Contemporary Critical Reception of Melbourne and The Enchantress or Where Shall I Find Her by Laura Martin
The contemporary critical reception of Mrs Martin’s Melbourne (1798) and The Enchantress (1801) was essentially positive. As William Lane’s Minerva Press published Mrs Martin’s novels, it is surprising that her novels were so well received by contemporary reviewers. Blakey suggests that the majority of Minerva novels are ‘completely expurgated of all the higher qualities of mind’ (Blakey, 1939: 2). They were identified with cheap fiction and often described as ‘the trash of the circulating libraries’.
However, despite the reputation of Minerva novels, The Critical Review wrote a praiseworthy account of Melbourne in September 1799. It commends the well drawn, interesting characters, which Mrs Martin portrays: ‘ much useful delineation of characters and manners’ (The Critical Review, 115). The critic also applauds the realism of the characters depicted in Melbourne: ‘The contrast of dispositions which is often exhibited in young persons of the same age, is well painted by the author of this novel’. The Monthly Magazine also commented on the ‘interesting personages’ in Melbourne (Monthly Magazine, 1053). Likewise, The Enchantress was praised for its ‘well-sketched’ characters in a review in The British Critic, 1801.
The reviewers congratulated Mrs Martin’s attempt at narrative realism. The British Critic, in relation to The Enchantress states, ‘The incident on which the fable turns is romantic, but is rendered as probable as the case will allow, by the well-sketched agents who conduct it’. Another aspect which critics also found noteworthy, especially in Melbourne, was the didactic elements of the novel. The Critical Review, in its analysis of Melbourne comments that ‘many of its sentiments inculcate the soundest principles of moral utility’. Similarly, The Monthly Magazine, states that this novel ‘inculcates very sound principles of morality’.
The Critical Review praises Melbourne for its ‘excellent thoughts on education’ and the interesting narrative and characters employed. However, the reviewer suggests that the basic plot of an orphaned hero finding parentage of high rank and fortune is unoriginal. He also notes that the characters are ‘interesting if not original’. These sentiments are too expressed by The Monthly Magazine, which suggests that Melbourne cannot ‘boast of originality of story’.
Thus, both texts are congratulated on the articulation of characters and the realistic portrayal of realism. Although there are criticisms about the originality of the story line in Melbourne, the overall discourse is positive and the novel, as The Critical Review phrased it, ‘deserves the applause of criticism’.
The British Critic also commented on Mrs Martin’s other works: ‘The writer before us is known by several productions, all of them deserving the praise of excellent intention and not inadequate execution’. Jeannette, written in 1800, did receive a positive review in The Critical Review, with praises similar to that of Melbourne and The Enchantress. However, Deloraine, Mrs Martin’s first novel published in 1798, received a relatively negative review. It is criticised for mediocrity, feebly sketched characters and for containing improbable events. These aspects are exactly what Mrs Martin’s subsequent novels are praised for. She obviously learnt from her mistakes, therefore carrying on to produce novels of a much higher quality, which were commended by the critics.
As Melbourne and The Enchantress received such positive reviews, it is likely that they were also well received by the reading public.
Blakey, Dorothy, 1939, The Minerva Press, 1790-1820, Oxford University Press.
The Critical Review, September 1799, p115 (Melbourne)
The Monthly Magazine, Supplement V8, Jan 1800, p1053 (Melbourne)
The British Critic, April 1801, p435-6 (The Enchantress)
The Critical Review, March 1801, p356 (Jeannette)
The Critical Review, November 1798, V24, p356 (Deloraine)