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Corvey ‘Adopt an Author’ |
Elizabeth Spence

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

by Holly Wheawall, May 2006

How does Spence construct the tales of two bloody brides to aid the reconstruction of the Celtic image?
Elizabeth Spence's two texts Old Stories (1822) and The Lily of Annandale (1823) have many correlating features as regards character, and setting and moral message. These similarities can be used together to investigate an idea concerning elements integral to the texts, and their relation to a change in beliefs about the Celts. An essay by Juliet Shields entitled 'From Family Roots to the Routes of Empire: National Tales and the Domestication of the Scottish Highlands' (2005) looks at the national tale's emergence during an era when the Scottish Lowlands were being culturally assimilated with England, leaving the Highlanders isolated. The period in which the national tales were emerging alongside MacPherson's Poems of Ossian, allows for Spence's novels, and her approach to representing the Celtic fringe, to have been influenced by these literary works. This essay will investigate whether Spence creates a successful image of the Celtic regions by constructing specific character types to embody the country, the falsified image and its truthful counterpart.
With a larger amount of criticism and studies into Scottish history and literature available compared to that of Wales, my secondary sources in the essay are comprised largely of these works. However, criticism regarding the Scots can, in some aspects, be applied to the whole Celtic fringe. Taking this into consideration alongside the applicability of Donnachie and Whatley's claims, I will allow comments about Scottish history to be related to that other Celtic region of Wales.

The works of Sir Walter Scott and later writers like Robert Lewis Stevenson have been of profound importance in creating couthy images of bygone Scotland. The genre maintained by Kailyard authors like S.R.Crockett, found its setting pre-nineteenth-century Lowland or Highland idylls and generally rejected the realities of modernization accompanying the Industrial Revolution. The literary heroes were often real historical characters, Rob Roy for example, but the story-lines were essentially fictional... Also at the popular level the ballad embraced myths and legends rooted in Scotland's pasts and these are still powerfully articulated in modern renderings of folk songs. (Donnache and Whatley, 1992: 7)

This quotation can be aligned to befit Spence's two texts which incorporate real people, places and events before their contemporary nineteenth century time period. Old Stories fictionalises characters whose lives Spence elaborates upon through information and speculation. Such information is shared through the constant storytelling of legends over many centuries. The Lily of Annandale contains real characters used in a relatively fictional setting to create a romantic history. Acknowledging this merge of fact and fiction, Spence opens Old Stories by apologisingto the reader for any inaccuracies that may occur in her novel.

            ... the remote period in which the events occurred that marked the life of Sir Humphry Kynaston, the author hopes will plead her excuse for an imperfect sketch formed on the slender materials obligingly supplied   by Mr. Dovaston of West Felton, finding it impossible to trace any authority the characters and names of Sir Humphry's associates. (Spence, 1822: Vol 1, vi)
Spence admits that despite her knowledge about the real character of Sir Humphry Kynaston, she was unable to find any evidence regarding his associates. This suggests that fiction plays a part in relaying the smaller details of his life. Donnache and Whatley's comments are proven to be valid in terms of Spence's texts, and so investigation into her work with regards to similarities with, and elements of, national tales can be fairly conducted, in light of each novel.

Sir Walter Scott claimed to have been influenced by Mariah Edgeworth's national tales, and had created such "couthy images of bygone Scotland" himself (Donnachie and Whatley, 1992: 7) that he contributes to a time when, as Juliet Shields suggests with her commentary on national tales "they explore the conflicted relationships between metropolitan England, its Celtic peripheries, and an expanding British empire through marriage plots and family histories" (Shields, 2005: 2). Earlier authors such as Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson) who wrote The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale in 1806, were also part of the rise of national tales.

...The Wild Irish Girl in particular was an overwhelming success, running through numerous editions and influencing many of Owenson's contemporaries, including Maturin, author of The Wild Irish Boy, and Scott, whose first waverly novel is much indebted to Owenson's national tale. (Wright, 2002: 11)

The rising popularity of national tales and novels based heavily on the rebuilding of the Celtic image, for example when Sydney Owenson "Intended to persuade English readers that the true Irish were Gaels" in The Wild Irish Girl (Kirkpartick, 1999: ix), can be seen to have an impact upon Spence's novels concerning both Scotland and Wales. An encounter in Old Stories sees Miss Griffiths and Fortescue comparing nations in terms of their achievements in literature. Fortescue fairly accredits the Welsh for their ancient bards, but undermines their achievements by contrasting them with Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. Fortescue continues adding that Welsh poetry can only be understood by the Welsh. By means of persuasion, Miss Griffiths reads a Welsh bard in her native tongue, and then in that of Fortescue’s. She successfully persuades Fortescue of the impressive Welsh literature that she had previously boasted of , and he admitts that “It was impossible not to admire the translation…that rendered them quite affecting” (Spence, 1822: Vol 1, 70-71). Persuading the English about certain elements of the Celts, as seen in Old Stories requires a certain element of defence too. Although the exchange in Old Stories is an example of the Celts verbally defending their nation, Spence uses physical protection, as in The Lily of Annandale’s border battles, to show this tactic also. Persuasion and defence are both elements of Spence’s work which allows them to be placed alongside national tales.
With James MacPherson's 'A Dissertation concerning the Era of Ossian' (1763) and his translations of the Poems of Ossian originating a few years prior to Spence's work, it can be said that this movement has, to some degree, been an influence on her. MacPherson's translations not only promoted the idealised imagery of a country's natural beauty, but its national character too. In his dissertation MacPherson said, “When virtue in peace, and bravery in war, are the characteristics of a nation, their actions become interesting, and their fame worthy of immortality” (Pecora, 2001: 82). Promoting the people, in addition to the country itself is something which Macpherson attempts to do via Poems of Ossian.
Both virtue and bravery occur as strong influential factors in The Lily of Annandale and to a lesser degree in Old Stories. The Lily of Annandale has storylines which provide the characters with the opportunity to show bravery in their battles, most notably Fleming's heroism against his fearful opposition. Fleming's pre-battle speech emits both bravery and pride proclaiming to "...learn them, that proud Scotland's hardy sons stoops no to England's lords. They shall see the desolating arm of Scotia's mountain chiefs stand for ever firm, as their native rocks..." (Spence, 1823: 12). Old Stories does not have battles on such a grand scale, yet the warring between individual characters allows for bravery to be seen. Owen's tireless pursuit to rescue Elwyna constructs his character's brave nature, amplifying his love for her by highlighting the dangers he faces.

Spence’s approach to virtue differs slightly from her depictions of bravery. Bravery can be embedded in a character from the start of a tale, yet virtue is a characteristic that can change a person over the course of a novel and deliver a moral message to the readers. Virtue is a natural trait of the central female characters in Spence’s novels. When pride is evident in the male figures it is to show a change within a character, or dispel certain myths about particular character types. This will be explored in more detail later in the essay when characters grouped into types are discussed further.

The release of Ossian successfully created images of Celtic nations that the Celts were proud of. However, it did produce negative images of individual sets of people. For example, one critical view claims that "In context with those other trends operating to make the Highlands fashionable, the widespread impact of Ossian... reinforced the image of the Highlands as both the desolate refuge of a primitive people and an example, par excellence, of a sublime landscape" (Donnachie and Whatley, 1992: 151). Despite Ossian successfully recreating an image of the Celtic fringe through magnificent scenery and landscape, on the whole the negative image of the Celtic people, most notably the Highlanders still remained.

In contrast to Ossian, national tales did not follow the precedent that allowed for Highlanders to be seen as uncivilised and uneducated people. In Shields' essay she argues that “In domesticating Highlanders, then, national tales made an argument not only about the values of British culture, but also about the viability – and sometimes the superiority – of the Celtic race” (Shields: 2005, 3). Such superiority can be achieved by stressing the warmth and generosity of the native Welsh and Scots in comparison to the English. In Old Stories Mr Fortescue, when revealing his desire to visit Wales, says that he wants to judge for himself whether his mother’s descriptions about the “amour du pays”, (Spence, 1822: Vol 1, 2) the love of the country “which the Welsh, the Scotch, the Swiss, carry with them to the grave, and which few Englishmen can justly comprehend” (ibid: Vol 1, 2-3) were correct. In comparison Fortescue labels the English as “cold, shy, reserved to strangers” (ibid: Vol 1. 3). This generalisation about the English is put forward before Fortescue narrates his story to the reader, setting a kind of hypothesis which states that the story intends to prove that the Welsh are a proud and welcoming nation.

The only opportunity which the tale allows to exhaust the idea concerning the hospitability of the Welsh, is through the contemporary story of Mr Fortescue’s stay in Wales. Fortescue arrives as an outsider feeling very alone, yet as his departure approaches he acknowledges the change. “I had come to Gwayn a lonely stranger; but during my sojourn in the little village, I had proved the happy means of preserving the life of a useful, though humble, fellow-creature; that very circumstance had opened a new source of interest and happiness to me” (ibid: Vol 2. 101-102). Falling in love changed Fortescue and he accredits this to the country as well as Miss Griffiths. The love for their country is a characteristic of the Welsh that Spence exposes through both the contemporary story and the legend of The Knight’s Daughter. This adoration for their nation is shown in both novels through description, action and characters.

Spence is not bias despite her Celtic routes, to one particular view, and she does put forward two sides to every story. That is to say that she shows evidence to support claims that some Celts are in fact uneducated and uncivilised. In The Lily of Annandale Helen Irving endures a dissatisfactory stay with Herries family.

They spoke in a coarse loud voice, broad Scotch; and having all their lives been immured in Hoddam castle, they possessed so few advantages of education, that with a sufficient portion of Scotch pride, (which prevails with all its nationality in the border country) with ungainly manners, and a gawky air, Helen was not likely to derive either consolidation or enjoyment from the society of these young ladies. (Spence, 1823: 154)

Helen’s stay with the Herries is an unnecessary part of the story, which had it been omitted, would not have had any great effect on the story as a whole. However, the scene is significant in balancing the argument concerning the perception of the Celts. In both novels Spence allows for particular viewpoints concerning Celtic ideals to be given a fair weighting in the argument. This balanced argument results in the final outcome of the novels, or rather, the final perception of the Celts being seen as a fair and just account as opposed to a bias opinion inevitable from the start.

Spence creates the novels through careful consideration of important issues of the time. Influences from Ossian and national tales are evident when you look at the factors which contributed to their creation. The rising culture of national tales followed a time when an image had been falsely created of the Highlanders, causing a defence to be mounted through such works. As Shields points out, “Throughout the eighteenth century, anti-Jacobite propaganda portrayed Highlanders as thieving, belligerent, uncouth, and even cannibalistic savages governed by blind allegiance to a lawless chieftain” (Shields, 2005: 3). National tales can be seen to be influenced by the pride embedded in Ossian and as a response to the attack of an image created by the allegiance of the Scottish Lowlanders and the English alike.

If, by the end of the eighteenth century, the southern regions of Scotland did share a new sense of unity with metropolitan England, it was largely because, as Janet Sorenson has argued, Lowlanders enlisted ‘as junior partners in Britain's global imperial project’…Highlanders remained geographically and ideologically in the peripheries of a newly united Britain, derided by Lowlanders and English alike as backward savages and Jacobite rebels. (ibid: 2)
The geographic location of the Scottish Highlands is something which can not be altered by novels and poems. Embracing the landscape’s beauty, despite the land and its location being a large factor in the isolation of Celtic peripheries, Spence gains a positive from something that had previously caused such negative consequences.

Spence's The Lily of Annandale is a tale steeped in detailed descriptions of Scottish landscape and scenery. The images of spectacular views, whether they are of natural scenery or historical monuments such as Sweetheart Abbey, play a great part in creating a particular image of the country, especially when it serves as a recurring theme throughout the tale. Similarly Old Stories, descriptive imagery is used to create dramatic backdrops to each individual tale. The consistent reference to nature and scenery strengthens the importance of landscape, a trait similar to that of Ossian. Fortescue makes many allusions to his surroundings, regularly commenting upon the "graceful beauty in the midst of a valley" (Spence, 1822: Vol 1, 29) and the "majestic mountain scenery" (ibid) during his many excursion outdoors. Overall this creates an implied meaning that landscape is more than a backdrop to each tale, and that the imagery goes simultaneously hand-in-hand with the moral victories to create an all encompassing ideal of a Celtic country. When Spence chooses to frame key events within specific imagery, it exaggerates the aesthetic value of the scenery and brings together two key factors of a national tale, idealised people and idealised landscape. Creating this idealised landscape can be achieved quite easily, with the author focusing on dramatic scenery and describing it with awe and admiration throughout the entirety of the novel. This ensures that the readers are constantly aware of the significance of the imagery as a fundamental aspect to the novel. Spence can be seen to employ this tactic within her novels from the outset. Old Stories also has the advantage its narrator being in a position whereby he can be continually admiring the views and his surroundings as an outsider. This allows readers to believe the descriptions to be part of the story, as opposed to merely an author's attempt to promote a Celtic region. Looking at the author's background suggests that it would be in her interest to defend her home nation. As a Scot living in London she may have been subjected to hearing the exaggerated and often falsified depictions of Highlanders. Old Stories is successfully created through using a narrator so very different from the author, that a national tale is not the first genre you would associate with it.

However, it is a far greater task to idealise a nation and its people within literature than it is to idealise a landscape, making the task of reversing the "backward savages" (Shields, 2005: 2) label even harder. From common denominators in the two novels it is clear that Spence tactically employs specific character types who forge roles that can be acquainted with certain ideals. The similarities drawn between Spence's 1822 and 1823 works allow for them to both be looked at in consideration of this suggestion.

Both texts are situated within Celtic regions and have pride, virtue, battle and landscape as an integral part of the text. Spence uses a beautiful, virtuous female character as central to each novel, with the action and scenery falling into place around her. Within Old Stories the three individual tales share the common element of a female character that embodies honourable qualities and is admired by everyone for such merits and beauty. The women, Miss Eldefrida Griffiths, Miss Elwyna Mortimer and Isobel Griffith, all have men willing to fight and die for them, suggesting an association between the female characters and a country. Their admirable intrinsic worth can be paralleled to that of an admirable nation. The sacrifices and risks that the male characters are willing to take in favour of these women are akin to warriors defending their country. John Knox states that (cited in Shields, 2005: 4) “...the Highlands became known as ‘a nursery for soldiers’”. This was during a period when, according to Clyde (ibid) " 'the common view of the Gaels as bloodthirsty rebels' gave way to a growing belief that they were Britain's 'most staunch defenders' ". The battles, chases and secret plots in Spence's work allow for both perceptions of warring Celts to be seen. Each text has an antagonist and a protagonist, as is the case in most novels, yet here it gives the author the opportunity to embody two sides of a story, or rather two extreme aspects of a nation, resulting in producing an overall answer as to what is the true identity of a Celtic nation.

Taking this view further, she employs a similar tact through the use of the central female character, with Spence’s novels then having three defined character types which represent a true image of a nation through the protagonist, the opposing image of the nation being the antagonist, and the nation itself in the form of the female character.

In The Lily of Annandale Helen Irving is already the figure-head for the Annandale region and the novel allows this to be extended to represent the Scottish nation. With regards to Helen Irving, many aspects of the seemingly flawless character can be interpreted as mirroring those of a Celtic country. Embodying admirable traits, such as compassion and virtue within the women, is a means of highlighting the admirable qualities of a nation without openly appearing to boast about such merits. Her beauty contrasts with, and can possibly exaggerate the beauty of the Scottish landscape. However, unlike Ossian where the Celtic beauty is one dimensional, Spence has the opportunity to bring it to life by using a character that can show both inner and outer beauty. In The Lily of Annandale the descriptions of Helen’s beauty are quite intricate with Spence focussing on minute details from “Her sunny hair in clustering ringlets” (Spence, 1823: 5) to “Her long silken eye-lashes” (ibid). Parallel to the ease in which the beauty of a landscape can be conveyed compared with the demanding task of expressing the beauty of the people, illustrating Helen’s natural beauty is easier than portraying her inner beauty. However, Spence depicts Helen, the same as the women in Old Stories, whose personality and character are admired so greatly by others that there is little call for any action of their own to reveal to the readers their virtue and generosity of spirit. When Lady Maxwell first meets Helen she has certain preconceived opinions about the young woman that she immediately welcomes her.

Using the opinions of others is a prompt way to tell the readers about a character as opposed to attempting to show the readers over the length of a novel. Admiration is an effective way to share with the readers the opinions of a multitude of characters through just one. In Old Stories, before Fortescue meets Miss Griffiths he is told by the housekeeper that “She is always considerate and polite” (Spence, 1822: Vol. 1, 37). This reiterates an opinion first put to him by his hostess who describes Miss Griffiths as “a noble-spirited young lady” (ibid: 23), and she continues to praise her for her charitable nature before adding that “The poor have reason to bless her name” (ibid). As the women are relatively passive compared with the men, who largely define themselves by their actions, portraying their personalities through words is an important part of the novels and having other characters to do this on their behalf adds modesty to the many qualities they embody.

The actions which define the men in Spence’s novels are the fights and battles over love, honour and money. In The Lily of Annandale the protagonist Fleming is constantly challenged by the antagonist Bell. The two are competitors in both love and battle, employing different methods in their approach to gaining their goal. When in battle side by side as part of the same army, their differences are highlighted as their characteristics contrast with one another.

The fierce and fiery Bell spoke of the fallen foe with such a thirst of blood and malice, that he gave a check to his bold aspiring spirit, secretly admiring the gentler qualities of the nobler Fleming, who loved not deeds of blood. (Spence, 1823: 41-42)
Bell is excited and driven by battle, whereas Fleming’s gentle nature means he is affected by warring to a greater degree. Fleming maintains his kind and caring nature despite the fighting he finds himself a part of, and he chooses to remain by the side of a dying Irving, staying true to his personal qualities. Bell attacks Fleming’s compassion accusing him of “wasting the precious moment, when the dying may not be nursed with soft dalliance… Their grave needs no tears to water it” (ibid: 81). A harsh warrior is a perception passed onto the English about the Celts through half-truths perpetuated during an anti-Jacobean backlash, but the resurrected image depicting the Celts as great defenders, as claimed by Clyde in Shields’ 2005 essay, is true of the warrior Fleming.

The underhand tactics Bell uses in his pursuit of Helen shows his attitude towards love, emotions and relationships. He does not handle rejection very well and his emotions become those of anger, hatred and jealously. Even though Bell is shown to be a man of affections by his desire to be with Helen he is not an honourable man. Not attending Fleming’s funeral because he was planning his revenge shows a lack of compassion and understanding in friendships and courtships. Comparing this character with Fleming highlights Bell’s appalling behaviour, placing Fleming in a greater position for his respect and dedication to Helen. He acts with composure, honour and admiration in both love and war. The rivalry between the two men reaches a climax when Bell kills Helen causing Fleming, quite uncharacteristically to seek revenge upon his enemy. Although not befitting with the hero’s persona the act of revenge is justified by the reasoning behind it. The novel’s ending sees Bell’s downfall and Fleming's rise. If the characters represent the different perceptions of Scotland, having one ideal triumph over another enlightens the readers to the truth behind the differentiating reports upon the Celts.

Old Stories has character types similar to those found in The Lily of Annandale
with the men assuming the positive and negative poles of opposition in love and battle. In the legend of the Knight's Daughter the heroic Owen consistently braves dangers to rescue Elwyna from Warren and Mortimer. Dedicated and courageous throughout, Owen's good nature and admirable qualities are shown through his approach to, and conduct during, battle. In comparison both Warren and Mortimer lie and deceive to gain what they desire, from murdering Llewelyn ap Gryffydd for monetary gain, to deceiving and forcing Elwyna into marriage. Making his daughter marry a man he knows she can not love, and whom she fears so much so, that she is physically affected by the command that "colour faded from Elwyna's cheek" (Spence, 1822: 120), does not show a father's love or respect for his only child.

Warren's pursuit of Elwyna is not accomplished in a respectable or honest manner. Warren takes Elwyna to his castle against her wishes and only has her father's blessing due to their allegiance over their murderous crime. Despite his scheming and under-hand tactics the protagonist faces his demise due to his own wrong-doings. Owen kills Warren in spite of his honest and compassionate demeanour, but his reasons for the crime render the act justified. Owen fights to protect his brother, his beloved, and for the memory of his father, simultaneously showing bravery in battle and his compassion for others. The union of Elwyna and Owen in marriage can represent the unification of the country and its good honest people.

Mr Fortescue is an exception to the generalisation of the male characters. He is primarily a narrator in the novel as opposed to a character, and the greatest event which occurs concerning his life is his marriage to Miss Griffiths as the novel draws to a close. As an outsider who learns the stories just before retelling them himself, Fortescue is likened to the readers. His opinions about the Celts change during his stay in Gwayn, this can be seen to mirror the process that the readers go through in forming very different opinions of the Celts and Celtic regions, such as Wales, during their reading of the text. The union of Fortescue with Miss Griffiths, who herself represents Wales, can parallel the union of the readers with the Celtic fringe in light of the new image Spence has created.

Spence's work looks to have been inspired by a popular development in Celtic literature. From the publication of MacPherson's translations of Ossian in the mid-eighteenth century to Edgeworth's Irish national tales and Scott's Waverly novels in the beginning of the nineteenth century, an evidential impact can be seen in Old Stories and The Lily of Annandale. It is not fair to categorise either of Spence's work with the sub-genre of a national tale as she does not identify this herself, and had that been her aim she would have taken the opportunity lent by a subtitle or an introduction, to relay this information. However, from close reading of her work with consideration being given to Spence's Celtic background, a fair allegiance can be formed between elements of her work and national tales.

Content is an element of her work that shows the influence of the literary movement by the incorporation of themes and moral stories appropriate to those within national tales. The approach Spence takes in delivering her stories, by weighting her descriptions heavily in admiration of national beauty, forms associations with MacPherson's Poems of Ossian.
Close reading of the two novels, drawing attention to elements identified as being influences from Ossian, national tales and common perceptions of the Celts, reveals character types that run throughout both texts. In Old Stories they are found in the contemporary narration, the first tale, and the second tale, and they are continually employed in The Lily of Annandale. It is a fair evaluation to say that her novels do in fact bear influences from national tales and Ossian, as well as being the literary voice in response to attacks on the Celtic image. Her character types have influences from these literary pieces and are influenced by relevant opinions within this area of literature. The conclusion to each tale supports this evaluation by successfully placing the character types in a situation within the plot that befits how Spence would want to portray the Celts and the Celtic ideal.

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