Essay on the work of Mary G. Lewis, by Tracy Barnes, May 2001
This study will attempt to evaluate two novels by Mary G Lewis, Ambition and The Jewish Maiden. These novels were published in 1825 and 1830 respectively, at the height of the Romantic era. The study will begin by exploring Lewis’ fictitious lands and castle of Gwynne-Arthur in Ambition, with reference to the actual area of South Glamorgan in Wales, and its castles, that still exist today. This will help to provide the reader with an understanding of Lewis’ background as it relates to both her novels. The evaluation of both novels will include Lewis’ thematic concerns, literary conventions and stereotypes.
Castle Gwynne was a specimen of the ancient architecture of Wales; it was a rather low building, but very extensive, and displaying much of the elegance of former days. The site was remarkably high, the park in which it stood was well stocked with wood and water, the upper windows might command a distant view of the Bristol Channel, the cwm was situated on the slope which stretched from the back of the castle to the high road, and, altogether, it had a noble appearance from the carriage-way that wound round the bottom of the lawn. The prospect from the castle was grand and romantic; rivers, forests and mountains, met the view without intermission, interspersed here and there with the ruins of an ancient monastery or fortress (Ambition, vol1: 39).
Carreg Cennen Castle, a few miles north of Swansea on a minor road off the A483, is said to be one of the most spectacularly sited Welsh castles. Spellbinding views are waiting to be experienced from the sharp hilltop upon which the castle sits.1 The magnificent views are of Black Mountain and the beautiful Welsh countryside. The Welsh stronghold of Carreg Cennen was demolished in the early 13th century, and also much of the interior in 1462, after the Wars of the Roses. The castle’s owners unfortunately had sided with the Lancastrians, and so the castle was considered a threat to the monarchy. Early in the 19th century, the owners of the castle were the earls of Cawdor, who continued to hold the castle well into the 20th century. Lewis does actually mention ‘Castle Carrig’ (Ambition, vol I: 58), but in the novel it is actually occupied by the characters Mr and Mrs Forrester, who claim that only half the castle is in a fit state to be inhabited.
‘Do not call them Welsh … we do not, or, rather, ought not to understand the word; it belongs not to our language, it is a term applied to us by foreigners, by Saisons. We are a remnant of the ancient Britons, the name of our founder was Camber, our country is Cambria, ourselves Cambry, or Cambrians, and our language is Camberaec; Wales, Welch, and Welchman, are names which custom alone had rendered familiar to our ears; we do not understand their meaning. What! Shall the Briton condescend to adopt the Saisonaec appellation? Are we to call ourselves strangers on the little spot of native territory which the Saison has left us? Small is the portion they have allowed us, and shackled is the noble spirit which once made Cambria formidable to her enemies; let us not bend in this also!’ (Ambition, vol II: 156).
It is unusual and highly improbable, then as now, for an English person to know Welsh. Due to their domestic situation and other constraints of contemporary society, women authors of this period were often limited to writing about topics and places they were closely connected with. Often this included the domestic sphere.
Turning through a hoop, and flying along the terrace, without touching the ground; and that, at the very moment he was speaking, there were two little men in green, jumping from the tops of the tall trees to the roof of the castle (Ambition, vol I: 180)
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English garden design was moving away from the formality of perfect symmetry towards what is now known as the landscape garden. This gave people the chance to express themselves through garden design, and also opened up new possibilities in literature:
The rise of the landscape garden and with the contemporary interest in the link between perception and emotion that the interaction of the landscape with the emotions moved to the fore, and both natural and artificial spaces began to be put to use in fiction.5
Characters’ responses to their environment often express their state of mind; Lewis conveys this in her novel Ambition through the voice of Captain Glendower: ‘the view is very charming, but when the mind is pleased every object wears an agreeable aspect’ (Ambition, vol I: 149). However, the only time Lewis uses landscape for this purpose is just after the death of Lord Anthony’s father and on his first acquaintance with Captain Glendower. It is shortly before Lord Anthony is introduced to Mabel, the Captain’s daughter, with whom he falls in love at first sight. Before this, Lord Anthony is taking a walk alone by the river. Although he is saddened and numbed by the death of his father, Lewis’s prose signals to the reader that a new chapter is about to open up in Lord Anthony’s life:
The yellow and lilac boughs above, gently agitated by the softly moving zephyr, imparted fresh odour from having been newly washed in a fragrant shower; the clear blue sky peeped out at intervals from its fleecy covering of white, and looked like so many sapphires set in silver, the birds sang merrily as their little wings bore them from spray to spray; the river flowed on in silence, and everything appeared so soothing and serene, that all nature seemed to be waking into health and happiness (Ambition, vol I: 138– 39)
With the metaphors of spring, new awakenings, new beginnings and the cloud with the silver lining, we anticipate Lord Anthony’s senses being reawakened. The birds flying from branch to branch are a strong sexual motif. It is not surprising that Lord
In no area of literature have women writers been subjected to such earnest, constant, and contradictory advice as the literature of love. Women are the passionate sex, they are told, and therefore love is their natural subject; but they must not write about it…Then criticism invades the literary woman’s life. If a woman who writes about love is alive, she is subjected to insulting gossip, rude proposals … (Moers: 143–44).
The use of landscape often connotates sexual symbolism. Anything that protrudes from the landscape, such as trees or mountains, can be seen as phallic symbols. On the other hand, anything low, deep or with an opening is symbolic of female genitals. On his meeting Captain Glendower, Lord Anthony’s view of the landscape changes drastically. In a sense, it seems as though the Captain is metaphorically offering his daughter to Lord Anthony as they walk through the countryside:
The meadow sloped on either side towards the river, and they walked on the margin of the stream beneath a row of waving poplars; the ground gradually ascended, and the stream becoming wider and deeper, wandered majestically between two luxuriant hills, dashing here and there over pieces of rock and loose ground; forming cataracts and whirlpools in miniature (Ambition, vol I: 147).
Of course the Captain does not consciously encourage Lord Anthony’s affection towards his daughter. His intention is in fact to prevent them from meeting each other at all, so as not to tempt fate towards a relationship he considers would be doomed before it could even begin. ‘There is no love like first love,’ (Ambition, vol I: 169), Lewis’ soliloquy begins. She places an emphasis on Lord Anthony’s love for Mabel, that true love which really does conquer all obstacles before it:
Love is the foundation, the root, the master-piece, of all the fine emotions of the heart; and pity, friendship, esteem and veneration, are but the branches of the same prolific tree … But true love is as distinct from passions as bravery is from desperation; affection, like courage, must flow on in one smooth, regular, and continued stream, neither overflowing its banks nor shrinking within its boundaries, removing every obstacle, and overpowering every difficulty, without making any display of its own prowess (Ambition, vol I: 197).
Lewis also warns about pure lust, which is sometimes mistaken for love:
It is not love, nor valour, that breaks out with whizzing violence, at unexpected and often unseasonable periods, and, like a Jack-o’-lantern on a dark night, leads a man across a bog, moor, and mountain, until he has lost his way in a slough, or broken his neck over a precipice; this is not love, this is madness, yet how oft will early affection assume its guise (Ambition, vol I: 197–98).
True love plays the most important part in both Ambition and The Jewish Maiden. The two heroines, Mabel in Ambition and Miriam in The Jewish Maiden, fall in love with a man out of their reach. Neither of them is willing to sacrifice or betray their own feelings and choose another man to marry who is within reach. They both consign themselves to loving from a distance and facing the rest of their lives as spinsters. No one else can take the places of their true loves. By doing this they are being faithful, not to the men they are in love with (because these men are not even aware of this love), but to themselves.
It is suggested that a distinction was made at this time between romantic literature and the novel (Spender: 13–14). Romances were about fantastical figures in faraway places, while novels were about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. This distinction also applied to gender: women wrote romantic literature and men wrote novels. Even though women began to focus less on romances among princes and princesses, and more on relationships between ordinary people in order put realism into their work and to be taken more seriously, they were, and still often are today, labelled ‘romantic’ writers:
Virtually all women novelists from Jane Austen to Mary Gordon, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Margaret Drabble, Alice Walker – and Barbara Cartland – are broadly categorised as writers of romance in contemporary literary circles (Spender: 14).
Although neither of Lewis’ heroes is a foreign prince, both of them are amongst the upper classes, and higher in the social ladder than their respective heroines. Lord Anthony in Ambition is a Welsh earl whose heroine is the daughter of a soldier. Glanville in The Jewish Maiden has inherited his uncle’s estate and status; his love is the daughter of a Jew. The class struggle appears to be an issue in both Lewis novels, but the romantic interest distracts from it.
Most 19th-century women writers focused on relationships between the sexes, and on their heroine’s choice of marriage partner. The choice of marriage partner was an important issue, and often the most important event in a woman’s life. By reshaping romance into realism, women more often than not wrote about their own experiences in real life, about their position, love and marriage. The character of a heroine, therefore, was sometimes a reflection of the author herself. The conventional heroine was an intelligent young woman. She had the right to determine the course of her life by choosing her own marriage partner. But because 18th-century fictional heroines were supposed to set an example to their sex, they became very dull and unbelievable characters:
According to the current negative ideal of female virtue; a character whose salient quality is blameless cannot convincingly carry the interest of a novel (Spender: 82).
Heroines had to be virtuous, but authors had to be careful when providing them with adventures. ‘The very word adventure in connection with a woman implies a loss of virtue’ (Spender: 19), so to provide a woman with an adventure would make her an unfit heroine. However, certain devices were developed which allowed authors to create heroines who clearly retained their virtue, but who also had their share of adventure. One device that is used by Lewis in both novels is the motherless daughter. Lack of information about the world, which the heroine would have normally received from her mother, could leave her open to a number of dramatic possibilities without impugning her virtue. If the heroine has no role model to follow then she is excused and considered blameless for any compromising position she finds herself in. In Ambition, Mabel’s mother dies before her father. Mabel is then free for adventure and sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who clearly do not provide good role models. Her aunt’s aim is to marry Mabel off as quickly as possible. In The Jewish Maiden, there is no mention of Miriam’s mother at all. Exactly who raised both of Schreiber’s daughters remains a mystery. It clearly wasn’t Schreiber, whom we can assume wouldn’t lower himself to do what he would view as woman’s work, as he thinks all women degenerates. Miriam, therefore, has no role model to follow. When her father dies, she is able to have an adventure of her own. Both Mabel and Miriam, however, follow the 19th-century convention of perfection in heroes and heroines. Any flaw or mistake the Lewis heroes make is through no fault of their own. For Lord Anthony, it was his mother’s ambition at fault; for Glanville, it was his uncle’s greed and vanity.
It is natural to create a villain who embodies traits of those groups that society considers evil, for this not only makes the character acceptable as a villain but also this enables the author to draw upon an existing emotional attitude in his readers (Naman: 9).
Traits and characteristics which came to represent the image of the Jew included an aquiline nose, long grey hair and beard, and piercing black eyes. When portrayed in fiction they would often have the characteristics of avarice and vanity, in part to minimise the faults of other characters.
He was a little man, about the age of fifty, or more, with piercing black eyes, eyebrows arched and full, an aquiline nose, sharp like an eagles beak, an olive-tinted complexion, and beard not remarkable for its stunted growth. He wore a dressing gown of coarse grey camlet, which was shabby and threadbare, and a grey worsted nightcap, drawn partially over his curling jetty hair (The Jewish Maiden, vol I: 161).
Lewis uses many contrasts to portray Schreiber’s image in as much unfavourable light as possible. Schreiber’s place of business, furnished with shabby old desks and chairs and covered with dust and cobwebs, is in complete contrast to the magnificence of his home. There we find luxurious couches, Chinese vases, marble tables, wall-to-wall Persian carpets, and original oil paintings, which, we are told, were probably acquired through shady dealings. Schreiber’s personal appearance also alters:
He wore long yellow silk hose, drawn over a pair of fine black velvet pantaloons – his slippers were of black velvet, with gold tassles – a long black dressing gown, lined with cloth of gold, and a velvet cap, which displayed some goodly specimens of gold embroidery; his beard was combed, and anointed with precious odours; and his olive features provided a fine contrast to the gold and sable, in which, like a wasp, he fluttered through his spacious abode (The Jewish Maiden, vol I: 167).
Wasps do tend to sting, but the warning bells still do not ring for Glanville, ‘Another lesson,’ thought he, ‘on the subject of judging from appearances’ (The Jewish Maiden, vol I: 172).
Schreiber’s family, his son Nathaniel and two daughters, Rosetta and Miriam, are totally different in nature to their father. Even though they have the same Jewish features, Nathaniel has ‘sparkling black eyes’ as opposed to his father’s piercing ones, and ‘a perfectly formed Christian beard’, and his daughters’ ‘Jewish features were delicately shaped’ (The Jewish Maiden, vol I: 173–75).
Whom they looked on as a kind of superior domestic animal, well qualified to keep the keys, and scold the servants, and prepare the home for the reception of the lordly sex (The Jewish Maiden, vol I: 184).
Rosetta and Miriam are used to promote the interests of the family, and as ornaments to display jewels, but are not worthy of further notice. Habitual submission has taught them obedience and they speak only when spoken to, and offer no opinions or influence of their own. They are skilled in accounts, bookkeeping, embroidery, cooking and flower-arranging. Their father and brother have sometimes taken them out to the theatre, only so that their father’s vanity can be gratified by showing off their diamonds. Otherwise they are shut up in their home, and are meant to stay that way until they are married. Marriages have been arranged for both girls. They are inexperienced with the outside world and all their knowledge they have acquired from books.
Eagleton, Mary and Pierce, David, Attitudes to Class in The English Novel from Walter Scott to David Storey (Thames & Hudson, 1979)
Fergus, Jan, Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel (Barnes & Noble Imports, 1983)
Kelly, Gary, Women, Writing, and Revolution 1790-1827 (OUP, 1993)
Lewis, Mary G, Ambition (3 vols; Cadell, 1825)
------, The Jewish Maiden (4 vols; A. K. Newman and Co., 1830)
Literary Chronicle No. 321 (July 1825): 435–36
Miles, Rosalind, The Female Form: Women Writers and the Conquest of the Novel (Routledge, 1987)
Moers, Ellen, Literary Women (OUP, 1985)
Monthly Magazine No. 60 (1825): 153
Naman, Anne Aresty, The Jew in the Victorian Novel (AMS Press, 1980)
News of Literature and Fashion Vol. 2 No.54 (18 June, 1825): 397
Spender, Dale, Living By the Pen, Early British Women Writers (Teachers’ College Press, 1992)
Ward, William S, Literary Reviews in British Periodicals 1821-1826 (Garland Publishing, 1977)
<www.geocities.com/Broadway/Alley/5379/minor.html> Women Playwrights 1650-1850, Mary G. Lewis, Cardiff Castle, 1823 6.4.01