Essay on the work of Louise Sidney Stanhope, by Dawn Davis, May 2004
“Give ear, oh ye daughters of sensibility!” The didactic relationship between Louisa Sidney Stanhope and her readers.
Louisa Sidney Stanhope was an author who wrote prolifically in the nineteenth century, and published seventeen novels from 1809 to 1835.1 At this time the conduct book tradition was very popular, with successful novels like Richardson’s Pamelaand Burney’s Evelina and their successors written primarily to instruct young female readers on how to behave. The two novels studied in this essay, The Age We Live In: a Novel and Runnemede:an Ancient Legend run strongly in this vein. The most striking aspect about them is the powerful relationship Stanhope cultivates with her reader throughout, giving the novels a particularly didactic feel. The critic Rowbotham states:
Didactic novels for young girls were never written to please and pass away an idle hour. Increasingly, adults saw novels as an important aid to the educational process, as is partly indicated by the growing volume of such publications.2
This essay will explore the messages that Stanhope communicates to the reader in these texts, examining, through their didactic nature, the lessons that she hoped would be learned.
Stanhope’s target audience is the young woman, inexperienced and on the brink of entering into society and marriage, and this is indicated by both the characters and the plots of her novels. Each text centers around an adolescent female; in The Age We Live In, the heroine is Emma Fitzomer, and “…the bloom of eighteen mantled on her cheek;”3 In Runnemede, the young protagonist Matilda De Lacey is equally fresh and “youthful”.4 Both girls are about to be taken out of the domestic sphere and placed in a world of delight, deceit and temptation. Such characters would not only attract a similar readership but would also hold the attention of girls who could relate to their sex and age. Didactic authors found young female characters the easiest means of presenting the dangers held in the world to the reader, which is demonstrated through the adventures of Emma and Matilda. Another key indication that Stanhope’s novels were aimed at young women is that each of them is a romance, directly involving the heroines. As Stanhope acknowledges in Runnemede:
Many novels are alike requisite to pamper the insatiate palate of romance-
She realises that in order for people to read her fiction she must pander to the fashionable taste of romance, and can only educate her readers through the veil of entertainment. It may well have been with this in mind that she states her aim in Runnemede to be: “…. to divert the listlessness of a dull and idle hour…” She resists the temptation to follow a preface like Richardson’s in Pamela which states clearly its aim to “instruct and improve” the reader’s mind, wishing to draw the reader in first before embarking on their moral improvement.6 As Fielding’s Shamela proved, overt didacticism could leave a novel open to ridicule; with Pamela’s coyness, coupled with Richardson’s insistence on her virtue, being interpreted as a tactic in seduction.7 The romance plot is ideal for Stanhope because by falling in love the girls make the transition into becoming women, and through this already difficult period their duties, relationships and emotions are tested to the limit. This forewarns the reader of the problems that can arise when the child flies from the parental nest.
The importance of filial duty is shown as a major theme in both texts. Significantly, each girl only has one parent; Emma a mother and Matilda a father, as the other has died. This makes the filial bond even more vital because the parent is forced to bring up the child alone, and cannot offer the protection afforded by their dead spouse. In The Age We Live In, the absence of her father makes Emma extremely vulnerable. When the villainous Lord Castleton notices Emma, Mrs. Fitzomer laments that:
It is dangerous for a young woman, unprotected save by the weak efforts
Her fears are not unfounded; Castleton immediately sees Emma’s vulnerability and targets her as an easy conquest, and on seeing Emma he realises: “…that being is fatherless, and labour promises a golden harvest.”9 Her mother acts as an effective protector while Emma remains at home, but as soon as she leaves for London, Castleton is able to manipulate her as he wishes. In Runnemede, Matilda’s father leaves at the beginning of the novel to go and fight King John, and again when Matilda is left to fend for herself she is put in danger, having no suitable female guardian. These situations serve to warn the reader of the importance of parental protection and intervention in order to safeguard the honour of any young girl.
Unfortunately for Emma, this is a lesson that she has not quite learned. Although a picture of virtue and a model daughter in her affection for her mother, she nonetheless falls victim to the blindness of love, and believes her mother is mistaken in Castleton’s character. Stanhope warns the reader that:
Emma sunk into a labyrinth of error; Emma relied on her own imagined
Her didactic message is clear – the judgement of a young girl compared to that of her worthy mother will always be seriously flawed, and such a naïve mind as Emma’s will put her in great danger. We are forewarned of the “labyrinth of error” that Emma will now fall into as a result of her foolish disobedience. The reader learns that the consequences of this are nearly fatal in terms of Emma’s virtue. She strives so hard to appease Castleton’s jealous outbursts that Stanhope warns she “…nearly yielded to the desire of giving him pleasure.”11 Again this demonstrates to the reader how easily a girl’s honour can be lost when she foregoes parental protection.
This is perfectly illustrated with the character of Mrs. Somerville, who yielded her virtue to the same Lord Castleton several years before. She fled from her father, (again a single parent) to live in sin with Castleton in the woods after he worked his same charm on her. After this he actually killed her father, and she now lives in poverty with her illegitimate child, both suffering from an incurable heart disease. Stanhope could not have chosen a more harrowing picture of the fatal consequence of filial disobedience, and to drive the point home to the reader as far as possible, Mrs. Somerville blames herself for her father’s death:
I dealt the blow – I was the serpent who destroyed him. It is right I should
Indeed, Stanhope does punish her for such a destruction of her father, for not only she but her child also eventually succumb to the illness and die, with Mrs. Somerville going mad with guilt as she deteriorates. Stanhope wanted to frighten her young readers, and she probably succeeded.
There is no such terrible example of misplaced duty in Runnemede, but the consequence of keeping secrets from the parent is made clear. Matilda gets married while her father is away, not knowing if he is dead or alive, and is under the protection of her uncle. She has not informed him of her new spouse, and indeed does not even know his name herself as he is protecting his French identity of Hugh le Brun. When her uncle proposes a husband for her she is forced to confess, and his reaction is a warning to all girls who are tempted to try a similar unsanctioned marriage:
Wretched, lost, degenerate girl! what if I tell thee, thou hast cast a slur
Thankfully, the marriage turns out to be extremely profitable for Matilda, and her uncle is appeased when Matilda reveals the marriage has not yet been consummated, which shows that the groom did not marry to satisfy his lust. Still, he points out the consequence that such a secret marriage can cause: a stain upon the honour of the whole house, not to mention the ‘degenerate’ girl.
Matilda’s motherless condition is also emphasised by her lack of a confidante in the affair. In The Age We Live In, the vital role of mother as best friend and protector of her daughter is clearly shown. As the critic Rowbotham agrees:
Such an interpretation of the maternal role makes it particularly understandable
That Matilda manages to come through her adventures with her virtue still intact is testament to her supreme sense of morality and desire to make her father proud, thus she is an excellent role model for Stanhope’s readers.
Of course, it can easily be argued that if the girls’ parents were ideal models they would not allow their daughters to go out into the world so unprotected in the first place. Stanhope uses the deceased spouse to account for this as much as possible, placing the blame on accident and misfortune as oppose to bad parenting, which would undermine her argument. She needs such an excuse because she requires her heroines to fall into trouble in order to have a story to tell, and therefore provide the reader with as much excitement as possible. It can also be argued in the opposite vein that every good parent should subject their daughters to such tests of their own virtue, because they will not truly learn how to be good people any other way. At the end of the novel the reader can admire the girls because they have carved their own path in life, and it is the path of virtue and honesty.
For the young female readers of these novels, marriage would have been the greatest thing they could aspire to, followed by children. Emma and Matilda finding their partners through the novels and ending them in happy matrimony reflect this. It is not surprising then that the subject of marriage is explored in depth, with Stanhope taking care to educate her readers in the recipe for the perfect union. The first ingredient that is made clear in both texts is a calm, rational love instead of mad, rash, passionate love, often conflated with lust. In The Age We Live In, Lord Castleton’s only intention is to conquer Emma as he did Mrs. Somerville, and Stanhope constantly tells the reader of his insatiable lust for Emma. She shows it in his actions also, and he is constantly kissing Emma and flattering his naïve admirer:
Snatching her to his bosom…. ere she could withdraw herself from his
His rashness is further demonstrated when, after Emma has renounced him, he abducts her and tries to force her to marry him, his lust having turned into a dangerous obsession. It takes Emma almost the loss of her virtue and many tears to realise that such a man will not make an ideal husband, and Stanhope wishes for her readers to learn from this and not make Emma’s mistakes. Similarly in Runnemede, De Mauleon, a wealthy lord, falls in lust with Matilda and abducts her in a fit of rashness. Stanhope warns that he is “…. an adept in the all – powerful workings of human passion….”, and he is presented as the embodiment of all that a girl must avoid if she wants to keep her virtue.16 Obviously, the men that the girls eventually choose for their mates are also the heroes who rescue them from the evil grasp of their captors, and they love the girls because of their sympathy, modesty and “…. sensitive feeling; now all fear: anon, all tenderness.”17 It is with a growing esteem that a real love blossoms, as Hugh le Brun explains to Matilda:
I have brooded over it…. and cool unbiased reason, and necessity, and common
Although this is not the most romantic proposal a girl can receive, at least Matilda can be sure after her terror with De Mauleon that he has noble intentions, and is serious about his love.
The happy well-matched unions of Emma and Matilda make the perfect contrast to the mercenary marriages that take place in both novels. Stanhope is fiercely opposed to such shallow marriages and thus makes it perfectly clear in both her comments and her portrayal of the unhappiness of the parties concerned. In The Age We Live In, Emma is shocked that it is even possible for such a farcical pledge of love to exist, wondering: “Can the heart palm its affection for riches?”19 Her question is answered in the form of Miss Pennington, a beautiful but vain girl who marries the repulsive but rich Mr. Snellgrove. After their marriage they argue about where they will live, a question that would obviously have been discussed before any sensible union. Stanhope causes Miss Pennington to repent for such a superficial choice as she exclaims: “what could I have thought of when I married you?”, to which Mr. Snellgrove knowingly replies; “My estate, to be sure.”20 Miss Pennington is shown as destined for a loveless marriage but as her husband points out, she did not marry for love and therefore has no right to expect it. Emma’s husband Colonel Gelncairne agrees that:
She knew him vulgar, ignorant, obstinate, yet the golden bait of fifteen
She is her own worst enemy, as the ‘good’ characters realise. As Rowbotham agrees:
…. a ‘loveless marriage’ was a catastrophe for any girl’, one which would
The ideal woman was supposed to be selfless and the epitome of tenderness and sensibility, and so Stanhope wanted to make it clear that there was something very inhuman about a girl abandoning love for money.
Emma’s disbelief in mercenary marriages shows clearly her innocence and naiveté of the ways of the world. Stanhope’s untainted heroines are the perfect tools for her to expose the corruption of the world in such a way as to make it shocking to good girls through the shock of her characters. Like Burney’s Evelina, their experiences of and innocent mistakes in the world act as a warning to readers of how to behave in a place full of traps for pure young women. Clearly Emma’s biggest mistake is hiding from her mother her true feelings for Castleton, and thinking her mistaken in her advice to renounce him. Emma’s mother warns her before she embarks on her trip to London: “…. your innocence, your experience, will expose you to the pursuits of the designing.”23 As always, she is right, and it is not long before she falls prey to Castleton’s flattery:
Could this be flattery? her heart whispered – No; her mother had told her,
The problem is that Emma has only ever heard of flattery being described, she has never experienced it, and while Emma’s mother has told her of how she should feel on being flattered, she has underestimated the ‘gratifying’ effect it can have on a young woman. Stanhope sees it as her duty to make clear to her readers just what a respectable man will and will not say to a girl, thus taking on the parental role. Emma cannot see the real Castleton, and is even unaware of his raging jealousy of her regard for Colonel Glencairne. As his jealousy flares and he demands the cause of such esteem, she artlessly replies:
I have seen him in a situation which has stamped the knowledge of his virtue,
She makes it even worse by refusing to tell him about this situation – it was actually at the house of Mrs. Somerville, and she wants to keep her plight a secret out of delicacy for the matter. To Castleton, this merely confirms his suspicions that Emma holds more than esteem for the man. Although Emma’s intentions are good and the reader knows Castleton to be base, this illustrates the importance of a girl not keeping secrets from her partner. Whilst Stanhope’s ideal man is far from the jealous immature mind of Castleton, it is apparent that a girl should be able to tell her partner anything, as secrets can easily be misconstrued.
In Runnemede, the base De Mauleon too deceives Matilda. He comes to her house disguised as a monk and pretends to be taking her to a sanctuary on her father’s orders, when actually he is taking her to a castle where he hopes to steal her virtue. Although he asks some very strange and personal questions to Matilda for a man of the church, Stanhope says that to her his church garb is “impenetrable and holy” while to him it is as a “covering of gossamer”.26 While she is shocked at times by his indecency, Matilda still strives to prove herself as a virtuous girl to him right until he throws off his disguise and she realises she is duped. Here Stanhope warns her readers of the potential for anyone to be deceitful and dangerous, no matter who they are, and for a young girl like Matilda the world will be full of such traps. A young lady must learn to be permanently on her guard, especially when she is away from her parents.
The confusion of identities is a popular theme for Stanhope, and this is shown again in The Age We Live In, when Emma makes another innocent mistake that infuriates Castleton. At a group trip to a gallery, Emma meets a horribly forward man who flatters her in a tone she does not mistake, and as she stands embarrassed an annoyed Castleton commands her: “heed not that madman!”27 Poor Emma misinterprets this and from then on suffers him to kiss her hand and follow her around, remarking:
Oh no! till I knew his infirmity, I thought him the most absurd of all
Of course this leads to Castleton being alarmed at her tolerance of the man and consequently treating her with a coldness and resentment that puzzles and saddens her. The episode brings humour to the novel but also emphasises the inexperience of Emma and her vulnerability in London.
Thankfully, Emma at least has the chaperones of her friend Veronique’s parents to prevent her from getting into any serious trouble in London, although admittedly she is left mostly to her own resources and does not get much help or advice from them. Matilda, however, is not as lucky and her father Walter’s absence means that she is often wandering along dangerous paths. She fearlessly walks home from prayer at a convent on a regular basis, but on one occasion De Mauleon grabs her in a first unsuccessful attempt to abduct her. Her future husband Hugh le Brun comes to the rescue as he will later on, but cannot help but comment: “tis an unseemly hour to wander forth from home.”29 This has never prevented Matilda’s ramblings before, and acts as a warning to readers of the impropriety of such an act. Sadly Matilda does not quite learn her lesson and is persuaded later on to run off with a stranger who promises news of her father. She fears she is doomed when she realises that her guide is actually leading her straight to the castle of the persistent De Mauleon, and “…conviction burst upon her senses, she felt herself duped into the power of the man she hated…”30 Luckily the boatmen are actually her uncle and her father’s friend, but it could have ended in ruin for the heroine. It is a clear message to Stanhope’s readers not to be taken off by strangers, as it always ends in sorrow. The similarities to novels like Evelina are clear from these heroines’ exploits. The critic Gonda sums up their experiences in a description of Evelina’s: “…. the blunders arising from her ignorance of social forms frequently leave her speechless, covered in blushes or reduced to tears.”31 Such incidents accentuate the girls’
With all of their dangerous and heart wrenching adventures, it may be a wonder to the readers how Emma and Matilda manage to find the faith to keep on going at all. Stanhope’s answer is simple: religion. In the true style of the conduct book, religion is presented as the answer to all evils and the staple source of comfort in desperate situations. Matilda reasons her nighttime walks to the convent because “…. she felt, that in adoration of the creator, nought should stay the homage of the creature.”32 Although it proves dangerous, Matilda is willing, Christ-like, to forget all personal interests as far as her duty to God is concerned. Her faith is so strong that she even appears to be aided by God, and she is shown to draw a life saving strength from her religion when she is grabbed the first time be De Mauleon:
God-God direct me! she aspirated, and then, with a sudden bound, she
God’s will is presented by Stanhope as just, powerful and absolute, and Emma and Matilda, craving his protection, receive it. This is a clear direction to her readers not to underestimate the power of religious devotion and prayer, which should come before anything else.
However Stanhope is not blind to the darker side of religion, and does not shy away from dealing with those in the church that are not all good, or the disadvantages of a life devoted to worship. InThe Age We Live In, Emma meets Miss Pennington’s brother, Reverend Pennington, who is everything a clergyman should not be. She presents him as “a clergyman of fashion” and one who is “prone to error”, caring more about his status and his material wealth than he ever has done about his profession.34 Notwithstanding she takes pains not to upset the reader with such a shocking revelation:
Start not, gentle reader, for, as in other professions, there are three classes
It is important to Stanhope to present the world as it is, and consequently must inflict painful truths upon her ‘gentle reader’ so they finish her novel fully prepared to be on their guard for characters such as this. There is room for corruption in every profession, and she recognises the church is no different. Of course the majority of religious characters in both texts are presented as being good, and Matilda’s father has told her that if all else fails she should turn to the convent and become a nun, although this should be a very last recourse, admitting “…. I would die ere I would doom your youth to the blight of the cloister.” and she agrees, but laments that it offers “a cold and joyless life.”36 Here Stanhope is shown to be realistic about the happiness One can glean from devoting One’s whole life to religion – for the author religion is best as a supplement to life and not as a life itself. Also, from the many gothic novels of the period Stanhope would have been well aware of the potential cruelties that lurked in the cloister.
Religion also performs another function in Stanhope’s texts – it allows her to present the notion of self – sacrifice. Women were expected to put others first, being the caring and sensitive creatures they were, and as Rowbotham agrees, self sacrifice was expected of them:
Experience and tradition both taught that self – sacrifice was sweet in its
Certainly, the heroines regularly practice such sacrifice; Matilda is forced to hide her own identity and that of her father and husband in order to protect them during the civil war with King John, and Emma returns home from London to please her mother even though it disappoints her. Stanhope certainly does give them ‘sweet’ rewards for this in happy marriages and blissful re-unions with proud parents.
Because of the didactic nature of Stanhope’s novels, it is easy to read the position of the women characters in them as the reflections of Stanhope’s ideal woman. As Rowbotham agrees:
Would-be good girls with hopes of becoming good women were encouraged
The heroines in the two novels can be read as Stanhope’s ideal role models for young girls to emulate. Their strong principles and bravery within their spheres mark them as fiercely protective of their own virtue and morally upright. Although Emma in The Age We Live In is easily led by Castleton to believe he is her perfect mate, as soon as she discovers his true character she renounces him with astonishing speed, and
The shuddering sensation of aversion, of antipathy, crept over her; the
Such a sudden withdrawal of love may well have seemed odd to the young female reader, especially after Stanhope has filled the previous two volumes with details of their courtship. She realises this and so explains:
“…. how unnatural the change!” bursts from the lips of some of my fair
Emma is here depicted as a paragon of virtue, and despite her womanly innocence and naivete she has the bravery and the principles to follow the moral path at all times.
Matilda’s bravery is also shown when she is persuaded to go to King John’s court to help persuade Queen Isabel to rescue the Earl de la Marche. She knows King John as the torturer of innocents and as the sworn enemy of her father, and therefore being in his presence is more than she can bear. Even still, she says that in order to rescue him, “willingly would I martyr every feeling of self.”41 Stanhope makes sure her kind feeling towards this stranger does not go unrewarded, and when she realises he is the same man she married she can be content in the knowledge she was prepared to risk herself to rescue him. Thankfully, the rescue has already been performed before she has to engage in any part of it, and so her femininity is not compromised in any way by her being too brave or too courageous. That, of course, is left to the job of the men who are fighting the King for the good of all.
The balance between feminine delicacy and strength of mind is something that Stanhope is anxious to maintain. Although her heroines are mentally strong, they can still in no way survive without men. Both girls are helplessly held captive by men and need to be rescued, fainting, by their true loves. Basically, this perfect balance shapes them to be the nineteenth century ideal of a woman, and this is how they would appear to the reader. To the modern reader at least, their characterisation does appear to be very two-dimensional. Their errors arise merely out of innocence and inexperience as oppose to any moral flaw, and this naivete is something which endears them to the men they marry anyway. Stanhope tries in The Age We Live In to dispel the notion of Emma’s inhuman excellence by assuring the reader that:
I wish not to paint the character of my heroine faultless: I wish to present her
She is talking here about Emma’s biggest mistake: her succumbing to flattery. However this is largely presented as a result of Emma’s innocence because she does not fully understand what flattery is. Even in this acknowledgement of a flaw within Emma, Stanhope appears to contradict herself with the description of vanity as a ‘female passion’, implying that it is a fault present in all females, even pure ones like Emma. In Runnemedethere really is no such token explanation of a vice in Matilda to give her a more human quality. As it was written to the end of Stanhope’s long career, she may have decided that it simply did not matter if a character was perfect to an almost symbolic level, and she perhaps found that the purer the character, the more the reader strove to emulate her.
Of course, the novels really would be tiresome if every female character was as perfectly balanced in naivete and goodness as Emma and Matilda, and Stanhope does introduce a range of female characters with varying degrees of each. The two heroines each have a best friend; Emma has Veronique and Matilda has Millicent, who, although as morally pure as their friends, have more experience of the world. They often act as Stanhope’s mouthpieces to educate the girls, symbolic of the readers, of the dangers and vices of the world. Veronique is useful to Stanhope because she is the means of removing Emma to London. She warns the unsuspecting Emma that in London she will see “…. envy swelling the bosom of self-conceit – and malice flashing from the eyes of imagined gentleness.”43 Emma would have done well to bear this advice in mind, as Veronique has just described Castleton. This clever girl, however, is not fooled by Castleton’s charms, and in her description of her worst sort of man, Stanhope’s advice to young girls is clearly apparent:
…. a modern beau is my aversion – a man of fashion my antipathy; the first
Again Veronique proves herself the voice of reason and has once more described Castleton to Emma. She even recognises Castleton’s jealousy, which parallels her to the knowing Emilia in Shakespeare’s Othello, attempting to advice the childlike and unsuspecting Emma, personified in Desdemona.45 When Veronique becomes a duchess after a happy marriage at the end of the novel, the reader is reminded of the qualities that lead to true happiness:
Hers was not the exulted pride of gratified ambition – no, hers was the
Veronique’s experience of the world has shown her that ambition can only lead to unhappiness, and Stanhope makes sure her readers realise that content within the marriage and domestic sphere will breed happiness forever.
In Runnemede, Millicent performs a similar task. As Stanhope’s more experienced mouthpiece, she can educate Matilda, thus the reader, on the harrowing actions of King John, and her bravery will also inspire her innocent friend. When Millicent tells the horrified Matilda of the injustices of King John towards the De Brause family, Matilda’s disbelief would be mirrored by the readers.47 It is Stanhope herself who speaks when Millicent explains:
“They tell many tales, well-nigh as fiend-like…. for in Ireland, he moved
In her own way Millicent is as worldly wise as Veronique, only in her historical time this means a knowledge of bloody tyranny instead of fashionable people. Millicent’s bravery is shown when she decides to go herself to Queen Isabel to save the Earl de la Marche, exclaiming:
I would venture much myself to aid this poor prisoner. On my life, if the
Again this bravery has to be balanced out by Stanhope with some womanly sensibility, as she certainly does not want readers to embark on their own crusade in emulation. Therefore, Millicent is caused to rethink her rash decision and become frightened about the consequences, realising: “I am a very woman…. I could dare overthrow in any other shape.”50 Once more Stanhope feels it necessary to endow Millicent with just enough courage to prove her worth, but snatches it away before she becomes too manly to be an example to the reader.
Certainly masculine women in Stanhope texts are sparse, but the Duchess Constantia, Prince Arthur’s mother, provides one of these models. Matilda’s father Walter goes to her to petition for asylum for his daughter, but is shocked when she is “…. not what he had pictured, the tender, weeping, sensitive woman; but one replete with almost masculine courage.”51 This causes him to question the suitability of her as a guardian for his gentle daughter, but to prove she is not a man altogether, Stanhope does occasion her to eventually break down in tears, and Walter is reassured. It may seem like it would have taken unusual courage for Stanhope to draw such a strong female character, but actually her inspiration may well have come from Shakespeare’s King John, which also features a very strong “Constance”. In the play she is shown to have a very brave spirit, speaking again with more than female strength:
War! war! no peace! peace is to me a war.
It would therefore not have been a great shock to readers as they would have been familiar with such a picture of Constantia. However as Stanhope points out through Walter, such unladylike behavior is very undesirable for a woman, and it causes their suitability in their own role, in this case of a parent, to be questioned.
Queen Isabel is the other royal member in Runnemedewho is pictured as not being the ideal role model for any girl. She is shown as having a great power over him, and she is aware of how to use her looks to manipulate him. After she admits to him it was she who freed the Earl de la Marche, she hangs onto his knees, cries and begs forgiveness:
The queen felt her power; now was the moment to essay all her witchery,
Although Stanhope denounces the beautiful girls in The Age We Live In for using their looks to their advantage, here Isabel is at least using them to an honourable purpose, and is in some way making amends for her rejection of the earl. The reader is given the sound judgement of Matilda and Millicent as an explanation of the queen’s virtue:
I judge her heart as good and pure, as flattery and parasitical praise will let
This is a lesson to the reader that living a life of excess and indulgence can never bring true happiness; the girls are poor but they at least can see the errors of a queen. In committing her first error of choosing King John, Queen Isabel started on a downward spiral of ‘error’ that now will cover her life.
The largest example of a woman living a life marred by a fatal mistake is Mrs. Somerville in The Age We Live In. She is a perfect example of a fallen woman, and in this didactic novel is a warning to all young girls of the consequences. Stanhope’s treatment of her is very interesting as she is by no means the most morally corrupt woman of the novel. Young and poor, she is described as being a naïve dupe in Castleton’s lust, contrasting with the fashionable London women who are totally immoral - Veronique describes them as having “no conscience”.55 The question then remains as to why she is punished so severely when the London women experience no such tragedies. Possibly Stanhope felt that to be so vain was ample punishment in itself, and as Miss Pennington’s unhappy marriage shows, their shallow desires will only bring misery. However Stanhope may also have felt that Mrs. Somerville deserved such a punishment because, unlike the London party, she did have the ability to see right from wrong, but still allowed her virtue and her filial bond to be taken. It is also interesting to view Mrs. Somerville as a double of Emma. Although this tale is not gothic, Runnemedecertainly has gothic elements, which shows Stanhope was familiar with the form. Like Bertha in the attic in Jane Eyre, Mrs. Somerville stands to represent what could have become of Emma if she did succumb to Castleton’s passion.56 This is made explicit by the fact that they even share the same man as their dupe, and significantly, as soon as Emma does realise the truth about Castleton, Mrs. Somerville dies. While ever Emma’s feelings for Castleton and her true virtuous path to happiness are in conflict, Mrs. Somerville exists as the spawn of this conflict, a woman who, like Emma, renounced her parent for what she mistook for love. But as soon as Emma is united with her mother and the shocking truth about Castleton, there is no need for Mrs. Somerville’s existence. The critic Watt is despairing about such a presentation of the fallen woman. After discussing the hopeful presentation of such a character in novels like Moore’s Esther Waters, he states:
Despite this diversity the conventional acceptance of the mythical ‘two
Mrs. Somerville is corrupted by a fashionable man in a fashionable world, and Stanhope makes clear her disapproval of ‘fashion’ and the shallowness it brings. When The Age We Live In’s Emma goes to London, and Runnemede’s Matilda goes to court, Stanhope uses them to expose the corrupt world they enter into. Emma does not hesitate to go and aid Mrs. Somerville, but Stanhope is keen to point out her philanthropy is an exception in a place like London:
Shall I shock the feelings of the prosperous, by representing one of the
Sentiments worthy to be recorded in an enlightened nation! Ah! How has the
She makes no secret of the fact that she blames the ‘fashionable’ world for this moral decline. Her reader should strive not to be fashionable, but like Emma, an ‘instrument’ of mercy. Again the idea of philanthropy is promoted, and presented as the natural response to those in need.
Millicent also proves to be an example of such mercy in Runnemede when she goes to court to rescue the Earl de la Marche. Turning her back on the fashionable pursuits of those at court, she declares:
My errand is to aid the unfortunate, not to flutter in the butterfly-swarm
She sees such people as trivial, like insects, having no real purpose other than vanity and pleasure. Riches do not impress her as they do the court or the London party in The Age We Live In, and Stanhope wants to educate her readers to do their moral duties even if those around them do not.
The majority of fashionable people in Stanhope’s novels are truly one-dimensional symbols of sin. However one character in The Age We Live In; Blagrave, is an exception, and Stanhope uses him to warn her readers of the dangers of gambling. In her usual style, Stanhope forewarns the reader of Blagrave’s character before we even meet him, but we are told he does have a spark of integrity. He was:
…. by nature formed to be an ornament to society, by education a blot to its discreet circles.61
His corrupt privileged education has been the cancer to his behaviour, and he gets drawn into gambling by his friends. As he gets further and further into debt he ends up in prison, and on release holds up a carriage in desperation. When he sees Emma in this carriage his shame makes him promptly shoot himself. Stanhope fills several pages in a tirade against the sport:
Gaming, dreadful, deadly infatuation! When the mind imbibes thy poison,
This serves as a stern warning to her readers on the dangers of gambling, not least because Blagrave meets a most unfortunate end as a result of it. Emma pities him and wonders what could have driven him to such desperation; a sentiment the author hoped would be shared by her readers. It suits Stanhope’s purpose to paint Blagrave as having some morality because this shows how easily gambling can poison the mind. Evidently she hoped that by talking about gambling, her readers would then be prepared for a time when they may be able to advise a husband or a brother against its evils.
The ideal woman in the nineteenth century cultivated money and was content with her lot, unlike the ambitious fashionable women in The Age We Live In. Stanhope uses her heroines as an example to her readers in this respect. Emma contrasts with the richly adorned London women:
as she arranged her elegantly simple dress, as she confined her luxuriant
Her modesty reflects well upon her, and it attracts to her an honourable gentleman instead of the base characters drawn in by the other ladies, who disclose “….beauties which obsolete delicacy once rendered sacred.”64 It is also fitting to her station as a poor fatherless girl that she does not dress too extravagantly, and this at least wards off mercenary men.
To know One’s station and situation and accept it is also an issue in Runnemede. Matilda’s father is lamenting their poverty when Matilda reasons: “If born to penury, what know we of privation?”65 Like Emma, she certainly has no ambition to be richer than she is, and is happy with what God has given her. Stanhope rewards her heroines for their attitude to money with marrying them to prosperous men, as was tradition in romance. She promotes the idea that if a girl is deserving she will find financial security, although if she searches for this like the fashionable women she will never attain happiness.
However corrupt Stanhope saw the world of fashion, she nonetheless uses fashionable references in The Age We Live In, as the book tries to appeal to the younger market. The characters go to see the “Catalani” and compare it to the “Frascanta”, mentioning also “Des Hayes” and “La Didone”. The girls also go shopping in Bond street, a popular London pastime.66 The novel, like Runnemede, is also interspersed with popular poetry like Ossian and Shakespeare, again to appeal to modern tastes. It would have given Stanhope credibility in the eyes of her young fashion conscious readers to appear up to date with the latest trends in entertainment, thus they would have been more willing to heed her advice. It would also have made the world seem even more of a terrifying place because it deals directly with the reader’s own world and own experience. A girl would have been more careful in Bond Street if she had read about a woman who lost her virtue there.
Runnemede as a historical novel has a different appeal, and this lies largely in its gothic theme. This was an extremely popular genre in the nineteenth century, and would certainly appeal to young female readers. Stanhope’s strain of gothic is very much in the female ‘terror’. Runnemede contains the usual medieval setting, ruined castles, abduction of a fainting girl and, as always, a supposed supernatural monk who is later explained. Dorothy Blakey described one of Stanhope’s earlier gothic works, The Confessional Of Valombre: a Romance, as a “….debased library version of pattern designed by Mrs. Radcliffe twenty years before.”67 Indeed Runnemede, one of Stanhope’s last works, does bear striking similarity to Radcliffe’s final novel, Gaston de Blondeville, analogously set in the age of chivalry and purporting to be based on a true story.68 As Radcliffe was well read by Stanhope’s intended age group, she evidently wanted to copy from the best, although here she has a hint of playfulness. Whilst Radcliffe’s last work was claimed to have been inspired by a manuscript dug up in a churchyard, in her preface Stanhope makes no such claim:69
I will not say then, that in the ruins of an abbey…. Amid the roar of thunder
She is aware of the unlikely nature of claims such as Radcliffe’s and is here poking fun at her own genre, a joke in which her readers will share. It would also give her work novel more credibility in the eyes of her readers because they can be sure she has researched it properly.
The research Stanhope has put into Runnemede enables it to be used as an educational tool for readers into the history of King John, as well as a conduct book and romance novel. Large chunks contain nothing but factual account of the events running up to the signing of the Great Charter, with Stanhope quoting from historians and King John himself. This gives the novel a second use as a possible teaching aid, and Stanhope is clear throughout about what is fiction and what is fact:
Diverge we then from the iron line of history…. To dispose of the lighter
She intends the reader to be in no confusion about the real history of the text, and this is furthered in her after-word on the text, where she describes every detail in history she has bent slightly for her purposes.72 The history chunks of her novel could literally be removed to make up the sole tale of King John.