Essay on the work of Selina Davenport by Louise Watkins, May 1998
To what extent did Selina Davenport adhere to the modes, genres and thinking of the early 19th century?
Within the following discussion, it is my intention to firstly give an overview of the literary scene and society of the early nineteenth century. I then intend to proceed to investigate how Selina Davenport dealt with her environment in two texts, namely The Sons of the Viscount and the Daughters of the Earl published in 1813 and Preference published in 1814.
The first novel is commonly said to have been written by Daniel Defoe in the early 1700's and it is still generally male writers such as Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and Tobias Smollett who are cited as being the 'greats' of this period. These facts may lead is to believe that most novelists at this time were male. However, the novel had gradually become feminized and by the end of the 18th century, novel writing was deemed to be primarily a female domain. Indeed, many male writers thought it beneath them. By the time of Selina Davenport's first novel in 1813, it was an established tradition that the majority of novelists were women.
There are numerous practical reasons for this being the case. To begin with women were not afforded the same classical education as men at this time and the limited sphere of their lives, meant that many literary forms were out of their experience. The novel however, fictional, and often based on romantic, sentimental and domestic subject matter, was ideally suited. Many women kept journals and were involved in excessive letter writing at this time and the novel was an extended form of this, in the case of the epistolary novel, a direct extension. As JMS Tompkins in her text The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800 perhaps a little too dismissively, says: 'Here was a new and unexacting literary form, hedged round by no learned traditions, based on no formal technique, a go as you please narrative, spun out in a series of easy, circumstantial letters, such as a young lady might write to a friend' (Tompkins, 1961: 119).
The novel form and women writing professionally can be seen then, to have developed hand in hand. Both were subject to intense criticism in the early days. The novel was not aided as a literary genre critically, because of its association with women and conversely women writers were not taken seriously because of their connections with the novel. Perhaps the very fact that novel writing was not critically esteemed enabled women to be published. A literary hegemony was at work. In the main, the patriarchal forces that be, facilitated women writers on the basis that their writing was unimportant, had limited content and didn't threaten the status quo. Also, on the basis that they could make a man wealthy, as proved by William Lane of Minerva fame.
Women being recognised as writers and being published, however insignificantly and on whatever basis, opened the door for others. Encouragement must also have come from the female public, who read avidly. These two factors combined to create an increase in female penmanship - women wrote, women read and as a consequence more women wrote. Reading became a form of communication for women, something Rosalind Miles explores in her book The Female Form - Women Writers and the Conquest of the novel. Despite all this, writing was still not deemed totally acceptable and wouldn't be for some time, for example, Fanny Burney burnt her first manuscript and many wrote anonymously or under a pseudonyms until the late 1800's.
For most women writing became a way of earning money and whilst some obviously wrote for pleasure and because it was one of the few ways of applying their minds, monetary gain was the main motivating factor. As Jane Spencer has pointed out in her book The Rise of the Woman Novelist: 'Well-born or not, most women novelists needed the money' (Spencer, 1986: 7).
Writing was also a convenient occupation. The majority of women were tied to the home, as there were few, if any, professional outlets for them at this time. 'Scribbling', as Jane Austen called it, was a task which could be performed in spare moments and surreptitiously if need be. It also required minimal initial outlay.
Everything above suggests that writing by women, and in particular novels, were of an inferior quality at this time. This assumption is incorrect. Whilst there was inferior material written, there are also examples of fine work over most genres throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. There are many women writers who are worthy recipients of praise. For instance; Fanny Burney, Hester Chapone, Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen. By 1813 when Selina Davenport was first published, some women writers had received critical acclaim and there was a modest female literary tradition of quality writing, in place.
I have suggested above that women writers were working across all genres of literature by the turn of the century, yet the most predominant form was still the novel. But what types of novel were being produced?
Historical novels became popular in the late 1700's. These novels usually involved the interweaving of an historical event or time scale and a fictional narrative. Sometimes a figure in history would be given a new fictional life by the contemporary novelist, a technique favoured by Shakespeare in his historical plays such as Henry V. Novelists went to great lengths to ensure the continuity and validity of their historical depictions.
Novels alternatively could be based on present day fashionable and domestic life, usually portraying exclusive high society. These texts often involved scenes at country seats and/or in "town" which usually meant London. Domestic pursuits would be detailed such as reading and music, as would visits to places such as Vauxhall Gardens or the Opera. A young woman's education in the ways of the world was usually a key theme in this style of novel. Elaine Showalter, in Literature of their Own, says of this genre, which she calls Domestic Realism, that the central concern was that 'the woman as an influence on others within her domestic and social circle' (Showalter, 1977: 20). I would add to this and say that the concern extended also to the woman being influenced by others in her domestic and social circle.
Another heading that novels of this time are often listed under is 'Didactic Fiction'. This simply means that the texts contain instruction, usually of a moral or religious nature. Robert Colby suggests in his book Fiction with a Purpose that by the late 18th early 19th century a climate had been established for the novel as a moral force (Colby, 1968: 1O).
Sentimental novels were also the order of the day. This fiction is hard to ascertain as the term "sentimental" changed in its usage. It could be deemed as meaning high emotion or feeling, or it could mean natural humanitarianism. A more negative definition, suggests it may also mean excessive and affected emotional display. In my view sentimental novels are those which detail much emotion in dialogue and narrative, as seen in long verbose passages of heightened feeling. Emotion may also be portrayed by the author in a character's physical being, for example in crying, fainting and illness. Novels comprising content of this sort were profuse at this time.
Romance fiction was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries too. Again this type of fiction is difficult to define. Clara Reeve in 1785 suggested that 'The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it was written' (Spencer, 1986: 182). However I would argue, that the two are not so distinct. Certain features, structures and themes can be found in both genres. For example, the improbable coincidence, often cited as a feature of the Romance, can also be found in novels. The differences between the two styles of text are probably more of degree than type.
Last but not least, were the Gothic novels. Similar to the Romance novels in many aspects, they relied on the fantastical and supernatural. This sort of text was usually very dark, set in crumbling Castles, Abbeys or wild scenery. The theme was frequently based around a persecuted heroine and a malevolent male baddie and generally ends with the escape of the heroine. These novels invoke tension and even terror in the reader. Literary criticism has long recognised that much of the fear detailed in, and produced by, these novels is related to the cultural and social anxieties of the time.
Above then is a brief outline of the different forms the novel took. We should not assume that they existed in isolation from each other. Many novels of this era contained elements drawn from some or even all of the categories here cited and Selina Davenport's work is no exception, as I shall later discuss.
Women increasingly over time, became more outspoken on moral and political issues. The late 1700's and early 1800's were turbulent times. The old feudal society was gradually disappearing, being replaced by one based on capitalism. In line with this process, questions were being asked regarding the subordinate position of the working classes (plebeians), women and ethnic minorities.
An outcome of these revisions in ideology, was that America was reluctantly granted independence by Britain in 1783. Similar changes in thinking were also afootin Europe, the end result being revolution in France in 1789. The Bastille was stormed and The Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed which became the basis for a new constitution. King Louis XVI did not co-operate and he and his Queen Marie Antoinette were eventually beheaded. A Republic was declared, but France remained unstable for years to come.
The situation in Britain was not much better and disillusionment with the Royal family ran high during these years. King George 111 was gradually going mad and was permanently insane by 1811. His son the Prince of Wales, also George, became Regent and later King, but was disliked due to his excessive extravagance. He also treated his wife Caroline of Brunswick terribly. She had much public support throughout, but was still prevented from attending the Coronation in 1821. The Monarchy was on precarious ground at this time.
These years were also war years in Europe and it wasn't until 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo that things settled down.
Fears and hopes for Revolution in England permeated much writing around the turn of the century. For example in 1790 Edmund Burke, formerly known for his liberal sympathies, wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France. In this text he eloquently attacked the French Revolutionaries especially over their treatment of the French Queen. He also defended the feudal system and the idea of hereditary succession.
Only weeks later Mary Wollstonecraft offered a reply to Burke's text in a pamphlet entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Men. In this pamphlet she defended the work of Thomas Paine and Richard Price. These radicals had called for changes in society. They were against the privileged aristocracy and wanted liberty for all men. Wollstonecraft advocated their ideas and went on to promote a society based on reason, understanding and judgement. In her mind, all should be equal in their rights and duties.
Later, Wollstonecraft dismayed at the lack of equal treatment for women in France post revolution, followed up her first work and in 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This text was to become incredibly influential and important. It was based on her belief that women were equal to men and more than capable of sound and judicious thought. As Anne K. Mellor says in Romanticism and Gender, 'Wollstonecraft explicitly attacked her society's gender definition of the female as innately emotional, illogical, capable of moral sentiment but not of rational understanding' (Mellor, 1993: 33). She called for education for all females from a young age, egalitarian marriages based on an equal partnership, the vote, new property laws and access to the professions for women.
In our day these demands may seem a little paltry. Wollstonecraft afterall, argued for the above on the basis that women would be better wives, mothers and companions. In other words her theories were still based for the most part, on the notion of family. However, we should not underestimate how far reaching her feminist ideas were given the context of the society she was living in. She was a radical.
Some writers with conservative views like Sir Walter Scott reacted against the ideas of Wollstonecraft and the other radicals. Others endorsed their ideas. What of Selina Davenport? What were her views on the politics of the time? I shall now go on to discuss her work, hopefully unearthing her position both as a writer and as a woman of her day.
Selina Davenport's first novel, The Sons of the Viscount and the Daughters of the Earl, was published in 1813. It is a text that is too lengthy considering its content, but novels of three or four volumes were customary at the time.
The novel does have Gothic traits. It starts for example by describing a partly inhabited Castle and a deserted Abbey, classic Gothic settings. We also learn at the beginning that there is a mystery which prevents the two orphaned daughters Angeline and Elvira from visiting the Abbey. The secret is quickly revealed however, and relates to the transgression of their late father. Throughout the course of the novel the girls suffer because of his misconduct and the plot generally highlights how the actions of parents can affect their children. This is a much used Gothic theme of the time.
We also occasionally see elements of superstition and suspense in the novel. For example at one point Sidney Fortescue, a guest at a masked ball, dresses as a gypsy and convincingly tells fortunes. Other guests believe him in his role and are taken in by his visions. This is a similar scene to the one used much later by Charlotte Bronte in her Gothic text Jane Eyre. On the whole however, this text has none of the darkness or grim incidents that a reader finds in true Gothic novels.
The text as the title page suggests, is much more involved with portraying realistic fashionable life. The scenes are split between society in London and the country seats of aristocratic families. Many of the usual pastimes for both venues are detailed, reading, music and walking in the rural and balls and dinners in the urban. The young female characters are presented at Court on the King's birthday and we are given here and throughout the text much detail of their attire and appearance. The author emphasizes the fashions of the day.
The novel is rife with gushing description and sentimentality and at many intervals we find characters, both male and female, crying, fainting and falling ill through emotional excesses. A good example of this is when Henry Fortescue finally declares his love to Angeline:
He took her hands in his. Sick and trembling with the sudden joy of hearing herself beloved by him she had so long and so highly valued, she sunk half fainting on the seat; and though Henry was on one knee before her, yet she had not the power to bid him rise; while, as he gazed on her averted face, as he felt the trembling of her soft white hand in his, a secret beamed on his soul that her extreme agitation proceeded not from displeasure. (IV:162).
Melodrama is abundant in this text and this coupled with the sort of sentimentality seen above, would suggest that the novel first and foremost should be judged as sentimental. Coral Ann Howells speaking of the novelist Regina Roche says that she was 'An out and out sensibility writer but with a Gothic accent' (Howells, 1978: 98). The same can certainly be said for Selina Davenport on the evidence of her first novel.
As regards Davenport's use of characterization in this text for the most part she uses stock characters: the bewitching temptress, the angel like heroine, the caring elderly aunt and the loyal servant. However, there were occasions when a character surprised me. For example at one point the normally mouse like Angeline spiritedly chastizes her sister, 'The latter part of your speech requires no comment; it is as unjust as your anger' (IV:124).
Angeline also, despite excelling at the usual feminine accomplishments, reads Renaissance literature such as Petrarch. Furthermore, she refuses, despite her families wishes to marry for position or wealth, only for love. Angeline does show, albeit rarely, independent thought and action. Perhaps Selina Davenport had feminist inclinations?
With reference to themes in the novel marriage is key. Interestingly, Davenport seems to have taken on board some of Wollstonecraft's thinking in this respect. The characters who marry in this novel for position, wealth, or out of filial duty alone do not end up happy. It is the those who despite adversity, have married for love, respect and common interests who are contended.
The author is explicit about the rural, natural way of life being better in this text. Characters who pursue simple pleasures and prefer life in the countryside are generally portrayed as being good. Whereas life in London society and excessive dissipation are frowned upon, to the point where one of their chief exponents in the novel Lucinda Fortescue dies because of her love of them.
Benevolence is highlighted as important in this text and besides providing work, food and money for people, there are two incidents that deserve special mention here. Firstly, Robarts and Phoebe two loyal servants who marry are given their own farm and land. Secondly, Angeline funds the education of a small peasant boy. Both these incidents again imply a modern outlook in the author, an approval of the lower orders bettering themselves, with the help of those of a higher status.
One last point is in relation to the novel's didactic function. Firstly, this novel unlike Jane Austen's work, doesn't show a main protagonist who is essentially good but is even better by the end of the text. There are good and bad characters depicted and the good could not be improved upon, whilst the bad, although punished, seem unrepentant.
Secondly, even though the appropriate characters are punished, there is a feeling that Davenport herself prefers the roguish characters. This can be seen with particular regard to Elvira and Angeline. Angeline is the virtuous sister, Elvira the wicked one. The descriptions of their characters serve sometimes to focus our attentions on the wrong sister. Strangely, the last page of the novel has Sidney, one of Elvira's loves, remembering her several years after her death with tears in his eyes. Fred Botting in his book Gothic says, 'Novels ought to highlight virtue and elicit a reader's abhorrence at depictions of vice', but goes on to say, 'By displaying monsters in too attractive a light, vice rather than virtue might be promoted' (Botting, 1996: 27-28). This novel treads precariously in this respect.
Much of The Sons... is formulaic. Using standard themes, language and structure, it is a novel very much of its time. However in the text, there are small glimpses of ideas above the norm and a suggestion of nonconformist thinking. I shall now continue to see if any of this is developed in a novel written over ten years later in 1924, Preference.
Preference is an altogether more accomplished novel than The Sons... Shorter in length, only two volumes, it has far more in the way of content.
Again, Preference is a novel about contemporary, fashionable life. Like Elvira and Angeline before them, Catharine and Helen are orphans, making their way in society and learning the ways of the world. Most of this novel is set in London and there are many places such as Hampton Court referred to in the text. There is also the usual round of parties, balls and theatre trips throughout.
However, although the themes are similar, this novel is different in many ways to the earlier one. Davenport has dropped the Gothic accents and although again the novel is still very sentimental, it is not so suffocatingly so.
Also there is a new addition in this text - the use of comedy. Davenport creates numerous comic characters throughout and there are times when it is genuinely funny. For example, a character called Betsy continually says the wrong word in the wrong places. In the following passage talking to her husband she says, 'We might have starved or died in a workhouse, but for the resistance of your old admiral Boscawen' (I:4). Later talking of her marriage to Billy who is poorly she says, 'Marriage is a blessed thing when people live in peace and discord like my Billy and me' (I:110).
There are also two female characters, Nanny and Grace Kingsland who are veritable man eaters. Both are desperate to be married even though they are middle aged. Grace in particular, is portrayed satirically. She wears clothes that a woman half her age should be wearing, constantly gossips and believes that every man who addresses her however briefly, is in love with her. Her vanity knows no bounds and she never learns the error of her ways, even after the kidnap incident, which is supposed to perform that function.
There is another character who is portrayed in a comic light, Dorothea Boscawen. She loves animals to distraction, has hundreds living with her and their are many jokes about this throughout the text.
Characterization generally in this novel is of a much higher standard. Davenport has moved away from the solely good or solely bad stock figures. The protagonists in this novel are much more believable in that they are much less simple. Helen and Catharine the two female leads both have good and bad points. Helen is very lively and gay, perhaps overly, but she is also more honest and compassionate than her sister. Catharine is more serious and quiet but far less forgiving and at times shows poor judgement. At one point, the two sisters are going to their mother's funeral:
Miss Maitland (Catharine), not less afflicted than her sister, was nevertheless more tranquil in her expressions Subdued, but not wholly conquered by the acuteness of her distress, Miss Maitland was still sensible to that of her sister, whom she now tenderly embraced, beseeching her to moderate the violence of her emotions. Helen returned the embrace of Catharine, but her tears continued to flow. (I: 67-8).
Later in the text they discuss the marriage of their old friend William Delafield to a wealthy old lady, Catharine says, 'that union was indeed most horrible ... I could have died before I could have performed such a sacrifice.' Helen replies,
'Yes Catharine, and so would Sir William have died, had self been his consideration; but it was to save his father from prison, perhaps suicide, and to restore his beloved sister Olivia to her accustomed rank in society, that he rendered himself the unhappy being he is now.'
Catharine argues back, but Helen warmly tells her:
'You yourself Catharine are much changed. I little expected that I should ever find you among the unpitying censors of poor Sir Williams conduct... Whilst I have humanity, justice and early friendship, on my side, I shall care little for the opinion of the world. No selfish consideration shall ever prevent my openly espousing the cause of the unfortunate.' (I:182-183).
This last statement echoes Wollstonecraft's arguments in 1790.
In fact there are no characters within the text with whom we can completely censure or commend. Admiral Boscawen, admirable in many respects is a womanizer and Frederic may be his illegitimate son. Frederic in turn is a lovely character whilst not being very wise. Lady Glencarin although vain and snobbish, is not totally without merit. Through these assorted characters Davenport's commentary on society is communicated.
Marriage again is the major theme in this novel. Whilst the happy unions are those which are once more based on mutual respect and common interests, the author does make allowances for the fact that marriages for money are sometimes necessary, see Helen's dialogue above.
Women's position in society is also dealt with. Their are overt signs of feminist thinking, for example Helen refuses to marry Frederic at first not because she doesn't love him, but because she feels that she is too young and doesn't know her own mind yet. She wants to delay her nuptials for as long as possible. The author talking of Helen also says that she was:
Untaught as yet in the dire necessity that woman must conceal and shroud within her own breast her wishes and opinions - a stranger to the obligation imposed by society of concealing her best and dearest feelings under the cold garb of indifference or reserve. (I:130).
Davenport also considers women's education.
But having said all this, there are times where the subordinate role assigned to women is adhered to. I felt this especially when the admiral and Frederic were talking over the merits of the two sisters and deciding which one Frederic should choose. Also in the fact that Helen is forced to marry Frederic before she is ready.
There are many disparaging comments generally about society in this novel. For example at one point Lady Glencairn is talking about her adopted son, Isidore Wentworth, the illegitimate son of her late husband and his affair with an Italian noble woman. It is made plain that although illegitimate, the fact that he has noble blood makes him acceptable and assures Lady Glencairn's patronage. Also Lady Louisa at one point laments over her and her friends futures and hopes for an end to 'schemes where love is to be sacrificed at the shrine of interest' (II:129).
The author makes a point of showing how Catharine and Helen's relationship with the lower orders has not changed despite their elevated situation. Also, Catharine in one scene at Dorothea Boscawen's house considering her guardian's excessive love for her 'dumb favourites' thinks that animals have 'strong claims upon our humanity' but that these claims 'ought nevertheless to yield to the still stronger claims of our fellow creatures' (I:113).
This could be a call for humanity with regards to ethnic minorities, women or the working classes, perhaps all three?
However, despite all the above examples of criticizm, Davenport does still seem to revel in describing fashionable society.
Like the characters, most of the themes detailed in this text are told in a more ambiguous way than was seen in the author's earlier work. This suggests a deeper consideration of the issues her day. Yet there is one area in which Davenport's feeling are made plain - the Navy and the Battle of Waterloo.
Early in the text we are given the dreadful consequences of war at sea, Kenneth Maitland's death and Billy's loss of limb. Also, Helen decides she doesn't want to marry a man in the Navy, because of the separations and dangers involved in the profession. Lastly, towards the end of the text we find a madwoman called Ellen Douglas, who has lost her mind because of the loss of her sweetheart and two brothers in the Battle of Waterloo. She wonders around reciting poetry and we as readers are provided with the verse (Volume 2, PP161/162). It speaks of the tragedy of the battle and criticizes the way the society of the day portrayed it as a great victory forgetting the sorrow of it all.
We can only guess at why Selina Davenport felt so strongly about this issue, her father was a Captain and whilst he wouldn't have served at Waterloo, maybe she had felt some of the separation and dangers that her character Helen wanted to avoid. Selina Davenport's second novel whilst again being an average novel very much of its day, is generally a more thoughtful work than The Sons.... I feel that she developed some of her thinking from the first novel and that there is again evidence that she has taken on board some of the more radical views of the early 19th century. That is not to suggest that she was a great political/moral thinker or writer, however.
Elizabeth Gaskell described Davenport's work saying, 'about 20 years ago she published a number of works which seem to me not without merit, and may in many instances have afforded innocent amusement in hours when works of higher pretension, requiring greater exertion of mind, might have failed to do so' (RLF File 1247, doc 4). This, on the whole, is a fair assumption of Davenport's work, although I would give a little more credence to its ability to make a reader think, based on the second text above. We should remember also that for someone like Davenport, money was probably the major factor in her writing and that any woman writing to support herself and her children must be given some credit. As Rosalind Miles says, 'do we ever stop to wonder how under such circumstances these women produced anything at all, let alone work of any quality or quantity?' (Miles, 1987: 21).
Davenport wrote in a vein that she knew was popular and that would sell. An intelligent woman obviously, what would she have written if money had not been an issue? At this we can only guess.
Botting, Fred. 1996. The Gothic. London: Routledge.
Colby, Robert. 1968. Fiction with a Purpose. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press.
Howells, Coral Ann. 1978. Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: Athlone.
Mellor, Anne K. 1993. Romanticism and Gender. London: Routledge.
Miles, Rosalind. 1987. The Female Form: Women Writers and the Conquest of the Novel. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Showalter, Elaine. 1977. A Literature of their Own. London: The Women's Press.
Spencer, Jane. 1986. The Rise of the Woman Novelist. Oxford: Blackwell.
Tompkins, J. M. S. 1961. The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800. London: Methuen.