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Elizabeth Dobson Thomas

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Essay on the work of Elizabeth Dobson Thomas, by Wendy Green, May 2003

The Allure of Literary Imitation: A Critical Comparison of Thomas’ The Baron of Falconberg; or, Childe Harolde in Prose, and Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.


In 1815, Elizabeth Thomas’ three-volume novel entitled The Baron of Falconberg; or, Childe Harolde in Prose was published. In the conclusion to this work, Thomas directly addresses the reader and apologises for affixing the title of Byron’s monumental poem to her own. However, she attempts to justify her actions by explaining that, although the poem fills her with admiration, ‘she yet thought it wanted a finish, and she determined to give the public a similar story, with the only sort of finish proper for the occasion’ (Thomas, 1815, III: 233). In so doing, it can be argued that Thomas, in effect, invites comparisons to be drawn between her own work, and that of Byron. It is somewhat ironic that Byron went on to complete the poem himself, publishing the final two cantos in 1816, one year after Thomas had taken the initiative on his behalf.

There are a number of aspects of the poem which Thomas manipulates to suit her own purpose, including, not least, the comparative connection between her own protagonist and that of the Byronic hero, as indicated in the title of her novel. In her quest to provide a ‘finish’ to Byron’s poem, Thomas adopts certain features and traits from the character of Harold, in order to enhance her own interpretation of him. In all, the similarities – and differences – between the two texts are striking.

As Thomas chose to connect the two texts in this way, it will be the intention of this essay to explore the appeal of literary imitation for her. In comparing the two texts, this essay will focus on a number of areas in which resemblance to (and diversity from) the original text is perhaps more pronounced. First, consideration will be given to how the basic literary features of each text compare, before this essay proceeds to examine the relative similarities and differences between the characters of Thomas’ ‘Falconberg’ and Byron’s ‘Harold’. It is to be noted that, due to the widely held belief among scholars and contemporaries of Byron that Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is in fact autobiographical, this section of the essay will also consider aspects of Byron’s life.

Secondly, the dominant themes within the two works will be discussed, with specific reference to how Byron’s influence can be seen in the way Thomas approaches matters concerning religion, and the representation of women. In the hope of having covered the major points of comparison between the two texts, the essay will turn its attention to the extent of literary imitation in Thomas’ work, and the detailed, perhaps somewhat obsessive way in which Thomas’ characters reflect particular aspects of Byron’s own life.

Chapter 1: A Comparison of the Literary Features, and Protagonists
The most apparent difference between Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Thomas’ The Baron of Falconberg; or, Childe Harolde in Prose is indicated within the title of the latter. The shift from verse to prose, and more specifically to the novel genre, can be seen to have been advantageous to Thomas in several ways. First, the novel was a relatively new mode of fiction, having only begun to gain popularity in the 18th century. At the time Thomas was writing, it had not yet become a male-dominated genre, and therefore provided an ideal opportunity for women writers to rival their literary male counterparts.

Secondly, the novel as a form of fiction can be seen to be more conducive to the development of a multi-character plot than admitted by the relatively constrained structures of poetry. In this way, Thomas’ decision to present her version of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in prose, as opposed to verse, is perhaps one way in which she hoped to give Byron’s poem ‘a finish’.

There are a number of other ways in which the two texts show considerable differences. Thomas’ three-volume novel is much longer than the two cantos on which her story is based. Unlike Byron’s poem, in which the narration generates confusion by slipping from the third person to first person and back to third again, Thomas’ voice is continuous throughout the action in the omniscient third person. Although her level of lexis is not quite as elevated as Byron’s elaborate and archaic language, this does not detract from the eloquent and impressive way in which the novel is written. The tone of Thomas’ book is fundamentally didactic; optimistic outbursts of piety and discussion of the sanctity of the Christian religion contrast markedly with the melancholy pessimism which permeates Byron’s poem. Further, the picturesque and sublime landscape motifs of travel poetry are less emphasised in Thomas’ work. Although Falconberg does indeed leave the story on a number of occasions in favour of travelling, the emphasis falls upon the role of religion in the lives of Thomas’ semi-aristocratic characters.

Despite the differences thus far outlined, it is still possible to draw a number of parallels between the texts. The most pronounced of these similarities is to be found in the comparison between the two dominant male protagonists, Falconberg and Harold.
The correlation between these two characters is enhanced when considered alongside the figure of Byron. In a comment representative of the views of many of Byron’s contemporaries and scholars, Walter Scott remarked that, ‘although there is a caution against it in the preface you cannot for your soul avoid concluding that the author as he gives an account of his own travels is also doing so in his own character’ (Rutherford, 1970, 36). Further, McGann states that the view ‘that Harold is in reality the poet Byron prowling about his own poem under an assumed name’ is an argument common among critics (1968, 67). In this autobiographical context, it is to be argued that Thomas not only draws on the identity of Harold in order to furnish the character of Falconberg, but on that of Byron also.

Undoubtedly, the most emphasised characteristic of Falconberg is his lack of religious faith. He is described as a ‘freethinker’ and is therefore ‘dangerous’ (Thomas I: 4). Throughout the novel, the virtuous characters urge Falconberg to ‘investigate … the truths of our holy religion’ (Thomas I: 20). There are numerous attempts throughout the novel to illustrate to Falconberg the errors of his ways. In a speech that might well be directed at the Harold-Byron figure, as well as Falconberg, Dennison explains:
the very weariness you feel, your apathy, your dejection of mind, the disgust which you experience towards all the blessings within your reach, your contempt for the human race, all proceed from the same source, from the want of that fundamental principle, which should animate all human exertions (Thomas II: 42).

Falconberg’s misfortunes, and his subsequent inability to cope with them, are interpreted in terms of his agnosticism. Thomas illustrates this point with Emmeline, who is reluctant to consent to becoming Falconberg’s wife because of their differences ‘in one essential point’ (Thomas II: 131). Ultimately his conversion becomes the supreme goal of the religious characters in the novel.

Falconberg’s lack of faith is not without precedent. The character of Harold is described as ‘given to revel and ungodly glee’ (Byron, 1812, 1: II). Having run ‘through Sin’s long labyrinth’, Harold made no attempt at ‘atonement’ (Byron 1: V). The poet’s own views on religion can be seen emerging in the second canto of the poem:

Even gods must yield – religions take their turn:
’Twas Jove’s – ’tis Mahomet’s; and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars …     (Byron 2: III)

This transitory perspective is in accordance with Byron’s own personal, dismissive opinion on the value of religion. In a letter to the Reverend Francis Johnson in 1811, Byron remarked, ‘I do not believe in any revealed religion … we are miserable enough in this life without the absurdity of speculating on another’ (Walker, 1995).

In this way, Falconberg’s lack of religion can be traced back to the views of Byron. His eventual conversion to Christianity is perhaps the most prominent way in which Thomas can be seen to deviate from Byron’s example, in an attempt to show the merits of religious faith.

As a second point of comparison, Byron can also be credited with influencing Thomas’ portrayal of Falconberg as a man of vice. Well known for his many, often controversial affairs with women and, reputedly, young boys, Byron’s antics led to his reputation as being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ (Hanson, 2003). A similar promiscuity is evident in the character of Harold, who found ‘few earthly things’ favourable, ‘Save concubines and carnal companie’ (Byron, 1: II). Although not apparent to the same extent, Falconberg is also seen to be liberal with his affections. Immediately after the reader is introduced to the character of Falconberg, it is revealed that he keeps ‘a mistress, with whom he spent all his leisure hours’. Thomas strengthens the connection between Byron and Falconberg in her reference to the fact that ‘this woman had been well educated; and Falconberg, in his hours of dalliance, would frequently denominate her his Aspasia’ (Thomas I: 14). Although this may at first appear to be a classical allusion to Aspasia, the first lady of Athens, it is also in fact an alternative appellation of Lady Oxford (Androom, 2002), Byron’s mistress in 1812 and the mother of Lady Charlotte Harley, the 11-year-old girl to whom the lyric ‘To Ianthe’ is dedicated in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Bibliomania, 2003).The fleeting nature of Byron’s affections is parodied in the way in which Falconberg, having been out one day on an excursion with one mistress, returns home having fallen in love with another (Thomas I: 15).

A third instance of the parallel between Falconberg, Harold and Byron is to be found in their common urge to travel. In Thomas’ novel, Falconberg’s desire to travel abroad is fuelled by the loneliness he feels after being deceived by Arabella and Ingleby. He announces his intention to leave England to Dennison, adding ‘it may be, that I shall tread the sacred ground of ancient song – take my flight to the regions of Parnassus – make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land’ (Thomas II: 36). Falconberg claims he is tired of himself, and the world. In a similar vein to his protégé, he claims:

            I hate the insincerity of polished society; I have done with the vanities of life;
Give me nature, unsophisticated nature, the pure unadulterated simplicity of innocence (Thomas II: 36).

Falconberg at length leaves England, and is gone for two years. This detail appears to be an intentional parallel of Byron’s time abroad, between 1809 and 1811, in which he composed the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In a further parity with Byron, Falconberg reveals that he too ‘was in Spain, Portugal and part of Greece’ (Thomas II: 138).

Harold’s urge to travel is instigated by a similar sense of despondency as that described by Falconberg. Having ‘felt the fulness of satiety’, Harold loathed to live in a land which seemed ‘more lone than Eremite’s sad cell’ (Byron 1: IV). Thus, he too decides to leave England, ‘[a]nd visit the scorching climes beyond the sea’ (Byron 1: VI). Falconberg’s reference to Parnassus is a direct allusion to that made by Harold in the first canto of the poem, in which the he remarks ‘Oh thou Parnassus! whom I now survey’ (Byron 1: LX). Since the scenes that are described in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage are experienced by Byron and Harold simultaneously, Thomas’ attempt to link her own character with that of the wandering pilgrim-poet can be seen as yet another example of the extent of her continuing literary imitation.

Thus it can be seen that there are various ways in which Thomas incorporates aspects of the Harold-Byron persona into the figure of Falconberg. In basing her character upon the amoral, profligate and excessive nature of Byron, in the guise of Harold, Thomas is generating a point of contrast with which she can compare Falconberg’s fortunes before and after his conversion to Christianity. From this viewpoint, Thomas’ novel can be interpreted as a warning to Byron, and others, of the dangers of atheism. In the following passage, Dennison attempts to persuade Falconberg to consider the truth of Christianity. However, an alternative approach might view Thomas directly addressing Byron:      

Yours is no common mind; your rank, your fortune, your attainments, elevate you above the common sphere; they bring with them duties of no ordinary importance; you are raised to a dangerous eminence; and your example may be fatal to the peace and happiness of thousands. (Thomas II: 45).

In this way, the example of Falconberg serves as an illustration to Byron of the merits of theology. Thomas highlights how, as a sceptic of religion, Falconberg experiences several instances of personal tragedy, including Arabella’s elopement with Ingleby, the sudden insanity of his fellow reveller Amherst, and the death of Emmeline. However, following his conversion to Christianity, Falconberg is able to cope with both the death of Dennison and the untimely passing of his baby son. Thomas’ example serves to show that, although religion cannot prevent tragic occurrences, it provides a framework through which such incidents can be understood. Perhaps the challenge of instigating Byron’s conversion was part of the allure of imitating his poem.

Chapter 2: Religion and the Representation of Women

In determining ‘to give the public a similar story’ to the one provided by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Thomas effectively gave herself the ability to adapt and modify the dominant themes in the poem to suit her own didactic ends. This can be seen in the way Thomas emphasises religion over politics, friendship over solitude, and the role of women over the merits of nature. Although Byron makes passing references to the issues pursued by Thomas, they are granted much less attention than they are given in The Baron of Falconberg. Similarly, Thomas sidelines the more prominent themes of Byron’s poem in order to further her own cause.

This section of the essay will introduce possibly the two most notable themes of Thomas’ novel: religion and the representation of women – with a view to exploring the extent to which Byron’s influence can be found in her work.

The intense emphasis on the subject of religion is evident from the outset of Thomas’ novel. In their discussion of the relative merits of Falconberg’s character, Dennison and his father, Mr Dennison establish the pious tone which will prevail throughout the book. Hoping for ‘the favour of Heaven’, Dennison believes that ‘Falconberg [cannot] for ever be ungrateful to the God who created him’ (Thomas 1815, I: 5-6). Mr Dennison commends his son for his noble resolution to reform Falconberg’s religious opinions, and ‘trust[s] it will be sanctified by the favour and support of the Almighty’ (Thomas I: 6). He further advises Dennison to ‘act as you have ever done, and you will secure to yourself my approbation, and what is of infinitely higher importance, the approbation of your own heart and the favour and protection of the Almighty’ (Thomas I: 8). It is seen that Dennison is immediately established as the moral, virtuous and revered emblem of the Christian religion. His purpose is not only to illustrate the supremacy of faith to Falconberg, but also to guide him away from his atheistic tendencies.

As the voice associated with the highest merits of religion, Dennison serves as a vehicle through which Thomas can espouse her own devout views. There are a multitude of ways in which Dennison attempts to promote Christianity. One such method involves the attribution of all of Falconberg’s frustrations to his refusal to acknowledge God. In a typical instance of sermonising, Dennison advises Falconberg: ‘You have entered into life without that guiding principle, which can alone lead you safely through its thorny paths; you have formed a false estimate of the very condition in which you are placed; wonder then not at your disappointment’ (Thomas II: 41-2). In a continuation of his endeavour to advance his cause, Dennison flatters Falconberg that his ‘mind has never yet soared to that height to which it is capable of aspiring’ with the guidance of religion (Thomas II: 42). Finally, ‘having found felicity unattainable in every former pursuit’, Dennison recommends ‘it would be worth while, merely for experiment’s sake, to try if it could not be gained by the investigation of truth,’ adding that it is a ‘question which must decide your future happiness or misery to all eternity (Thomas II: 43-4).

In a prophetic statement which foreshadows the outcome of the novel, Dennison foresees a time ‘when I shall convince you, sceptic as you are; you will remember my words when you do not see me; your heart will be softened, and I shall conquer. No earthly triumph’ (Thomas II: 47). Inevitably, Falconberg gradually assents to the will of Dennison. This change is instigated primarily by the premature death of Emmeline. In a letter composed after Dennison has broken the news of Emmeline’s fate to his friend, Falconberg writes:
Those sublime precepts which have taught you sentiments so noble, conduct so exalted, a friendship so above my merit, cannot be unwise; I will endeavour to perfect myself by your example, to tread in your steps: alas! I have much to learn, more if possible, to forget (Thomas III: 34-5).

Within a year of Emmeline’s death, Dennison too becomes dangerously ill. As he lays on his deathbed, Dennison seeks a final opportunity to ensure Falconberg’s conversion. At this point the sheer intensity of Dennison’s preaching reaches a powerful and emotional climax. He urges Falconberg to acknowledge the meaninglessness of ‘the pleasures and hopes of this life’, adding ‘in me you behold their futility’ (Thomas III: 122). Continuing in a highly emotive and persuasive tone, Dennison asserts that ‘there is no earthly calamity for which Religion does not open up to us consolation; she teaches us … that the friends from whom death separates us are only gone before us – that here we have no abiding-place; and that finally, we shall meet again’ (Thomas III: 123). As his sermon approaches its zenith, Dennison’s views on ‘the inexorable dilemma of the romantic ego’, namely, ‘the search for an ideal and perfection that do not exist in the real world’ (Marchland, 1965: 217), are clear:

All the pleasures of this world fall short of expectation, Falconberg, and why is it? it is because the mind of man has a capacity beyond mundane enjoyments, and can only be satisfied with the immortality for which it was created (Thomas III: 125).

In a final, frenzied outburst, Dennison summons his friend, crying, ‘Awake, Falconberg, awake! kneel – pray with me; if you are a Christian, and converted, pray with me!’ Dennison’s death marks the beginning of Falconberg’s religious beliefs. He becomes able to cope with Dennison’s death in a much more subdued manner than the way in which he had formerly dealt with personal tragedy. His life becomes stable, his frivolous antics are restrained, and his marriage to the devout Caroline becomes symbolic of his commitment to Christianity.

The relentless way in which Thomas propels the subject of religion into every aspect of her characters’ lives is irrefutably her own innovation, and is not representative of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In no way does Byron attribute the same time or energy to the pursuit of this theme. Despite similarities in the initial outlook of Falconberg and the religious temperament of Harold, as delineated earlier in this essay, Byron’s poem remains largely incompatible with themes of piety. It seems probable that Thomas agreed with the author of an article in the Christian Observer, who argued that the sentiments of the poem ‘are of a character rather to offend and pollute the mind, than to soothe or improve it’. The author concludes ‘that the temperament of [Byron’s] mind is the ruin of the poem’ (1812, 382). Consequently, it is argued that the perceived deficiencies in the religious integrity of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage became the motivationfor Thomas’ overwhelming emphasis in her own adaptation. It is a prime instance of the way in which she intended to ‘finish’ Byron’s work. An illustration can be made of the second canto of Byron’s poem, which ends on a particularly sombre note. The death of Byron’s mother thrusts the recently returned pilgrim-poet back into his travels in faraway lands. Thomas’ novel, however, concludes with the confirmation of Falconberg’s belief in God, and the subsequent prosperity that a religious life brings. In endeavouring to provide ‘a similar story’ to Byron’s, Thomas deliberately emphasises the contrast between the discontented and lonely disposition of the atheistic Harold, and the comfort and felicity of Falconberg.

Byron’s attitude towards women is less clear than his approach to religion. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage contains various instances of such ambivalence. The narrator in the first canto immediately reveals that Childe Harold partakes in the pleasures of ‘concubines and carnal companie’. However, it is also soon made known that although he had ‘sigh’d to many’ women, ‘he loved but one,/And that loved one could ne’er be his’ (Byron 1: V). The poet soon becomes bitter, claiming ‘[p]omp and power alone are woman’s care’ (Byron1: IX). This multi-faceted representation of women is captured by Thomas, and is manipulated, within the context of her religious beliefs, to produce two female stereotypes.

Arabella Anstruther, indicative of the first ‘type’, is representative of the woman without religion, and therefore morals. As Falconberg falls in love with her, Arabella is described by Thomas as

[V]ain, fond of dress, delighted with admiration; and though she had confessed her love for [Falconberg], she was still inattentive to his happiness, careless of giving him pain, fond of exciting his jealousy, playing with his feelings, and too secure in her power over him (Thomas I: 45).

Whilst Dennison immediately perceives Arabella to be lacking ‘the magical influence of mind’ (Thomas I: 32), Falconberg also begins to detect ‘that, in the character of the woman he had chosen, there was none of that warmth of attachment which could alone satisfy his heart’ (Thomas I: 45). Arabella’s conceited coquetry culminates in her secret marriage to Ingleby, whilst still betrothed to Falconberg. She elopes to Portugal with her new husband, leaving Falconberg distraught.
Two years later, Falconberg falls in love with Dennison’s cousin Emmeline who, along with Caroline (Dennison’s sister), represents Thomas’ second stereotype: the virtuous, wholesome and honest woman. Brought into the Dennison household by the death of her mother, Emmeline becomes the catalyst for Falconberg’s conversion. Her ‘heart was attuned to every gentle emotion, her understanding was improved by education, and her soul beamed in her countenance’ (Thomas II: 93). The kinship between Emmeline and Caroline is emphasised by Thomas in an attempt to demonstrate the companionship of religion. Caroline considers Emmeline ‘with the complacent feelings of a sister, and Emmeline regarded Caroline almost as a second self’ (Thomas II: 66).

However, Falconberg’s confession of love to Emmeline proves difficult for her to accept. Although she admits that she does not regard him with indifference, Emmeline declares that she is reluctant to ‘give [her] heart to one with whom [her] soul can hold no communion, to one who has openly professed himself an infidel’, adding ‘can I unite myself to one for whose eternal welfare I must ever feel the bitterest fears and apprehensions?’ She concludes, ‘I dare not do it’ (Thomas II: 86-7). Emmeline’s hesitance to succumb to Falconberg’s advances is symbolic of her devout beliefs. As a virtuous character, her reluctance is necessary to distinguish her from the negative depiction of Arabella. However, having established that Emmeline considers religious persuasion to be a crucial factor in determining her future happiness, Thomas allows Emmeline to submit to Falconberg, in order to initiate his conversion.

Thomas proceeds to juxtapose the characters of Arabella and Emmeline in a competitive context. Arabella returns from Portugal, unhappy with married life and in pursuit of Falconberg’s affections. However, Arabella soon becomes sensitive to the fact that instead of wishing to renew his relationship with her, ‘Falconberg treated her with that sort of polite indifference, which plainly informed her that he had emancipated himself from her chains; and she was not long in discovering the attachment which directed his attentions towards Emmeline’ (Thomas II: 153). In a move clearly designed to demonstrate her lack of morality, Arabella immediately plans ‘[t]o sow the seeds of dissension between the lovers, to disturb their happiness, to prevent their union with each other’ (Thomas II: 153-54). Although Arabella’s attempts to regain Falconberg’s affections generate hostility within Emmeline, she is perceptive enough to realise that Arabella’s exertions are in vain.

Following the sudden news of Ingleby’s death, Arabella reacts melodramatically and leaves with her mother to recover her husband’s body from Bordeaux. They follow Falconberg, who has left Emmeline for a few days while he attends to business in Ireland. During his absence, Emmeline contracts a cold and becomes dangerously ill. Before her death, she wonders if ‘God perhaps might have punished my presumption, in allying myself to one who had no faith’ (Thomas II: 233). Nevertheless, her dying wish is for Dennison to ensure Falconberg’s conversion.

Emmeline’s death seems a painful, somewhat unfair punishment for Falconberg’s agnosticism. However, for Falconberg to remain heathen and happy simultaneously, would run counter to the aims of Thomas’ novel. In order for Falconberg to live in a state of contentment, it must be shown that he has reconciled himself to the Christian religion. This process is initiated by a combination of his overwhelming grief at Emmeline’s departure, his own desire to fulfil her dying wish, and the encouraging words of Dennison.

Falconberg’s conversion is completed following Dennison’s death. Having shown himself to be a Christian, Thomas finally provides Falconberg with an opportunity for happiness with Caroline.

Thus it can be seen that Thomas presents two models of behaviour in women. The first is a woman possessed by vanity, selfishness and folly. Arabella Anstruther is the physical manifestation of Byron’s description in the second canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

            What careth she for hearts when once possess’d?
            Do proper homage to thine idol’s eyes;
            But not too humbly, or she will despise
            Thee and thy suit, though told in moving tropes:
Disguise ev’n tenderness if thou art wise;
Brisk Confidence still best with woman copes: (Byron 2: XXXIV)

Byron’s sentiments towards the woman described in this stanza are reminiscent of Falconberg’s feelings upon discovering Arabella’s deception. Byron concludes that ‘[t]he paltry prize is hardly worth the cost;/Youth wasted, minds degraded, honour lost,/These are thy fruits, successful Passion! these!’ (Byron 2: XXXV). His resentful, disillusioned tone can easily be aligned with the opinions of Falconberg. It can be argued that, in presenting Falconberg’s pessimism towards women as a direct result of his falling in love with an irreligious woman, Thomas is intimating that Byron’s disillusion is a consequence of the same affliction.

The more tender instances of the poet-pilgrim’s changing attitude towards women are found in lines which indicate that ‘many a time and oft, had Harold loved,/Or dream’d he loved, since rapture is a dream’ (Byron 1: LXXXII). Harold’s ability to love is represented by Falconberg’s attachment to Emmeline. As the second, and infinitely most favoured representation of the two women, Emmeline embodies the characteristics necessary to create a successful relationship. This too, can be interpreted as advice from Thomas to Byron.

Chapter 3: The Extent of Literary Imitation

As this essay has shown, the connections to be made between Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Thomas’ The Baron of Falconberg; or, Childe Harolde in Prose, are considerable. The similarity between the texts derives largely from the fact that Thomas’ novel is, in itself, an audacious example of self-confessed literary imitation. It was not unusual, at the time Thomas was writing, for contemporary authors to mimic part, if not all of a work by their predecessors.[1] Indeed, Thomas was not the first nor last author to re-write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.[2] However, one of the most distinguishing features of Thomas’ novel is the extent to which she incorporates the work of other authors into her own text. As will be illustrated, there are numerous examples of references to a range of famous authors, poems, plays and quotations. The full significance of each of these allusions is a subject worthy of much more attention than the present composition allows. However, this essay will attempt to explore the ways in which Thomas succumbs to the allure of literary imitation, with particular focus on the uncanny coincidences between Thomas’ novel and the events of Byron’s life.

The most apparent – and recurring – way in which Thomas refers to the work of others is to be found in her habit of beginning each of her chapters with a quotation. These extracts predominantly feature the works of Byron. Such occasional pieces as ‘To a Youthful Friend’ (1808), ‘Stanzas Composed During a Thunderstorm’ (1809) and ‘To Thyrza’ (1811), among others, are often cited at the head of chapters. Thomas also draws upon Alexander Pope’s ‘Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate lady’ (1717), Matthew Prior’s ‘Henry and Emma – A Poem Upon the Model of a Nut Brown Maid’ and Thomas Otway’s ‘Venice Preserv’d’(1633) in her attempt to introduce or enhance the ensuing chapter.[3]

An illustration of this technique can be seen in Chapter 1 of the first volume of Thomas’ novel. The overriding theme within this chapter is the relative merits of Falconberg’s character. In an effort to introduce the temperament of Falconberg, Thomas skilfully refers to Byron’s description of Childe Harolde in canto 1, stanza II, of a ‘youth,/Who ne’er in virtue’s ways did take delight;/But spent his days in riot most uncouth.’ With this, the reader’s understanding of Falconberg’s character is enhanced.

A further example of Thomas’ aptitude in providing pertinent quotes is found in Chapter 8 of the third volume. Following his conversion, Caroline’s feelings for Falconberg become more intense. However, she is afraid to acknowledge her affection for him in fear that it is not reciprocated. Thomas encapsulates Caroline’s frustration with a quotation from The Corsair:

            Hath misery made thee blind
            To the fond workings of a woman’s mind?
            And must I say, albeit my heart rebel,
            With all that woman feels, but should not tell? (Byron, 1814, in Thomas III: 114)

There are a multitude of other instances of the ways in which Thomas introduces her own themes through the works of others. It is possible to see the significance of this technique as an opportunity for Thomas to parade her extensive knowledge of literature. Her preoccupation with the works of Byron might be interpreted as a method of maintaining and reiterating the kinship between her own work and that of the pilgrim-poet.

In addition to extensive quotations from the literary works of Byron, Thomas also cites passages from Pope, Milton and, repeatedly, from Shakespeare. An instance of the latter is to be found in Chapter 4 of the second volume, in which Falconberg quotes from As You Like It. He remarks, ‘And you, Dennison, see food for contemplation everywhere,– books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything’ (Thomas II: 61). A further example of Shakespearean quotations in Thomas’ novel appears in Chapter 10 of the second volume. As Arabella insists that her new, outspoken nature is a change for the better, Captain Spanfield, a marginal character in the novel, exclaims ‘Only this commendation can I afford you … that were you other than you are, you were unhandsome’ (Thomas II: 198). Spanfield’s outburst is attributable to the character of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, who remarks ‘only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other than as she is, I do not like her’ (I,i: 181-84). Thomas’ novel is littered with such references. Again, the significance of these allusions appears to be an attempt to enhance the validity of the characters by demonstrating their literary knowledge and awareness, whilst simultaneously drawing attention to Thomas’ own ability to apply examples of famous literature to her work.

However, there are ways in which it can be seen that Thomas utilised her practice of literary imitation to pass comment on the events surrounding Byron’s life. The most discernible example of this can be seen in the way Thomas refers to the perceived rivalry between Byron and Walter Scott. ‘Scott had resented Byron’s attack on him in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’, and although Byron later ‘apologised for his offensiveness’ (Rutherford 1970: 36), a spirit of gentlemanly rivalry between them, although not necessarily generated by them, remained.[4] Thomas refers to a number of Scott’s works at varying length. Short quotations from Marmion are found in Chapter 10 of the second volume of Thomas’ novel (Thomas II: 191). A more protracted illustration is provided in Chapter 4 of the first volume, in which the conversation between Falconberg, Dennison, Arabella and Lady Anstruther turns to a recently published work entitled Jokeby. This poem is a burlesque of Scott’s Rokeby; the authorship is disputed. Thomas is critical of both versions, through the voices of her characters:

            Lady Anstruther expressed her dislike to [Jokeby] in very strong language.
‘I am no admirer of Rokeby,’ said Falconberg, ‘for I think it vastly inferior to Mr. Scott’s other works … (Thomas I: 56)

It is perhaps fitting that Falconberg, the character with whom it is possible to draw distinct parallels with both Harold and Byron, is the most prominent source of criticism. However, in an ironic comment on this parody of Rokeby, Falconberg adds:

I disapprove of the imitation, it is so extremely low; neither do I think it requires any genius to imitate a poem – a mere facility at rhyming is all that is necessary. I think I could undertake to run over a whole poem in a very few hours; and the more beautiful the prototype, the easier would be the task (Thomas I: 56-7).

It is unclear whether Thomas was being modest at her own imitation of a poem, or indeed became so involved in launching criticism at the author of Jokeby, that she forgot that her own present composition was made of the very same.

Having asserted his ability to ‘run over a whole poem’, Falconberg is asked by Arabella to write a poem in imitation of Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Although he accepts the challenge, Falconberg is ‘sorry to do so, for it is a work I passionately admire’ (Thomas I: 57). Nevertheless, in a gesture which emphasises the extent of literary imitation in her work, Thomas, through the character of Falconberg, writes an extensive, six-canto parody of Scott’s work, and places it within a novel intended to be an adaptation of Byron’s work.

Falconberg’s version of The Lay of the Last Minstrel is entitled ‘Dorothy Day, A New Minstrel Lay’ and contains many of the features of Scott’s original poem. It is not possible to give the satire the attention it deserves here, since such an undertaking could rival the present composition in length. However, attention will be given to a number of ways in which the parody can be seen to work.

Falconberg’s poem is broadly in line with the original ballad. For example, whilst Scott sets the action of his poem around Branksome Hall, Falconberg’s leading character resides in Buckland Hall (Thomas I: 68). A general sense of the tone of the parody is gained when contrasted against the original. To illustrate, the seventh stanza in Scott’s first canto states:

            Such is the custom of Branksome Hall
            Many a valiant knight is here;
            But he, the chieftain of them all,
            His sword hangs rusting on the wall,
Beside his broken spear (Scott 1: 7).

In a humorous change of manner, Falconberg’s parody of the same stanza follows thus:
            Such is the custom of Buckland hall,
            Many a lazy lout is there;
            The farmer, chiefest of them all,
            His scythe hangs rusting on the wall,
            Beside his broken chair (Thomas I: 70).

This contrast is generally representative of the tone of the whole of Falconberg’s poem. In mocking Scott’s archetype, Thomas appears to be rallying behind Byron. She is, therefore, involving herself in one of the prominent literary deliberations of her time, namely, the question over which poet was greatest.

Despite Thomas’ claim that ‘no human individual ever sat for a portrait here exhibited’ (Thomas III: 234), it is possible to draw tentative connections between Arabella Anstruther and the women who were associated with Byron. Indeed, the similarities begin with the fact that Thomas’ character shares her name with two such women. Princess Arabella Stuart was the cousin of King James I, and great-grandmother to Byron. Anne Isabella Milbanke, whose name was shortened to ‘Arabella,’ became Byron’s wife in 1815 (Strickland 1974: 67). Described as ‘both intelligent and spoiled’, Arabella Milbanke ‘began to attract attention with her deliberately reserved character and physical beauty’ (Hanson 2003). This description is reminiscent of the Thomas’ depiction of Arabella Anstruther, who similarly ‘had been from childhood accustomed to think herself of the first consequence to all around’ (Thomas II: 150). The difference between the two ladies, however, is apparent in Strickland’s portrayal of Milbanke:

[T]he round of balls and calls bored her and she was uninterested in such feminine frivolities as clothes. She felt herself to be of superior intellect and arrogantly conscious of more important matters. In addition she was obsessed by a prim morality against which she measured all whom she met … (69)

This description could not be further from the description of Arabella Anstruther. In an excerpt from The Baron of Falconberg; or, Childe Harolde in Prose, intended to illustrate this contrast, Arabella’s fondness of the aforementioned ‘feminine frivolities’ is emphasised:
            ‘That hat of yours is enough to heat anyone’ said Lady Anstruther. ‘Don’t, in
            mercy, my dear mamma, call it by so vulgar a name; it is the very zenith of
            elegance, and is denominated by madam Fantail the ladies chapeau bras
            (Thomas II: 148).

Neither would it be appropriate to denote Arabella Anstruther as ‘obsessed by a prim morality’. For the latter scenes in which she appears, Arabella’s excessive behaviour, highlighted in her repeated attempts to regain the affections of Falconberg, is suggestive of the equally (if not more) obsessive conduct of Lady Caroline Lamb. After the relationship between Byron and Lamb began to fade in 1813, ‘Caroline clung on blindly, incapable of believing it, on the verge of lunacy at the shattering of her dream … Wherever she went she bombarded Byron with letters’ (Strickland, 54). Arabella also sent letters to Falconberg. The first of Arabella’s notes, in Chapter 10 of the second volume, is accidentally found by Emmeline (Thomas II: 172). The second letter, sent anonymously to Falconberg’s home, is intended to cast doubts on his fidelity to his wife – ironically, also named Caroline (Thomas III: 203).

Thus it can be seen that, although highly speculative, it is possible to perceive similarities between Arabella Anstruther and the women with whom Byron was involved. The negative connotations which arise from associating Byron’s two mistresses with the unsavoury character of Arabella can be interpreted in terms of Thomas’ own disapproval of these women. It is without doubt that Thomas became particularly offended by the ‘pernicious tendency’ (Thomas, 1818, vii) of Lamb’s novel Glenarvon (1816), a book ‘intended to be a serious indictment of a false society peopled by transparently identifiable luminaries, with Byron and herself the central figures’ (Strickland, 55). The ‘unjust representation’ of Byron as ‘a man depicted totally worthless, yet irresistible and fascinating’ (Thomas, 1818, viii), impelled Thomas to retaliate against Lamb. As a result, she published ‘Purity of Heart; or, The Ancient Costume’ (1816), yet another example of literary imitation, and addressed it ‘to the author of Glenarvon’. Although the book generated mixed reviews, it can be deemed representative of the lengths to which Thomas was prepared to travel in order to protect the reputation of a man whose only fault, in her opinion, was his lack of religious faith.
The allure of literary imitation for Thomas extended beyond the merely superficial displays of her vast abilities to recall literature. The technique of using other works, and indeed other people, as vehicles through which it was possible to pass comment on the actions of one of the most prominent men in English literature, was brazen, yet admirable. It seems doubtful that Thomas was intentionally parasitic in the way she repeatedly parodied the works of others. Her overarching aim is more likely to have been benevolent. The spirit in which Thomas presents The Baron of Falconberg; or, Childe Harolde in Prose, is one of inducement. Her purpose is to educate her audience away from agnosticism, into a life of religion. In allying her protagonist with the Byronic figure of Childe Harold, Thomas attempts to convey her message to the pilgrim-poet also.

In critically comparing Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Thomas’ The Baron of Falconberg; or, Childe Harolde in Prose, a number of similarities are seen to occur. One of the most prominent likenesses is found in the description of the character of Falconberg. Undoubtedly based on the excessive nature of Harold, it is likely, given the autobiographical way in which the poem was written, that Thomas’ character is also cast from Byron’s mould. The ultimate aim in allying Falconberg to the Harold-Byron figure is to highlight the contrast between living in sin – a position represented by the latter – and pursuing a life under the guidance of Christianity. The religious motif within the text is propounded at every opportunity. The intensity of Thomas’ exhortations is unequivocally the most prominent feature of the novel. Here can be seen the most pronounced difference with Byron’s poem.

Another disparity between the two texts is found in the ways in which each author represents women. While the women with whom the Harold-Byron model associates are generally harlots and mistresses, the female characters in Thomas’ novel are separated by their religious conviction. Arabella is personified negatively; she is vain, conceited and cares little for anyone but herself. She is, therefore, Thomas’ conception of an agnostic woman. Emmeline and Caroline, however, are portrayed infinitely more favourably. They are virtuous, thoughtful and deserving, and represent the characteristics of Christianity. Both stereotypes are evident in Byron’s poem. It appears that not only was Thomas using the framework of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to generate comparisons between religion and atheism, but also as a medium through which she hoped she could communicate the merits of Christianity to Byron himself.

This view is supported by the fact that Thomas draws upon several occurrences in Byron’s life in order to comment on the pre-eminence of religion. Substantiating this claim is the way in which Thomas repeatedly refers to the work of Scott, perhaps Byron’s greatest rival. Another instance is found in the hidden allusions to Arabella Milbanke and Lady Caroline Lamb. Both of these examples can be interpreted as part of the ingenious way in which Thomas was able to incorporate the practice of literary imitation into her work. The appeal of so doing, it can be argued, is not only in providing her with an opportunity not only to showcase her own talent, but also to persuade Byron of the incalculable value of religion.


BV Need to check this out

[1] For full correspondence with Isobel Grundy, see Appendix A1-5.

[2] For evidence of Benjamin Thomas’ matriculation, see Joseph Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses, appendix C9.

[3] For full transcript of the preface to The Confession; or, The Novice of St. Clare, and Other Poems see appendix D1.

1[4] See article ‘On Literary Imitation’, appendix C1,

2[5] See private correspondence with Peter Cochran, appendix A6-10

3[6] For full list of the sources of Thomas’ references, see appendix D2.

4/8[7] See article ‘Which is the Best Poet, Lord Byron, or Walter Scott Esq.’ Appendix C2