Critical Reception of the Works of Elizabeth & Jane Purbeck by Samantha Gibbs
A perusal of various reviews of the works of Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck reveals similarities in the style of their novels and, as such, a largely standard critical reception. However, it is their epistolary novels, in particular Matilda and Elizabeth, which receive the harshest criticism.
The Critical Review of 1796 finds in Matilda and Elizabeth ‘nothing to distinguish it from the generality of publications of a similar nature’. (1) ‘Personages rather than characters’ are said to be introduced: perhaps an unduly harsh judgement when considering Matilda and Elizabeth’s principal heroines. Interestingly, earlier reviews in the Critical Review in 1789 and 1791(2) found the heroine of Honoria Sommerville well-drawn and apparently sketched from nature, and the hero of William Thornborough (3) an interesting one who maintains the reader’s sympathy. However, William Thornborough is criticised for presenting ‘too many lucky events, which could not be foreseen or reasonably expected’, and this seems to be a recurring criticism of the Purbecks' work. The plot of Matilda and Elizabeth in particular hinges on the coincidence of Matilda meeting the old soldier Milford on a day trip to Weston, and him recognising the resemblance of her young daughter Celia to Colonel Huntley.
The Critical Review criticises the moral of Matilda and Elizabeth as ‘false and feeble . . . trite and poor’. Interestingly, an earlier view of Honoria Sommerville by the same publication had admired its moral, which in effect is identical to that of Matilda and Elizabeth: that unfortunate circumstances are usually productive of the greatest good. The contradictions apparent in the Critical Review may be due to the seven-year gap between the novels and the consequent mass production of stories containing morals of a similar nature.
Neville Castle is described by the New Annual Register in 1802 (4) as ‘possessing at least the merit of speaking benevolently of the sisterhood of antiquated virgins’, a surprisingly mild reception and interesting point to pick up on considering the authors’ sympathy for the French Revolution and their endorsement of female over male novelists. Although Neville Castle was written several years before its eventual publication, by 1802 its comments relating to the French Revolution would have been extremely controversial, especially since the Terror. In the preface to the novel the authors apologise for the passages relating to the Revolution, which they say they wrote ‘in very different terms’ from what they would, had they ‘foreseen the horrors it was soon afterwards productive of’ (5). They expected their eulogium on Madame de Genlis to bring ‘ridicule and censure’ but refused to retract it as it reflected their own beliefs.
Overall, the Purbecks’ novels are considered purely as ‘popular’ fiction, written in a highly readable and natural style. Their first novel, Honoria Sommerville, interestingly receives the most positive reviews; in 1789 the Town and Country Magazine declared ‘if all novels were written with the propriety and knowledge which distinguishes these volumes, circulating libraries would no longer be declared nuisances’. (6) The hero of William Thornborough is also found to be amusing. However, their epistolary novels, Raynsford Park, Matilda and Elizabeth and Neville Castle, are generally considered to be structurally and stylistically weaker, containing similarly under-developed characters and questionable morals. Perhaps the phasing out of epistolary novels at the end of the century, as explored by Watson (7), meant that readers were tired of this form by the late 1790’s and, as such, Elizabeth and Jane Purbecks' work was not considered to be any different from the huge quantity of novels already produced in this form. Had they published something of the quality of the novels studied around 1740, when Richardson’s Pamela caused such a sensation, it is highly likely that the critical reception would have been more positive.
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