrational" and "immoral" forms of oral, communal, popular culture’ with which fiction and narrative were still closely associated at the beginning of the eighteenth century (Kelly, 1989: 6).
That Laura and Helen are still approved of for having moderate sensibility, illustrates more than just the residual place of sensibility in conceptions of femininity and in women’s fiction at this time. It also points to what Mary Poovey calls one of the ‘paradoxes of propriety’ that affected women of this period – that although by the late eighteenth century the femininity of the ‘Proper Lady’ was seen to be innate and natural, ‘constant cultivation’ was believed to be needed to achieve and maintain this ideal (1984:15). Charlton explores this paradox through her representation of women in the two novels. In The Wife and the Mistress, Emily (the wife of the title) is described at the age of nine as having ‘naiveté, the unaffected graces of thoughtless youth, that lovely bloom of the mind’ (1802, 1: 8). Yet despite her potential to be morally superior, her character is ruined by her scheming and manipulative mother, Lady Melville. Through this Charlton supports the idea that ‘constant cultivation’ – particularly from the mother - is vital if a woman is to be fundamentally good. Emily’s innate ‘sensibility and artless innocence’ (1802, I: 8) is not enough to protect her from a poor upbringing. In fact, her sensibility is said to be influential in her downfall – ‘because real sensibility and artless innocence may sometimes be indocile and misplaced’ (1802, I: 8).
The concept of sensibility was recurrent in literature of the mid eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. Sensibility is a problematic word to define comprehensively, particularly because as J.M.S. Tompkins comments, ‘contemporary definitions . . . are far to seek’ (1932: 93). She points, however, to a useful description given by Mary Wollstonecraft (1789) of this greatly praised ‘instinctive moral tact’:
[Sensibility is] . . . the result of acute senses, finely fashioned nerves, which vibrate at the slightest touch, and convey such clear intelligence to the brain, that it does not require to be arranged by the judgement.(Tompkins, 1932: 95)
However, by the time The Wife and the Mistress was written, sensibility was coming under increasing societal criticism. As Gary Kelly explains, ‘Conservatives regarded the culture of Sensibility as a contributory factor in the outbreak of the French Revolution’ (1989: 63). Although this was an extreme reaction, sensibility could no longer be embraced unreservedly. Even in the late 1780s, what Tompkins terms as ‘sensible’ writers were aware of the limitations of sensibility: ‘Not only must one guard against false sensibility, rooted in pride and artifice, but against that excess of genuine emotion [which] must in the end exhaust the heart it agitates’ (1932: 99). The ambiguous place of sensibility in conceptions of ideal femininity is apparent in Grandeur and Meanness, and particularly in The Wife and the Mistress.
Emily is consistently portrayed as being ‘ruined’ by her ‘vain, ambitious, unnatural mother’ (1802, I: 5). This portrayal culminates in her committing the ‘depravity’ of leaving her husband and family for another man. However, towards the end of the novel she is again shown sympathetically. She is described as being in the process of ‘…awakening from the long dream of dissipation in which her life had passed’ (1802, IV: 67). Yet in comparison to Mrs Rothmere (who is represented as being ‘redeemed’ after repenting of her unmarried affair) Emily is given only a short interlude of compassionate representation before she commits suicide. Her death allows Charlton to promote some sense of lasting sympathy for her, without compromising the moral stance of the text. Emily’s faults – although apparently too great to let her both live and be portrayed positively – are still consistently attributed to the manipulation of her mother. The reader is continually reminded of what Emily could have been. This is done through an implicit parallel with Laura, and also more explicitly, such as when Lord John (a highly moralistic character) comments:
Had such a woman as Mrs Aubrey directed the youthful mind of the Marchioness of Bellingham, the family she has dishonoured would not at this moment be compelled to blush at the depravity that has so severely wounded it. (1802, III: 136)
That Emily is not shown to be primarily responsible for her faults raises the question of why Charlton does not allow her to be redeemed, once she has realised these faults. That she warns Laura of Lady Melville’s intentions suggests that she has begun to do this, as does her appearance which shows ‘the ravages of inquietitude, regret, and bitter self-condemnation’ (1802, IV: 67). This question is particularly relevant because Charlton presents Mrs Rothmere, a once ‘fallen woman’, as a ‘moral standard’ by which to judge other characters in the text. However, it seems to be essentially the fact that Emily deserted her children when she eloped with Mr Averne – unlike Mrs Rothmere for whom the proper care of her child was always her main priority - that makes her morally unredeemable.
Although Charlton seems to be able to find some mitigation for other repented social transgressions made by women, the difference in representation and preference given to Emily and Mrs Rothmere illustrates a dominant discourse within the novel. This is that it is unnatural and unforgivable for a woman to be a ‘bad’ mother. The distinction between these two characters is particularly noteworthy as it seems to suggest that Charlton is more willing to forgive the extreme taboos of extra-marital relationships and illegitimacy (which were greatly condemned at the time; women’s participation being seen as especially disgraceful), than neglectful or misguided motherhood. Motherhood (and wifehood) were, of course, generally believed to be the purpose of being a woman at this time and the way in which femininity was defined. To be unmarried was seen to be unrespectable or a failure, and once married to remain childless, was to be an incomplete woman. This is illustrated in Grandeur and Meanness, for example, by the Irwins’ sadness at having no children of their own and their readiness to ‘adopt’ Helen. In The Wife and the Mistress, Emily (despite her established beauty and popularity) is under great pressure to produce an heir for the Marquis; an event which, when it occurs, is met almost with a sense of relief. Charlton’s emphasis on the importance of the mother was conventional of the time. Tompkins describes the role of the ‘ideal mother’ at the turn of the century thus:
Sympathetically, systematically, she indoctrinates her daughters with the principles of female conduct, while grappling with her sons’ moral and religious difficulties, leading both in the direction of virtue . . .(Tompkins, 1932: 165)
Gary Kelly points to a contemporary example which suggests the extent to which this conception of women was not only seen to be ideal, but also innate. Women’s ‘natural’ role, he quotes, is primarily ‘to be the mothers and formers of a rational and immortal offspring…’ (1993: 11). This idea is overtly supported by Charlton’s unfavourable portrayal of Lady Melville, who (for example) is called a ‘vain and unnatural mother’ (1892, I: 5). Tompkins states that ‘the tyrannous, negligent, jealous mother’ often featured in literature of this period, but that she was seldom ‘closely studied’ by novelists (1932:165). However, although Charlton’s portrayal of Lady Melville is primarily unsympathetic, she does give her a depth of character which, in relation to Tompkins’s argument, appears unusual.
The themes of motherhood and female education are developed further in The Wife and the Mistress through the more detailed description of Laura’s upbringing. Throughout her childhood Laura (the illegitimate daughter of the Mrs Rothmere and the Marquis of Bellingham, who marries Emily after Laura’s birth) is passed between several guardians of varying merit and morality. When the narrative begins to focus on her she is unspoiled. This is attributed to the fact that Mrs Rothmere ‘laboured with patient assiduity to implant’ her daughter’s ‘infant virtues’ (1802, I: 54). However, Laura’s enforced residence with the manipulative Lady Melville, and the immature, indulgent Emily, causes Mrs Rothmere great concern. As Mrs Rothmere is a privileged character, Charlton also directs the reader to share this concern. When Mrs Rothmere is first allowed to see Laura after she has been subjected to the influence of her father’s family, she is distressed to see ‘the seeds of evil’ (1802: I, 56) in her spoilt young daughter. However, Laura does not remain with them throughout her childhood, and is eventually allowed to reside with Mrs Rothmere. Under Mrs Rothmere’s influence she regains her good character, and learns to be virtuous and modest; qualities which once patiently instilled in her she never loses. Similarly, in Grandeur and Meanness Helen is 'educated under the constant and zealous superintendence of a mother . . . to the attainment of permanent good’ (1824, I: 4). Although creditable women, other than the heroines and their mothers, do exist in the novels they still tend to be maternal characters. Primary examples in Grandeur and Meanness are Helen’s friend and guardian, Mrs Irwin (whom she calls her ‘second mother’) and her Aunt, Mrs Valiner, who reminds her strongly of her mother. In The Wife and the Mistress similar ‘substitute mothers’ include the homely Mrs Aubrey, and Mr Rothmere’s sister, Mrs Hamilton.
The Wife and the Mistress and Grandeur and Meanness offer strictly limited definitions of the ‘Proper Lady’ and the ideal, ‘natural’ mother, yet there are some subtle variations of these representations between the two texts. For example, although devoted, moralistic motherhood is seen as an ideal in both texts, the representation of Mrs Rothmere allows more opportunity for imperfection than that of Mrs Devernon. The most obvious factor of this is that, despite her repentance and various mitigating circumstances, Mrs Rothmere did have Laura illegitimately. Although Mrs Devernon and Mr Devernon separated briefly before Laura’s birth this is represented as being more the fault of Mr Devernon (particularly as only men had significant control over such decisions) than his wife. Mrs Devernon then discovered she was pregnant and begged for a reversal of the separation for the baby’s sake, despite the cruelty and domination she would be forced to submit to from her husband. This selflessness further directs the reader towards a positive interpretation of Mrs Devernon’s actions and character. In the social context of the period, her situation could still have been seen to reflect shamefully on her, yet Charlton’s brief but sympathetic portrayal of it discourages reproach. Mrs Rothmere is also portrayed with sympathy, but Charlton cannot (unlike with Mrs Devernon’s comparatively less serious situation) completely mitigate her actions. However, that she still presents her as a ‘moral standard’ and ideal mother shows a definite shift between the two novels. Perhaps this reflects the increased institutionalisation of concepts of femininity by the time Grandeur and Meanness was published in 1824, as compared to when The Wife and the Mistress was published in 1802.
This shift could also be caused by the changing attitudes towards novels, and Charlton’s struggle to find a place within this. When The Wife and the Mistress was published, Kelly argues, ‘Novels were condemned for corrupting the morals, taste, and intellect of their readers and then these effects were supposed to have further, social consequences.’(1989: 8). The Minerva Press, for whom Charlton wrote and in 1797 was a best-seller, was seen as particularly reprehensible. Although its publications were very popular (particularly in the rapidly expanding number of circulating libraries) it had a reputation for producing ‘trashy’, inferior literature. Dorothy Blakey (1939: 1) states that, ‘…to nineteenth-century critics the name Minerva meant little more than a convenient epithet for contempt.’ Coupled with the extreme hostility towards novels in general at this time, it would seem that even if Charlton presented irreproachable characters and discourses, she would still be unable to be regarded as respectable. The term seemed elusive to a Minerva authoress. However, by the 1820s novels (and authorship) were increasingly acceptable. As Kelly (1989 : 201) points out, even most conservative critics were, ‘…by now willing to allow that certain types of novel . . . could be eminently "useful".’ Another explanation for Charlton’s increasingly limited definitions of acceptable motherhood was probably that there had been significant changes in the Minerva Press by the time Grandeur and Meanness was written. According to Blakey (1939: 45), ‘The Minerva Press as such came to an end in 1820’, although the business continued until 1848. Newman (who succeeded Lane as proprietor in 1809) altered his approach in these later years, and as Blakey chronicles, also omitted the name ‘Minerva’ from his title pages after 1820. The lowering of the Minerva Press’s profile would have allowed Charlton more potential to be viewed as ‘respectable’.
The ‘certain types’ of acceptable literature, which Kelly refers to, are those which were not part of the excessively Romantic literature popular in the late 1810s, and 1820s. He argues that the most typically Romantic fiction of the Romantic period was produced during this period – that is, fictions (such as ‘novels of passion’) that were, ‘ "fantastic, extravagant, irrational" - rejecting the domestic, the familiar, the rational, and the realistic…’ that was common in the 1790s and 1800s (Kelly, 1989: 184). Grandeur and Meanness, however, appears to be one of those more acceptable ‘…fictions rooted in familiar, homely, social, everyday "reality" [which] were also achieving a wide readership’. (Kelly, 1989: 201). This style of novel, according to Kelly, favoured heroines who were ‘…rational and self-contained yet interesting subjects’ (1989: 185). Both Helen and Laura are unavoidably ‘rational and self-contained’. They are also frequently paralleled to numerous ‘inferior’ women, thus allowing Charlton to make clear her standards of propriety. Once Laura and Helen have been taught and ‘formed’ by their mothers, the only mistakes or character faults that they have are due to youth and inexperience. The experiences arising from such naiveté allows Charlton to perform a didactic function, by illustrating to her readers how they should act properly in similar situations. Although these novels are not as overtly didactic as many of the popular ‘conduct’ books written in the eighteenth century, the intention to instruct as well as entertain is apparent in both narratives. Although Laura and Helen are similar in many fundamental ways (such as their chastity, propriety, sensibility, sense of filial duty and so on) there is again a subtle sense of progression between the two novels. As a response to the competing dramatic heroines of ‘the novels of passion’, much more emphasis is placed on the interesting and attractive aspects of Helen’s personality than those of Laura’s. Instead of primarily being described in ways that reinforce her status as a ‘Proper Lady’, Helen’s representation includes more frivolous and entertaining attributes of her character. These include her talents for music, drawing, and interior design, and her ability to converse wittily with General Irwin. This added depth of character contributes significantly to making Helen interesting, as well as an appropriate role model.
The heroines’ contemporaries (such as Helen’s cousins, and the girls residing at Mrs Meedon’s with Laura) tend to be spoilt, worldly, selfish, or superficial. This is perhaps to reinforce the heroines’ statuses as exemplary representations of femininity. Both Helen and Laura do, however, make a few female friends who are ‘unadulterated’, such as Fanny Meedon and Caroline St. Orme in Grandeur and Meanness; and Mary Valiner and Lady Anne Lindley in The Wife and the Mistress. These friendships illustrate Charlton’s emphasis on the importance of female friendship and support. These characters are never as strongly developed or as striking as those of the heroines are, and they are very similar in type and function in both novels. For example, Caroline and Lady Anne are both strongly linked to the heroes of the narratives, as Caroline is Cecil St. Orme’s sister, and Lady Anne is Harry Lindley’s cousin. These relationships work to reinforce the integrity of the heroes, as they are related to, and esteemed by, unquestionably virtuous women. They also perform the narrative function of opening appropriate channels of communication between the heroines and their prospective suitors, such as when Caroline takes Laura a letter from Cecil and then conveys her reply.
Fanny and Mary also fulfil similar roles to each other, as they are both eventually married to previous admirers of the heroines. Captain Barton and Captain Biranly are essentially good characters, yet are excessive and unrefined. This ambiguity of character allows them to provide a more subtle parallel to the heroes of the texts than such overt villains as Lord Melville and Lord Glendarvon. Through them Charlton shows that although Cecil and Harry are comparable to Barton and Biranly in that they are respectable and non-threatening, they are also more sensitive and refined than their contemporaries. Their superiority is equal to that of the heroines.
Although Barton and Biranly are not impeccable enough to marry Helen and Laura, they eventually provide eligible husbands for Mary and Fanny. This functions to provide a comfortable narrative closure for all favoured characters, and to reinforce the discourse established by the celebrated marriages of Helen and Harry, and Laura and Cecil, that euphoric marriage should be the ultimate aim of all women. However, marriage at this time was not just an aspiration for women; as Tompkins suggests, it was generally assumed that women were ‘created primarily for wifehood’ (1932: 156). She continues to argue that once married, a woman ‘…owed a debt of gratitude, which only the severest ill-usage could cancel, to the man who rescued her from the useless… condition of old maidenhood’ (Tompkins, 1932: 156). This concept is not emphasised in the portrayal of the privileged marriages of the heroes and heroines, or through the representation of the couples within such functional families as the Valiners in Grandeur and Meanness, and the Aubreys in The Wife and the Mistress. However, it is apparent in less ideal unions, such as Helen’s marriage with Mr Barronneau, and Mrs Rothmere’s marriage with Mr Rothmere. Helen’s marriage with Mr Barronneau (who dies after an accident, despite Helen’s devoted attempts to nurse him) is an example of this. Helen feels grateful to him for his attentions and esteem towards her and for rescuing her from the ‘detested name of Devernon’ (1824, II: 290). Mrs Rothmere is even more grateful to Mr Rothmere for marrying her than Helen is to Mr Barronneau. This is despite the fact that Barronneau has only one significant character flaw (he is fond of gambling), whilst the immature Rothmere has several. The continuing gratitude, which Mrs Rothmere shows him, is ‘owed’ to him because by marrying her, he restored her to the respectability that she lost after her affair with Marquis: ‘she ever remembered that, in receiving his name and his legal protection, she had regained a respectable situation in life. . . and she considered that in this respect he was entitled to her gratitude’ (1802, I: 177) .
Amanda Vickery suggests, as part of her study of ‘genteel provisional women’ in Georgian England, that ‘The walk to the altar was the most decisive a lady was ever to take… for all but the most privileged there was, quite literally, no going back’ (1998: 39). Although women were not encouraged to have strong opinions on such contemporary issues, fiction provided an outlet for this. As Kelly states, ‘women could participate in public life and national issues under the guise of writing "mere" fiction . . .' (1989: 74). The novels of Mary Charlton, therefore, provide an acceptable forum for debating marriage. They are also didactic in their presentation of the implications of reckless marriage and separation. Although in The Wife and the Mistress Charlton shows the consequences of reckless marriage through the unions, such as that of the Marquis of Bellingham and Emily Mellville, she offers no condonable escape for characters. The plethora of separation, divorce and adultery, in the society of the Bellinghams would probably have seemed shocking by contemporary standards. However, Charlton retains her moral stance by being consistently critical of those characters involved in any such social transgressions. She does so by making privileged characters criticise characters, such as when Lord John discusses Emily’s ‘depravity’ (1802, III: 136). She also frequently uses free indirect discourse, which is often satirical in style. An example of this is when the undesirability of Miss Coleire (a Society Belle in Grandeur and Meanness) is shown through the following description. She was ‘scarcely able to command her indignation at this grand effusion of Mellidor’s pompous partiality for his ridiculous cousin’ (1824, II: 125). As the ‘ridiculous cousin’ is the heroine Helen, the reader is assured, through this, of Miss Coleire’s true nature.
Characters who are presented as moral standards – such as Mrs Aubrey and Mrs Hamilton - do not behave ‘immorally’, and offer advice to the naive Laura on how to avoid this type of degradation. An exception to this is Mrs Rothmere. However, she does – unlike other characters that have extra-marital relations – wholly repent, and subsequently live a ‘reformed’ life. She is also the only respectably married woman in the text to suffer an unhappy marriage, which is a strategy through which Charlton seems to ‘punish’ her in order to make the reader more lenient towards her mistakes. Mrs Rothmere’s unswerving patience and obedience to her selfish husband would perhaps have made contemporary readers more accepting of this sympathetic portrayal. That the other married women enjoy secure, companionable marriages favours the contemporary idea that if partners are chosen correctly then happiness will be secured. The Wife and the Mistress does not elaborate on how the ‘correct’ choice is to be made, although it is emphasised that the decision should not be taken lightly. An example of this is the extent to which Cecil’s feels he must know Laura’s ‘true nature’ before he sees her as a worthy bride. Similarly, Harry will not marry Helen until he is sure that her father’s immorality will not influence her character. This common theme highlights a contemporary concern that although there was an increased emphasis on the importance of women being ‘accomplished’, these attributes might be only superficial. This also suggests the extent to which Charlton represents men as having more potential for being worldly wise than women. In Grandeur and Meanness the choice of the ideal partner is discussed further than the validity of a women’s merit. It would initially seem that the marriage based on love (such as those of the Valiners and Irwins) is presented as ideal, even if the union causes parental disapproval. However, support is also given to the concept that those who are older and wiser should direct women in their choice of a suitable partner. For example, the Irwins are aware that Helen’s ‘ideal’ husband is Harry long before she is. According to Vickery (1998: 40), this approach would be representative of the period, as she suggests that young women were still not allowed such important decisions based on their on their opinions alone.
It is significant that there are few positive representations of marriages within the upper classes in either The Wife and the Mistress or Grandeur and Meanness. Instead, it is through middle class families, such as the Valiners and the Aubreys, that ideals are constructed. Similarly, although there are individual upper class characters in the novels (such as Lord John, Mrs Devernon and Lady Euphemia) that are shown to be admirable, there are few family units in the gentry who are shown as functional. For example, while the Glendarvon and Morewood families are uncaring and selfish, the Devernons and Melvilles are actually destructive towards their family members.
The early nineteenth century was a period of massive class disruption, as the professional and middle classes continued to grow in power and number. The effects of the French Revolution – and the complete upheaval of France’s system of social stratification which it caused – still dominated public consciousness. Contemporary literature could not help but reflect these issues, and as women’s fiction provided an out-let to discuss themes such as marriage, it also provided an opportunity for women to write (and read) about class issues. Minerva writers usually reflected their audience by writing primarily about the middle classes. Edward Copeland (1995: 6) argues that, ‘Readers from the trade or lesser professions… would discover that the Minerva Press addressed them specifically.’ However, as Kelly (1989: 9) discusses, this was not the case for fiction in general. He argues that although most novelists and novel readers in the Romantic period came from the professional and middle classes, most contemporary fiction continued to focus on the gentry. Although Charlton was a Minerva writer, in The Wife and the Mistress and Grandeur and Meanness, she focuses primarily on the upper class characters. However, she often shows middle class characters in the texts in a far more favourable light than many of the genteel characters. This partially undermines the privilege that she gives to upper class characters in narrative terms. For example, although Mrs Rothmere and Mrs Devernon are originally from genteel families, they have also both suffered a fall in status without losing their potential to be moral standards. Their ambiguous status, however, leads to the social insecurity of their daughters, whose social standing is subsequently based on the extent to which their fathers will acknowledge them; and then reliant is on the men they marry. This ambiguity is indicative of the middle ground, which Charlton seems to take by refusing to completely privilege either the gentry or middle classes. It also highlights the enforced reliance of women on the dominant men within their lives.
Copeland’s point that women of this period ‘…found themselves vulnerable as economic beings’ (1995: 17), is clearly reflected in the insecurities experienced by Charlton’s female characters in Grandeur and Meanness and The Wife and the Mistress. These include Mrs Rothmere’s concern over the debt which Mr Rothmere leads the family into; Fanny Meedon’s suffering in various employments; and Mrs Devernon’s inability to leave Mr Devernon, because she could not support Helen alone. It is in The Wife and the Mistress, however, that women’s financial concerns – and through them a fear of losing social status – are most prevalent. This concern was apparently well-founded, as the British economy in the mid eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries suffered ‘a truly extraordinary experience with inflation’ even by modern standards. (Copeland, 1995: 19) A significant effect of this was an unprecedented increase in social mobility – both upward and downward. These issues are explicitly expressed in The Wife and the Mistress in situations such as when Laura is forced to accept the disreputable Lady Melville’s patronage because she has been left (quite literally) without any financial support from her other relatives. Mrs Rothmere is also caused great distress by the debt that Mr Rothmere has brought them into. Even the ladies of high society in the novel constantly borrow money from one another, or like Emily are guilty of a ‘too great liberality’ (1802, I: 40). In a climate in which poverty and social mobility threatened both the upper and middle classes, Copeland argues that ‘Women’s novels embraced the topic with the unflagging interest of survival’ (1995: 22). The detailed, and often didactic, treatment that The Wife and the Mistress gives to such issues certainly supports this statement. Although money (or lack of it) is still an important issue in Grandeur and Meanness, the concerns surrounding it are more connected to dilemmas such as if characters are too poor to marry the person of their choice, than if they are to poor to survive without a decline in status of some sort. This reflects the increased stability of the British economy (and resulting increased affluence) in 1824, as compared to 1802. Copeland (1995: 61) suggests that women’s fiction increasingly ‘embraced a narrative of domestic empowerment, a fictional world in which women assertively participate in the economy as managers of the domestic budget’. Although Copeland’s period of study ends in 1820, this shift from representing women as economic victims to economic participants still seems apparent in Grandeur and Meanness. Charlton follows what Copeland identifies as the trends of ‘didactic authors from the genteel ranks’ who were ‘concerned to link their domestic budget to social action’ (1995: 5). He continues that ‘their novels feature some useful suggestions for projects in the village that their heroines can undertake for the deserving poor’ (1995: 5-6). Helen, in accordance with this, does just that with some of her inheritance from Mr Barronneau.
Although the novels of Mary Charlton feature both the upper and middle classes in great detail, the lower classes are consistently marginalised. In The wife and the Mistress, there are actually several female working class characters (such as Dolly and Nancy) who feature frequently in the text. However, they are – with the exception of Nancy – allowed little opportunity to advance the narrative. Even Nancy, however, is allowed little character development. The representation of the working class women is even more limited than that of the higher classes. All of them are shown to be ignorant and unladylike, and the most positive descriptions given are almost comparable to if a favourite pet were being described. For example, Laura’s ‘mother’s faithful Nancy was silently and immovably fixed at her bedside’ (1802, IV: 103). In Grandeur and Meanness working class women are almost entirely excluded from the narrative, except as ‘background’ information. The only lower class woman shown more than in passing is Simpson, a ‘good worthy creature’ (1802, I: 265).
However, in terms of narrative exclusion it is men who suffer most in Mary Charlton’s novels. As Tompkins argues, in women’s literature of this time, ‘Man is seen in his domestic aspect as father, husband, son or lover’ but we do not see into ‘his world’ (1932: 128). Although representations of women might in many ways seem similarly limited – primarily those of the ‘maid, the wife, the mother’ (Vickery, 1998: 8) – Charlton does offer the reader a detailed picture of how these roles might be interpreted. Although there does seem a slight shift towards male representation in Grandeur and Meanness, male characters mostly continue to be indistinct. The hero remains enigmatic and the villain crudely charactertured. However, the women in these two novels by Mary Charlton make the ‘stately progression’ through life with character, verve and, of course, great propriety.
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