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Corvey ‘Adopt an Author’ |
Elisabeth Pinchard
The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Modes of Didacticism in the Fiction of Mrs Pinchard: From Gothic to Children's Anecdotes

Christina Giova

Since the 1960s, feminist literary historians and critics have made considerable advances in identifying 'lost' works and in re-establishing their value, but it was only in the last decade that literary historians turned their attention to the newly discovered Corvey Collection. It is the purpose of this essay to look into the life and work of one of these forgotten authors: Mrs. Elisabeth Pinchard.

Mrs. Pinchard appears to have started her career as a writer of moral novels for the young but soon after that she addressed the adult readership as well by writing didactic novels. Her preference to moral writing reflects the eighteenth century's revolvement around a 'cult of sensibility' which stressed those qualities considered feminine during that time: intuitive sympathy, passivity and emotionalism (Turner, 1994, p10). In the case of children's writing, Mrs. Pinchard was also sensitive to the society's desire to form prudent children.

This essay will focus first on Mrs. Pinchard's novel The Ward of Delamere: A Tale, and then on her children's novel The Blind Child: or Anecdotes of the Wyndham Family. The aim of the critical essay is to analyse the modes of her didacticism in both these texts and reveal the similarities and differences presented by them. Focusing first on Mrs Pinchard's novel The Ward of Delamere, we find that it is a novel that employs a plot which is typical for its era. It is one of the many imitating the narrative of Samuel Richardson's path-breaking Pamela (1840). His novel was one of the first to focus on the presentation of a heroine that was noble-minded, kind and with a character that placed duty over everything else in life. Richardson's attempt to show his readership the correct moral values and behaviour affected most writers of that time and formed the basis of what came to be the didactic novel. As in Pamela, Mrs Pinchard creates a heroine, Magdalena, who faces a threatening moral danger. She is in risk of not being recognised as a legitimate child, but most importantly, of suffering her dead mother's name to be stigmatised as the bearer of an illegitimate child. Magdalena has to obey her ward's wish -to marry a suitor of his choice, even though she is in love with another man- in order to avoid these moral dangers and the additional punishment of being locked up in a secluded castle.

Magdalena faces the dilemma of following her moral duty over following her heart. At no point, however, will she stray away from her duty and she constantly repeats to herself -and for us to hear- that: "I dare not brave the horrors which have so long appalled me! My mother -If I bring down the dreadful vengeance of Lord Ennersdale upon my head, will it not be extended to her? Will not her fame be forever destroyed?" (Vol.1, p296). When Reginald, who wishes to marry her and whom she loves, proposes to her to escape with him, she answers disarmingly: "His [Lord Ennersdale's] I am, he says, by promise, his by inheritance; till I know how far those claims, ought to bind me, I cannot, dare not determine my own future conduct" (Vol.1, p298). We realise, therefore, that even in this early stage, where Magdalena is not even sure that her tyrannous guardian is indeed her grandfather, or what he means by saying that she belongs to him, she will play the part of a dutiful child, speaking with a determination about her 'future conduct' that none would expect from a sixteen year old girl. Reginald's entreaties to escape with him from her guardian to the safety of his own home are perceived by 'the wretched Magdalena' as an 'almost irresistible appeal; but as her heart softened and as she had almost yielded to his prayer, the stern figure of Lord Ennersdale rose again to her imagination' (Vol.1, p299). Temptation or desire never plays a role in Magdalena's decision making.

Such conversations and thoughts as shown above, appear repeatedly throughout the whole novel intensifying what Mrs Pinchard wants to present as a tremendous battle between duty and desire, a battle that always ends in the same way: duty being preferred, after careful reasoning that proves its undeniable superiority. Magdalena is to suffer heroically in order to save her dead mother's honour. She places her moral duty above her own happiness and agrees to obey Lord Ennersdale's wish, staying, as a result, away from the man she loves for the rest of her life. Only in the very last pages of the novel will her decisions, leading her to a bleak, miserable future, change by the unexpected arrival of her kind father who was so far considered to be dead.

This unexpected resolution is Mrs Pinchard's reward for her long-suffering heroine. In fact, Magdalena had often been rewarded for her correct behaviour from the very beginning of the novel. When, for example, Magdalena confesses that she is unable to betray her guardian, Reginald's thoughts are given to us: " Delighted as Montaubrey was with the excellence of Magdalena's heart, with the firmness of her principles, he yet saw her situation in a very different point of view" (Vol.1, p302). Such thoughts are intended to be interpreted by the reader as praise for Magdalena, while Reginald's 'different point of view' will be seen as egotistical and self-centred. Magdalena is a truly heroic figure, a martyr, fighting for what is correct and recognised by all as such, even by those who are to suffer the most as a result.

This form of didacticism, however, could prove overwhelming for a reader, if it is crudely presented. Mrs Pinchard, though, sensitive to her reading public's needs, carefully balances this didacticism with a variety of other forms of writing and a few underlying themes that are deployed to entertain and therefore enable the reader to read The Ward of Delamere without any feelings of dissatisfaction.

For the purpose of creating a more entertaining read, then, Mrs Pinchard employs strong elements of Gothicism and Romanticism in her novel. The Ward of Delamere belongs to the Gothic Romance sub-genre, which had proved to be one of the most successful at that time (Tompkins, 1965, p243). This most popular variety was dominated by Ann Radcliffe whose novels dealt with endangered heroines in a claustrophobic atmosphere (Baldick,1990, p92). Appearing during the later half of the eighteenth century, the Gothic Romance resembled the novel of manners in many respects since it employed extravagant characters and was often written in an elevated style.

From the very first pages of The Ward of Delamere we recognise the elevated style of writing that characterises most Gothic Romance fiction. The introduction of the setting employs a lofty language that perhaps, in Mrs Pinchard's case, reaches a level of redundancy in her attempt to create feelings of sublimity and awe. The walls of the castle, for example, are described as rising with 'majestic grandeur…commanding a view of varied beauty and sublimity', while the river Eden has its 'beautiful banks fringed with alders…losing itself behind the romantic mountains' (Vol.1, p1). But it is not long before the reader is introduced to the setting were most of the action is going to take place. As expected in a Gothic Romance, Magdalena is secluded, or rather, kept a prisoner in the 'grand' but 'cheerless' Delamere castle in front of which ' even the husbandmen, whose actual employments on the estate obliged them to pass through it, ceased their accustomed song' (Vol.1, p2-3). From the first pages of her novel, Mrs Pinchard evidently tries to pull readers into her narrative and make them feel at ease by offering an opening typical of a genre that had proven successful with the reading public of the first decades of the nineteenth century.

The reader's interest is heightened to a further degree when it is revealed that Magdalena's 'birth had been attended by circumstances of mystery and distress, and those circumstances the servants who remembered them had been strictly prohibited from ever mentioning' (Vol.1, p4). The claustrophobic Gothic atmosphere is completed with the prohibitions set upon Magdalena from talking to anyone in or out of the castle, from walking anywhere alone, having any friends, or reading anything except what Lord Ennersdale provided for her. As a small child, Magdalena was also forced 'to be serious and not smile, for he hated smiling conceited children' (Vol.1, p8).

It is in this environment, Mrs Pinchard's heroine will excel as a person and show from an early age that she is a sensitive and respectful child; a doubtful development since from her early age she had to face Lord Ennersdale's outbursts of hatred and violence, like this one that followed Magdalena's question of what her last name was: "His [the father's] name! -Accursed be his name! -…unless my will…be obeyed…Beggary and infamy shall be your portion'…with a mien and countenance distorted by rage…' (Vol.1, p6-7). Even under such circumstances, however, Magdalena becomes a perfectly obedient girl who is also surprisingly kind hearted and generous.

As mentioned earlier, The Ward of Delamere is enriched with a strong romantic element as well. Around the age of sixteen Magdalena will accidentally meet Reginald and create a friendship with him that develops in mutual love. Their love will be violently interrupted, however, as a result of the fact that Lord Ennersdale refuses to change his opinion about the man he believes she should marry. In this context, Mrs Pinchard will create many scenes of emotional intensity that are often taken to extremes of rapture, horror, melancholy or sentimentality, as for example is the scene from the second volume where Magdalena pleads with her lover: 'my word is pledged; my solemn promises are sealed in heaven! How often, oh, Montaubrey! How often must I conjure you not to tempt me! I am miserable, but I will not be guilty; my mother from her silent tomb, my father from his blood-stained grave, oh, horrible! Would rise to condemn me…' (Vol.2, p161-2). In fact, one could say that there is so much sensationalism in The Ward of Delamere that it provides an 'emotional orgy' for the reader to relish. Mrs Pinchard, evidently, has thoroughly exploited the reader's desire to be shocked or horrified in order to produce a successful form of entertainment.

We find thus, that The Ward of Delamere is a novel carefully crafted as a fusion of the popular romance, the successful Gothic and didacticism. Mrs Pinchard has created an equilibrium between these elements so that nineteenth century readers will be able to enjoy themselves without feeling the oppression of didacticism. Stripping the novel of its popular elements would clearly result in a highly oppressive work that would require much too great an effort by the reader to read till the end.

Looking closer into the didacticism of The Ward of Delamere, we find that not only is it full of didactic messages, but that many of them are illogical or unrealistic, aspiring to the creation of a character of inhuman morality. Magdalena, for example, respects, cares for, and tries not to be a cause of dissatisfaction for Lord Ennersdale, a guardian who is crueller than anyone could imagine, who deprived her of a happy childhood by creating an atmosphere of doubt and fear and who refuses her the right to make a happy life for herself. When her newly-found father saves Magdalena from a life of misery, the scene between her and Lord Ennersdale is remarkable: "…Begone!' exclaimed Lord Ennersdale in a voice almost inarticulate with rage…'Take her with thee if thou wilt, to beggary! And my every curse…". To these words Magdalena replies: "Even the re-appearance (as from the grave) of a father shall not prevent me from proving my love to you…But ah! My heart is torn between my duties and affections. My Lord! My dear Lord, will you not look upon me?". "No' exclaimed the furious Earl, and would have spurned her with his foot, had not her father snatched her from his knees' (Vol3, p213-6). But even after such a scene Magdalena will seek a reconciliation between her and the Earl.

Such a character would certainly be in agreement with contemporary critics' expectations about the creation of a 'correct' character. In her novel, Mrs Pinchard expresses the nineteenth century's demand for high morality. This desire to protect the reading public, that lasted for many more years, was expressed in The Dublin Review (Vol.16, 1886) that declared that: 'his [the author's] representations should be chaste, his sentiments pure, and his leading characters nobleminded and virtuous'. Stubbs also notes that: 'The object…which the writer of fiction should always hold in view is to exercise the fantasy in pleasant lawful subjects, to fill it with novel and happy images, and by this indirect as well as by direct appeal to the heart, so to temper and control, the passions as may be suitable to the formation of virtue and the expiration of vice' (Stubbs, 1974, p14). But even the inclusion of characters such as Lord Ennersdale and Mrs Matilda Arlington, could create problems for the reception of The Ward of Delamere since, according to The Spectator (Vol.58, 1885): 'the moral nature is exposed to contamination by prolonged imaginative companionship with the very evil against which the moral warning is directed' (Stubbs, 1979, p14). For such reasons, Mrs Pinchard, wanting to improve her readers and create a clear moral message for them, adopts crude devices of poetic justice and black and white characters, to complement the long didactic passages encountered throughout the novel that spell out the exceptional morals of her work.

An example of poetic justice is the end of Lord Ennersdale, who, having caused much misery, falls sick and dies soon after Magdalena is rescued by her father. Before that happens, however, Mrs Pinchard transforms this disturbed guardian into a penitent man on whom she draws heavily for her reflections on the passions of shame and contrition: 'Hitherto he [Lord Ennersdale] had heard with indifference and insensibility the holy doctrines of that pure religion, which made no allowance for his pride, and forbade his vindictive inflexibility. But the approach of death inspired new ideas' (Vol.3, p300). 'My only wish is to make you happy, and compensate, as far as possible, the evils I have brought upon you; to witness the felicity [of marrying Reginald] I have so long delayed' (Vol.3, p306). Miss Arlington, on the other hand, a minor character with such bad qualities as selfishness, insensitivity and evil-mindedness, is also treated with poetic justice at the closure of the novel: 'Matilda alone remained discontented and unhappy…Viewing with envy and affected disdain, the happiness she could neither enjoy nor injure, she continued a burden upon her friends, and a constant torment to herself' (Vol.3, p328).

Mrs Pinchard, however, does not limit her didacticism in the correct behaviour of characters interacting. Her desire to improve her readers extends to other fields as well. Charity is one such example. When Magdalena helps a poor family for the first time, she '…with tears of pleasure heard the first grateful blessing her charity had excited. 'oh!' she exclaimed, as they left the cottage; that I could spend my whole life thus! Surely, pain and sorrow would be unfelt, could we employ all our moments in doing good!" (Vol.2, p249).

Overall, we find that Mrs Pinchard's The Ward of Delamere is a Gothic Romance with a very strong didactic element. The Gothic elements of this novel are in agreement with the nineteenth century readers' preferences as this sub-genre of the novel was the most popular at the time. Mrs Pinchard manages to capture the reader's attention quite skilfully as she first of all writes in this particular style, but also creates a gripping plot, and gives a happy closure. Throughout the whole of the novel she exposes her heroine to situations that elicited admirable and moral responses from her. Magdalena is a character that, even when her own happiness and future is at risk, will follow the way of 'Duty and Reason'. Mrs Pinchard manages in this way to educate her readership and entertain as well.

The novel form, then, being the most widely read form of print in its time, apart from newspapers and magazines (Schellinger, 1998, p1127), is successfully used by Mrs Pinchard not only to entertain but, most importantly, to disseminate morals to her readers as well. As we have seen, she wished to instruct her readers upon a variety of topics, from conversation to courtship, from manners to emotion, and from social to domestic practices. The Ward of Delamere is a novel that harmoniously blends entertainment with moral values.

Turning our attention to Mrs Pinchard's The Blind Child (1791), we find that it clearly expresses conformity to the eighteenth century readers' expectations of what a children's novel should be. The Blind Child is a typical example of the eighteenth century moral tale, the author doing her utmost to cultivate true sensibility and fortitude in the hearts of the young. In her preface, Mrs Pinchard states that her 'principal aim…is to repress that excessive softness of heart, which too often involves its possessor in a train of evils, and which by no means is true sensibility' (Pinchard, 1791, p.iv). Her aim is expressive of the Evangelical revival, which profoundly affected the English life in the period from about 1780 onwards (Bratton, 1981, p14). All authors during that era had an avowed desire to teach. All children's fiction was governed by the author's moral and educational plan that created heavily didactic, utilitarian works (Bratton, 1971, p24). The Blind Child is no exception to this rule since the story's surface is more or less entirely covered with Mrs Pinchard's moral plan.

In accordance with the writing practices of all children's writers of the era -including Barbauld and Genlis whom Mrs Pinchard praises in her preface- Mrs Pinchard treats warily anything fanciful as a reaction to the fairy stories that dominated the field in the past and where now considered to be corrupting the children's sense of reality. The Blind Child's subject matter is domestic, consisting of little more than the relation of the daily events of the Wyndham family's life, emphasising the children's duties and misdeeds and their subsequent punishments and repentance.

Mrs Pinchard wishes in her preface to make her talents 'subservient to the cause of virtue', hoping that her passages 'may serve to awaken in the rising generation, that lively wish for goodness they are intended to inspire' (Pinchard, 1791, p.iv). For this purpose, Mrs Pinchard structured a story that is actually a series of incidents, each of which is designed to teach a lesson and attempt to improve the children's morality and knowledge. The first instance of didacticism takes place as soon as the introduction of the Wyndham family is completed. From that point on, narration and plot are neglected and Mrs Pinchard focuses on the creation of a sequence of scenes, joined by sketchy transitions, that give rise to various discussions aimed at the children's improvement. The young readers of The Blind Child will thus read, for example, about how good looks is of second-rate importance, how the Wyndham children should always care for the blind Helen and be considerate of her disability and the restrictions it places upon her, or how cruelty to animals is not a form of entertainment.

Mrs Pinchard's emphasis on 'true sensibility' in the preface is clearly demonstrated in the work that follows. Mrs Wyndham herself will first be the first example for her children. Her best friend being very sick, she will 'return in the evening, grave, but not melancholy; her affection for her husband and her children will not allow her to render them uncomfortable…this was true sensibility, very different from that false and importunate feeling in which weak minds are so apt to indulge themselves' (Pinchard, 1791, p52-3). The high importance of 'true sensibility' is proven at the end of the novel when the surgeon who operated on Helen's eyes congratulates Emily: '…he bestowed on Emily the highest praises for her united sensibility and fortitude she had shown. 'this', said he, 'is true sensibility; in the course of my practice I witness so much…exaggerated feeling…But you, my dear Miss Wyndham, have reconciled me to it, since I perceive you make it assistant to, not destructive of, your duties' (Pinchard, 1791, p172-3). Mrs Pinchard, then, as in the case of The Ward of Delamere, uses praise and reward to instil into her readers the importance and correctness of appropriate behaviour. Contrasting this with the harmful effects the lack of such behaviour creates for the reader a complete picture of the benefits of correct behaviour.

However, comparing The Blind Child with The Ward of Delamere, we find that Mrs Pinchard does not try to make her children's novel as entertaining. The Ward of Delamere, as we saw, made use of the popular Gothic genre to capture the readers' attention. The Blind Child, on the other hand, only focuses on the didactic element at the expense of the plot of the narrative. The simplicity and lack of structure of this story inevitably make it a much less entertaining piece of work. Yet, as E.V. Lucas wrote in the early twentieth century, 'the children of those days…expected didacticism…[they] were still the immature young of man; they had not been discovered as personalities, temperaments, individuals' (Carpender, 1999, p359). Such publications, therefore, did please young readers (or, at least, their parents) as is also evident from the number of editions that were printed of many of them. Mrs Pinchard's The Blind Child edition used here is in fact the tenth, something that proves this novel to have been very successful despite its weaknesses.

The only attempt made by Mrs Pinchard to raise the quality of her story was the inclusion of a fairy tale that is given to Emily to read. This act opposes the literary conventions of the time that were also followed Barbauld and Genlis; the latter having attacked fairy stories as entertaining 'ridiculous ideas' and lacking any 'moral tendency' (see preface and Carpender, 1999, p201). Two factors were basically responsible for such hostile treatment of the fairy story: 'a concern to teach children the 'true religion' of Christianity, and therefore not to bring them up in superstitious beliefs and also the notion that the children were frightened or puzzled by the tales of the supernatural' (Carpender, 1999, p58).

Such beliefs evidently make Mrs Pinchard treat her fairy story 'Elfrida, or the Mirror', quite warily. The story is given to Emily to read for a specific purpose and not for entertainment. It is meant to explain the error of wanting to know what Providence has kept unknown. Most importantly, the reading of this story takes place after the younger children have gone to bed. The reason, as explained by Mrs Wyndham, was 'the difficulty which such young minds would have had to separate the fiction from the truth of the story' (Pinchard, 1791, p139). This position is in accordance with Locke's advice to parents. He recommended that children should not be allowed to hear tales about 'Sprites and Goblins' until they were old enough to disbelieve them (Carpender, 1999, p58).

As was the case with The Ward of Delamere, then, Mrs Pinchard conforms to what is expected of her as a writer and will excuse her acts of non-conformity either by using poetic justice, as was the case with The Ward of Delamere, or by explicitly stating the dangers involved, like we saw with the inclusion of the fairy story. In this way, Mrs Pinchard manages to create the strong didactic effect that she wants, without having to oppose the critics. An interesting point to be made is the fact that Mrs Pinchard seems to be addressing in her preface the parents more than the children. This could mean higher sales for her novel since it would be the parents who would buy the book. However, a close look of the story reveals the fact that Mrs Pinchard intends to educate the parents as much as the children. Her didacticism then, in the case of children's fiction, addresses two audiences: the children and the parents. What she has to say to parents is relevant to the parents' correct upbringing of children. Mrs Wyndham, for example, will seize every opportunity to teach a lesson to her children and will punish them not by violence, but by depriving them of something of importance to them, like a book or an outing. Most importantly, Mrs Pinchard emphasises the fact that the parents must set the correct example. Mrs Wyndham highlights this point by saying to Emily: 'Do you believe, that without better advice and example, you should have been better than Miss Sidney [an ill-behaved child]?' (Pinchard, 1971, p102). In contrast to The Ward of Delamere, then, The Blind Child is designed to instil knowledge to a much wider audience consisting of both children and parents.

Overall, we find that The Blind Child, like all other moral novels of the time, suffers from an excess of didacticism. Mrs Pinchard holds children's moral education as much more important than entertainment and creates as a result a work that consists solely of moral messages. Such writing, however, caused her reputation to suffer in later years from the general disparagement of the moral tale. In particular, we find that Mrs Pinchard's The Blind Child, along with her Dramatic Dialogues, is listed by P. Muir as an example of the kind of writing the 'Monstrous Regiment' produced (Muir, 1954, p97). By Monstrous Regiment is meant that group of writers of the eighteenth century that completely ignored children's entertainment in their writings. The well-known Mrs Barbauld was also attacked for the same reason by Charles Lamp. He attacked her on account that 'Mrs Barbauld's stuff' was too dull and instructive compared to the fairy stories of the past that had amused him in his childhood (Carpender, 1999, p44).

In conclusion, we find that Mrs Elisabeth Pinchard, in her attempt to use the written medium as a tool for improving her readership, employs didacticism in a variety of forms, according to the type of audience she is addressing. We saw how in the case of The Ward of Delamere her didacticism was 'watered down' by use of the Gothic Romance style of writing. She paid equal attention to the moral messages and to keeping her readers interested and entertained. A purely didactic work would prove unsuccessful with an adult audience and so Mrs Pinchard tried to arrest the reader's attention by creating a heroine with which the reader could sympathise. Magdalena's unsatisfied and condemned love for Reginald, her great effort to clear her mother's name, and Lord Ennersdale's cruelty, are the source of sensationalism that entertains readers and motivates them to read to the end of the novel. At the same time, and at every opportunity, Mrs Pinchard interweaves the entertaining elements of the novel with her moral messages and affects as a result the reader on both conscious and subconscious level.

It is also apparent that Mrs Pinchard is in touch with the public's taste since The Ward of Delamere is a novel belonging to the Gothic Romance subgenre, the most successful of its time. Her writing is in agreement with the conventions of that genre, satisfying in that way her readers' expectations without challengingthem, something that would possibly hinder their responsiveness to the moral messages of the novel. For the sake of making a stronger point and to avoid criticism as well, Mrs Pinchard uses poetic justice to punish her evil characters, proving to the reader that such behaviour is injurious while the kind-hearted and dutiful characters are always rewarded.

In the case of Mrs Pinchard's children's novel, however, we found that she followed a completely different style of writing. Such change is due to the fact that she now addressed children and not adults and in the eighteenth century, children were not considered to have tastes or preferences. For an audience as non-demanding as this, Mrs Pinchard exploits the opportunity and completely dispenses with plot and elaborate structure to focus on the moral part of the story instead. The plot suffers under the weight of her didacticism and is reduced to a series of simple domestic incidents that are presented without particular elaboration or any attempt to entertain the reader. The few incidents that do take place in The Blind Child are obviously and disappointingly only created for the purpose of eliciting from each one different examples of correct behaviour.

Mrs Pinchard's only wish was to cultivate 'true sensibility' in the hearts of children and for a 'noble aim' such as this one entertainment played no role. In contrast to the audience of The Ward of Delamere, the young readers of The Blind Child exert no pressure on her to include elements of entertainment and so Mrs Pinchard has created a solely didactic work. For the production of such works, however, Mrs Pinchard, along with most writers of moral tales, has been characterised as member of the Monstrous Regiment that forced the enjoyable fairy stories into eclipse and dominated publications with 'dull' writing.

We find, then, that Mrs Pinchard, being a didactic author, will manipulate the written medium in such ways that guarantee her the communication of moral messages to the reading public. The type of manipulation wholly depends on the type of reading public that is addressed. Where there are expectations for the author to satisfy, Mrs Pinchard will comply, but when no expectations are voiced, the didactic element is given in all its force. We need then to recognise Mrs Pinchard's adjustability as well as her writing talent, both helping in the attainment of her obvious aim: helping to morally educate her readership.