Biographical Account of Elizabeth & Jane Purbeck by Samantha Gibbs
Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck are two of the more obscure authors, as they refer to themselves, whose work is included in the Corvey Collection. As such, it has proved extremely difficult to establish biographical information relating to their lives. However, it has been possible to obtain a comprehensive list of their publications and there are some grounds for making assumptions about the sisters, based on established facts about female authors of the period and particular references in the works studied.
The Purbecks were joint novelists publishing in London. Their first novel, Honoria Sommerville (1789) is the entertaining progression of the heroine from foundling babyhood to ‘that real happiness so seldom experienced by humanity’. This was followed by their first epistolary novel, Raynsford Park (1790) and William Thronborough, The Benevolent Quixote (1791). The hero of the latter has been likened to Sir Charles Grandison, and acts as the linking device for disparate episodes within the novel. Matilda and Elizabeth (1796) used the epistolary form again, and contrasts the temperaments and fates of two sisters, one of whom is marriageable and the other who thinks herself widowed until her husband resurfaces from the American war. The gently satirical History of Sir George Warrington, or The Political Quixote (1797) followed. Their final novel, Neville Castle, or The Generous Cambrians (1802) is notable for its sympathy for the French Revolution, dating before the Terror, and its controversial discussion of novelists.
Like the majority of women writers at this time their work dwells on the culture, values and power of the gentry but they were probably of the professional middle class. There is no existing record of an application for financial assistance to the Royal Literary Fund and, unusually, their writing does not explore issues of wealth, despite Copeland’s assertion that ‘women of all ranks . . . addressed the subject of women and money in their works’ (Copeland1995:5). It is therefore likely that the quantity of writing they produced during their thirteen-year literary career provided sufficient income for the sisters to maintain at least a reasonable standard of living. It is probable that they lived together for the majority of their lives and shared a joint income. Up until about 1780 the majority of women writers were married, but by 1790 many were spinsters and, like the Purbecks, published anonymously, a frequent but not general practice.
As discussed in the critical essay, an exploration of the nature of sisterhood is evident in both of the novels studied. In all cases, sisters are parted for long periods of time and I have suggested that this may be based on the actual experience of the authors. A separation from one another may well have been the reason for their ‘ill health and a combination of melancholy circumstances’, a fate suffered by all of the sisters in their works.
The publications of Elizabeth and Jane Purbeck include novels in picaresque and epistolary form, and a satirical novel probably based on Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison. They experimented with various styles but essentially remained within the realm of ‘popular’ fiction with a moralistic didactic function.
Secondary Works Consulted
Blain, Virginia; Clements, Patricia; Grundy, Isobel (1990) The Feminist Companion to Literature in English Batsford
Copeland, Edward (1995) Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820 CUP
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