by Vivienne Buxton, May 2006
‘She observed, that the reputation of a young woman too often depended on public opinion.’ (Hunter, 1804, The Unexpected Legacy.) Is Rachel Hunter critical of, or reaffirming domestic values in her novels?
The last part of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth century form a distinctive period in women’s cultural history. Literacy among women increased dramatically and the female reader began to constitute a significant proportion of the reading public. (Robertson, 2001, xviii). The domestic novel originated in the middle of the eighteenth century in response to a demand by the newly moneyed and newly literate middle class, for a genre which recognised the common values they held. The closing years of the eighteenth century witnessed a dramatic increase in novel production in England, together with an associated growth in female authorship. B.G. MacCarthy suggests that a factor which encouraged many women writers was that the general standard of fiction was low and the epistolary form of writing, as championed by Samuel Richardson, was easy. The emergence of the domestic novel also brought fiction into the field of feminine experience, and women could compete comfortably with male writers such as Richardson, Fielding and Defoe. (MacCarthy, 1994, 289). In 1773, the Monthly Review stated that when it came to fiction, the field was well and truly filled by ladies, and well into the nineteenth century, it was conceded that not only were women novelists plentiful, but that they were good. (Belsey, 1989, 25).
My chosen author appears to conform to the pattern of domestic fiction written during the first decades of the nineteenth century, however there are some themes within her literature that suggest she is straying away from that model. Rachel Hunter, (1754-1813), a Minerva press novelist and writer of conduct literature, does not appear to have been particularly influential, but nevertheless wrote several didactic and moralistic novels between 1803 and 1811. This essay will situate Hunter within the group of female writers such as Jane Austen and Frances Burney, who wrote a kind of feminised fiction whilst complying with the domestic values of the time. The aim of my critical essay is to analyse the modes of Hunter’s didacticism and moral instruction in her conduct book Letters from Mrs Palmerstone to her Daughter Inculcating Morality By Entertaining Narratives (1803),and to argue that Hunter in her later novel, The Unexpected Legacy (1804), cautiously defies conventionality, questions the patriarchal system but ultimately, reaffirms domestic values.
Rachel Hunter intended Letters from Mrs Palmerstone to be her first published work, but unforeseen circumstances set it behind Letitia or Castle without a Spectre, a Gothic novel published in 1801, and Letters from Mrs Palmerstone was finally published in 1803 (Blain, 1990, 553). Letters is essentially a conduct book, written in a similar style to Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela (1740) and the many imitators in between. However, unlike Pamela, this is not a novel but a series of letters which detail unlinked, specific incidences, with the overall aim of moral instruction for the reader. The Unexpected Legacy is a novel, and therefore Hunter adopts a different approach. There are of course, similarities between the two texts. As previously mentioned, Letters from Mrs Palmerstone takes the form of discrete narratives in the guise of letters written from a mother to her daughter, and The Unexpected Legacy takes the form of separate, interwoven narratives, expressed by different characters, detailing particular events which ultimately connect by end of the novel. Whilst the Allibones Dictionary suggests that Rachel Hunter wrote publications of a strictly moral tendency (Allibone, 1885), and this is certainly the case with Letters from Mrs Palmerstone, as even the title suggests, I would like to argue that her novel The Unexpected Legacy has less of the moral and didactic elements, and is more an exploration of the tenacity of the female even when restrained by patriarchal values.
Despite the increasing public acceptance of female authors by the end of the eighteenth century, a residual uncertainty about the unsuitability of novel writing for women persisted throughout the period. Cheryl Turner argues that in the range of female literature, poetry and didactic material were probably more likely to attract subscribers than fiction, since these genres were perceived as unequivocably appropriate for the female pen.(Turner,1994,111). There certainly was an established tradition within this genre, and a foolproof way to be accepted would be to write a conduct book with a mother giving moral advice to her daughter. Rachel Hunter was widowed, and I could find no evidence that she had children, however, by 1794 she had devoted herself to literary pursuits. It could, therefore, be argued that she complied with the conventions of this particular genre in producing socially acceptable fiction, when she wrote Letters from Mrs Palmerstone (1803), in order to support herself financially.
As with much domestic fiction written in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries both Letters and The Unexpected Legacy are essentially fictions of manners, exploring proper and improper social behaviour. Marilyn Butler states that in all Jane Austen novels, characters are judged by their manners and they are taught manners by their parents when they are children. (Butler, 1981, 104). She suggests that manners are the passport to the gentry and this could reasonably be Hunter’s intention in Letters. Hunter, herself, married to a merchant, was the product of the newly arising middle class, anxious to secure their place within the prevailing hierarchy. Mrs Palmerstone considers that the best way to ensure her daughter becomes the well-mannered, virtuous, principled, and respectable young lady that befits her status in society, is to write her letters detailing real situations whilst at the same time extolling the virtues contained therein.
There was a tradition during the late eighteenth century for both male and female authors to write conduct literature in the form of letters to their sons and daughters, therefore Hunter was really complying with the conventions of the genre in writing Letters from Mrs Palmerstone. Mrs Hester Chapone, produced Letters on the Improvement of the mind, addressed to a Young Lady in 1777, which was reprinted several times until 1800, which shows how popular this type of literature was. (Eighteenth Century Collections Online). The first letter states the intention of the writer to contribute something to the improvement and welfare of the young lady, and ‘Letter viii’ is essentially a chapter on ‘Politeness and Accomplishments’, with the aim of making the young lady ‘more useful and pleasing to her fellow creatures.’ (Hester Chapone, Eighteenth Century Collections Online.) Equally, Doctor John Gregory writes A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters in 1775, reprinted several times until 1789 (Eighteenth Century Collections Online), which suggests that a young lady through her deportment can take ‘a share in a conversation without uttering a syllable.’ (Dr John Gregory, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 26/36). Both these literary works, together with Letters appear to be complying with the conventions of the time and are reasserting domestic values.
The prolific French writer, moralist, critic and teacher, Madame de Genlis, was also a writer of conduct literature and remarkable for both her educational theories and her observations on the world (www.worldwide school), and it is possible that she was a positive influence on Rachel Hunter particularly in her novel Letters from Mrs Palmerstone. Madame de Genlis is mentioned in the final letter entitled ‘The Fashionable Young Lady or the Unfashionable Scruple’. The writer, Mrs Palmerstone, as a young girl, encourages her friend ‘to read a few pages of Madame de Genlis’s Veillees du Chateau, which she had with her.’ (Hunter, 1803, vol 3, 195). As Ellen Moers argues, Madame de Genlis was hardly the inventor of the pedagogical treatise, as such works are as old as literacy, and were written in increasing quantities as literacy spread through the middle classes (Moers, 1978, 227), however, Rachel Hunter was clearly influenced by her as she wrote Letters with the raising of girls in mind.
Madame de Genlis’s two most important books are Adele et Theodore (1782) and Les Veillees du Chateau (1784) and are meant to be read together, for the first, subtitled Letters on Education, is an epistolary novel designed to explain the circumstances and theory of Genlis pedagogy, and the second, always translated as Tales of the Castle, is a string of educational tales designed to show her method in action. (Moers, 1978, 220).
Mary Poovey, in her book The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, suggests that many women in the early nineteenth century gained a large measure of personal satisfaction in helping promote moral values to their children, as their energies were channelled into socially constructive activities. (Poovey, 1984,10). Mrs Palmerstone, in Letters, certainly gives the impression that she is committed to ensuring her daughter benefits from her instruction, and spends the majority of her time in securing examples of inappropriate behaviour in order for her daughter to learn from them. In ‘The Mother-in-Law ‘story she begins with: ‘I shall as usual, endeavour to extract something from the occurrences at Browhill, for your improvement.’ (Hunter, 1803, vol 2, 45.). The didactic style of all these tales is unmistakable and the moral content is easily identifiable, with social instruction and moral improvement the key to the entire work.
In The Unexpected Legacy, Hunter’s heroine is not formally educated, as was usual for the time, yet it does seem that reading conduct literature was an acceptable literary pursuit for young ladies, when Pauline comments that ‘a new field of literary improvement was opened to me from the circulating library.’ (Hunter, 1804, vol 1, 56). What is not so certain, however, is whether Rachel Hunter was an advocate of conduct literature, or if she was conforming to social expectations, as she felt it was the only way by which to earn a respectable living. As MacCarthy argues, men had created the standard of literary taste, and if women wrote according to their own, they would have as much success as if they decided to play hockey with a crochet hook. (MacCarthy, 1994, 12).
In The Unexpected Legacy, Hunter has chosen to make character her main focus, whilst in Letters from Mrs Palmerstone, her emphasis is on delivering lessons in morality and manners. During the eighteenth century, the conduct book for women was such a common phenomenon that many kinds of writers felt compelled to add their wrinkles to the female character ( Armstrong, 1987, 65), and as Mary Poovey argues, whilst there was a belief in innate femininity, there still existed an entire body of literature devoted to the cultivation of feminine virtues. This type of material was addressed specifically to women and was intended to educate young girls in the behaviour considered ‘proper’ and ‘natural’ for a lady. (Poovey, 1984, 15). Hunter seems to belong to this category of writers with her conduct book Letters, where female behaviour is minutely observed, commented upon, assessed and ultimately morally concluded, as Mrs Palmerstone writes; ‘I saw from the first hour I entered the house that I had much to reform, and something to correct.’ (Hunter, 1803, vol 1,150). In this respect, Hunter is conforming to society’s expectations in providing a certain type of literature designed to cultivate feminine virtues as prescribed by the patriarchal society, particularly, as Hunter advises in the preface, that this novel is intended for the instruction of young ladies between the ages of twelve and seventeen. According to Cheryl Turner, many female novelists were preoccupied with the responsibilities and aspirations of their sex in courtship and marriage indicating that they had women readers in mind, and occasionally an author referred explicitly to this audience. (Turner, 1994, 130). The letter entitled ‘The Fashionable Young Lady or the Unfashionable Scruple’, from Letters, demonstrates this quite clearly when Miss Parnell declares ‘I think the opinion of the world of importance; the virtue and good conduct of a woman cannot have too many barriers to secure it.’ (Hunter, 1803, vol 3, 232), when she is discussing the importance of a woman’s reputation in order to secure a good marriage partner. After all, these letters were from a mother to her daughter and Hunter is certainly aware that she will be addressing a predominantly female audience with this conduct book, and is conforming to domestic values in reaffirming the importance of a woman’s reputation.
As I have already discussed, Letters was essentially a conduct book conforming with the requirements of this particular genre, and as such, Rachel Hunter appears to be in accordance with her contemporaries in the type of fiction she produced. However, conduct literature had a particular purpose and was addressed to a particular audience, and as such could be professionally restricting for the female author. Whilst Letters was praised in The Monthly Catalogue ‘for many useful lessons for the young female reader’, and Hunter’s talents were commended ‘in depicting multi-farious views of the virtues and vices incident to mortals’ (Monthly Catalogue, vol 44 1804, 319), such praise was back-handed, as Burlinson argues, many women were aware that the very qualities which were deemed admirable in women’s writing, such as sentiment and morality, also signified its limitations (Burlinson, 1992, 22).
The novel, however, is a different medium in that it can portray all varieties of human experience rather than those just suited to one particular literary perspective such as the conduct book. The novel is more of an authentic report of human experience and as such offers more scope to the female author. Although the female author may consider it prudent to stay within the confines of the domestic sphere in order to ensure publication of her work, she is able to comment more easily on society within the scope of fiction, and disguise her real purpose should she need to do so. In The Unexpected Legacy, Hunter is able to approach her writing in a different way, and to explore the many different personalities within her characters through the situations in which they find themselves, much more easily within the genre of the novel.
There are often strong moralistic messages within The Unexpected Legacy, however, Hunter’s didactic style is less intense, and she adopts a more mocking and satirical style. As in her other novels, Hunter addresses and manipulates a fictional author, and in this text, the author is in the shape of Mrs Sedley. Mrs Sedley has inherited a large fortune from a distant relative, a common occurrence in novels of this era, but attached to this legacy is an unusual request, she must also take care of a young woman, Pauline and her infant son, Sigismund. Adopting similarities with the epistolary method of recounting the tale, Hunter uses a series of loosely connected, and at times tedious, narratives, some of which add very little to the general plot, with the narrator aiming ultimately, to connect the tales. Hunter’s objective is to approach the story of Pauline from several different perspectives, with the overall intention of confirming the truth of her story. Whilst Hunter does at times confuse the reader with the several, seemingly unrelated, and unnecessary tales, I would argue that the key focus of the novel is the success that the female protagonist achieves despite the obstacles and ignorance she meets on the way. As Pauline says when recounting her story to Mrs Sedley; ‘Though defamed, and rejected by all my relations, I am not afraid of having my story known to you’ (Hunter, 1804, vol 1, 20).
In many late eighteenth and early nineteenth century novels there is often intense characterisation relating to physical descriptions and their relationship to a person’s natural character, the art of physiognomy. I did not find this with Hunter as there are no real physical descriptions within the novel. Hunter tends to focus on personal attributes and characteristics, with only the briefest mention of physical qualities. Her main concern with physical appearance in this novel was to highlight the differences between Pauline and Sigismund, and by emphasising their opposing physical characteristics, Hunter is suggesting that Sigismund’s natural parentage is under question, and is therefore introducing the main theme of the novel. Mrs Sedley says of Pauline; ‘She was fair; her eyes and hair were in perfect harmony with the delicate texture of her skin…Sigismund was of a clear brown complexion, with dark hazel eyes’ (Hunter, 1804, vol 1, 26). Hunter’s main focus throughout The Unexpected Legacy is to emphasise Pauline’s personal qualities rather than concentrate on her physical appearance.
An important theme within this novel is the preoccupation with propriety and the justification of the heroine’s actions, and in this sense Hunter is conforming to social conventions in maintaining the gender stereotypes of the time. Kathryn Burlinson argues that women’s writing was praised when it conformed to feminine ideals and expressed delicate sentiments, tender emotions and domestic affections, (Burlinson, 1992, 22), and Hunter complies with these feminine ideals with the relationship between Pauline and Sigismund. Pauline is entirely committed to the task that Marianne has created for her with regard to the baby boy and declares that she will ‘devote my life to her child’s preservation,’ (Hunter, 1804, vol I , 175), and the protective qualities that Pauline exhibits throughout the novel are appropriate to the prescribed image of women’s natural maternal feelings. Although Hunter has imbued Pauline with a strength of character possibly unusual for the time, she ensures that Pauline is equipped with the female qualities of sensibility and a virtuous nature, with much bursting into tears, and is thus establishing Pauline as the perfect female role model. Pauline reveals these qualities upon discovering that her parents do not believe her story; ‘I burst into tears, and was unable to speak’ (Hunter, 1804, vol 2, 24). Furthermore, the commendable Mr Furnival reinforces the gender stereotype when he declares to Pauline’s natural mother that; ‘The child alluded to is not hers; and in the protection she has afforded him she has given an evidence of her virtue you must approve.’ (Hunter, 1804, vol 2, 24).
Hunter’s emphasis on propriety and feminine conduct is more subtle in The Unexpected Legacy, than within Letters, as Hunter carefully reveals these qualities within her main character, in association with the situations in which she finds herself.
She observed, that the reputation of a young woman too often depended on public opinion. "Certainly," replied I with assumed spirit; "and that young woman who exposes hers to misconstructions can never be accounted blameless, unless she hazards unmerited reproach in favour of a positive and superior duty." (Hunter, 1804, vol 2, 65).
As we can see in this particular extract, Hunter acknowledges that a woman during this period has a duty to conduct herself in an acceptable manner, however, she is also suggesting that there is often a more noble reason for a woman’s actions, and these must be taken into account before judgement is made. I would suggest that Hunter is critical of the way in which society imposes strict regulation of a woman’s role and behaviour through the confinement of her activities, and this is further highlighted in another passage from the same novel, as Mrs Whaley is questioning Pauline’s principles:
“And I am glad to see him with a mother who appears to have the feelings of one, and who prefers him to the opinions of the world." I coloured with resentment, and replied, that in being useful to Sigismund I was without apprehensions for my reputation, and proud of the distinction of being chosen by his virtuous mother as capable of supplying her duties to a child of such importance to a noble family.—"You are a perfect heroine, miss Murray, I perceive," answered she with a contemptuous smile: "but I know the world."—"So it appears," retorted I, quitting her side, "and more of it than it is likely I should know” (Hunter,1804, vol 1, 236).
Nevertheless, Hunter adopts a more satirical tone in this passage suggesting that people are not always what they seem, and is conforming to the prevailing domestic ideology, when she shows Pauline mocking the hypocritical nature of Mrs Whaley, particularly as we discover later in the novel that Mrs Whaley is herself the possessor of a most dubious reputation;
The fine Mrs Whaley has been turned out of doors: she was nothing after all but a kept madam. However, she took care to provide for her dismission, and now lives with her French gallant on Whaley’s three hundred pounds per annum. (Hunter, 1804, vol 2, 315).
The Unexpected Legacy is replete with examples highlighting bad manners or inappropriate behaviour, and very often those who are involved in such activities tend not to be so fortunate in their lives. However, in her conduct book Letters, in order to highlight the consequences of one’s actions, misfortune often falls upon those who least deserve it. In the story entitled ‘The Fatal Effects of Curiosity’, Hunter satirically condemns the local gossip Mrs Dormer as her love of tittle-tattle overrides her good sense as she ‘knew of events before they happened, and was minutely informed of many that never happened at all.’ (Hunter, 1803, vol 1, 40). In this tale, Mrs Baxter, upon hearing of the news of her husband’s supposed bankruptcy, ‘suffered strong convulsions, which in twelve hours terminated in her death.’ (Hunter, 1803, vol 1, 54). Hunter uses a dramatic and shocking example to make her point, nevertheless, the message is clear, inappropriate female behaviour is likely to result in tragedy of some kind. I would, therefore, argue that Hunter does seem to be conforming to domestic values when she shows particular characters demonstrating inappropriate behaviour, and this is seen again in her novel The Unexpected Legacy, as she once again reaffirms the positive aspects of the values of the day. A typical example is when Pauline meets her friend Anna once again, this time in England. Hunter, with the characterisation of Anna, is exposing the dangers a young woman faces if she behaves improperly in society;
"Were you not afraid," asked I, running over with my eyes her Frenchified and careless dress, "of being taken for a stranger to whom no civility or deference was due?" She laughed with her accustomed thoughtlessness, and replied, that she was neither a baby to be frightened with raw head and bloody bones, nor a silly damsel who in every strange face perceived an enemy; she had been highly amused, and preferred a stage to a family airing. (Hunter, 1804, vol 2, 29)
Hunter then demonstrates that the careless and flippant nature accorded to Anna is not conducive to success in society, as by the end of the novel, Anna has abandoned both her husband and baby and has married an impoverished Irish man. Anna’s first husband dies and Hunter, by placing the abandoned child under the care of a more worthy woman, and securing him a good fortune, is once again conforming to the domestic ideals of just reward for appropriate conduct.
In The Unexpected Legacy, despite the fact that the ruling classes were nervous about the possible uprisings in Britain as a result of the problems overseas, (Burlinson, 1992, 23), Hunter adopts the socially acceptable feminine stance of passivity, whilst paradoxically introducing a conflicting argument with the character of Anna Wilmot. According to Matthew Grenby, between 1791 and 1805, as many as fifty overtly conservative novels were published in Britain, others contained distinctly conservative elements, and these were the anti-Jacobin novels. These novels were written in opposition to what their authors believed were the principles of the French Revolution, the principles of liberty and equality for the revolutionaries and the removal of the ruling aristocracy (Grenby, 2001,1). In The Unexpected Legacy, Hunter seems to be concerned by the violence on the continent but does not want to be involved with the political justification behind the events, maintaining a sense of distance. She uses poetic language to describe the proceedings and is preoccupied with the effect on her principle characters in terms of their economic and social position rather than any form of political affiliation. Hunter writes:
The disastrous epoch of the French Revolution was now commenced. History had prepared her crimson page; and want of bread had introduced tumult and discontent. This dawn of "Gallic freedom," as it was called by some, and of "Gallic atrocity" by others, could not be viewed with indifference under either of
I would suggest that Hunter uses the occasion of the French Revolution, as a plot device, to show the enormous difficulty and trauma Pauline had to overcome to ensure the safety and survival of her charge. For readers at the time, this would also have added to the realism of the novel, as the event had taken place, and the repercussions for the aristocracy on both sides of the English channel had been enormous. When the reader is given Pauline’s narrative concerning the events in France, Hunter seems aware of the restrictions imposed upon her by a patriarchal society when Pauline suggests that the ‘revolution in France is not a subject for my pen.’ (Hunter,1804, vol 1,100). Pauline is reluctant to discuss the events, unable to comprehend the notion of partial evil in universal good, but considers it sufficient to say that it was simply ‘connected with the story of my private sorrows.’ (Hunter,1804, vol 1,100). Hunter is maintaining a distance between her protagonist and discussions within a traditionally male area, although it could also be argued that the fear of being branded a treasonous Jacobin obliged Hunter to ensure her novel appeared more conservative than it was. According to Claudia Johnson, although many female novelists felt horror at the revolution: ‘they felt too marginal as women in their society to idealise established power, and too compromised by the customary social structures which conservative discourse upholds.’ (Johnson, 1990,10). Monsieur du Rivage, Hunter writes, ‘was the friend of liberty, but perceived not her approach in a reform which levelled with so much fury every established regulation of order and justice.’ (Hunter,1804, vol 1, p66). His main concern was to secure his finances in France and lead his family to safety in England, and Hunter rather shrewdly, once again, maintains a distance from politics.
Hunter does explore the politics behind the French Revolution, as I mentioned earlier, with the character of Anna Wilmot, the young, middle class English lady whose has lived much of her time in France due to her father’s business interests. Anna meets Pauline at her home in Derbyshire, where Mr Furnival, Mary’s guardian and friend, is concerned at Anna’s principles; ‘she is so entangled in the jargon of politics and the sophistry of unprincipled declaimers, that her reason is utterly confounded, and her heart corrupted.’ (Hunter, 1804, vol 2, 57). Hunter writes; ‘Anna began an argument in favour of those measures which had produced the horrors of France’ (Hunter, 1804, vol 2, 56), but the older and wiser Mr Furnival is dismissive of her ideology, considering her naïve and delusional. This is a reasonable indicator that Hunter is reaffirming the domestic values at the time by suggesting that politics are outside the realm of a woman’s capabilities and quite possibly damaging to her health.
However, by allowing Anna to voice her opinions, it could also be argued that Hunter is defying conventionality and introducing the possibility that women may possess the ability to voice political sentiments. On the other hand, however, as Matthew Grenby argues, it would have been foolish for any budding novelist not to have considered her potential publisher whilst expressing political viewpoints, in order to guarantee quick and profitable publication. Publishers encouraged certain elements in fiction and although they were not censoring exactly, they were shaping fiction nonetheless. (Grenby, 2001,172). I am not convinced that Hunter is subverting domestic ideology in discussing the French Revolution, or that she adopts a particularly anti-Jacobin stance in this novel, but I would suggest that she maintains an impartial position in her commentary. Hunter is possibly aware of her readership and her publisher, and by not straying too far into traditionally male political territory, she is maintaining the notion of separate spheres for men and women. And as Grenby stresses, the twin fear for both publishers and their authors, was that a work would not sell, and it would come to be regarded as seditious (Grenby, 2001, 188).
Whilst I would certainly not describe Rachel Hunter as a radical or an ardent feminist, and in many cases she conforms to the domestic ideals of the time, she does explore women’s roles within society and partially develops a criticism, particularly where the woman’s identity is defined solely by her relationships to men. In The Unexpected Legacy Pauline is disinherited by her father, as he believes Monsieur du Rivage will provide for her, which he indeed does. Monsieur du Rivage then appoints Mr Furnival, in the role of legal guardian, to look after Pauline when he himself dies. Mr Furnival has the benevolence to live until he has found a suitable husband in the form of Mr St Clare for Pauline, and through the legal ties of marriage Hunter is, once again, restoring the values of a patriarchal society with the male in complete control, and the female safely confined within the domestic sphere of the home. However, throughout the novel Pauline must resist being manipulated or influenced by others in her quest to secure Sigismund’s birthright, and in some respects Hunter has created the independent female.
Money was a fundamental preoccupation amongst women writers during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and single young women in many novels had a duty to find a marriage partner. By allowing Pauline to inherit substantial legacies from Mr Middleton, Monsieur du Rivage and ultimately Mr Furnival, Hunter ensures Pauline enters marriage to St Clare, who is in a higher social class, as something Vivien Jones describes as a ‘fully endowed equal’ (Jones, 2000, 113). After all, as Copeland argues, the key to a woman’s survival is the possession of a spendable income (Copeland, 1995, 38), and with Pauline, Hunter has not only created a self-reliant female, she has made her financially independent too. Yet, this is not so unusual for women writers at the time as Vivien Jones argues, many novelists wrote in this fashion and however rigidly the plot is managed, the denouement always involves an explanation that absolutely vindicates the heroine’s rightful claim to inherit name and usually property. (Jones, 2000, 115). Hunter, therefore, is merely subscribing to the same domestic values of her literary contemporaries with this novel.
I hope I have successfully argued within the scope of this essay that Rachel Hunter, on the whole, like many of her contemporaries, is reaffirming domestic values in both the texts I have referred to. I would, however, suggest that whilst she is not strongly critical of patriarchal values, she does ask the reader to consider the implications of a restrictive society, and offers an alternative view. Unfortunately, Rachel Hunter was not a tremendously successful novelist as few of her novels were reprinted. There is a copy of The Unexpected Legacy in the Chawton House library, a former Elizabethan manor house in the village of Chawton, Hampshire, which incidentally formerly belonged to Jane Austen’s brother (www.chawton.org). There are also four of Rachel Hunter’s novels preserved in the British Library in London, although two of these are editions of Letters from Mrs Palmerstone. This particular text was reprinted in 1810 which suggests that it enjoyed a reasonable amount of success that Hunter’s other work did not (www.bl.uk).Whilst authors today are not writing fiction to demonstrate the proprieties of feminine conduct, the conduct book, Armstrong argues, is still alive and well (Armstrong, 1987, 62), and appeared to be the key to Mrs Hunter’s success. Even today, this particular genre, although more specialised, dominates the newsagent’s shelf, with magazines offering women advice on subjects from keeping your man, to juggling the demands of career and motherhood.
Despite less than favourable reviews for her earlier novels, however, Hunter, with dogged determination, stuck with a particular formula which brought her to the attention of Jane Austen. According to Deirdre Le Faye, Austen, in a letter to her niece, jokes about one of Hunter’s novels, most possibly Lady Maclairn, The Victim of Villainy published in 1806, where every new character, as in The Unexpected Legacy, gives a verbatim report of his or her life-story to date, a total of twenty flashbacks in all. Le Faye suggests that Austen’s comments were fully justified as not only was the heroine ‘always in floods of tears but that all the characters are frequently found to be weeping.’ But what Le Faye found so profound however, was that the moral Mrs Hunter treated such matters as seduction, bastardy, perjury, elopements, and secret marriages as everyday occurrences. (Le Faye,1985, Notes and Queries). However, Rachel Hunter in addition to writing about moral instruction and appropriate behaviour for young ladies, may also have wanted to write a novel that would remove the tedium of leisure time, and simply entertain her predominantly female readership.
List of other works consulted