Essay on the work of Elizabeth Isabella Spence, by Karen Tophill, 2005
Travel in Elizabeth Isabella Spence’s The Wedding Day (1807) and The Curate and his Daughter, A Cornish Tale (1813)
Elizabeth Isabella Spence’s claim to fame is writing the first known account of a railway journey on the “Mumbles Train” near Swansea. Here she writes about ‘exploring the romantic scenery of Oystermouth’ (Moving Stories Website). She was also known and mocked as ‘the Travelling Spinster’ by Blackwoods’s’ (Blain, 1990, 1013). This seems consistent with her being known not only as a novelist but as a travel writer. Spence has taken the genre of travel writing and used it in her novels to make them popular and accessible to her audience. Spence began writing for pleasure but turned to writing novels and travelogues to make more money from her writing. In The Curate and his Daughter, a Cornish Tale and The Wedding Day, she combines both genres together to produce novels which are typical of the romantic period. In this essay references to The Wedding Day will be abbreviated to ‘WD’ and The Curate and his Daughter, a Cornish Tale ‘C&D’.
Spence uses travel as a background to her novels to take the reader on a journey around the British Isles. She gives very romantic descriptions of places that would have been well known to her such as; her native Scotland, the Lake District, Wales and Cornwall. Travel is used by Spence as a plot device to enable her characters to meet people from different parts of the country highlighting the differences between the town and country, and the rich and poor. Spence possesses the romantic pastoral view of the countryside, with people living in castles or pretty white washed cottages surrounded by trees, where they live an idyllic life, working in the fields. These themes of nature, travel and the differences between town and country would have been very familiar to her contemporary readers, who were probably also reading Romantic poetry. Spence also provides a moral message and uses popular themes found in other novels of the period. Her readers would have been mainly gentlewomen being taken on a romantic journey around the country by Miss Spence.
Spence takes the reader on a tour of the British Isles and often behaves like a courier in these novels. The ‘Home tour’ as it is sometimes described was becoming popular because as Hooper points out England was:
Spence takes the reader on a tour of the Scottish Isles of Mull and Staffa where she describes ancient ruins, rocks and caves that interests the reader enough to make them want to visit these far flung islands. Again this is like the travellers of the Romantic period who wanted to visit the ancient ruins of Greece and the rocks and caves of the Alps. Because these places could not be visited at this moment in time Spence is showing the reader that these types of places exist in Britain and are open for visitors. The traveller can still experience ‘the sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque’ (C&D, Volume 2, 42), without the need to visit the Swiss Alps. Hanley says ‘The Alps were becoming an important symbol in the myth of ‘nature’ that a pre-Romantic reaction to Enlightenment intellectualism was beginning to construct: a domain seemingly immune to human design’ (Henley, 2000, 76) Spence compares the Scottish mountains, caves and rocks with the Alps and attributes them as an ‘extraordinary specimen of Nature’s work, to be occasioned by some volcanic explosion, which formed these basaltic columns with so regular an appearance’ (C&D, Volume 2, 49). They are not thought of as God’s work, which can be seen as very modern thinking for the time. Darwin’s theory of evolution and that the world was formed from a big bang, and not by God was still under much discussion and disagreement by the intellectual minds of the day.
Spence takes the theme of the sublime, which has been gendered by men and feminises it. As Mellors says ‘the sublime is associated with an experience of masculine empowerment’ (Mellors, 1993, 85) Male poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge found the mountainous countryside awesome, a place where they felt the presence of God. However, the sublime is feminised by Spence when she writes about the countryside as a therapeutic place, where women can go to find peace. Spence illustrates this when she writes in The Wedding Day:
Nature is a prime theme in Romantic poetry and Spence uses this fascination with nature throughout her novels, in the descriptions her protagonists’ give of their travels. Returning to nature is shown as a happy thing to be doing. In The Wedding Day, Lady Ardo is very glad to be leaving Bath society and returning to the nature of the Scottish countryside. Scotland is portrayed as a picturesque place where:
Travelling from the town to the countryside is shown as a way of healing the sick and melancholy. In The Wedding Day, Spence uses the Welsh countryside to heal Augusta after her abortive wedding to Fitzalbert. Spence’s heroine Augusta travels through the Wye valley to find a haven in which to recover. Here it is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s account of his walk along the banks of the river Wye in 1798. However, unlike Wordsworth she does not visit Tintern Abbey but carries on to the vale of Uske, where ‘the sweetly flowing Uske meandered; while on its pastoral banks the elegant villas, peeping between the shady knolls of trees that skirted the mountains’ (WD, Volume 3, 151). Like Wordsworth she gives a romantic description of the Welsh valleys and countryside that encourages her readers to visit this tranquil spot of Wales to see how beautiful it really is. It is not only Wales that reminds the reader of Wordsworth’s poetry and writing but Spence’s account of Ennerdale Water in the Lake District in The Curate and his Daughter. Here we find the recluse living in a white washed cottage in a wood earning her money by painting rural scenes of the lake. Spence’s protagonist is reminiscent of Wordsworth walking in the woods of the Lake District and coming upon a recluse. Wordsworth includes many reclusive characters and hermits in his poems to give a feeling of solitude. Spence uses the need for solitude at times of distress and disgrace when her two protagonists feel the need to flee from their families after their abortive marriages. Matilda’s mother after being abducted by Lord Seyntaubyne and believing her self not properly married and disgraced leaves her father. Augusta after the duel on her wedding night feels she must flee from her family and Fitzalbert as she cannot face them. Both find a cottage in a wood where they can be alone and recuperate until they are rescued and brought back to civilisation and restored to their former health and station in life. They want to live the simple pastoral life found in Arcadia where there are no problems or difficulties but just peace and tranquillity living amongst farmers where no one knows your traumatic past just your peaceful present.
Travel is a way for Spence to the show the difference between the homes of the rich and poor as Spence makes her protagonists travel around the country. This means she can show the different homes of people from the rich luxurious houses in London to the dwellings of the poor and labouring families on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. In The Wedding Day, the duchess’s home in London is a ‘spacious, magnificent apartment, full of light and elegant ornaments and various decorations’ (WD, Volume 2, 20). But the reader is shown an alternative to the rich way of life in The Curate and his Daughter, when Spence describes the fishermen’s cottage in Scotland, where ‘the floor of their dwellings, consisting of the bare earth, always damp and swampy, was often filled with puddles; while a hole in the roof, which was thatched with turf, supplied the place of a chimney, and a cavity in the wall the light of a window’ (C&D, Volume 2, 46). The description of the cottages on Mull show how the other half of society live a simpler life but one where they appear happier than the rich people in their castles. Spence attributes the ‘cheerfulness with which they maintained so hard a lot, sprung from genuine piety’ (C&D, Volume 2, 54), to their religious upbringing, which helps them to be happy with their lot in life. Spence gives much more detail about working people’s homes than the rich. Perhaps she thought this was of more interest to her readers than the homes they were familiar with in the towns and who often possessed a romantic idea about country living.
The Romantics were interested in the idea of a simple life in the country but were unaware of how demanding living in the country could be. This is similar to the Renaissance Pastoral poets who wrote about shepherds and shepherdess spending their time wooing each other in the fields. These poets wrote about the countryside while living in the city and probably never visited or spent much time in the country. However, Spence gives a much more realistic account of how hard life can be outside the cities. This is probably due to her Scottish upbringing and her time spent travelling around the country. She shows the men working as fishermen and the women doing housework then weaving in the evenings and living entirely on a diet of ‘milk, potatoes, fish and oatmeal’ (C&D, Volume 2, 42). This would be much more basic than most of her readers were used to. Spence does not shatter the illusion completely as she illustrates the idea of the perfect pastoral country cottage in The Wedding Day. This white-washed cottage is set in a scene ‘of picturesque and pastoral objects’ (WD, Volume 3, 149). Here, Spence is showing through Augusta what it is like to live out the dream of a simple life. This world is a dream because unlike the villagers Augusta has money, which she uses to benefit the children at the local school and help the poor. If the simple life that the villagers live is so good then why do they need a benefactress? This illustrates how country living is not as perfect as it is portrayed and thought of. It is only the pastoral dream of the wealthy who can afford to spend time just walking and admiring it, instead of having to work long and hard in the fields to make enough to survive on. However, throughout her novels Spence follows in the tradition of the pastoral poets of promoting the countryside and applying it to the successful Romantic idea of experiencing the country.
Spence uses familiar successful storylines in her novels as a way of making them popular with her readers in order to make a living from her writing. Turner writes about women who wrote as a means of earning money at a time when there were few job opportunities for women. She mentions that ‘Elizabeth Isabella Spence, a physician’s daughter, who avoided destitution by publishing novels and travelogues’ (Turner, 1994, 61), and her books appear to have given her a readership. As the critic in the Monthly Review points out her previous books had made her known to the users of the circulating libraries. As Turner says, ‘Circulating libraries were undoubtedly an important force behind the growing demand for women’s fiction’ (ibid, 134), which led to more women of different classes reading novels. By using a well known formula for her novels, Spence was hoping to acquire more readers. Spence uses a well known storyline in The Curate and his Daughter, where she uses nearly the same plot as Frances Burney’s novel Evelina, which was written in 1778. Both Burney and Spence begin with a protagonist who has unknown parents and lives with a curate. Like Evelina, Spence’s protagonist Matilda is sent to live with a rich relative where there is concern about her moral well-being when she moves to London. Both are troubled by their parentage but after many adventures and meeting unsuitable suitors, they find their estranged parents, who settle an inheritance on them allowing them to marry the man of their choice. It is not only the plot that she takes from Burney but a similarity in the names of her characters. For instance Burney uses ‘Orville ‘and Spence ‘Clairville’ for the name of their protagonist’s husbands to be. There are also similarities in her other novel The Wedding Day, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre but this was written later in1847. Jane Eyre, like Spence’s Augusta runs away after an abortive marriage and spends time wandering the countryside until she finds a cottage to live in. They both spend time as a school teacher in a village school and feel happy to be left where they are until they are called back by the men they love. Both receive an inheritance from a relative enabling them to feel equality with the men they marry. This illustrates how Spence was using popular plots and themes of the time to make her books commercially successful.
Spence also uses the tradition of having an orphan as the heroine in The Curate and his Daughter but she gives it a twist by Augusta finding both her estranged parents, reuniting them and gaining her position in society. Whereas Burney’s heroine Evelina only finds her father and Bronte’s Jane Eyre only finds her cousins and both receive an inheritance. Elliot says ‘the orphan’s classless status simply emphasizes the position of women in society…she becomes a metaphor for the position of any woman in society’ (Elliot, 1992, 97). This is how Spence uses her supposed orphaned Matilda to show how a woman’s status in society is determined by her parents and how important that knowledge is. The reader believes Matilda to be an orphan at the beginning of The Curate and his Daughter, when the curate dies and she is put into the guardianship of the wealthy Dowager Countess of Seyntaubyne. The problems with her background are highlighted when questions are asked by Dashwood, who will not propose until he knows her parentage. Spence is illustrating that a woman’s background can affect her marriage prospects. It is only after assurances from the Countess that he continues his interest in Matilda. Spence uses Matilda’s unknown background to add mystery to the novel but throughout she gives the reader signposts as to her history. It is the many references to Matilda’s resemblance with the other Seyntaubyne family members that alerts the reader to her parent’s identity. When Matilda hears about the woman recluse who ‘made her appearance on this lake almost nineteen years ago’ (C&D, Volume 3, 27) and Matilda has just passed her eighteenth birthday, the reader can predict that she is going to be her mother who disappeared and was believed dead. Spence uses travel to take Matilda on a journey to discover who her parents are and solve the mystery of her birth.
However, unlike Burney who focuses on the domestic scene and city life moving between London and Bath, Spence uses a much larger canvas for her novels than just confining them to the large cities. We are not given detailed visits to the opera or drawing room scenes nor conversations at dinner; the reader is usually only given an outline of a dinning or ball scenario. The photographic descriptions are saved for the travelling episodes or walks in the countryside. Spence brings a panoramic atmosphere where you can almost see the mountains or hear the river and smell the sea. The novels move quickly from one location to another before the reader becomes bored with the current situation. Often it is like being in a moving carriage as the scenes pass by the window. Her characters inhabit a wide variety of scenes from the domestic to the mountains of Scotland and even foreign travel to Portugal and Italy in The Wedding Day. Spence uses the city of Naples as the place where the Duchess meets her elderly husband and Norbury. Although she writes about Naples as giving ‘the idea of Arcadia’ (WD, Volume 2, 30) she does not give a detailed description as she does of Scotland but says it is ‘a scene that requires the pen of a Radcliffe to do it justice’ (WD, Volume 2, 31). Spence has not the experience of Italy to give it the narrative it deserves and feels someone else could improve on her representation of Naples. Spence can only relate the classical view of Naples as a beautiful place with music being played by harps. Of Lisbon in Portugal, Spence gives a very scant account of Augusta entering the city, which ‘though populous, dirty, the streets very narrow, and little air of comfort in its general appearance’ (WD, Volume 3, 33). This is in contrast to her entering Monmouthshire the Welsh scenery did ‘open upon her; though much of its sublimity was lost by the soft luxuriance of its cultivation on the borders of the majestic Wye’ (WD, Volume 3,149). Spence is much more in tune with the British countryside than foreign places. It is in writing these accounts of English journeys that she can let go her feelings and sensibilities.
Spence uses travel as a plot device, which enables her to incorporated unusual events in her novels. This is highlighted in The Wedding Day when by having Augusta travel to Portugal with her aunt, whom she then quickly kills off, enables Augusta to be shipwrecked onto the Irish coast near where Fitzalbert lives. The Monthly Mirror of 1807 said ‘The shipwreck of Augusta, in Ireland, is well imagined and well managed’ (The Monthly Mirror, 1807, 187) and this is true but it is a contrived event to bring Augusta and Fitzalbert together from distant countries so they can continue with their courtship. The shipwreck has Spence’s Augusta battling with the elements of the sea where she ‘gave herself into the hands of the Almighty’ (WD, Volume 3, 68). Here Spence shows nature at its most violent, which is in contrast to the healing forces of the countryside. This type of nature is attributed to the work of God not nature and shows the other side of travelling. Sea travel is depicted as dangerous, where your life can be put at risk, and is in contrast to the calm journeys taken on land. The sea journey is not described in great detail unlike the coach journeys’ her protagonist takes. It shows a difference in mood from the quiet peacefulness of the countryside to the noisy violence of the sea. Spence shows this difference through Augusta’s feelings by the sea journey, as spending time in ‘anxious solitude’ (WD, Volume 3, 66), whereas the coach journey’ animated her spirits’ (WD, Volume 1, 10).
The shipwreck is a way for Spence to include scenes of adventure into her novel where her heroine is swept along by a force of nature metaphorically into the arms of her intended husband. Shipwrecks and hazardous seas where people feel the full force of nature can be found in many Romantic poems. Spence’s Augusta is similar to Amelia Opie’s ‘The Despairing Wanderer’ who is also at sea in a storm having a near death experience and is ‘Distresses, distracted, lost, like me’ (Opie,1996, 97, line 26), which is similar to Spence’s Augusta who is left alone after the death of her aunt in Portugal. She is sailing back to England and is caught in a storm. Like Opie’s protagonist Augusta feels her life is drifting now she is alone and unsure of what her destiny will be. The sea is also shown as a destructive force in The Curate and his Daughter, when a son appears lost at sea causing a mother great anguish. However, the sea also brings him back, which allows Matilda to meet Albert Clairvile when he unexpectedly returns while Matilda is nursing his mother. Like Augusta it is ‘the merciful goodness of a gracious Providence guiding you amidst such perilous seas with his protecting shield, and conducting you in safety’ (C&D, Volume 1, 11). Albert is brought back after a near death experience at sea into the loving arms of his family, which is similar to Augusta who is brought to the door of Fitzalbert after they parted without saying good-bye. The sea is shown as a place of dramatic events and dangerous journeys where brushes with death take place, which give a cathartic feeling of life reborn.
Spence uses a duel as a dramatic event to halt the wedding of Augusta and Fitzalbert. The Monthly Mirror said ‘there is a novelty in this part of the story’, which is a fair comment as a duel is an unusual event in a novel of this period. It comes as quite a shock when Fitzalbert ‘sent the challenge to Mr. Norbury’ (WD, Volume 3, 154), without listening to an explanation from Augusta as to why Norbury is on his knees kissing Augusta’s hand. Throughout the novel Spence makes much of Fitzalbert’s jealousy in order to bring her main characters to this point of his jealousy causing the cessation of their intended marriage and a duel. She highlights Fitzalbert’s ‘sensations of the most poignant jealousy and suspicion’ (WD, Volume 2, 85), and uses the Duchess of Pemberton who says ‘the Irish are by nature passionate, vindictive, and jealous’ (WD, Volume 1, 191). Spence uses this comment to characterise Fitzalbert as a jealous man, early on in the novel, which sets the scene for the duel in volume three. The critic from the Monthly Mirror rightly points out that ‘perhaps Fitzalbert ought to have shown more instances of jealousy to excuse his irritability on “the wedding day”’. Here Spence does more telling than showing as to the extent of his jealousy and it is not until Fitzalbert commits the wounding of Norbury that the reader is aware to what extremes this jealousy will lead.
However, the duel could be seen as an excuse by Spence, to take her protagonist to Wales to enable her to include descriptions of the Welsh countryside and attractions in her novel. Without the duel Spence could have given Augusta a traditional Scottish wedding surrounded by her family and friends, instead the duel means this wedding is cancelled. It is the duel that makes Augusta run away from her family because she feels disgraced by Fitzalbert’s violent action against a visitor to the house. Norbury is only badly injured but Fitzalbert feels disgust at his actions and releases Augusta from her engagement to him, retreating to his native Ireland. When Augusta does finally marry Fitzalbert it is a quiet wedding in Wales. Spence called her novel The Wedding Day but the reader is never given a detailed account of a wedding day, which is expected from the title. Spence only gives the reader a small wedding in a Welsh country church, which is helped to give a romantic setting by the villagers who ‘scattered flowers’ along the path as they walked up to the church. It was ‘with an unaffected piety, and dignified solemnity, the ceremony was performed; and in the neat tranquil church of Llangatrock’ (WD, Volume 3, 205). Spence only uses this sentence to describe the marriage of Augusta and Fitzalbert but sets it in a romantic and pastoral scene of the countryside. By allowing the marriage to take place after Fitzalbert’s behaviour, Spence is showing the positive aspects of forgiveness and she gives a moral lesson when she writes that:
Spence combines the new travel guides with the older conduct books to encourage ladylike behaviour, where virtue is rewarded. She uses the concept of the conduct books which follow in the tradition of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded, where following a moral upbringing will bring rewards. This is highlighted in her novels whereshe allows the good characters to marry the men of their choice whilst the disgraced character lives alone never seeing the man she wanted to marry. Good moral behaviour is illustrated in The Wedding Day by Augusta who tries throughout the novel to be virtuous and morally correct by following the wishes of her brother not to stay with or meet the disgraced Duchess of Pemberton. As the Monthly Mirror says:
Most of Spence’s contemporary reviewers’ mention the morality of her novels because of her family connection to the Rev. James Fordyce who gave sermons on female morality. Throughout her novels between the descriptive travelogues Spence also gives sermons on morality and good behaviour. In The Curate and his Daughter, she uses the character of Dr. Arundel, a clergyman to give moral guidance and lessons in behaviour to Matilda. It is through his tutelage that she will ‘possess also with it her piety and humility of mind; with equal virtue and fortitude to resist temptation, however splendid its allurements’ (C&D, Volume 1, 5). Matilda is shown as flourishing under his strict rules of ‘prayers at eight o’clock every morning’ and ‘the regularity of her hours’ (C&D, Volume 1, 6), illustrating how a life of prayer with no entertainment can be beneficial to your health and well being. Spence reiterates how a moral lifestyle is beneficial in The Wedding Day by moving Augusta from the disciplined home of the Irvines’ to the informal home of the disgraced Duchess. Spence describes Lord Irvine as a man who ‘went to church twice on Sunday in his family coach and had prayers every morning and evening. Yet with all, he was cheerful, and liked to promote the amusements of young people’ (WD, Volume 1, 137). She contrasts this with the Duchess who does not get up until one o’clock spends the afternoon visiting acquaintances, going to the opera in the evening and coming home late at night but is unhappy at her lack of real friends and leaves Augusta to her ‘own avocations’ (WD, Volume 2, 123). However, Augusta feels that ‘one week spent with the Duchess of Pemberton, did not make up more than one whole day in length, spent with the Irvine family’ (WD, Volume 1, 123-124). Spence shows through Augusta’s reaction to living in this more relaxed household that a religious organised way of life is the way to happiness.
Although Spence’s uncle was a preacher, she does not bring religion into her novels. Nature is not God made and there are only two references to church attendance. However, Spence does give moral lectures throughout her novels and often steps out of the novel to do this. She gives advice on how women should behave and what happens if this is not followed:
Throughout both these novels Spence shows that travel can help to sort out problems and lead to a desirable conclusion. Both novels have characters who run away at stressful times because the feel they have disgraced their families. They feel that by isolating themselves from society it is a way of paying penance for the deed they have committed. This can be seen in Spence’s character Anna Trevanion in The Curate and his Daughter. This character is abducted by Lord Seyntaubyne after refusing to elope with him on the pretext of him marrying her. It is when she realises he has married her under a false name she was:
Travel is used by Spence as the background to both these novels as a means to take the reader on a journey either in the country or an educational one of how virtuous behaviour can be rewarded. Spence writes in the romantic genre of the period taking inspiration from her native Scotland and her documented travels around Wales. There is much similarity between her descriptions of the countryside and Romantic poetry as both contain the sublime and nature as a healing force. Her storylines especially The Curate and his Daughter are very reminiscent of what has been written before by popular authors such as Burney and Richardson, but The Wedding Day does contain some originality in the duel and the shipwreck. Spence also follows in the tradition of the conduct books but although she was related to Rev. Fordyce there is not a strong religious element to her novels. Spence was writing as a means to earning a living and needed her novels to be profitable. To this aim she wrote novels containing successful themes in an entertaining way, which were popular with the circulating libraries of the day and appear to have financed her lifestyle.
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Mumbles Train, World’s first railway service.
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