Mrs Martin: A female Author of Male-Centred Novels
Mrs Martin’s Melbourne and The Enchantress or Where Shall I Find Her: A Critical Dissertation by Laura Martin 2000.
The eighteenth century saw the rise of the novel. Within the first half of the century, the three great novelists of the period, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollet were well established and described as the most prolific writers of their time. However, the mid to late eighteenth century saw a significant increase in female writers. Tompkins, in her analysis of the popular novel in England suggests that ‘before a generation is over, women of all ranks are writing’ (Tompkins, 1932: 119). Although female writers were not confined to the novel, it was the form that most women chose to adopt. Therefore, throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, the novel increasingly became regarded as a more feminine form. However, both male and female writers were still in abundance, thus resulting in a significant increase in the publication of novels. By 1790, because the form of the novel was so well established, concerns arose about the lack of originality and creativity displayed in these fictions. The Monthly Review in August 1790 complained that ‘the manufacture of novels has been so long established, that in general they have arrived at mediocrity …we are indeed so sickened with this worn-out species of composition, that we have lost all relish for it.’ (Tompkins, 1932: 5).
Mrs Martin, although adhering to popular themes of the period, attempted to subvert the generic conventions of the novel in a variety of ways. As a female novelist, what is most striking in Mrs Martin’s Melbourne (1798) and The Enchantress or Where Shall I Find Her (1801) is the focus on the male and the masculine. Both novels are centred essentially around a male hero and discuss issues predominately seen as the reserve of males, such as philosophy and university education. Other distinctive aspects within these novels are the integration of different literary forms and Mrs Martin’s self- assertive style of writing.
Mrs Martin’s original approach of both form and content may have been an attempt to secure a wider audience for her novels. Through her intelligent style and emphasis on the masculine, Mrs Martin could have been aiming to attract a male audience as well as a female one, in order to gain a higher level of recognition. She clearly had high aspirations, compared to that of more conventional female Minerva authors. As all Mrs Martin’s novels were published by the Minerva Press, there is little doubt that she wrote for financial gain. However, the persona she chose to adopt was very different to that of a struggling female Minerva novelist. Her self-assertive intelligent tone and emphasis on the masculine seem to indicate that she chose to assume a more male, intellectual persona. She also chose to incorporate elements of the genteel and didactic novel, perhaps to ensure a more positive critical reception of her fiction.
William Lane founded the Minerva Press in 1773, and it became ‘the greatest single manufacture of fiction during the period’ (Blakey, 1939: 3). Lane set up circulating libraries around Britain, where the public could for a small fee borrow books. However, such books had a negative reputation and were often labelled as ‘the trash of the circulating libraries’. Very few Minerva writers are known today. This is partly due to its denigrated reputation, but probably mainly as a consequence of the anonymity of Minerva writers. Blakey, in her critique of the Minerva Press, explains that ‘the majority of Minerva authors were women’ (Blakey,1939: 48). Thus, there is an assumption that, ‘as women liked to read what women had written’ (Tompkins, 1932: 120), it was mainly females who visited circulating libraries and enjoyed Minerva fiction. However, Kelly argues that ‘in fact research indicates that there were as many men as women patrons of circulating libraries’ (Kelly, 1989: 7).
Primarily, I will explore the ways in which Melbourne and The Enchantress are centred around the male and how this may have been an attempt to attract the male sector of the circulating libraries. I shall also investigate whether there are any underlying, indirect discourses about gender, which Mrs Martin tried to convey through her narratives . Within this discussion, it will be necessary to discuss the representations of women, what role they play within the narratives and to what extent they adhere to female stereotypes. I shall also refer to Mary Poovey’s ideal of the ‘Proper Lady’ to identify the extent to which Mrs Martin adheres to this image. I shall then proceed to analyse the ways in which Mrs Martin draws upon different techniques of narrative form and approach to enhance her unique literary style.
During this period it was common for women authors to write about the experiences of women. For example Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, and many Minerva novelists wrote heroine-centred novels. Mrs Martin’s Melbourne and The Enchantress, however, differ in that they are centred around a single male protagonist. Melbourne is the story of Harry Melbourne, an orphan, and his experiences from childhood to marriage. Although the narrative is written mainly in the third person, the use of free indirect discourse ensures that we are almost always positioned from Melbourne’s point of view. This is also true of the hero in The Enchantress, Sir Phillip Desormeaux. The reader experiences the hero’s feelings, anxieties and motives, and we are very rarely subject to a female point of view. Tompkins has suggested that:
The world that women set out to depict is a limited one. Its centre is at the home. It is dependent on an obscure male world. . .which its occupants can seldom envisage. It has often been remarked that Austen’s novels contain no scenes between men…the abstinence is typical. Man is seen in his domestic aspect. (Tompkins, 1932: 128).
Mrs Martin subverts these conventions of the typical female novel through her emphasis on male conversation and friendship. In Melbourne, the world that is depicted is male, but certainly not obscure. The reader follows Melbourne through his educational experiences both at Eton and Cambridge and through his relationships with both males and females. The emphasis on male friendship is especially significant. Melbourne’s closest friend throughout the novel, is Lord George Montague, who he first meets at Eton. When the other boys are ridiculing Melbourne under the influence of his benefactor’s sons (Edmund and George Macartney), Lord George helps Melbourne overcome the situation:
‘His situation would have been thoroughly wretched, had it not been for the friendship of Lord George Montague. . . he soon taught him the moments when to exert that spirit in his own defence and when to repel impertinence with disdain’ (Martin, 1798: I.177).
Throughout Melbourne, this deep-rooted friendship remains. Even when they are apart, they ‘constantly correspond’ (Martin, 1798: I.204). They attend Cambridge together, go travelling together and even fall in love with the same woman, Julia Dalrymple. When this situation arises Melbourne keeps his true feelings for Julia hidden and is ‘determined to make a sacrifice of his love, both to love and to friendship’ (Martin, 1798: II.25). When Lord George’s parents force him into a marriage with Lady Susan Dermer, Melbourne helps him to conquer his feelings for Julia. The reader is assured that Melbourne has no sinister motives, and that if there were any hope between George and Julia, ‘he would be the first to assist that hope, he spoke in perfect sincerity, and would have actually sacrificed his own happiness to secure that of his friend’s’ (Martin, 1798: II.122). Melbourne also helps Lord George to realise Lady Susan’s shining qualities, which consequently results in Lord George falling in love with her.
However, it is not only the emotional sphere by which these characters depend on one another. Lord George helps Melbourne financially, by donating money to Mr Searle, Melbourne’s guardian and tutor, who then is able to fund Melbourne through university. Also Melbourne and Lord George repeatedly discuss Melbourne’s choice of pursuing a theological career, ‘[Lord George] was not inattentive to Melbourne’s [career] interests’ (Martin, 1798: II.159). Their friendship is based on mutual understanding and deep feelings for one another. They support each other in times of need and discuss all aspects of life, for example love, feelings and career prospects. There seems to be no hesitation in the display of emotion between the two friends, or between Melbourne and his other male friends. For example, when he meets a gentleman called Davenport on his travels, and they share their troubles with one another, they ‘forever cemented the union between them’ (Martin, 1798: II.74). Further on in the narrative, Melbourne is able to express his deepest feelings to Davenport, as illustrated in the following letter:
‘Agitated and unable to sleep my dear Seymour, your anxious friend seeks
to restore composure to his heart by unbosoming his emotion to you…..Oh
Seymour! this morning bought me accidentally into the preference of her whom I have so long adored without a hope, I saw her, I conversed with her, I soothed her sorrows, I obtained a look – Oh that look!’ (Martin, 1798: II. 210).
This show of deep emotions, which verges on sensibility is rare between men in novels written by females of this period. It is more usual for women to dominate the emotional sphere. Even in Melbourne’s solitary moments, Mrs Martin conveys his heightened emotions to the reader:
Melbourne and Julia! the sound even from the lips of an unsuspecting boy, thrilled through his heart with a sort of rapture: and when he took leave of this sensible young friend, he embraced him with double tenderness for the
charming idea: and when alone in his apartment, amused himself with dwellings on sounds so delightful. (Martin, 1798: II. 55).
Both these recurring themes of male emotion and friendship also dominate The Enchantress. Sir Phillip and Colonel Monford are close friends and have been since their school days. ‘The Colonel Monford was a gay character, several years younger than Sir Phillip, for whom he felt the sincerest friendship’ (Martin, 1801: II.111). Again, they support each other in time of need, especially concerning relationships. For example, Sir Phillip helps Colonel Monford reunite with his long-lost love, Jessy. Like Melbourne, Sir Phillip too displays heightened emotional feelings, especially when he his dreaming of the women he is in love with:
He retired to bed to "sleep – perchance to dream", but for some hours he could do neither one nor the other: he could only mediate a visit to Miss Milward in the morning, plan speeches to inform her of his love, imagine her answers, and loose himself in an agreeable delirium. (Martin, 1801: 277).
This display of sentiment and passionate feeling between men is not totally unique of novels of the period. However, what is in Melbourne and The Enchantress, is the fact that there is very little sensibility or emotion between women, and that men are the main perpetrators of heightened emotions. This is especially unusual considering that the culture of sensibility was phasing out towards the end of the eighteenth century, as it was seen to be a contributory factor towards the outbreak of the French Revolution. However, this approach may have appealed to a female audience, who may have found the depiction of such elaborate male emotion interesting and original. There may also be an indirect feminist discourse at play here. Perhaps Mrs Martin was trying to illustrate that men have similar emotions to women, and therefore by indication, that women can also share qualities or characteristics with men, such as influential novel writing.
However, the emphasis on male friendships, the public sphere and conversations concerning career and education, may have also appealed to a male audience. At least, this may have been what Mrs Martin was aspiring to. It was well known that Mrs Meeke who wrote in the early years of the nineteenth century for the Minerva Press, and who centred her novels around a principal male hero, attracted the attention of Macaulay. He told his sister, Lady Trevelyan that he knew Mrs Meeke’s plots off by heart and which ‘were one just like another, turning on the fortunes of some young man of a very low rank of life who eventually proves to be the son of the Duke’ (Copeland, 1995: 79). As Melbourne has a very similar narrative plot, perhaps Macaulay would have enjoyed Melbourne with equal enthusiasm.
Tompkins suggests that men in novels written by women were usually, ‘seen in his domestic aspect as father, husband, son or lover’ (Tompkins, 1932: 129). Mrs Martin seems, to an extent, to subvert this convention, by portraying men in both the public and private sphere. For example, in Melbourne there is significant emphasis on Melbourne’s school and university education, and consideration of his pursuit of a theological career. However, the way women are portrayed and represented in Melbourne and The Enchantress is also a fundamental area, which deserves consideration. Women characters are few and far apart in Melbourne and The Enchantress, as the narratives are clearly male-dominated. When they do feature, they are mainly (except for the heroines, which I shall discuss later) confined to stereotypes or seem to have a certain function or role to play within the narrative. For example, in both novels there is an older female character, who is the object of ridicule. She is unattractive, but gets frustrated and jealous when the hero shows no attention or affection towards her. She is an object of scorn for the hero. In Melbourne this is Mrs Greville and in The Enchantress, Mrs Macfarlane. They are constantly contrasted with youthful, modest beauties, which further highlights their vulgarity. For example, in Melbourne, ‘the timid Arabella escaped just in time to avoid the keen glances of Mrs Greville’ (Martin, 1798: II.237). In The Enchantress, the narrator contrasts the appearance of Mrs Macfarlane and Jessy:
The crooked lady had a physiognomy as crooked as her shape and appeared considerably older than her dress had announced her to be. The younger lady had a face of the most perfect innocence. . .she was pretty, and had manners the most gentle, but extremely reserved. (Martin, 1801: II.12).
This contrast portrays the female characters who adhere to the ideal of the ‘Proper Lady’, positively. Mary Poovey, in her text, The Proper Lady and The Female Writer discusses an ideal of feminine propriety, which she argues women felt they had to conform to in the dominant patriarchal society in which they were living. Poovey discusses how Richardson and Defoe both used the technique of "doubling" their female characters, ‘pairing for example, the resigned, angelic Clarissa with the intractable Anna Howe’ (1984: 43). She suggests that eighteenth century female novelists also drew upon this technique to explore ‘direct actions forbidden to the more proper lady’ (1984: 43). Perhaps Mrs Martin did feel the need to adhere to the images of the feminine ideal, which as illustrated, she did through the use of "doubling" female characters.
However, there are contradictions at play in Mrs Martin’s novels. The majority of female characters are symbolic of female propriety: either they are portrayed as a ‘Proper Lady’ and therefore positively, or they do not adhere to rules of feminine propriety, and are therefore represented as negative. However, Mrs Martin did find subtle ways of discussing more radical issues and giving alternative representations of women. For example in The Enchantress, there is a female divorcee, Mrs Brundell, who has a strong friendship with the heroine and is portrayed positively:
Mrs Brundell . . . who had been often talked of, often blamed, but who defied the clack of the world, and lived her own way. She did as she pleased, and was at length so well known . . . She had in early youth, been separated from her husband, not for any misconduct, but on a plea. . .that of incompatibility of temper; and though young, handsome, and rich, the tongue of calumny had never blackened her character . . . the ease and drollery of her manner, the readiness of her conversation, and the general good humour of her character …Her expressions of kindness towards Miss Milward did her much credit in the eyes of Sir Phillip; and he felt a sort of affection towards the woman that could appreciate Josepha’s real worth.’ (Martin, 1801: II.206-7).
Gary Kelly in English Fiction of the Romantic Period, suggests that women could ‘participate in public life and national issues under the guise of writing ‘mere’ fiction or ‘only a novel’ (Kelly, 1989: 74). Mrs Martin’s novels, especially The Enchantress, are to a certain extent polemical. For example she does not condemn divorce, an issue deemed as inappropriate, therefore, taking a certain standpoint on an issue of controversial debate in contemporary society. This positive representation of an independent female divorcee may signify an indirect feminist discourse at play in The Enchantress.
Mrs Martin’s representation of heroines is also significant. Both Julia in Melbourne and Josephea in The Enchantress are strong-minded, intelligent women who lack sensibility or sentiment. Josephea in particular is conveyed as almost Sir Phillip's intellectual equal. Josephea is extremely self-assertive and verges on the argumentative side in their debates concerning physiognomy and vanity:
"Free from vanity!" exclaimed the lady; "I beseech you do not imagine it; I differ from the rest of the world, not in being without vanity, but in not being ashamed of it. Most people take infinite trouble to disguise and conceal that ever-busy principle; notwithstanding all their efforts and perhaps even the more for them, it will, dear vanity will betray itself. For my part, I let it act; I am convinced that it does, on the whole, more good than harm: and why, therefore, should I blush to possess a principle which is not only by common but, generally speaking beneficial to the whole species?"(Martin, 1801: 190).
The very fact that the heroine has this view on vanity is radical, and to a certain extent shows a degree of resistance against the ideals of the ‘Proper Lady’. As Poovey suggests: ‘women were encouraged to display no vanity, no passion, no assertive "self" at all’ (1984: 21). Thus, there is further evidence to indicate that there are indirect feminist discourses in Mrs Martin’s texts, especially The Enchantress, in which the heroine is intelligent and self-assertive.
As previously mentioned, there is a lack of females within both Melbourne and The Enchantress, in comparison to the quantity of male characters. This is especially prominent in terms of biological mothers. In Melbourne, it is not until the last few pages that Melbourne is reunited with his mother. Julia’s mother died after giving birth to her, and George, Edmund and Matilda’s mother died when they were young. We don’t encounter any biological mothers with their children until the very end of the novel. Therefore, none of the protagonists are brought up within a traditional family setting. For example, Melbourne’s principal guardian throughout his childhood is Mr Searle and Mr Macartney cares for his children and niece, Julia, single-handedly. In The Enchantress, Sir Phillip too is an orphan and Miss Milward’s guardian is her aunt. Perhaps, Mrs Martin was unwilling to portray negative images of mothers because, as Tompkins suggests, ‘writers in the main were unwilling to trench in any way upon the sacred idea of motherhood, and preferred to lay such trials to the account of an aunt or guardian’ (Tompkins, 1932: 165). Furthermore, absent mothers are conventions of the Gothic as are tyrannical fathers, which both Julia and Josephea have. The final volume of Melbourne especially draws upon elements of the Gothic, in that Julia’s father keeps her imprisoned against her will and beats her. Mr Montague, Melbourne’s father, describes him as ‘so violent, so atrocious a villain’ (Martin, 1798: III.304). Many Minerva novelists drew upon conventions of the female Gothic, in an attempt to follow a trend set by Ann Radcliffe in the 1790’s.
As illustrated above, it is clear that both Melbourne and The Enchantress are male-centred, in terms of content and gender representations. However, what is also interesting is the way Mrs Martin draws upon traditionally ‘male’ genres and narrative forms, which are interspersed with the more traditional ‘female’ conventions. As Tompkins explains, ‘during the ’eighties and ’nineties, however, we remark a growing interest in form among the better novelists’ (Tompkins, 1932: 330). In Melbourne, Mrs Martin draws upon generic conventions of the picaresque and the epistolary. Tompkins has highlighted the gender differentiation between these two forms, ‘The picaresque, the survey of manners, - these were the masculine preserves, and it was a long time before any women invaded them; but in the epistolary novel of domestic morals they were at home’ (Tompkins, 1969: 120). Mrs Martin subverts these traditional boundaries. Melbourne is clearly written in picaresque style, following a similar framework to that of Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). Chris Baldick in The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, describes the original definition of a picaresque novel as: ‘a novel with a picaroon. ..recounting his or her escapades in a first person narrative marked by its episodic structure and realistic low-life descriptions’ (1990: 168). However, it continues to define an advanced description, more common in eighteenth century literature:
In the looser sense now more frequently used, the term is applied to narratives that do not have a picaroon as their central character, but are loosely structured as a sequence of episodes united only be the presence of the central character, who is often involved in a long journey: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. (Baldick, 1990: 169).
In Melbourne, we are taken on a personal and physical journey through the life of the central character, Melbourne. We experience his childhood, education, friendships and personal relationships. Melbourne learns from his experiences, therefore improving in character and merit. Mrs Martin, in her opening chapters, informs the reader that there will be pitfalls on the journey but that these must be experienced to achieve a better situation:
let us agree to pass over, without disgust, the common, overgrown with furze, and the bog, ill-concealed by the rushes, in hopes that the winding road will hereafter shew us vast plains, covered with all the luxuriance of vegetation, all the variety of beauty, embellished in prospects with hill and dale, wood and water, palaces and cottages (Martin,1798: II.3).
Melbourne is not as risqué as Tom Jones and contains far fewer portrayals of human foibles and comic characters, however the basic structure still remains. Mrs Martin, like Fielding, addresses the reader directly in the initial chapters. For example, in the first chapter of the second volume, entitled ‘To the Reader’, she states, ‘Well, my good friend, we have now gone one stage of our journey’ (Martin, 1798: II.1). Like Fielding she also uses an analogy to discuss and describe the narrative, which is to follow. Whereas, Fielding uses a Bill of Fare,
‘Having premised thus much, we will now detain those who like our bill of fare no longer from their diet, and shall proceed directly to serve up the first course of our history for their entertainment.’ (Fielding, 1749: 31),
Mrs Martin uses an analogy of a coach journey, ‘The country through which we have agreed to travel together, is human life.’ (Martin, 1798: II.2). Mrs Martin also informs the reader that they will experience both the low-life as well as the good aspects of life within her novel, which is conventional of the picaresque,
‘Sometimes we may chance to be cordially received at elegant mansions, with all the splendour of a court…at others we may be forced to pass the night in a dirty hovel, among the rustics or beggars, surrounded by idle or low, vulgar or wicked company’ (Martin, 1798: II.2).
Fielding’s style and prose were observed and admired in Tom Jones, and it could be suggested that to a certain extent, Mrs Martin did attempt to imitate his style. Tompkins argues that,
‘[Fielding’s] prefatory chapters or more informal addresses to the reader on his principles and intentions are the outward signs of a growing critical spirit, ready to occupy itself with questions of method, though not yet ready to be solemn about them; and this critical spirit, of which the novel had so urgent a need is hardly found outside the school of Fielding’ (Tompkins, 1932: 38).
This ‘growing critical spirit’ is something that I think Mrs Martin does express to a degree, but which I shall discuss later in my analysis of her addresses to the reader.
Using a ‘male’ orientated genre suggests that Mrs Martin was attempting to attract a male audience.
As mentioned above, Mrs Martin combines the framework of the picaresque novel with elements of the epistolary. The epistolary form was seen as predominantly female. Even though Samuel Richardson initiated the trend with Pamela in 1740, many female writers since then drew upon this form, thought of as an uncomplicated style of novel writing:
‘[The epistolary form was] a new and unexacting literary form, hedged round by learned traditions, based on no formal techniques, a go-as-you please narrative, spun out in a series of easy, circumstantial letters, such as a young lady might write to a school friend.’ (Tompkins, 1932: 119).
Perhaps Mrs Martin was attempting to appeal to the female sector of her audience, by including this ‘female’ form, which was closely associated with sensibility. However, the epistolary form was becoming less popular in the 1790's.
In Melbourne, Mrs Martin also draws upon elements of Gothic, didactic and genteel novels. This combination of genres works to enhance Mrs Martin’s style and increase the originality of the novel’s literary technique, which I think was an aspect she aspired to. However, by using the latter elements from the Gothic, didactic, and genteel novel, Mrs Martin also wanted to adhere to her audience’s expectations.
The Enchantress differs in that there is not a mix of genres, however an incorporation of various literary styles is evident. Generically, The Enchantress is a ‘tale’. Kelly explains that ‘many of the prominent varieties of fiction just after 1800 took the generic name ‘tale’, and there was generally a concern by authors to affirm the realism or basis of their fictions in fact’ (Kelly, 1989: 72-3). This is evident in The Enchantress, as the narrator repeatedly remarks on the genuine nature of the tale, and refers to her narrative as a ‘true History’ (1801: 335). This is in comparison to Melbourne, where Mrs Martin directly informs the reader that her narrative is totally fictitious. For example in the preliminary chapter to the final volume, she describes herself as a ‘biographer of imaginary persons’ (1798: 7).
However, what both these texts endeavoured to do was to redeem the novel. Mrs Martin attempted this by inserting critical discussion within the narratives. Tompkins in her critique of the novel market, suggests that the better novelists were aware of the bad, and so would try to redeem the form. One way she suggests this was attempted was ‘like Courtney Melmoth in Family Secrets (1797), by interpolating reflective and critical dissertations’ (Tompkins, 1932: 27). As I have already mentioned, in the initial chapters of each volume of Melbourne, Mrs Martin addresses the reader, sometimes commenting on the narrative which is to follow, or at other times philosophising about certain issues such as vanity and the novel. For example, in Melbourne she incorporates mini essays, discussing the novel market and the critic. She points out the popularity of the novel and also literary critics’ derogatory reviews, ‘ 'tis we who tremble at those awful words, -unnatural – impossible – low – tedious – romantic! Yet no class of writers is so universally read’ (Martin, 1798: III.8). She draws upon Shenstone’s philosophy on human foibles to discuss such critics, ‘Shenstone says that a man sooner finds out his own foibles in another person then any other foibles. This must surely be the reason why everybody is ready to accuse others of vanity’ (Martin, 1798: III.3). Within these discussions, Mrs Martin is very self-assertive and shows hostility towards literary critics:
Of all persons, the living author, who presumes to offer his work to the public, is perhaps, the most obnoxious to universal hostility; - that he dares pretend to amuse, to instruct, to arrogate to himself more knowledge, more fancy, wit, or sentiment than his brethren, is an unpardonable offence; and every blockhead who can only just spell the words and put them together, thinks himself qualified to criticise the work, of which perhaps, he understands not a syllable. (Martin, 1798: III.4).
Mrs Martin’s sarcastic tone is quite unusual and clearly undermines the ideal of the ‘Proper Lady’. She also continues to inform the reader of why authors write:
‘Good people, pray recollect that an author writes more to ease an over-teeming brain, than to amuse and instruct the public, and if it be true, as moralists universally allow, that employment is necessary to happiness, there can need no excuse for writing a book’ (Martin, 1798: III.4-5).
This authorial voice of the narrator is extremely strong and self-assertive in both texts. Poovey suggests that by simply writing, female novelists were going against the grain of the ideal of the ‘Proper Lady’. This was because they were demonstrating that they had a voice, which was contrary to female propriety. This ideal was based on contemporary conduct books, such as Dr Gregory’s Advice to his Daughters, which conveyed the idea that women should be seen but not heard. They could join in male conversation, but only by nodding in agreement, thus they were not encouraged to have an opinion. Therefore, many female novelists, such as Eliza Parsons, pleaded poverty as a reason for writing, ‘assuring her patrons that inclination had no share in her feeble attempts to entertain the Public’ (Tompkins, 1932: 118). Janet Todd explains that if women wrote for money, it was seen as an ‘entirely praiseworthy pursuit’ (Todd, 1990: 2). However, Todd suggests that many women did write for enjoyment but that ‘few dared give enjoyment and ambition as reasons for publication, and the prefaces almost invariably declare sad necessity of one sort or another’ (Todd, 1990: 8). Although Mrs Martin did plead an excuse for writing her first novel, Deloraine (1798) in the preface, she expresses no need to plead an excuse for being a novelist, in these later texts. This is a radical approach for a female novelist as it undermines all notions of retaining the image of female propriety. Mrs Martin also defended the novel form. Todd argues that many novelists, such as Sarah Green and Elizabeth Inchbald, condemned their form or expressed their disinclination to novel writing, in an attempt to retain the ideal of the ‘Proper Lady’.
Throughout The Enchantress, Mrs Martin discusses human nature and motives, both in a direct authorial address to the reader and through the use of her characters. Her narrative is juxtaposed with chapters such as ‘An Essay on Language, Physiognomy &c.’ and ‘An Essay on Historical Writing’. Therefore, these literary techniques in both Melbourne and The Enchantress work towards creating a more masculine, intellectual persona. In the mid eighteenth century, women were criticised if they wrote in a masculine style, however, by the 1790’s reviewers were applauding female novelists who were ‘gradually taking a higher and more masculine tone’ (Tompkins, 1932: 124). However, this approach was still relatively rare and there was always a danger that women could be accused of becoming ‘most intolerably proud and self-consequential’ (Tompkins, 1932: 126).
Fortunately, Mrs Martin wrote in a dominant, self-assertive manner and still received positive reviews from the critics, who described her as having ‘intellectual ability’ (The British Critic, April 1801, 436). This may have been partly due to the fact that she tried to redeem her novels by allowing them to play a didactic function. For example, Melbourne clearly has a predominantly moral aspect. Mr Searle is the ‘moral standard’ of the text, by which other characters can be judged. Also, Mrs Martin, at the beginning of the third volume, tells the reader that although the main purpose of novel writing may be to ease an ‘over-teeming brain’, it is still possible for these texts to hold some moral instruction or education. For example she suggests that ‘it is always possible, even in fictitious narratives, to interweave some principles, some examples, some reflections which may render in some degree useful to the reader’ (Martin, 1798: III.5). Copeland, in his analysis of women writers and money, differentiates between the genteel novel, the didactic novel and the Minerva novel. He suggests that, in relation to employment in novels, ‘The genteel novel averts its face from employment; the didactic novel creates a mini-religion of it; the Minerva novel swallows its bitter pill.’ (Copeland,1995: 166). However, in Melbourne, there is little emphasis on money and employment, but when issues do arise, they are treated in a way more common in the didactic novel. In The Enchantress, Mrs Martin takes the path of the genteel novel, with references to employment being obsolete, as most characters depicted are of the gentry or aristocracy.
Thus, Mrs Martin’s texts seem to interweave elements of both the didactic novel and the genteel novel, in an attempt to redeem her books and to appeal to both her readers and the critics. Another device that Mrs Martin uses to redeem her novels, is the use of realism. Her novels were viewed as probable, as contemporary reviews indicate. For example, The British Critic, in relation to The Enchantress, states that, ‘The incident on which the fable turns is romantic, but is rendered as probable’ (April 1801: 436). Tompkins defines what literary critics deemed to be good writing:
‘[there was] complete unanimity among the critics as to some of the qualities that should distinguish this mode of writing. It should be instructive…it should have a variety of interesting incidents and well-supported characters; it should above all be probable’ (Tompkins, 1932: 19).
She was obviously very wary of the critical reception she may receive, as perhaps indicated by the fact that she wrote anonymously. This is also apparent in her discussions, criticising reviewers and defending the novel.
It seems clear that Mrs Martin was trying to create a unique literary form, by integrating various literary styles. Both texts do have elements of the Romance, and are essentially based around the emotional sphere. However, this integrating of genres and styles of those seen to be the preserves of males, is especially what makes Mrs Martin’s novels both intelligent and original, as well as the male-centred content. She subverts the idea that ‘intellectual and public activity was still associated with men and the emotions still associated with women’ (Kelly, 1989: 25).
Mrs Martin’s novels are certainly novels of ideas. They do not simply tell a story, but philosophise on human emotions, vanity and novel writing. It is not only in Mrs Martin’s direct authorial addresses to the reader in which she philosophises, but also through the use of the characters. For example, in Melbourne, Mr and Miss Searle have lengthy discussions about education, philosophising about the effects of both private and public schooling. In The Enchantress, Josephea and Phillip have meaningful discussions about vanity and physiognomy. Kelly, in his analysis of fiction in the Romantic period, discusses other such novels: ‘Philosophical novels or novels of ideas of the 1790’s, by writers such as Dr John Moore and Robert Bage’ (Kelly, 1989: 25). Robert Bage was one of the most prolific Minerva writers, who anonymously wrote Man As He is (1792) and Hermsprong; or Man As He Is Not (1796). It is interesting to note that in The British Critic, April 1801, a review of The Enchantress compared Mrs Martin and the author of Hermsprong. The critic describes an ‘amiable and unassuming female, whose life was passed in the tranquil pleasures of retirement’. It is then suggested that this type of character is ‘if we are rightly informed, the nameless author of Hermsprong. Such too, we believe is the author of the work which we now announce to the public’ (The British Critic April 1801,436). It is interesting that her work was compared to that of Robert Bage, a male novelist whose books were respected and popular with both the contemporary public and literary critics.
Although, as a Minerva writer, Mrs Martin was clearly writing for financial gain, she still seemed to have high aspirations. Her intellectual, authorial addresses to the reader, her unusual emphasis on the masculine and her exploration of various genres and styles indicates this. She did not simply want to give her readers what they expected: an unoriginal, conventional Minerva novel, but aspired to a higher level of recognition from both a male and female audience. Her attempts to draw in a male audience are evident through the content of her novels, the use of male genres, her literary style and the 'male' persona she adopts. Furthermore, in Melbourne, Mrs Martin actually assumes a male audience, 'If you are my good friend, either a botanist, a lawyer, a farmer, a painter, a grocer, or a man of taste ( and under one or other of these denominations surely almost all men are included' (Martin, 1798: II.3).
Yet she still did maintain conventional themes and gender representations, for example that of the 'Proper Lady', to a certain extent, in order for her novels to be acceptable, and therefore sell.
Mrs Martin is also the author of three other novels. To investigate the extent to which these are male-centred, and integrate different literary forms would be an interesting and worthwhile pursuit. Melbourne and The Enchantress received highly positive reviews, and although Mrs Martin isn’t named as one of Minerva’s favourites, she was probably reasonably popular in her day. The fact that she only wrote five novels over four years may have contributed to her obscurity in years to come. Perhaps if she had continued writing in a similar vein, she could have achieved a higher level of recognition as a nineteenth century writer.
Baldick, Chris, 1990, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press
Blakey, Dorothy, 1939, The Minerva Press, 1790-1820, Oxford University Press.
Copeland, Edward, 1995, Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820, Chicago University Press.
Fielding, Henry, 1996, Tom Jones (1749) Ed. John Bender and Simon Stern, Oxford University Press
Kelly, Gary 1989 English Fiction of the Romantic Period, Longman, London and New
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