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Susannah Gunning

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Essay on the work of Susannah Gunning, by Nasreen Hussain, May 2001

‘Crimes of Fashion’: Susannah Gunning’s morality tales Anecdotes of the Delborough Family and Fashionable Involvements

Like many contemporary novelists of her day, Susannah Gunning wrote novels of sensibility which targeted a primarily female audience. Work such as Anecdotes of the Delborough Family (1792) and Fashionable Involvements (1800) have in common with her earlier works Barford Abbey (1768) and Coombe Wood (1770) that their plots focus on damsels in distress, villainy and ‘fashionable’ crime set against a background of aristocratic society. Where she differs to an extent from most of her contemporaries, however, is that her novels are often satirical.
Susannah Gunning’s writing reveals an obsession with upper-class society; like ‘most novel writers during the Romantic period … [she] dwells on the way of life, culture, values and power of the dominant class in society’ (Kelly: 9) as reflected in, as one less fulsome critic has phrased it, narratives that concentrate on ‘aristocratic gatherings which are pale anticipations of Vanity Fair’ (Tompkins: 173).
Gunning consistently uses the backdrop of the ton for her novels as a way of educating her mainly female audience in the ways and mores of upper-class society. As one critic stated in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1802), the pleasure of novel reading ‘consists in the reader’s being introduced into the acquaintance of a class of personages of superior wealth and rank, of extraordinary virtues and extravagant vices, with whom he is not likely to become familiar in any other way’ (Kelly: 7). This suggests that Susannah Gunning knew her literary market well, and was thus able to ensure that her audience was left feeling reasonably satisfied.
Gunning educated her audience by taking a moral stance, like her contemporary Clara Reeve, who states in her innovative overview and history of prose fiction Progress of Romance that ‘the great and important duty of a writer is, to point out the difference between virtue and crime, to show one as rewarded, and the other punished’ (Tompkins: 142). This moral stance shall be analysed by exploring the theme of the quest to be fashionable and how it leads to crime in Gunning’s Anecdotes of the Delborough Family and Fashionable Involvements.
Susannah Gunning’s concern with fashionable society is fairly consistent in both of these novels, which she explores in her typically hyperbolic style of writing. Hyperbole is her method of satire; she satirises the snobbish world of upper-class aristocracy. We find that even the two terms ‘fashion’ and ‘crime’ take on distinct and innovative definitions in her work. Susannah Gunning uses ‘fashion’ to signpost the social position of the aristocracy, while ‘crime’ is used as shorthand to mean moral corruption.
Of course, moral corruption was a theme consistently explored by other women writers. Aphra Behn, for example, penned The Amours of Philander and Sylvia: Being the Third and Last Part of the Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister over 100 years before Gunning’s works, in 1687, revealing the ‘moral decline’ of her characters in episodes such as when ‘Sylvia comes to eye Octavio’s jewels as well as his person’ (Todd, 1989: 82).
Janet Todd has written that ‘Mrs Gunning’s is not a simple narrative of plain facts, for she brings to her creation all the arts of fiction’ (1983: 103). This rings true for Anecdotes of the Delborough Family and Fashionable Involvements as well, in which we come across class snobbery, Richardsonian virtue and moral corruption. Susannah Gunning attacks the fashionable aristocratic society through the crimes that take place in Anecdotes of the Delborough Family and Fashionable Involvements, and the inevitable ripple effect caused by these crimes on family life.
First, Susannah Gunning introduces the world of fashion to her readers. In Fashionable Involvements she concentrates on the upper-class society to which Lord and Lady Isleworth belong. She presents Lord and Lady Isleworth as a dissipated duo whose existence centres round squandering wealth and purchasing material goods which trumpet their prestige and fashionable status. The novel’s opening scene reveals that this fashionable couple have already fallen under the looming shadow of crime, however – in the form of bankruptcy and debt. This state of affairs has been brought about by their own vices, namely greed and a gambling habit. The Isleworths are also shown to be amoral because of their profligacy and love of material goods:
The heads of the horses were now turned towards the city; but on her way to Parker’s, in Fleet Street, she stopped at many other shops; and; as far as can be said to buy without laying out money, she bought silks, flowers, and feathers, to a large amount. The last object that hung itself out to catch her notice was suspended from a pawn brokers window – it was a watch and chain studded with diamonds (Gunning, 1800, vol II: 58).
Susannah Gunning’s portrayal of Lady Isleworth shows that she has already succumbed to the temptations of fashion, which is why she appears to be completely oblivious to her ruined state. This attitude is also reflected in her weak husband, Lord Isleworth. Gambling was of course considered, in general society, a quite legitimate pastime for a gentleman – as for example depicted in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when Mr Wickham faces a ‘debt of two thousand pounds’ because of his gambling habits (Austen, 1796: 99). Both characters are aware of their dissipation, but unconcerned by it, even when it threatens to lead to debt and even bankruptcy. The reader’s feelings of disapproval over the Isleworths’ lack of concern is manipulated successfully by Susannah Gunning, who manages to control her audience’s emotions by portraying these two characters in a very negative light. Her characters are portrayed in this negative light in order for her to show the corrupt face of upper-class society.
Debt and bankruptcy also make up the world of Anecdotes of the Delborough Family, taking voice in the form of the avaricious old banker, Darlington:
‘Favour , Sir, why do you talk to me about favours! I know the fellows person it is true, but even with his name I am unacquainted, he may be a footman for ought I know to the contrary, as to merit, conduct, character, and all that, look ye Sir James, they are beneath my notice, it is a father’s business to mind the main chance: had she married a lord, or a son of a lord, I might have forgiven her, but to bring into a family like mine, a nobody – a worse than a nobody – mean spirit undutiful huffy, not a shilling shall she finger from my bags, no not to save her from famine, will I ever advance a sixpence’ (Gunning, 1792, vol I: 8).
The character of Darlington is similar to Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge; he is a miser with no morals because he has long since sacrificed good character in the pursuit of title and wealth. His greed to obtain fashionable status is painfully obvious when he shows a willingness to sacrifice his daughter’s happiness for a mere title. This careful portrayal reveals the shallow nature of the old banker, whose morals have long since become corrupted by wealth.
The main family in Anecdotes are the Fairfaxes. They experience a change in social status, indicated by their relocation to Berkley Square, where they climb into the fashionable world of aristocracy. Their move up, however, signals their moral downfall, when they fall victims to the crimes of bankruptcy and debt.
At this stage we find that Susannah Gunning borrows a page from Thomas Surr’s novel A Winter in London; or Sketches of Fashion (1806; Kelly: 81), in which he criticises the fashionable upper-class London scene. Susannah Gunning also criticises this scene, which has ruined both the Fairfaxes and the Isleworths. By portraying them as victims of their vices, Gunning shows us how they become susceptible to further crimes. Both plots in the novel reveal how morally corrupt fashionable upper-class society is.
In Fashionable Involvements, this moral corruption takes a serious turn. Susannah Gunning introduces the reader to yet another crime caused by bankruptcy and debt. This takes the form of swindling estate property and stealing jewellery. We find that the fashionable couple, Lord and Lady Isleworth, are brought to this state because of their moral bankruptcy.
As with Maria Edgeworth’s character Sir Patrick Rackrent, whose gambling habits lead to ruin in Castle Rackrent (1782; Kelly: 75), we find that Lord Isleworth’s corruption is revealed by his worthy speech: ‘Well, well, that is your business and not mine; put her into a leaden coffin or a quart bottle, I shall ask no questions about the matter, but the devil take me if I allow you more than fifty pounds for the job’ (Gunning, 1800, vol I: 56). It comes as no surprise to the reader that Lord Isleworth has attempted to swindle his aunt, Lady Bridget, out of her Westmoreland estate. This crime stems directly from his desire to maintain his fashionable status. Susannah Gunning portrays him successfully as a corrupt man with no morals. His equal, we find, comes in the form of his wife Lady Isleworth. Lady Isleworth takes to theft so that she, too, can earn enough money to maintain her fashionable status. Thus she turns to a regular system of stealing that which she considers ‘her’ property:
Seven thousand pounds had been the original purchase of the costly gems, on which she could obtain no more than six hundred, besides liquidating a debt of honour, the amount of which altogether, left what maybe called the soul’s effence of old Bateman in pledge for a round thousand (Gunning, 1800, vol II: 130).
Susannah Gunning carefully lays out the plot to portray Lady Isleworth’s falls from grace, which takes place when she meets her trustee, Mr Bateman. Lady Isleworth makes a request to Mr Bateman for her jewels, which have been placed in a trust fund, so that she can wear them for her daughter’s ball. Bateman lets her have them on condition that she brings them back into his safe keeping. Lady Isleworth makes her getaway with the jewels, and promptly sells them. She replaces them with paste jewellery, and hands them back after the ball to Mr Bateman.
Susannah Gunning deliberately portrays Lady Isleworth in this poor light to demonstrate the extent of her moral corruption. To aid in this effort, Susannah Gunning attacks Lady Isleworth’s reputation: ‘at fourteen, was a romp – at fifteen a wife – and at sixteen, a mother’ (Gunning, 1800, vol I: 10).
It is interesting to compare Lady Isleworth’s fall from grace with that of Aphra Behn’s character Angellica Bianca in The Rovers (1677), whose moral decline takes the form of corrupt female sexuality.
Lady Isleworth’s predicament in Fashionable Involvements is also reflected in Anecdotes of the Delborough Family. Here, the Lady Isleworth character is embodied in Lady Selina Dangle. Lady Selina’s crime differs from Lady Isleworth’s, however: she is a forgerer rather than a thief. Lady Selina enjoys meddling in people’s affairs and is a proper snoop who enjoys stirring troubled waters. Her motivation for forging letters stems from the knowledge that her brother, the Marquis of Greendale, wants to marry the middle-class daughter of Dr Harvey. Her class snobbery leads her to commit the crime of forgery, as she pens a letter purporting to be from her father, the Duke of Angrave, without his permission or knowledge:
Audacious wretch! would nothing satisfy thy diabolical ambition, but to connect thy obscurity with the honours of my princely house; shall the daughter of a preaching puppy of a parson lift up her daring eyes to the Duke of Angrave’s heir, as a husband fit to couple with her meanness; know, infamous creature, he would have sufficiently degraded himself, had he given thee the title of mistress (Gunning, 1792, vol III: 178).
At this stage, Lady Selina’s speech comes across as purely theatrical, her ringing tones highlighting the snobbery which exists in the upper class and is directed towards the lower classes of society. We find that by turning to the crime of forgery, Lady Selina achieves her aim of breaking up her brother’s relationship with Dr Harvey’s daughter. This episode is echoed in Gunning’s later novel Memoirs of Mary (1793), in which, according to Janet Todd, the ‘heroine suffers because of a forged letter’ (Todd, 1983: 302). Susannah Gunning uses Lady Selina’s class snobbery to distinguish between the fashionable upper-class society and the lower middle class.
In Fashionable Involvements, Lady Anne Isleworth, daughter-in-law of Lord and Lady Isleworth, is portrayed in a similar light to Lady Selina Dangle – who in turn reflects the character of Lady Lucy from Gunning’s 1783 novel Coombe Wood, who snobbishly insists on ‘settling on a £200.000 man, despite the fact that he resembles a frightful bird I once saw in a menagerie’ (Todd, 1983: 302).
Lady Anne’s character is not only snobbish like Lady Selina, but even more corrupt:
‘Dear vain fool’, whispered Lady Anne, softly as she tripped to her own apartment ‘I could almost dote on the folly which is so very amusing, – My  pretty mamma! I am going to use your vanity as boys their birds – let it smoothly out by a string, to draw it back with a jerk’ (Gunning, 1800, vol II: 182).
The character of Lady Anne is very poisonous; she plots and schemes behind other characters’ backs. Her arch-rival, Clarissa, she detests because of her beauty. Susannah Gunning, we find, has had good reason for portraying Lady Anne character in a bad light, as it is now that she can introduce us to her crime: adultery.
Adultery is a theme that Susannah Gunning shares with novelists such as Sarah Fielding (1710–1768), in her novel The Countess Dellwyn, ‘explore … lightly so that the adulterous is kept to the margin plot’ (Todd, 1989: 144). We find here that Susannah Gunning does not go into detail about Lady Anne; the only detail Gunning reveals about Lady Anne is that she eloped with her husband, Lord Arthur, to Gretna Green to be married.
In Fashionable Involvements, Lady Anne commits adultery with Lord Clarence, who initially appears on the scene because he wants to marry Clarissa Isleworth, daughter of Lord and Lady Isleworth and sister-in-law to Lady Anne. Lord Clarence and Lady Anne’s adulterous affair is mirrored by Lord Isleworth’s affair with the wife of his friend Captain James Snug: ‘he tossed into the lap of his expecting lady a moiety of five hundred’ (Gunning, 1792, vol II: 30). This type of scandalous behaviour is also found in Gunning’s Anecdotes of the Delborough Family through Lady Selina’s character, who mirrors Lady Anne’s actions by breaking up the engagement of Lady Louisa and Lord Haverville, so that she can herself marry Lord Haverville. Ironically, Gunning frequently seems to be attacking her female characters’ independent nature by examining the crime of adultery, which reveals loss of virtue and moral corruption. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that Gunning deliberately uses discussion of the crime of adultery to point out the hypocrisy of adulterous liaisons being seen as acceptable for men, but not for women in her society. Female sexual activity, she seems to be saying, exists and should not be seen as more evil than men’s.
It is worth mentioning, at this stage, that Gunning’s narrative tone changes from purely fictional to the personal in that she can be seen to be referring to her own husband’s indiscretions (General Gunning’s trial for adultery took place in 1792). Todd has it that Susannah Gunning refers ‘improperly to the General’s infrequent infidelities’ (Todd, 1983: 103).
Susannah Gunning creates an intricate relationship between fashion and crime in both Anecdotes of the Delborough Family and Fashionable Involvements. We find that in both novels the nature of the associated crimes alters, but always they represent the depths of moral corruption in upper-class society. We also find that the upper classes try to maintain their standing by looking down upon members of the lower classes. Susannah Gunning’s vision alters so distinctly from that of the general upper class, however, that she chooses to accentuate and declaim about the way in which fashion, and therefore crime, affect family life.
Family life plays an important role in both of these novels. Gunning’s moralist tone can to some degree be explored by recognising that she was herself a mother, and as such ‘she is after all selling not only the work but herself’ (Todd, 1983: 104). We find that the word ‘mother’ opens up Susannah Gunning’s ‘most flamboyantly baroque vein’ (Todd, 1983: 104), leading her to attack further upper-class society’s heedless quest for the fashionable by portraying what bad parents both the Fairfaxes and the Isleworths are.
Gunning concentrates specifically on Mrs Fairfax and Lady Isleworth because they are mothers. Both characters are similar to Catherine Gore’s Lady Maria Willingham in her novel, Mothers and Daughters (Todd, 1989: 56) in the sense that they lead their families to ruin because they succumb to the lures of material wealth. Mrs Fairfax and Lady Isleworth are ruled by fashion and wealth, and know not the meaning of domestic economy. Mrs Fairfax, we are told, has ‘inherited so much of her father’s disposition, that she has entered into all the extravagance, dissipations of high life with avidity, and pursued them in their most rapid course’ (Gunning, 1792, vol I: 10). Lady Isleworth, on the other hand, is portrayed as having more self-awareness, and a greater sense of self-disgust: ‘She threw her streaming eyes on the dressing glass, a monitor more faithful than flattering; she was disgusted with the truth it uttered – she stared at the blotted countenance it presented’ (Gunning, 1800, vol I: 206).
Susannah Gunning shows the reader how corrupt and ill-prepared both women are for motherhood; they are not fit to be called mothers because they have fallen prey to the temptations of crime.
It comes as no surprise to the reader to find that, in Ancedotes of the Delborough Family, Mrs Fairfax hassent away her young son Charles to be tutored and raised by Dr Harvey. She sends him away because he interferes with her fashionable pleasures: ‘Lucy had no enjoyment, but in public, she frequented every assembly, shone at the theatres, and lost her money freely at the card table’
(Gunning, 1792, vol II: 20). Gunning shows us that Lucy’s character has deteriorated so far that she no longer has her morals and is ill-equipped to be a parent.
This scenario is also repeated in Fashionable Involvements. In Fashionable Involvments we find, again, that the children have been removed from their home. The Isleworths’ daughter, Clarissa, is readily consigned to a Mr Curry’s charge, while her two younger sisters Arabella and Matilda are sent away to the country to live with Parson Trotter and his wife. The Isleworths’ motive for sending their children away is purely selfish, and stems directly from the crimes they commit in order to stay among people of fashion.
Susannah Gunning shows how the firm grasp of crime destroys family life. Both the Fairfax and Isleworth children are raised by morally strong and, significantly, middle-class families. In order that the sacred family unit can survive, Susannah Gunning removes the children from the morally corrupt atmosphere that their parents have exposed them to. She does this so that the children can grow up to be morally strong and virtuous.
We find that Gunning exhibits no concerns about the moral certitude of the adopted middle-class families. For instance, in Fashionable Involvements we find that the middle-class Mr Curry, who raises Clarissa Isleworth, to be kind and virtuous. He takes the role of her father and ‘loves her dearly as his daughter’ (Gunning, 1800, vol I: 72). Gunning portrays him in this positive light so that the reader can see his good character with its strongly grounded middle-class values.
This same scene is repeated in Anecdotes of the Delborough Family, in which our heroine Emely is adopted by the kindly Mrs Edwin, when Emely’s mother dies. We find that Emely, like Clarissa, is raised to be kind and virtuous. Likewise, we are informed by Gunning that Mrs Edwin ‘idolises the girl’ and ‘loves her dearly’ (Gunning, 1792, vol III: 52).
At this stage Susannah Gunning’s appeal as a writer is revealed, because her narratives expose the ‘truth’ which ‘heightens … [its] appeal’ (Todd, 1983: 105). This occurs when Gunning indulges her more sentimental style, in portraying the ideal family life as represented by middle-class society. Susannah Gunning shows the ideal family life by comparing it with the lives led by the corrupt Fairfaxes and Isleworths.
Both the Fairfaxes and Isleworths ruin family life because they have fallen foul of what is virtuous, even legal, in their pursuit of fashion. It is their greed for wealth and position which prevents them from catering to their children’s needs. Their attention is limited in the sense that they want only what pleases them. For instance, they are happy to acknowledge their children from a financial standpoint, and take a newfound interest in their children when the latter are in a position to be of help or significance monetarily.
For example, in The Anecdotes of the Delborough Family Mrs Fairfax petitions her son, who is in the army, to help her with the debt she is facing. She turns to him because he is the only one who can keep her from the financial ruin which her squandering has brought on. At this stage we also receive the impression that she has learned her lesson from her life’s mistake, when she laments dramatically: ‘Pity thy distracted mother! spare her the shame of humbling her devoted head beneath thy reproaches. Thou darest not Charles – a son darest not reproach his parent. Where am I? What have I done? Fly, fly to protect me!’ (Gunning, 1792, vol I: 56). In this way Susannah Gunning indicates that only when Mrs Fairfax has been freed from her enslavement to a life of fashion that she can finally acknowledge her son.
In Fashionable Involvements the Isleworths view their daughters as material chattels who can be bartered and sold at their whim to the highest bidder. For instance, Clarissa is only acknowledged by her parents because of the financial asset her beauty provides. We find that Clarissa’s beauty is to be used as bait to catch wealthy aristocrats such as Lord Clarence:
know ungrateful wretch that even in the life time of the countess I had fixed my mind on you reaching that station of honour . . . if I am obliged to look out for another husband for you, it shall not be a young handsome man like Clarence, but I will force you into the arms of any old fellow who can serve my purpose (Gunning, 1792 vol II: 177).

Susannah Gunning shows how fixated Lord Isleworth has become with wealth, and that he will do anything to make sure that his daughter marries well so that she can bring much-needed money into the family, and support her parents’ continued vices in fashionable society.
Susannah Gunning once again contrasts good parenting among the middle classes with what exists among the members of fashionable society. She again reinforces the good morals and values that the middle-class family has, through the two characters Clarissa and Emely. Clarissa (from Fashionable Involvements) is portrayed in a very virtuous light, as is Emely (from Ancedotes of the Delborough Family). Both heroines are bathed in ‘sentimental chastity’ which Samuel Richardson was renowned for, as demonstrated in his novels Clarissa (1747-8) and Pamela (1740)(Tompkins: 172). We find, like the heroine in Frances Brooke’s Lady Julia Mandeville, that both Clarissa and Emely are ‘praised for being helpless and weak’ (Todd, 1989: 180). We find, also, that Susannah Gunning seems to be suggesting that weak passivity is a true sign of femininity.
At this stage Susannah Gunning once again provides a contrast between good and bad through her characters. This strong contrast emerges because our Richardsonian maidens haven’t fallen victims to crime or to the lures of fashion because their morals are sound; their paths are clear of the temptations of wealth and greed. Lady Selina Dangle and Lady Anne Isleworth become victims of fashion and, therefore, of the temptation of crime because they live among upper-class society.
Susannah Gunning, in providing this contrast, shows the strength of virtue and good morals which good parents instil into their children – without which they become victims of avarice and, potentially, commit crime.
To show the strength of good morals and virtue, Susannah Gunning rewards her two heroines with good marriages: Clarissa marries Mr Percival Bateman, and Emely Fairfax marries the Marquis of Greendale. We find that the class boundaries also become blurred, here, as upper class and middle class merge. In typically sentimental style, Gunning enacts a ‘fictional consummation’ between the ‘titled aristocracy with the virtuous lower ranks to form the deliciously titled virtue’ (Todd, 1989: 180).
Gunning also ensures that her bad parents are punished. In Fashionable Involvements, Lord and Lady Isleworth’s continued life of crime results in the family home being ruined. Their weak morals, dissipation and greed for wealth and prestige lead them to financial ruin. To raise money they sacrifice their family values, selling their daughters on the marriage market. This destructive cycle is halted only when the parents are removed from the picture, and sent to prison for their vices.
This same scenario is repeated in Anecdotes of the Delborough Family, where we have the Fairfaxes being punished, which in their case takes the form of death. Thus Susannah Gunning has set herself up as a moralist and advisor to her female audience. Her lesson, through her fictional characters, seems to be that when moral principles are sacrificed for fashion, the family pays the ultimate price – and this, in turn, affects the greater society.
In conclusion, Susannah Gunning keeps very firmly to her promise to make the ‘usual vindicator’s assertion of truth’. Her aim is ‘to unfold as much as in my power the wonderful and monstrous arts and deceptions formed as if by magic, to raise a mist that has enveloped all our senses’ (Todd, 1983: 103). We find that she manages to raise this mist in particular where class status is concerned, especially in the artificial distinctions between upper and middle class. Her satirical style of writing explores the class snobbery used to maintain these class distinctions. In both Anecdotes of the Delborough Family and Fashionable Involvements, we find that ‘fashion’ is used to represent the aristocracy. It is the world of fashion that Gunning attacks, linking it with crime so that she can reveal the monstrous face of deception worn by the aristocracy. She shows the reader how morally corrupt upper-class society can become, chiefly by contrasting it with the middle class.
To underline her aims further, Gunning capitalises on the ‘sentimental tableaux of sacred motherhood’ (Todd, 1983: 103) which appears in Anecdotes of the Delborough Family and Fashionable Involvements, because it’s through the rights and virtues of motherhood that she can delineate her evil characters’ corruption. She justifies her moral stance against the upper class by showing her reader how crimes in pursuit of fashion ruin family life. This family sphere is only saved by the timely intervention of the middle class, as represented through the characters of Mr Curry and Mrs Edwin.
Susannah Gunning’s attempts to blur the class boundaries between upper- and middle-class society appear throughout all her novels, including The Hermit and Coombe Wood. This suggests that, although Susannah Gunning is attacking the aristocracy, ‘she[,] like Jane Austen[,] is also promoting the gentrification of the middle class’ (Kelly: 13). This process is reflected in Susannah Gunning’s heroine Emely in the Anecdotes of the Delborough Family, who marries into the aristocracy, while the reverse occurs for Lady Clarissa from Fashionable Involvements, who marries below her station, into the middle class. This shows that Susannah Gunning’s novels, in part, attempt to depict a society where middle-class values such as domestic economy will enhance rather than dilute the upper classes, so that a better society is the result. Gunning attempts to demonstrate, therefore, that such a society could be both morally correct and financially stable.


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