The Novel as Polemic: Matilda and Elizabeth and Neville Castle, or The Generous Cambrians by Elizabeth & Jane Purbeck: An Essay by Samantha Gibbs
During the eighteenth-century the novel rose both in proficiency and status and by 1773 ‘this branch of the literary trade’ appeared to be ‘almost entirely engrossed by the ladies’ (The Monthly Review cited in Tompkins 1932:120). By the time that Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck began publishing in 1789, the novel as an art form was still relatively new, but fiction was being eagerly consumed by people of all classes and, contrary to popular opinion, by both women and men. The Purbecks’ literary careers developed during the dramatic social and economic changes brought about by the French Revolution, ‘that mighty influence whose potency on our literature can hardly be exaggerated’ (Watson 1994:174). The feared implications for English society provoked both challenges to and defences of the structural inequalities inherent in the whole system. I propose to discuss the ways in which the Purbecks’ epistolary novels, Matilda and Elizabeth (1796) and Neville Castle (1802), encompass these cultural debates, challenging assumptions about how women of this period should write. Despite their adherence to particular stereotypes, the sisters present independent-minded views. I will ultimately argue that their novels act as a vehicle for the controversial discussion of three main subjects: the proper behaviour of women, in particular what constitutes ‘female’; the nature of sisterhood, which I will suggest is based on their own experience; and finally the novel as an art form and its societal role. By using what Jane Austen famously called ‘only a novel’ to voice their opinions, they were able ‘to participate in public life and national issues under the guise of writing "mere" fiction’ (Kelly 1989:74).
The primary concern of the Purbecks’ epistolary novels is their moralistic, didactic function. They were not unique in their treatment of female characters or their avocation of adherence to socially acceptable behaviour. The ‘novel of manners’ had a great deal of cultural importance in eighteenth-century society, ‘manners’ having a much broader meaning and greater significance than they do today, encompassing ‘the whole range of social practices’ (Kelly 1989:44). Guides to conduct had been presented in early classical myths. The latter half of the eighteenth century saw an increase in the number of conduct books, guiding young women in particular in appropriate etiquette and ethical conduct. The connection between these books and novels was close, and in an age of rapid social change, novels of manners were the most widely available guides to changing social standards, a popular means of educating oneself in behaviour. The novel of manners was seen ‘in effect [as] the novel of social emulation’ (Kelly 1989:44). Codes of behaviour had become increasingly important around the time that Matilda and Elizabeth was published; in the midst of war with France, inflation was rampant and society was experiencing structural transformations. The old paternalistic system of reciprocal duties and responsibilities gave way to a laissez-faire economy and the creation of a highly antagonistic class society. The way of coping with the changes was to advocate a strict adherence to agreed standards of behaviour, in particular principles of Christian morality. Fiction of the period is notable for its portrayal of characters, young women in particular, who face a struggle to learn the behaviours essential for social survival. Burney, regarded as ‘the acknowledged master of the novel of manners and sentiment’ (Kelly 1989:45), is praised by the Purbecks in both of their novels for her ability to do this, and Elizabeth’s entrance into society echoes that of Evelina.
The plots that the Purbecks use are unoriginal; they place their sensitive, inexperienced heroines, Elizabeth, Sophia, Amelia and Lauretta in typical situations where they are exposed to a complex and conflicting society within which they must find their rightful place, ultimately in their own home with a suitable husband. The female conduct which they advocate can also be located in the vast majority of popular fiction of the period. Poovey has convincingly shown the cultural pressure to conform to the image of ‘proper’, or innate, femininity, which ‘directly contradicted the demands of professional authorship’(Poovey 1984:241). By moralising on appropriate behaviour, whilst engaging in an activity considered ‘unfeminine’, the Purbecks were caught in the ‘double bind’ which was ‘experienced in an intense form by women and particularly women writers’. The paradoxes inherent in propriety ensured that the words ‘female’ and ‘feminine’ were ‘understood by virtually all men and women to be synonymous’ (Poovey 1984:6) by the end of the eighteenth century.
An appropriate show of sensibility was considered integral to the female character, demanding intuitive sympathy, passivity and emotionalism. Initially it indicated correct modes of behaviour but towards the end of the century fiction began to focus on a desire to ‘make readers weep and in teaching them when and how much to weep’ (Todd 1986:3-4). The archetypal victims provided were characters such as Matilda. Tompkins questions the relationship of books to life in terms of sensibility, but admits that letters and memoirs of the time, especially of women, show a society ‘very ready to weep and tremble’ (Tompkins 1932:107). However, conversely, despite the cultural obsession which developed around ‘the cult of sensibility’, as Todd has labelled it, it was viciously attacked. As such, the movement simultaneously glorified and debased women. While they were encouraged to possess an appropriate measure of sensibility, conservatives associated an excess with a lack of reason and rationality and it was consequently connected with the outbreak of the French Revolution. This was literally illustrated in the Anti-Jacobin Review of August 1798, which published a cartoon of the figure of sensibility in a cap of liberty, weeping over a dead robin and trampling on a crowned and severed head (Tompkins 1932:107). The dominant view was that ‘in literature, as in life, a woman’s strength was held to lie in heart, not head’ (Watson 1994:126).
The Purbecks celebrate sensibility for its integral part in the female nature in both novels, although they are aware of the dangers of possessing it in excess. Their characters are rewarded for it: Colonel Huntley says he loves Matilda for her ‘true female sensibility’ (ME:IV:189), and that before her he considered all women trifling or termagant. Mrs Neville has sensibility which ‘never degenerates into affectation or false refinement’ (NC:IV:260). Women in novels usually attracted a man initially by an act of charity or an overflow of sympathetic emotion; Sophia Lee's Recess has a heroine with ‘a feminine helplessness which is, when unaffected, the most interesting of charms’ (Tompkins 1932:98). The ideal female character for the Purbecks possesses exactly the appropriate amount of sensibility, and any character who may possess too much is shown to be actively trying to control it. Matilda counteracts Elizabeth’s excessive tenderness and sensibility by moralising and guiding her, which Elizabeth says she will ‘leave to you who are so much more capable of it’ (ME:II:30). Paradoxically, sensibility was ideally instinctive, yet the very fact that women were encouraged to read advice literature and to actively control their emotions ‘testifies to the belief that the ‘instinct’ must be elaborately codified and endlessly discussed’ (Bernard Yeazell 1991:5), and that ‘natural’ sensibility must be strenuously cultivated.
The novels also advocate virtue, the disciplining of the self by deferring immediate gratification for future benefits, declining material gratification for moral and intellectual benefits and acting ethically according to truth and justice, as a necessary female behaviour. For females virtue meant sexual chastity, effectively guarding against seduction by a superior or contamination by an inferior. Matilda is a model of virtue, rejecting all men, even the insistent Villeroy. She says ‘the idea plants a thousand daggers in my heart..I am perfectly contented with my own situation’ (ME:I:30), despite the fact that she is usually unhappy. By denying herself this happiness, she is eventually rewarded with the return of her husband. Mrs Neville’s virtue is said to have increased with age; a review of Neville Castle says the novel ‘speaks benevolently on behalf of the sisterhood of antiquated virgins’. ‘She never forgets the dignity and decorum that is particularly adapted to her situation and time of life’ (NC:IV:260). Sophia feels she has won Willmot and will keep him by her own virtuous conduct. The novels show that, as in Pamela, virtue is rewarded.
The necessity of a moral education is endlessly discussed in both Matilda and Elizabeth and Neville Castle, and is seen to form the character at an early age. Lady Molesworth had no mother and received a poor education by those ‘who profess to form the manners but totally disregard the morals’ (ME:II:139) and is consequently vindicated. Similarly, Lady Mary says Louisa’s fate is due to her education. Elizabeth says she is being subjected to many opinions which differ from what she has been taught, but that her morals and religion have been sufficiently inculcated for her to reject them. Matilda says of Lady Molesworth: ‘let us gratefully acknowledge the advantages we received from a virtuous education, to which, perhaps, we owe in great measure our being prevented from those first false steps which imperceptibly led her to destruction’ (ME:II:151).
It was the parents who were held responsible for a proper education, and as such filial duty was sacrosanct. It was believed that children should be grateful to their parents for their breeding and be subservient to their authority, and that parents in turn should be moderate and kind but mainly authoritative. The Monthly Review (September 1700) said it was ‘a time more remarkable than any former period for relaxation of parental authority’ (Watson 1994:86). In Matilda and Elizabeth Louisa disobeys her father and becomes engaged to Theodore behind his back, and is consequently punished. Lauretta, a ‘proper lady’, thinks it would be ‘derogatory to the female character’ (NC:I:167) to elope to Scotland and marry the Duke without her father’s approval. Amelia is rewarded for complying with Lady Maitland’s request to delay her marriage, even though it makes her utterly miserable and she has to resist the scheming Lady Milford. Like Lauretta’s father, Lady Maitland eventually comes to see the error of her ways. Mrs Neville’s life story illustrates ‘the great duties of obedience to their relations and a doubt of their [young people’s] own judgement’ (NC:III:40). Likewise, Caroline admits her downfall was caused by ‘violating the ties of filial duty’ (NC:IV:247).
Matilda and Elizabeth celebrates marriage for love. Huntley tells the tribe of Indians who hold him hostage and try to marry him to one of their women: ‘the God whom I worship has commanded his followers to consider marriage as a sacred engagement’ (ME:IV.67). Marriage for wealth or status is condemned in both novels, as is forced marriage. Lady Mary’s arranged marriage ends disastrously. Lady Molesworth was also forced to marry her husband and to reject her true love, Sir James Harpur. Consequently, she resents Lord Molesworth and he becomes jealous of the attentions she receives from other men. While he behaves this way Elizabeth says their ‘minds could never be kindred’ (ME:I.160). Henry says women who show interest in men of fortune show their ‘palpable weakness’ and end up the ridicule of men. The sailors praise Amelia for their conviction ‘that whenever she married it would be for pure love, and not for the lucre of gold’ (NC:II.53). Mrs Neville, who is admirable for her dignity and wisdom, says that fortune is irrelevant so long as there is a match of principles and education, while the rather less admirable Lady Maitland is condemned for trying to marry Amelia to a man of higher rank and fortune. Finally, Sir Walter defends Henry on the basis that his and Amelia’s attachment is based on ‘the best and noblest basis’ (NC:II:102) because he was unaware of her fortune.
The moral advocated in both novels is of patience and forbearance, a reliance on Providence and adherence to the principals of Christianity. Elizabeth waits for Lord Molesworth, turning down Mr Howard and Mr Fortesque, and is consequently rewarded. Likewise, Matilda condemns herself to a life of chastity, believing her beloved husband to be dead, ensuring his return and the continuance of their marital relationship. Providence in these novels is on the side of the good and should always be trusted: ‘we ought not in any situation to doubt the goodness of that Providence who, if we submit without murmuring to its dispensations, will support us under the heaviest misfortunes, or extricate us from them by the most unexpected means’ (ME:IV:43). Happiness must be earned and deserved; Huntley says ‘my present happiness is increased by my past sufferings’ (ME:IV:187) and expects ‘the rewards of a future state’ (ME:IV:189). For all of the characters, ‘nothing but the true spirit of Christianity pervading the mind and influencing the actions, can give stability to happiness’ (ME:IV:189).
In order to emphasise the necessity of adhering to the correct moral code by carrying out the behaviours discussed, the authors explore through various characters' direct actions forbidden to the Proper Lady. The women who undertake these patterns of behaviour are invariably condemned. A satirical nature is one such behavioural characteristic forbidden to women. Maria Maynard is, says Elizabeth, ‘naturally inclined to be satirical but endeavours to conquer it’ (ME:III:45). It is Caroline Herbert who is destroyed by her wit, which she uses, according to Henry, at the expense of others. Harriet condemns Caroline’s behaviour, especially her ‘false and satirical wit on which you set so high a value’ (NC:I:247). She tells her it has already lost her one lover, a sentiment echoed by Mrs Mortimer, who tells Caroline she will soon ‘lose the esteem of every person whose friendship is worth cultivating’ (NC:II:272). As predicted, she eventually loses her husband to another woman and survives only because of the generous forgiveness of the others. She later acknowledges that her downfall was brought about by ‘indulging a natural propensity to satire and an uncontrollable haughtiness of spirit’ (NC:IV:246).
Neville Castle shows, through the stories of Maria Lewis and Juliana de Castello, the consequences of forsaking virtue. Maria, who is removed to the country after discovering she is pregnant, is mortified by her mistake: ‘the most humiliating circumstances that can happen to a woman, whose education should have taught her to avoid the snares laid by the unworthy of the other sex’ (NC:I:49). Similarly, Juliana is wracked with guilt after succumbing to the Duke’s advances. As the aspiring middle-classes in this period were encouraged to attain status through marriage, it was considered essential that women enforce chastity, as a bastard child could completely undermine dynastic ambitions. The role that women played in bonding middle-class wealth to the political power of landed families is integral to eighteenth-century society. Poovey says that women became objects of men’s aspirations, which implicitly demanded that women desire to be their property. The overall effect was that ‘women were counters to be used in negotiating rather than individuals deserving of choice’ (Poovey 1984:13). However, the women in the Purbecks’ novels are given greater choice and invariably marry for love.
Despite their celebration of the female nature, the novels warn against excessive vanity and affectedness. Lady Molesworth is disliked for her vanity and airs, despite her beauty. Elizabeth says she is artificially attractive but, following Lady Molesworth’s involvement in a carriage accident, she comes to realise ‘the horrible proof of the instability of beauty’ (ME:I:134). Lord Molesworth tells Elizabeth that he avoided introducing her to his wife for fear of her vanity spoiling her quiet life and pleasures. In the end he prefers Elizabeth for his wife, proving that beauty is never enough by itself to attract a husband. Sophia is beautiful and interesting; The Marchioness d’Estress is beautiful but ‘more remarkable for her love of intrigue’ (NC:I:108); Lady Harriet’s beauty had little effect on Henry until ‘she employed all her other attractions to engage me’ (NC:I:124) and he says he would not later have been attracted to Amelia ‘had I not been convinced that her disposition and principles were equal, and even superior to her personal attractions’ (NC:II:57). Miss Wilmot, considered ‘very vain, very silly and very romantic’ (ME:IV:128), is gently satirised, and made comic: ‘in a town like London, one can never get an acquaintance but in the common way, that is, by a formal introduction’ (ME:IV:129). The survivors of the shipwreck claim to have rescued Amelia because of her generous nature, but to have left her companion to fate because she was proud and affected.
Ultimately, the Purbecks do promote a stereotyped ideal of what constitutes a ‘proper’ woman. However, they found subtle ways ‘to express the energies not satisfied or silenced by fulfilling the role of an altogether proper lady’ (Poovey 1984:15). Despite their endorsement of behavioural codes for the rewards it brought, which ‘by the second half of the eighteenth-century women were apt to interpret as proof of their own moral superiority’ (Poovey1984:8), they subtly satirise its restrictions and mock their male characters. Elizabeth says Wyndham ‘is not without that share of vanity all men possess, although they pretend to confine it wholly to our sex’ (ME:I:47), acknowledging that they ‘form an opinion of our sex which they do not deserve’ (ME:I:46), while Sophia mocks Charles’s irrationality and impetuous temper, telling Amelia ‘I smile at his violence’ (NC:III:53-4). Fanny Meredith tells humorous anecdotes to female friends about the melodramatic Mr Pemberton, who became very agitated when he accidentally broke a glass, and blamed his wife for the incident. He then proceeded to stay out all day and, on returning home later that evening, decided he would reluctantly forgive her, after rambling incessantly about the common accidents of life. Shortly afterwards, he appeared to have forgotten his words when his wife burnt their venison, and, refusing to eat any dinner at all, he forced her to apologise as if she had been the household cook. Fanny’s friends laugh at male hypocrisy and double standards, amused at how they have to condescend to such ridiculous creatures. Poovey rightly says women had a clear investment in accepting the naturalisation of the feminine ideal and their own inferior status, as they were rewarded with the approval of men and a sense of self-worth. She goes on to show how the style of women writers of this period represents patriarchal ideology internalised and articulated. The novel encompasses the contradictions inherent in society, and stands as both a record of self-assertion and, conversely, evidence of historical oppression.
While they celebrate femininity and its associated behaviour, the Purbecks also explore female companionship and bonding. Specifically, they explore sisterhood through the parting and reuniting of family members. Unlike Austen, whose families are large and secure, their heroines are independent of their parents and sisters are forced to rely upon one another. A method of writing often adopted as a strategy of indirection by authors of this period was ‘the use of thinly disguised autobiographical characters’ through which the authors ‘explore, expand and sometimes revise their own situations to express or repress their own deeply felt desires’ (Poovey1984: 45). It is likely that Elizabeth and Jane Purbecks' experience of sisterhood was similar to that of the sisters represented in their novels: ‘in the novel they could write in the familiar style perfected in informal letters, and use their own experience and consciousness as material’ (Todd 1987). Particularly interesting is the fact that Matilda and Elizabeth, following the tradition of Sense and Sensibility, A Gossip’s Story by Mrs Jane West (1796), which contrasted the temperaments and fates of two sisters and probably inspired Jane Austen’s novel of a similar title, is centred entirely around sisters. In the novel, Mary Anne Stanley’s account of their family history informs the reader of their unique bond; they have always had to rely on each other for everything. Matilda is able to tell that Elizabeth is in love with Lord Molesworth despite her denial of her feelings. She urges her younger sister to write to her often so that she can advise her and correct her, and philosophises on her problems. Occasionally Elizabeth feels her entrance into society is a chore and she is ‘wearied rather than pleased’ (NC:III:55) at London, sometimes wishing she could just remain quietly at home with Matilda. Even with Huntley back at home, Matilda is not truly happy until she and her sister are reunited, when they will live nearby ‘to spare the amiable sisters the pain they would feel at being settled at a distance from each other’ (ME:IV:189).
Similarly, Lauretta and Isabella in Neville Castle share a close bond, and when they are forced to part Lauretta sinks ‘into a dejection of spirits, which by degrees visibly impaired her health’, not wanting to go to the monastery for ‘a fear of being for ever separated from her beloved sister’ (NC:I:150). It is Isabella who refuses to neglect her and eventually implores their father to let Lauretta accompany her to the Duke’s residence. We are told ‘every painful sensation gave way at length, to the pleasure they experienced in each other’s society’ (NC:I:160). Likewise, Amelia and Louisa in Neville Castle have had only each other since their parents died when they were young and we are told ‘he affection that has ever subsisted between [them] will make your house at once the happiest’ (NC:II:24). Mr Middleton, Louisa’s husband, is jealous of their closeness and Amelia becomes determined to leave ‘as soon as I could bring my sister to bear the idea of our separation’ (NC:II:30). She feels that she cannot stand Mr Middleton any longer but ‘my heart was secretly torn with anguish at the idea of leaving my sister…the friend who had shared in all the griefs and pleasures of my life; the only person bound to me by the double ties of nature and affection’ (NC:II:37). Minor characters such as Mary Wyndham suffer similar experiences; she was split from her sister at a young age and recalls how painful and distressing she found it.
In a highly patriarchal society female bonds are seen as the only way to survive. The young nun Maria rescues Lauretta from the depths of despair by helping her to escape the convent. Harriet seeks praise and encouragement from Amelia for subduing her irritability and there are numerous examples of women consoling or congratulating one another. Separation of sisters is ‘the greatest of human evils' but 'a separation from those we love, will be amply recompensed by a reunion’ (NC:IV:299). In the Purbecks’ novels female characters are not defined by their relationships to men and marriage is not promoted for financial gain; rather meeting a potential husband is initially a social necessity which will keep Matilda and Elizabeth apart. Interestingly, Mrs Neville, an unmarried older woman, is one of the principal characters of the Purbecks’ final novel. Female companionship is presented in the manner discussed to teach readers how ‘to adapt to the standards of a male world in order to survive’ (Figes 1982:39).
It has been discussed how the Purbecks present femininity, specifically the behaviours they advocate and condemn within their novels, and how they use their characters to explore sisterhood and female companionship, ultimately celebrating the role of women. I shall now consider how they used Matilda and Elizabeth and Neville Castle to stage discussions about the novel itself and its societal function. At the time that the Purbecks were writing ‘novels were a source of cultural and social anxiety’ (Kelly 1993:13). They received widespread condemnation during the Romantic period for a number of reasons. Firstly, many novels, particularly those by women, were unfavourably compared with their more solidly acceptable male predecessors, specifically Richardson, Fielding and Smollett. They were considered ‘a new and rather shapeless literary kind with little discipline and no classical tradition’ (Tompkins 1932:3): ‘novelists of the second class’, as Tompkins labels them, ‘for all their pleasant qualities, lacked strength to maintain the novel where Fielding established it’ (Tompkins 1932:3). Rather, their attempts were seen as little more than ‘entertaining narrative’ (Tompkins 1932:3). In particular, the sentimental novel was criticised for its ‘etherealized substance’ which lacked the realism of the aforementioned male novelists, who were seen, to use Tompkins's analogy, to ‘nourish the democratic, realistic and humorous elements in the basement of English fiction, while the majority of novelists were taking tea with the ladies in the drawing room above’ (Tompkins 1932:44). Criticism was heightened in the 1790’s when forms of the novel which were associated with the plot of sensibility came under attack due to, as has been discussed, widespread fears about the causes of the French Revolution. The epistolary novel, which had been extremely popular up until about 1785, largely due to the success of Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, was specifically targeted. Further to this, Richardson’s innovation of style and form provoked countless imitations and the market became flooded with vast numbers of novels very similar in plot and moral message. The Monthly Review (1790) stated: ‘the manufacture of novels has been so long established that in general they have arrived at mediocrity . . . we are indeed so sickened with this worn out species of composition, that we have lost all relish for it’ (Tompkins 1932:5). In a highly competitive market, novels became increasingly sensationalist, with frequent duels, abductions, shipwrecks and other dramatic plot devices. Unlikely coincidences were the mainspring; Tompkins dislikes their ‘sprained ankles, convenient hospitable cottages, neat old women with their wonderful daughters, harpsichords [and] books’ (Tompkins 1932:58). Classic situations-heroines suffering unwanted attention from decadent courtly men and contamination by vulgar, social-climbing relatives-encompassed the major criticisms; decadent court culture and middle class emulation and dependence, and the intellectual and social narrow-mindedness of professional and middle class people. It was considered by some commentators that the novel had become out of touch with the essence of ‘real’ life, that ‘the novelists were not painting nature, but outdoing her’ (Tompkins 1932:61).
The mainstream of criticism focused on the supposed ideological implications of novel reading by emphasising its negative moral and intellectual effects. It was accused of raising false expectations of life and presenting a disproportionate picture of the dangers of society. The Purbecks accuse Richardson of doing this. Elizabeth tells Matilda that her whole opinion of the world is based on books: ‘when I first quitted your almost paternal protection I was going to enter a world to which I was an absolute stranger, and in which I had been taught by novels to expect much villainy and much deceit’ (ME:III.88), while Miss Allen claims ‘these books have placed me on my guard against the many dangers that surround women in this metropolis, yet at the same time they make me apprehensive where no evil is intended’ (NC:II:11). Novel reading was considered ‘similar in its effects to excessive drinking, [affecting] one’s personal, inward self in some way that was dangerous to both self and society’ (Kelly 1989:7).
Further to affecting the inner self, novel reading was condemned for its social consequences. According to commentators, its principal danger was that it would become ‘an instrument of ideological penetration, by what was seen as decadent aristocratic or gentry culture, depicted as either glamorous libertinism or its transmuted form of sensibility or sentimentalism, into the lives and consciousness of those lower down the social scale’ (Kelly 1989:7). It was feared that this penetration would help to ensure the continued ideological and social hegemony of the upper classes. The anonymous author of The Evils of Adultery and Prostitiution (1792) said ‘the increase of novels will help to account for the increase of prostitution and for the numerous adulteries and elopements that we hear of in the different parts of the kingdom’ (Kelly 1989:8). This illustrates how concern reached almost moral panic proportions. As Poovey says, ‘the underlying assumption was that, once indulged, any appetite would become voracious and lead eventually to the most dangerous desire of all’ (20); consequently moralists warned against gambling, drinking and novel reading, ultimately ‘encouraging women to show no assertive self at all’ (Poovey 1984:20).
It was hardly surprising, then, considering the attitude of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century society to novel writing, that anonymous publication was rife: ‘so did many a respectable man who did not care to be seen openly amusing himself with such a trifling production’ (Tompkins 1932:20). Even those authors now considered to be among the English ‘greats’ felt the need to justify their art; Richardson claimed that he ‘merely edited some letters’ to produce Pamela while Burney hid her writing and burnt her first manuscript. Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck published all of their novels anonymously, and the majority of authors did the same, at least until they had established a respectable enough reputation to go public.
Defenders of the novel in this period were a minority, and even they, like the majority of critics, rejected the novel of sensibility and fashionable life. The Purbecks, despite their overall endorsement of the novel, warn against the dangers of reading at random. In their discussions of the role of the novel, a number of their minor characters portray the adverse effects of reading. The morally irredeemable Lady Molesworth was affected from a young age by the ‘sentimental turn her mind took from the course of her studies, which was confined entirely to novels. These taught her that the heart was not subservient to parental authority, and that with such a fortune as she was to possess the truest dignity of mind was to make some hero happy whom fortune had neglected’ (ME:I:41). Similarly, Lady Mary attributes Louisa’s fate to ‘her too great sensibility’ caused by ‘reading those dangerous books . . . whose only tendency is to instil pernicious maxims and to convince young people that love is an arbitrary power, and neither can nor ought to be subdued’ (ME:II:58). Juliana, the young girl who is seduced by the Marquis in Neville Castle read ‘all those pernicious books . . . which are written with no other tendency than to inflame the imagination and weaken the principles. From these her naturally susceptible mind had received an additional degree of softness. She was taught to consider love as a passion at once amiable and arbitrary, to which every other idea ought to submit’ (NC:II:199). Even Mrs Neville developed a fondness for reading at a young age, which her aunt instructs her to give up in favour of learning domestic duties; an over-indulgence of books would lead to her becoming ‘a female pedant, a still less useful and less estimable character’, she must pay attention to ‘the humble avocations of life’ because ‘the world is now adopting a contrary method’. Failure to do this would result in her not being ‘qualified to make hereafter a valuable wife, or a respectable mistress of a family’ (NC:III:44). Mrs Neville admits her views were ‘entirely derived from books, but I considered them as unerring guides’ (NC:III:44). The characters who behave in accordance with codes of acceptable female behaviour are able, however, to withstand the influence. Elizabeth’s reading of the scene where the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him causes her to think Lord Molesworth and Emily are ghosts, ‘raised as my imagination was by the play I had been reading’, (ME:II:87) but she is later able to laugh at her foolishness. Sophia says Lee’s Recess mingles ‘fiction with real facts’ but would lead only ‘the ignorant and inexperienced into ridiculous mistakes’ (NC:II:280).
The Purbecks are careful, however, to distance their own work from what they see as ‘trashy’ fiction. Although they condemn the kind of writing which has been discussed, they clearly believe that the quality novel has an important societal function. This is evident through their endorsement of quality writing, their presentation of characters and challenging of assumptions, and through their self-reflexivity.
Most novelists peppered their narrative with references to solidly acceptable male predecessors, perhaps attempting to increase the respectability of their work. The Purbecks, however, challenge this dominant discourse. They unequivocally condemn Fielding’s sharp wit: ‘one of the great evils of satire is the unfavourable impression it often leaves upon the mind’ (NCII:274). Richardson, although praised for passages which ‘powerfully enforced the truths of Christianity . . . no one can read the character of Grandison, the conduct of Clementina, and particularly the death of Clarissa, without receiving essential benefit’ (NCII:274), is not considered to possess the merit of Burney, who ‘has in great degree, at least in point of morals, all [his] merit, without those trifling defects’ and ‘all the humour of [Fielding] without his coarseness and indelicacy’ (NC:II:275-6). Mrs Mortimer, however, says she does not usually admit her preference for Burney for fear of exposing herself to the ridicule of men. Knowing themselves that this is what they would be doing, the Purbecks are unusual in their outright preference for a female author over Richardson and Fielding, and clearly the characters in this passage are acting as vehicles for their own endorsement of quality female writing, with which they align themselves. In the preface to Neville Castle, the authors praise Camilla, The Mysteries of Udolpha and The Italian. They also draw the readers’ attention throughout their novels to their own educated status by many references to Shakespeare, although he is not used in the usual way to enhance the respectability of the work. Rather, Shakespeare is endorsed here because he wrote strong female characters, such as the dignified Hermione, the delicate Miranda and Desdemona and the innocent Ophelia, and of female companionship, such as that between Rosalind and Celia, or Desdemona and Emily. Lady Molesworth and Sir James Harpur use ‘Miranda’ and ‘Lysander’ as psydeonyms to conceal their identities from Lord Molesworth.
The Purbecks further emphasise their dislike of ‘trashy’ fiction by presenting the characters who read it, like Miss Wilmot, as ‘very vain, very silly and very romantic’ (ME:IV: 128). She is mocked for her tale of when she discovered Thomson’s Seasons in the woods, saying ‘this, thought I, is an adventure, for who, in the name of romance, reads Thomson in this village?’ (ME:IV:129). Unusually, their male heroes, Count Villeroy in Matilda and Elizabeth and Charles Pembroke in Neville Castle, happily admit to reading novels. Charles distances himself from ‘that order of men who affect to despise novels’ (NC:II:275), believing they only pretend to prefer tragedies and comedies, and reveals he thinks Cecillia and Evelina are among the very best comedies he has ever read. He claims that Burney’s characters are so true to life that he actually knows people who fit their description. By emphasising their high opinion of such works, the Purbecks draw attention to their own literary status and praise Burney for such things as they attempt to do themselves. Their self-reflexivity constantly informs the reader that they are avoiding all of the pitfalls of fiction of a lower quality novel. Colonel Huntley describes the Countess as ‘affecting the languishing airs of a love-sick girl in a modern novel’ (ME:IV:89), when none of the Purbecks female characters could be accused of such behaviour. Charles claims the story of his rescue of Amelia ‘would not disgrace a novel or romance’ (ME:II:2) and Elizabeth feels Emily’s life story, later told in great detail, ‘would make almost as good a novel as the Fortunate Country Maid’ (ME:II:40). Elizabeth says her letter has ‘almost as much news as a country journal, and in one respect it has the advantage of being every article authentic’ (ME:II:41), which stresses that the plot is not overly sensationalist, as many novels of the period had been accused of being. Finally, Matilda praises Emily’s descriptive style, a clear advocation of the authors’ own writing. The Purbecks constantly emphasise that novel writing is an art form demanding application and talent; Mrs Mortimer is laughed at by Caroline because the geography in her novels is all wrong and says she will have to devote herself to serious study of the subject. Caroline says ‘I was once weak enough to imagine that nothing was required of a novel writer, but some knowledge of life, a lively imagination, and an easy correct style . . . but an author or authoress of this class ought to be acquainted with history and geography and even topography’ (NC:II:270). Clearly this is the message the authors are trying to portray to their often cynical readers.
As well as setting themselves up as writers of ‘quality’ fiction, the Purbecks advocate a useful role for the novel in society. Miss Allen uses the novel to enhance herself, to ‘form my mind, manners and morals’ (NC:II:11). She learns of how to speak and they stop her using the ‘vulgarest phrases’. Mrs Neville believed she could alter Lennox’s addiction to gambling because she had read of ‘many women who, by a proper mixture of spirit and tenderness, reclaimed their lovers from the allurements of the artful and licentious’ (NC:III:44-5). Her reading of moral novels stops Lennox from taking advantage of her when he tries to convince her to elope. Mary Wyndham uses Richardson's Pamela as a role model, ‘making no doubt that a story so naturally told must be a picture of real life’ (NC:IV:19), saying that ‘if young women in very low stations were raised to rank and splendour by beauty and virtue, I had a chance of becoming equally successful’ (NV:IV:19).
So overall, it is apparent that the Purbecks defend the novel as a genre and its educational function, but they endorse only the quality novels, with which they align themselves. The didactic message is to choose reading material with care, because once the character is formed it may well be too late. Mrs Mortimer says as a child she read many ‘books of amusement’ and as a result ‘imbibed a thousand false and visionary ideas’ (NC:II:281) and all other reading became distasteful. She has since tried to correct the errors but still finds it hard to give them up. She will only allow her children to ‘peruse the best novels’ after serious reading of history, biography and natural philosophy: ‘I am convinced, when properly chosen and read with moderation, they improve the style and enliven the fancy’ (NC:II:283). Following this conversation, Charles has a higher opinion of Mrs Mortimer and Caroline says she could have written a charming novel on the subject. Many characters show ‘how deeply the minds of young people are impressed by the first work they are suffered to peruse, and how much care ought to be taken in directing their choice’ (NC:IV:19), which seems to be the overall message.
The discussions which ensue about novel reading in both Matilda and Elizabeth and Neville Castle, which convey the principals and intentions of the authors, display ‘the outward signs of a growing critical spirit . . . of which the novel had so urgent a need’ (Tompkins 1932:38). What is most striking here is the evidence of a constant struggle on behalf of the Purbecks to justify their art and to convince the reading public of its worth in the face of such cynicism and blatant criticism: ‘yet the ambivalence and the controversy about fiction were signs of [its] central place in the ideological conflicts of a society in the process of restructuring and redefining itself’ (Kelly 1989:6).
I have considered Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck as women living within a highly patriarchal society, as sisters and as novelists, and I have explored two of their novels as vehicles for expressing opinion and examining identity. The novels themselves have been revealed as primarily polemic, presenting a range of opinion in discussions of controversial topics. Although Todds’s assertion that novels of this period moralised rather than provided analysis is certainly borne out in an examination of Matilda and Elizabeth and Neville Castle, the novels are valuable not only as a historical record of English society at the dawn of a new century, but as a record of female defiance in a predominantly masculine culture. Novels such as these ‘did much to enhance the dignity and respectability of the novel as literature’ (Colby 1974:257) and especially to cement the place of the female writer in literary history.
In conclusion, I have argued that, through the staging of discussions on three main subjects in their epistolary novels, Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck challenge the dominant ideology of their day in subtle and understated ways. Their didactic endorsement of socially acceptable modes of behaviour for women does not counteract this argument. Rather, they are acutely aware of the necessity of adhering to ascribed roles within their masculine-dominated environment, and the relation this bore to the resulting sense of self worth. Poovey, who rightly argues that women writing in this period were constrained within a patriarchal framework which restricted 'feminist' thought, has nevertheless overstated the extent to which oppression was felt by women in their daily lives; in fact, as the Purbecks show through their strong female characters such as Sophia, Lauretta, Amelia and Elizabeth, women accepted and even glorified their roles in the domestic sphere. Female authors like the Purbeck sisters were not early feminists; they were clearly more interested in conformity. However, by using the novel to find and express their female voice they show that women, silenced in society, could be playful in private.
Colby, Vineta (1974) Yesterday’s Woman: Domestic Realism in the English Novel Princeton University Press
Figes, Eva (1982) Sex and Subterfuge: Women Novelists to 1850 Macmillan
Kelly, Gary (1989) English Fiction of the Romantic Period Longman
Kelly, Gary (1993) Women, Writing and Revolution Clarendon Press
Poovey, Mary (1984) The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer Chicago University Press
Purbeck, Elizabeth and Jane (1796) Matilda and Elizabeth London: Samson Low
Purbeck, Elizabeth and Jane (1802) Neville Castle, or The Generous Cambrians London: Dutton
Tompkins, J.M.S (1932, 1965) The Popular Novel in England Methuen
Watson, Nicola J (1994) Revolution and the Form of the British Novel 1790-1825 Clarendon Press
Back to Index Page