Adopt an Author
By Helen Plimmer, May 1998
My overall aim is to place Anna Maria Bennet's novel The Beggar Girl within the context of her female contemporaries and discuss the extent to which she conforms to the style of the woman writers within this period. While examining Bennett in terms of her contemporaries I will also discover the elements of her work which conform to the style of gothic satire and if these are reflected in other writers of this period. To assist me with her style and content it will be necessary to introduce elements of her own background. This will help me achieve an understanding not only of her origins , but the conditions under which she was working. This will be necessary to assist me when exploring the extent to which she expresses her own desire or, if, conforming to social expectations, she retains all sense of modesty.
To determine the extent to which she was compatible with her genteel contemporaries is to establish whether or not she was a 'proper' lady writer. Primarily, therefore it will be necessary to locate what exactly defined a respectable and suitable female novel. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer by Mary Poovey establishes that desire was perceived as an enemy to the virtue of chastity and must consequently be repressed. Thus, women were encouraged to display no vanity, no passion, no 'assertive' self at all. To avoid drawing attention to herself, the female author must therefore discover a means of indirect expression of desire. Despite all these explicit and implicit strictures on their self-conceptions and self-expression, eighteenth-century women did find ways to communicate and even satisfy their desires. It is the extent to which Anna Bennett conformed to this indirection and the similarity of content and style to other authors I wish to discuss. To provide me with a starting point and a source of contemporary work, I will refer to the well-known authors Fanny Burney and Jane Austen, focusing primarily upon Evelina and Northanger Abbey. This will simply act as an example of the style of female work considered acceptable and therefore 'proper' and consequently provide a comparison for The Beggar Girl.
A brief description of the work of Anna Bennett is provided in the Oxford Guide to British Women Writers, stating that 'Bennett's novels were characterised by low born heroines whose virtues contrasted with those in higher stations, plots which contained financial reversals and sexual comedy'. This immediately offers an opposition between Bennett and her genteel contemporaries, Austen and Burney. Does this definition of her work therefore oppose the style of these two authors and also resist conforming to the correct expectations of the female writer? This would suggest that these authors present their material through different means, Bennett perhaps choosing to adopt the less the modest approach. It is this aspect which introduces an alternative style, the main focus being the reversal not only in terms of finance but also contemporary issues. Despite differences in technique throughout these three authors, there are undeniably certain predominant themes relevant to the period they are writing in and which all three adopt within the story. The subject of money, as highlighted here and predominant in female works of the eighteenth century, is an important issue which cannot be ignored within the novels of this society.
This theme introduces a directly obvious link between The Beggar Girl and her contemporaries and is in many instances the first issue the reader will become acquainted with. In both Emma and Northanger Abbey Austen establishes the financial state of the main characters within the first page. The reader is informed specifically that Emma 'is handsome, clever and rich' and that Catherine's father is a clergyman 'without being neglected or poor'. This pattern is also distinguishable in The Beggar Girl, introducing the reader to the story with the immediate confrontation of Rosa begging and therefore establishing a lack of money in contrast with the wealth of the Colonel. Throughout The Beggar Girl there are continual specific references to wealth or lack of it, from the genteel class to the lower ranks. Bennett displays a scope which ranges from the absence of money represented by the beggar girl to extensive wealth of the Mushrooms and the Gauntlets. The introduction of a character is associated with the state of their finance. The first words of Rosa are, 'One halfpenny your good honour, to buy a bit of bread' (I:2), standing in contrast with the symbol of upper class wealth of Sir Solomon's possession of 'immense riches'. Not only, in a similar style of Austen, is there reference to his fortune of eighty thousand pounds, but he is also continually attempting to discover ways of gaining more money. His opinion of any of the characters is motivated by their extent of wealth and the way in which they treat this: 'Sir Solomon Mushroom, while he held a being in the utmost contempt, who knew so little of the value of money as to part with it for nothing, or what is next to nothing, giving to the poor, felt his spleen rise to an extreme troublesome height, at the blessings bestowed on the blackamoor Colonel' (I:58).
It is a constant issue throughout the story from beginning to end with the characters' ongoing preoccupation with how much money they can gain or the horrifying thought of losing it. Bennett's close attention to this particular subject emphasises an awareness of the importance of this issue at the time she was writing. The issue of money was a constant focus for the female author, reflecting the universal concern it represented for women. Money and its making were characteristically female rather than male subjects in fiction due to the extent of its effect upon this sex. Married or unmarried, women were economically at risk, as everything in terms of finance was dominated by patriarchal power. This was an ongoing vulnerability for woman and therefore female authors embraced this topic with unflagging interest of survival. Within the eighteenth century, money and domestic budget became a frequent subject for novels published by the Minerva Press. It is this economic theme which links authors such as Austen to the lesser known authors, and as Edward Copeland remarks in Women Writing about Money, 'Ideologies of rank and station retreat precipitately in the woman's novel before the terrors of economy' (35).
Like Rosa in The Beggar Girl, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, and Evelina in Evelina there is always the element of financial uncertainty. Heroines are at risk of suddenly losing all security for a vast wilderness: 'The specter of lessened expectations haunts women's fiction. No woman is immune from the chances of a diminished life' (87). The terror and fear this issue invoked within women of this period was so extreme that writing about it became associated with the gothic novel. Economic life and gothic imagery were not an odd combination but closely related. Gothic literature of the 1790's concerns itself with pressing dangers to women from debt. There were various more directly obvious aspects such as the castle and isolation, but mainly the action is economic.
It is this which links The Beggar Girl with Northanger Abbey. They are both labelled as Gothic Satires, yet they approach the financial fear of the heroine through different means. Unlike the gothic, the gothic satire concentrates upon exaggerated terror of everyday issues rather than dangerous confinements and the supernatural. Description of wild landscapes and terrifying confinements is very limited in The Beggar Girl. Rosa's desire to escape from the inside of homes or inns originates not from the fear of the supernatural but the fear of economic exposure. She flees from Montreville fearing that he will discover her illegitimacy and poverty. She becomes determined to escape from the home of Lady Gauntlet when threatened with the exposure of her real status and lack of financial security. The plot of the novel accentuates the fear of all women in society: the fear of losing all fortune. Rosa sinks from the happy state of financial security with the Major to wandering from place to place without money and consequently of a vulnerable state. Concern from Mrs Harley and Mr Brown for Rosa's fate subsequent to the death of Colonel Buhanun, emphasises the vulnerable status of a female lacking in money: 'The intelligence of Colonel Buhanun's death, though conveyed in the most delicate and even doubtful manner, had nearly determined the fate of poor Rosa' (II:122).
In this instance there appears to be greater concern for the financial consequences of Rosa rather than the effect the death of the Colonel will have upon her state of mind. This places emphasis upon the importance of the female dependency on a dominantly masculine economy. Lacking in a husband or parent figure, Rosa is left to the life of instability. Mrs Harley's concern about informing Rosa of her guardian's death is heightened by the worry of revealing the absence of a will: 'she had dreaded more to inform her of the Colonel's neglect to provide for her' (II:125). This is not only a concern for Rosa, but also appears to have a great effect upon Mrs Brown, serving to increase her fascination with money. She makes her intentions quite clear to John when she says, 'He is making his will, ... and I really think Mr John, it would have been but doing as you would be done by, had you not just put in a word for me; I dare say he won't here [?] the year out' (I:225). Once the Colonel has left for India she also takes it upon herself to sort through his possessions and claim the more expensive articles for her own benefit: 'The expressions of rapture which a particular inspection of every article and a calculation of their value, gave rise to; what everything was worth, was in her reckoning they would fetch' (II:7).
Money is a concern for all of the characters. Unlike the genteel novels of this period, however, fortune is depicted as the source of greed and corruption as opposed to a symbol of status and good breeding. Whereas Bennett concentrates upon the direct effect money has upon Rosa and the reality of the situation, Austen in Northanger Abbey only hints at the fear this could create. She writes from a class, that unlike Rosa is not directly concerned with the loss of money but more the thought of it. Rosa's experience of fright due to lack of money parallels the terror Catherine feels when placed in the potential situation of needing money. A country woman exclaims in The Beggar Girl, 'Lord have mercy upon me, what will such a pretty creature do in Lunnon without money?' (IV:22).
This emphasises that unlike Catherine, Rosa's experience is a reality which actually happens. In contrast with this is the imagination of Catherine which gives her the ability to create the potential for horror. Catherine, while waiting to undergo a journey, discovers that she does not have enough money to cover expenses. Eleanor must lend Catherine money in the same way that Rosa is forced to borrow cash from several characters. Eleanor and Catherine are both horrified by the thought of what could happen to Catherine if she had insufficient money. In Rosa's case, however, this is not an ungrounded fear but a situation that she must live through. The style of Bennett therefore in this instance adopts a direct approach emphasising clearly the situation of Rosa. Austen, on the other hand, applies a more subtle approach of suggesting rather than stating directly. As stated in Women Writing about Money, 'Jane Austen, Charlotte Smith, France Burney, Eliza Parsons and Anna Maria Bennett, among many others remain acutely aware of the economic perils that threaten their heroines in their progress to their destined "heaven on earth" in the concluding volume' (60).
The issue of money, especially concerning the suffering heroine, is therefore a predominant concern among female novels of the eighteenth century, including Burney and Austen. An important area of interest however also lies in the way in which these authors present this subject. In this novel unlike the genteel examples, Bennett takes it a step further and pays close attention to the harsh greed generated by wealth and not simply the status it represents in works such as Austen's. As I have already discussed, Austen and Bennett adopt different approaches to tackle the theme of money. It is possible to perceive already therefore that despite similar issues between novels of the eighteenth century there is great scope for difference in presentation. It is in this realm that we can begin to distinguish the extent to which Bennett conformed to the image of the 'proper' lady. She takes the more daring path of style by choosing to portray the poverty of the lower ranks. She not only explores the extent of wealth and its relation to status, but also the effect this can have upon all ranks. Similar to its effect on Mushroom, wealth has also had a great effect upon Lady Gauntlet. It has become an aspect most important to her existence and when confronted with the possible horror of losing it she will go to any extremes to retain it. This is made clear in one of the first descriptions of her: 'The Countess did not want pride; no it was the more base, but convenient dross of money her beautiful ladyship had an insatiable longing to possess' (II:150).
In reference to money, the uppers classes in The Beggar Girl do not parallel the ideal of a genteel rank. In a description similar to the coarse one given of Lady Gauntlet, Mrs Woudbe is 'a good sort of an ignorant woman, abounding in riches' (VI:23), confirming Bennett's refusal to combine wealth with good breeding. She takes this reversal of tradition to the extreme in the children of Lady Lydear who have no sense of manners, doing and saying exactly as they please to the extent of crudely insulting Rosa. Bennett reverts against social convention by exploring the undesirable outright. The only chance she has to redeem this is in the conclusion when Rosa is reunited to her rightful parents who conveniently possess a large amount of wealth. To increase the sense of completeness and return to convention, Rosa marries Montreville and consequently the terror of loss of wealth becomes merely a fear rather than a reality - similar to the situation in Northanger Abbey. The wide subject of finance, however, is compiled of various less obvious aspects which are also presented through various techniques. It is through these that Bennett strives to accentuate the overall effect of money and, if choosing to fit in with her contemporaries, must express in a way suitable to the ideals of society. The female fear of loss of fortune, resulting in vulnerability and need to work is the consequence of a patriarchal society. Rosa's loss of finance and isolation is the result of being neglected whether deliberately or not by the male sex. It is therefore impossible to ignore the male characters and the way they are portrayed in the female novels of this period, as consequence of economic threat.
'In Minerva gothic, it is the economy, as it is represented by unpredictable, feckless, improvident, destructive, and tyrannical males, that provides the active source of terror for women' (Women Writing about Money 41). It is the masculine force which the female character dreads yet simultaneously depends upon for security. This contrasting emotion has the powerful effect of forcing the mind to create an image, expressing this menace. The portrayal of threatening male characters therefore symbolises the creation of a terrified female mind. The male figure, as a result of this, indirectly becomes another issue for gothic satire. In some instances, the frightening male character is accentuated due to an over active imagination created by fear. An example of this arises in the gothic satire, such as Northanger Abbey, emphasising fear taken to the extreme and becoming slightly ridiculous. 'Austen refrains from making General Tilney a dangerous threat to her heroine, but she does provide Catherine with one very practical glimpse of economic distress' (Women Writing About Money 59). Edward Copeland emphasises with clarity that Catherine is not exposed to the actual terror but is made aware of what it could consist of. The fear she experiences serves to heighten her monstrous image of General Tilney. This accentuates the point that tyrannical authority is very much an issue which enhances the fright surrounding economic situations for women. A similar portrayal of the male sex is also evident in Evelina, emphasising the heroine's perception of gentlemen as threatening. The terror she experiences as a result of her introduction to society distorts her perception of the male sex, creating caricatures of men.
Bennett parallels this terror through the character of Rosa as a means of producing this frightening portrayal of the male character. Upon leaving the security of Mount Pleasant, she is exposed to the danger of a single woman in a patriarchal world. As the desperation and urgency of Rosa's vulnerable situation increases, her description of the male sex presents an increasingly ominous picture. The author, however, is still sufficiently present to mock the heroine's irrational state of mind, thus emphasising the satirical tone of the novel. Whereas Sir Solomon Mushroom is an example of the patriarchal authority capable of inflicting financial harm, there are also male characters who Rosa visualises as threats but who in reality are quite harmless. Despite Rosa's over-creative imagination, Montreville is only capable of virtuous intentions towards her. Owing to a slight misunderstanding, however, she can only perceive him as a monster, the result of which is that she shrieks in alarm when confronted by him at a masquerade. In contrast with her own isolation and vulnerability, this social event only serves to heighten her suffering, ending with her falling into a fever, claiming, 'At last the blow is struck - I am going to die' (VI:98).
This parallels the drastic imaginings of Austen's Catherine when she discovers the threat she believes General Tilney poses to her. In accordance with the gothic satire, both Austen and Bennett apply the technique of irony in order to mock the exaggerated emotions of the heroine. Although it may not appear directly apparent at first and as I have emphasised - the extent to which it is taken varies - there are also characters that present a real financial threat to Rosa. Bennett makes direct reference to this through the character of Sir Solomon Mushroom and the intentional threat he poses to Rosa. He holds the potential to completely destroy her reputation by breaking his promise to the Colonel and revealing her origins: 'It is true, he had solemnly promised to keep the beggar's history a secret but how then could he arrogate to himself the merit he pre resolved should fill the village, and indeed the whole country, with wonder?' (II:4).
The revelation of Rosa's illegitimacy would lead to the exposure of her lack of wealth and consequently the disapproval of society. It is Mushroom who also possesses control over Rosa in terms of the Colonel's will and who has promised to take care of her but abandons her after the death of the Colonel. Mr Frazer, a character with similar intentions as Mushroom, also has the power to harm Rosa financially. His main focus is gaining money through marriage to Mrs Buhunan. She therefore becomes completely dependent upon him and he consequently represents a source of fear. He symbolises the patriarchal society that the female, married or unmarried, has no control over. Like Sir Solomon Mushroom, he represents the villain waiting in prey, determined to drain Rosa of all her financial resource. Rosa emphasises this when she says, 'you have made a debtor to a large amount, - large, to me, who am poor you have deprived me of all the resources I had to pay' (III:172).
His cruel response is described as 'an expression of gloomy malignant joy' compared to 'the countenance, that Milton had before his mind's eye, when his "Death Grinn'd horrible a ghastly smile"'. Bennett dangerously takes this a step further by introducing the men not only as a threat financially but also explicitly to her virtue and sexuality. A threat to fortune is a danger to status and reputation which genteel novels also related to virtue and modesty in a woman. The difference between the gothic satire, for example Northanger Abbey and The Beggar Girl, and the gothic, is that the former represents an imaginary act whereas in the gothic it is a reality. The fear for Rosa, Catherine and even Evelina is the potential threat of the male, created due to their own terrors. Their total helplessness is completely in the hands of the male sex. The male character has control of the fortune and can therefore, like the character of Lord Delworth, fritter it away in whatever expensive pleasure he chooses. In the case of Evelina, like Rosa, her innocent mind is not capable of sane conclusions and consequently she creates caricatures of the men she meets throughout her time in London.
In all three cases the terror and vulnerability of the characters is heightened by the vastness of the city and its ultimate symbolic meaning in terms of patriarchal power. It is Rosa's impression of this therefore which is associated with the portrayal of male characters. It is primarily here, away from the security of the country, that the young females must conform to society's masculine gaze. The city is a male creation where the female must act accordingly, otherwise risking the disapproval of society. The horror of loss of fortune, dependency upon the male and necessity to undertake employment are themes which combine to create the overall anxieties about conforming to social expectations. The city as an extension of the male is where Rosa experiences finding terror in the heart of the modern city. In opposition to the gothic novel, Bennett does not concentrate upon the dark, overwhelming imagery of the city, but focuses primarily on the picture created by Rosa's anxious mind. It is here where she is helpless to the assistance of male characters and consequently feels under threat. The constant attention Rosa feels from the male sex can only serve to make her feel uncomfortable: 'One gentleman flew after the bonnet; another offered his assistance to smooth the chestnut tresses. While one observed her with that kind of undergaze' (III:179).
There are numerous instances when she finds herself isolated and without money in the vast city of London or Edinburgh. To enhance the horror of Rosa and consequently the reader, Bennett also introduces a male with dubious intentions to assist Rosa. The extent to which the city creates terror for Rosa is emphasised through her constant attempt at escaping through travel. The necessity to keep moving symbolises a constant pattern in the gothic novel. Here, however the heroine is running from the supernatural or something which presents a threat to her life. Bennett parodies this with Rosa's fear of society discovering her origins and state of poverty. The fact that she keeps returning to the city however accentuates that despite her fear of a masculine creation it is also something she depends upon. This is paralleled in the characters of Catherine and Evelina in Northanger Abbey and Evelina. Evelina has moved from the quiet country village to the city of Bath to undertake her introduction to society. Her innocence has only allowed close male contact to her adopted father. Consequently, any strange men and the exposure to a vast city, combine at times to create a terrifying experience. Her entrance into the city and consequently society is the source of extreme fear, yet at the same time she accepts it as a necessity. The difference between this situation and that of The Beggar Girl is the attention paid to the opposing classes. Evelina travels to London to begin her entrance into society, while Rosa on the other hand is forced into this frightful experience. Evelina goes to the city with the anxiety of gaining social approval while Rosa is forced to London and concerned with survival. When Fanny Burney discusses her intentions for this novel, she says, 'I have not pretended to show the world what it actually is, but what it appears to a girl of seventeen' (Lecture Notes).
This emphasises the unreliability of Evelina's narrative due to the anxiety of her mind, suggesting that possibly the situation for her is not as terrifying as she portrays. The experiences she describes may not present the reality of the situation, but a picture of her own perception, altered by emotions of fear. In Rosa's case, however, the reader is aware that without money or friends in a city, she has substantial reason to be afraid. Bennett moves away from convention by removing the desires from the mind and making them a reality. She takes the issues and desires, which by society's dictation should be hidden, and places them directly in front of the reader. Through Rosa, Bennett brings to light and symbolises the ultimate fear of the female reader. She lacks the subtlety of the genteel novelist, but should this lead to the assumption that she lacks in technique or rejects the indirect style of the 'proper' lady?. The exaggerated style of parody used in the gothic satire is in itself a means of disguising internal desire. The actions and emotions of the characters are taken to the extreme to emphasise the fact that they are not real, and consequently can be dismissed.
In contrast with Austen and Burney, however, The Beggar Girl portrays the threat of the masculine sex and the city as a horrifying reality rather than simply fear of the patriarchal gaze. She daringly turns tradition around and rejects the modesty of women by making the male characters the object of the gaze, paying close attention to their actions and intentions. Bennett confronts social conventions with a harsh reality through her exploration of the economic threats to her female characters. The only two male figures that have honourable intentions towards the welfare of Rosa are Colonel and Major Buhanun. They are the only characters who will offer unrestricted financial security and, unlike the threatening male characters, are associated with the safety of the countryside of a small village and Scotland. The supposed death of both of these characters, however, confirms the dubious state of female fortune and it forces the audience to recognise that without finance, Rosa is isolated by society. After this point, the men she meets with substantial wealth are portrayed as a potential threat to her. This is similar to the situation in Northanger Abbey when General Tilney attempts to at least delay the marriage of Henry and Catherine by exiling her from the Abbey. This leaves Catherine without any financial security and results in her state of mind becoming overrun with fear and consequently creating all forms of gothic assumptions.
A means of female survival and a source of continual horror for the genteel reader is the issue of female employment. This was an occupation frowned upon by the upper classes, yet in cases such as Anna Bennett it became a necessity. She embraces a narrative which displays women who assertively participated in the economy as managers of domestic budget. Anna Bennett explores Rosa's response to lack of economic power by creating a character who takes her situation into her own hands through looking for paid employment. Unlike Austen or Burney, here the focus upon lower class employment is constant. Bennett pieces together an energetic and frankly money-conscious society, drawing from all classes, while Austen and Burney lie in the gentrified economics.
'In short, employment for a heroine turns the ideology of the genteel novel upside down' (Women Writing about Money 162). This reversal of the genteel novel is the main focus of the content within the work of Bennett. Unlike the genteel author, she reverses convention by taking the issue of money and women a step further to actually examine the means of earning it. Female employment is not simply glanced at briefly, but rather brought to life and examined in detail, exploring the treatment Rosa experiences once she must earn her money. It is within the portrayal of this subject that the differences between the work of Austen and Burney and Bennett become more prominent. Whether or not the character Rosa is an example of autobiographical material as a means to indirectly communicate the desire and suffering of Bennett is a consideration which I will go on to explore. First, however, I will discuss the close attention Bennett pays towards female employment in The Beggar Girl, not only in Rosa but also in Mrs Brown and Mrs Harley. Unlike Evelina and Northanger Abbey, Bennett has made these people the main sources of character. Whereas Austen and Burney will acknowledge the employment of lower classes, they do not permit them a large contribution towards the plot. This is an area where Bennett adopts an opposing attitude to her contemporaries' conventional mode of thought and is stressed by Edward Copeland in Women Writing About Money: 'In pointed distinction to a writer like Austen, Minerva writers refuse to rescue their heroines from the experience of employment' (165).
In the genteel novel the heroine will always be restored to financial security and therefore the author conforms to social expectations. Rosa, however, must suffer repeatedly and partake in various employment's before the chance of money is given. The characters which seem to offer Rosa the greatest kindness and security are those who represent various kinds of employment. The character Mrs Harley is an example of modesty and virtue with the utmost consideration for her pupils. Anna Bennett writes of her, 'The benevolent delicacy of Mrs Harley was always uniform' and that 'She had tenaciously avoided all pecuniary subjects' (II:127).
Through the character of Mrs Harley, Bennett removes the idea that employment is simply a source of money and only adopted as a necessity, stating that the 'welfare and improvement of her pupils were not merely Mrs Harley's profession but her delight'. Despite being a portrayal of a woman with modesty and virtue, employment and money must still become an issue for her. By using a character of such a respectable nature, Bennett is emphasising that it is not simply a crude disagreeable class which must work. The employment Rosa must undertake becomes a priority for the story as it is this which she depends upon for survival. Bennett forces the reader to care about this character and her fate through making this subject an issue. The death of the Colonel leads to her being placed in a position of economic vulnerability. The consequence of this is that she decides to undertake the position of school teacher at Mount Pleasant, refusing to see it as the horror that is perhaps suggested by other novels. She adopts a positive attitude, asserting that she takes on the position 'not in the language of solicitation, of distress, nor humiliation, but with a frank and just confidence that the arrangement would be mutually beneficial' (II:128).
Bennett adopts the cheerful viewpoint of refusing to conform to previous female authors and to attach a disgust to the need for women to work. This is reinforced by the respect and fondness Rosa receives in return from the pupils at the school. The sense of 'we can do it' continues when she moves to the home of Lady Lydear to undertake the profession of governess flattering herself that it was 'exactly the situation in life she considered herself able to fill with credit to her own abilities, and though a dependant [sic], not a servile employ' (IV:33-34).
Bennett reveals a positive attitude towards the necessity of employment for women typical of the Minerva attitude but unlike the more Genteel novelists. For the genteel female readers of this period, this would probably present material of a shocking nature. She forces the reader to acknowledge issues which typically traditional women would rather avoid and live in horror of resorting to. Despite this positive attitude towards employment, Bennett would be very naive not to acknowledge the genteel perspective towards the lower working class. The cheerful approach therefore is counteracted with the suspicious and rude treatment Rosa receives from her employer. She is treated rudely by the children and becomes the focus for Lady Lydear's anger; she 'roughly demanded of Rosa whom she was? Where she came from who and what were are parents?' (IV:118).
Unlike the attempt at supporting the role of the working female in this novel, the genteel novels such as Austen portray a different angle. Austen and Burney are consistently resistant to turning their heroines into wage earners because successful employment would result in hostility from society, which is what the heroine aspires to belong to. In contrast with the 'we can do it' attitude of the Minerva Press writers, women who must work for a living such as Jane Fairfax in Emma never adopt a main role and the need to work is portrayed as a negative essential. Austen saves Jane from the fate of becoming a governess by marrying her into the genteel money of Frank Churchill. Rosa, however, is not removed from financial distress to marry Horace until she has suffered the horrors of employment. While Bennett seems to support the attempts of Rosa, she also accentuates an awareness of patriarchal society's disgust of this role. She reverses the conventional portrayal of the genteel ranks by expressing the suffering inflicted by the upper class, when Rosa becomes a female companion for Mrs Woudbe, stating, 'Rosa felt the slavery she was in' (VI:42). When some of the male characters in The Beggar Girl meet Rosa for the first time, they are fooled into believing she must possess a large fortune due to her beauty and surface presentation. This encourages them to compliment and flatter her. In the instances when it is recognised that she has no family and status as such, however, she is either barely acknowledged or treated with disgust and annoyance.
Bennett's approach to the family as a requirement for inheritance is very different to that of her contemporary genteel authors. For Austen the model of the family was a vital aspect of the plot. Not only was it a symbol of security and 'normality', but also the means of ensuring economic safety through inheritance or a successful financial marriage. It was a model for the proper coexistence of the individual and society. This notion, like the issues I have previously discussed, was essentially patriarchal. The marriage as its smallest unit embodied the ideal union of desire and social responsibility, giving Austen a means of indirectly expressing herself. Through her marriage, the woman could not only satisfy her own needs but also influence society. Unlike Bennett, she remains within these boundaries and therefore still conforms to the ideals of femininity. A successful marriage would result in a substantial fortune, as emphasised by Sir Solomon's efforts to marry his nieces and consequently remove the female from the horrors of employment. Ellen Moers states in Literary Women: The Great Writers, in reference to Austen but also applicable to many writers in this period, 'Marriage makes money a serious business in Austen's fiction, her seriousness about money makes marriage important' (67).
Austen combines the idea of perfect happiness with a substantial fortune through successful marriage. The idea of families and marriage however in The Beggar Girl is yet another theme which remains within Bennett's style of reversals. As a result of this, she challenges the traditional conventions and portrays an alternative viewpoint of marriage. She emphasises many unions which represent an opposition to the blissful happiness implied by Austen in her plots. Not only are they unhappy marriages but in some instances they prove to be unfruitful in terms of capital. In Northanger Abbey the reader is introduced to the start of the novel with a description of Catherine's family, enforcing a strong bond of security and establishing the wealth status: 'Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected or poor, and a very respectable man.... Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper.... A family of ten will always be called a fine family' (1).
The reader is immediately conscious of the importance Austen places on the family, especially one that is large and secure. In many of her other novels the conclusion of the story will always provide a marriage, such as that of Emma and Mr Knightly in Emma as the symbol of complete happiness and combining of substantial fortunes. The Beggar Girl, however, explores an alternative to the conventional unit of families and questions the tradition of marrying for money. Throughout the story, the author describes the histories of various characters and their families. Contrasting with the idea of a complete and stable composition, this novel is compiled of broken homes with lost parents and children. The various marriages are either unhappy and unsuitable or, in the case of Dr Croak and Mrs Bawsky, somewhat dubious. By challenging the social expectations of both marriage and the family, Bennett exposes a shocking change to the genteel novels.
The home situation of Dr Croak is a prime example of Bennett's satire of the family. She takes the traditional nuclear family to the extreme with the uncertain living conditions between Dr Croak and the married Mrs Bawsky, described as 'a friendship the most firm, most refined, most disinterested, most platonic, and maybe for those who say the thing, though improbable, is not impossible, the most virtuous was formed between the widower, Dr Croak and the married Mrs Bawsky' (I:112). These two characters are both guardians of Elinor, whose rightful parents are doubtful. To add to the complexity of this situation is the banishment of Dr Croak's rightful son from the family. Previous to the situation of this 'family' at the time of the plot, Dr Croak was known as being 'notorious for beating his wife'. The mockery of the family is heightened when the reader later discovers that Dr Croak was provided with a large fortune to undertake the welfare of Elinor.
Rosa, the main character, moves from town to town without a stable base to return to. Due to her doubtful origins she is treated by other characters with suspicion and mistrust. She represents the ultimate shame to the family unit through her illegitimacy and consequently symbolises one of the greatest horrors for the genteel family. Without family, she is denied the possibility of any form of fortune, and consequently she must rely on her own means to survive. It is ironic that Bennett bluntly emphasises the need for family and marriage as a means of financial security. She says directly what the genteel novels will only hint at. Sir Solomon Mushroom draws attention to this issue with his preoccupation of finding his nieces suitably wealthy husbands. All surface security is destroyed here as a mockery to the external appearance this society is so determined to maintain. It is discovered at a later point that the supposed nieces of Mushroom are actually his daughters from a dubious encounter with a lady of a crude and immodest nature. The novel as a whole seems to emphasise that the family is simply a surface exterior for the sake of a patriarchal society and financial gain. Ironically, one of the few characters who could provide Rosa with a family and assist financially is unsure of the workings of the family: 'The Colonel was a little puzzled about the domestic arrangement of a family' (I:164).
Emphasis is placed upon the fact that the Colonel cares to the extent of concerning himself with providing a genuine family, while the other characters simply understand what is required to create a surface appearance pleasing to society. Bennett, however, makes a mockery of this genteel appearance by probing beneath the surface to reveal the coarse opposition within. Lady Lydear has a large fortune and two children, which emphasises her as acceptable to society. When Rosa is brought into the house, however, we realise the reality is very different to the exterior, revealing that 'Lady Lydear, widow of the late, and mother of the present Sir Jacob, was a foreigner of the family' (II:92). Whereas she may appear to have created the perfect 'set up' on the surface, the home life beneath is far from respectable and secure. Parallel to the Colonel's puzzlement about the family, these opinions in contrast with Austen and Burney sum up the state of the family unit in The Beggar Girl. While Burney touches upon the issue of illegitimacy through Evelina, she does not take it to the extreme that Bennett does.
It is important to recognise that while The Beggar Girl covers similar themes to its contemporary novels, it is the style through which it presents these issues that challenges whether it conforms to convention. In terms of being defined as a gothic satire, I have aimed to recognised the themes to which The Beggar Girl is similar to Northanger Abbey, yet there are still differences in their approaches. A remark by Edward Copeland stresses the relevance of Bennett's style and content to the time: 'By the middle of the 1790's, the relationship between the heightened world of fiction and contemporary economic life had become an object of self conscious parody' (40).
Bennett concentrates upon the gothic terror created from financial distress while Austen applies a wider scope and introduces gothic landscapes and buildings through the active imagination of Catherine. Bennett has substituted dragons with threatening men and flying chariots with travelling chaises. It is inevitable that these contemporary authors would adopt similar themes as a consequence of the conditions of the period but as I have discussed, there is a difference in the way the issues are exposed. It is the technique through which the female author portrays the content of her work that distinguishes the type of author she is. Austen and Burney rely on the art of subtlety to gently make suggestion towards certain issues, unlike Bennett who confronts the reader with honesty and reality. In a sense, therefore, both the Minerva Press writers and the genteel authors are aiming at a more truthful reality, yet the former is direct while the latter relies on the reader's ability to see through the first layer. This is summed up by Mary Poovey in The Proper Lady and the Women Writer: 'Austen gradually perfected a form of irony that enabled her to present her personal values in such a way as to make them seem natural correctives to the restrictions of decorum' (47).
She eventually achieved the freedom not only to identify this ideology but, with ladylike restraint to criticise the way it shaped and deformed women's lives. Both Bennett and Austen therefore were attempting to accentuate the destructive nature of a patriarchal society. Bennett forces the reader to acknowledge a reality rather than the insubstantial image expected by a patriarchal society. To a certain extent therefore she is confronting the reader with issues that are usually avoided or ignored. In this light it would be impossible not to acknowledge the background of female writers when examining their work. Depending upon what class they come from could have a large effect on the overall style of their work and the type of reader she is writing for.
Whereas the 'proper' lady would write only for a hobby and family amusement, authors such as Bennett would aim towards publication in the hope of making money. In Northanger Abbey, novels such as the ones for the Minerva Press were labelled as 'horrid' fiction. Readers from trade or from the lesser professions, though they could find pleasure in the genteel books, would discover that the Minerva addressed them specifically and as a matter of rank. Bennett's direct, specific references to money and her reversals not only of finance but convention show an awareness of society. Unlike authors such as Austen and Bennett who explore genteel poverty, she focuses on the lower class state of poverty. Bennett's own life, is a representation of the reversal of the genteel convention she writes about in her novels. Parallel to the situation between Dr Croak and Mrs Bawsky, she herself lived with a man without being married and to add to this disregard for convention, she also had two children with him. Previous to her writing career, she partook in various types of lower class employment and was lacking in a substantial amount of money.
Can this limited information concerning her origins and situation provide a link to her style of writing? One method of writing adopted by female authors as a strategy of indirection was through the use of thinly disguised autobiographical characters. These authors explore, expand and sometimes revise their own situations in such a way as to express or repress their own deeply felt desires. Taking this in to consideration, it is possible to distinguish various elements present in Bennett's own life within the actions or situations of some of the characters in The Beggar Girl. The concept of an unconventional family and female employment is a strong element in her life. Her own daughter went on to be an actress which both parallels the issue of female employment and the strong presence of drama in the character of John enhanced by her constant quotations from Shakespeare. The emphasis she places upon the lower class, refusing to create main characters within the genteel ranks, would suggest that she is writing from experience yet without referring directly to herself. In this instance is she becoming dangerously close to caring too much and consequently expressing direct desire? She makes specific reference to the herself and her background, reinforcing the notion that by focusing on a lower class, she is writing about what she knows: this 'Shews the author has never seen Lords, Ladies or Modern Misses, and that she is totally ignorant of what is understood by the phrase, "Quality binding"' (II:ix). This glimpse at the author is still however kept within a certain boundary through the fact that she diverts the information from herself.
All the similarities and differences between these novels serves to emphasise a difference in styles, reinforcing that the reversal of convention in The Beggar Girl offers a different technique to that of the genteel novel. If the work of Austen and Burney are defined as examples of proper lady writers, it is plausible to conclude that Bennett's style does not conform to this method of indirection. It is vital to consider, however, that she is not aiming her work at the genteel ranks, but a class which she herself is able to write about. In this instance and taking into consideration the popularity of her novels, it is undeniable that her work must have proved competent.
Austen, Jane. 1816. Emma.
---. 1818. Northanger Abbey.
Bennett, Anna Maria. 1796. The Beggar Girl and Her Benefactors. London: Lane.
Burney, Frances. 1778. Evelina.
Copeland, Edward. 1995. Women Writing About Money: Women's Fiction in England, 1790-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Moers, Ellen. 1976. Literary Women: The Great Writers. New York: Doubleday.