In Catherine Gore's Mothers and Daughters, the rather villainous Lady Maria Willingham leads her two eldest daughters to social ruin by her attempts to get them married off to the richest man with the most desirable title. Her plans fail miserably, and her daughters are reduced to trudging the social circuit, their looks and vitality ravaged by season after season of disappointed hopes. Lady Maria never recants from her original position as a 'manoeuvring mama', and is banished from the fashionable world she desires to inhabit.
Gore uses her light-hearted, witty narrative style to mock the antics of fashionable marriage seekers, with their desperation to secure themselves a place in the world of 'haute ton'. This fashionable world is the subject of the 'silver fork' novel. The author's ridicule is directed towards the thwarted ambitions of scheming women. Yet her mockery does not extend into criticism of the ruling system of patriarchy, within which her female characters must operate.
The tone of the novel is satirical. The narrator uses this device to good effect, as it allows her to discuss the theme of the novel - marriage - with a lighter touch. She is primarily concerned with domestic satire. Knowing her market, she does not stray into politics, the realm of the masculine. Even though she sends her principle characters to France during a time of revolution, no comment is made on the world outside the continental salon. It is perhaps not surprising that a momentous occurrence such as the French Revolution passes the author without comment. The Revolution was feared as posing a direct threat to the system of subordination of which correct female behaviour was a part. Mrs. Gore appeared to judge her market best, by staying quiet. The author expresses her point of view on the upper class world with confidence. In Mothers and Daughters, the author holds a mirror up to fashionable society, but makes sure that the readers see only what pleases them.
There appear to be two important motivations behind Mothers and Daughters. The first is concerned with the upholding of the dominant cultural ideology. The author, like most women writers of her period, celebrated the ideal woman, whose proper role would be seen as domestic. This ideal concept of the truly feminine woman is what Mary Pooney has called 'the Proper lady'. (1) The construction of 'proper lady' is revealed through the author's narrative style, tone and voice, and also through the theme and plot. Any 'cracks' appearing in the walls of her novel, which could suggest a voice of dissent, are carefully plastered over. Further on in this essay, I shall look at the author's treatment of adultery, and also at her treatment of the male characters in her novel, as I believe it is there that Catherine Gore's witty control of her narrative, which seeks to reinforce the acceptance of domestic doctrine, breaks down.
The second motivation is the author's awareness of the importance of media control. It has already been suggested that Catherine Gore knew her readership, so could successfully provide what they wanted in a novel. But she also appears to have been a woman with a keen business sense; a shrewd marketing strategist. Not only did she know what kind of novel to produce in order to sell, she also kept her position in an increasingly competitive publishing market by producing lyrics and writing plays. She used her skills to provide her family with a higher level of income than would have come from the retired Captain she married.
As a novelist Catherine Gore occupied a special position within the ranks of upper class society. It was a tenuous position, but one which she held on to because of her fashionable status as successful novelist. She was not born into the society she wrote about in Mothers and Daughters, but her influential friends, who originally published her husband's travel books, introduced her. This experience of upward mobility gave her an especially good position from which to view her material.
Although an outsider to the ranks of aristocracy, she knew fashionable society and its members, but at the time of writing her second 'silver fork' novel, not intimately, and certainly not through family connections. She was invited to social gatherings, and regarded with the awe reserved for those clever, witty ladies known as 'bluestockings.' The bluestockings - a term first coined in the eighteenth century - were ' a network of wealthy ladies and their friends, who in their houses provided a sober and decorous equivalent of the seventeenth century French courtly salons, shied away from the sentimental extreme and had little sympathy for the heady fantasies delivered in novels...(they) set about purifying the manners of actual society. Accepting much of the ideology of womanhood...these ladies could encourage considerable intellectual activity in women, without disturbing the hierarchies of gender and class.' (2)
Even though 'the blues' were careful not to disturb the status quo, they still provoked fear, especially in men, with their reputation for brilliance. Disraeli, writing to his sister in 1832, remarked:
Bulwer [Lytton] came up to me and said "There is one blue who insists upon an introduction." "Oh, my dear fellow, I cannot really; my power of repartee has deserted me." "I have pledged myself, you must come;" so he led me up to a very sumptuous personage, looking like a full blown rose, Mrs. Gore." (3)
This was many years after the first emergence of the bluestockings, but their reputation was undiminished.
Mothers and Daughters was published in 1831, on the brink of an age when novel-writing by women began to be seen as less risqué; more acceptable. This was not a licence, however, for women to delve into creative and imaginative depths, or to probe too far into the underpinnings of cultural ideology. Novels by women writers were acceptable as a follow-on from the conduct books of the eighteenth century. There was a recognition that female writers could be of moral and emotional service to other women. Once more the emphasis was on the woman as pedagogue and promoter of the domestic doctrine of the period.
Gore's main strength is her fast pace and wit. Romance is not mere sentimentality, but hard-hearted and ruthless. The marriage market is displayed in a blaze of fashionable finery. References are made to manufacturers and traders which would have been well known to those fashionable people she satirises. The satire is directed against the rivalry between mothers and daughters, who jostle for the best 'match.'
Parallel to the competitiveness of the marriage market is the sense of increasing competitiveness in society. With the new industrial age gaining hold, capitalism began to make itself felt within the older system of patriarchy. It is possible to see all society, from the fashionable upper classes to the lowest factory workers, influenced by the economic changes. No longer was a title an indication of a family's wealth. The idea of old, established money began to be seen as precarious. The bourgeois values of earned income through the new industries began to be absorbed into the culture of the early 19th century. Money and title were the ultimate goal in marriage, but money was the decisive factor.
Janet Todd states that:
The new writer often needed money as surely as [Aphra] Behn and was thoroughly a professional writer in the way she gauged the market and understood its wants. These wants had changed and the image the writer wanted to convey had changed as well. The new writer was as present in her works as Behn or Barker, but the sign under which she sold herself was very differently constructed from theirs, and indeed it was denied that the sign was constructed at all. The presentation of the woman writer, always part of the product, was thought to be the presentation of the essential woman, and woman as she innately and absolutely was and should be.' (4)
In Mothers and Daughters, it is apparent that Catherine Gore has a thorough understanding of her society's rules. Her narrative techniques illustrate her purpose and intent. The strong authorial voice carries the narrative, and dispenses judgement, praise and censure. In Mothers and Daughters, she describes the daughters of Lord Lorimer and holds them in contrast to the eldest daughters of Lady Maria Willingham:
The daughters were good humoured, lively girls; fond of finery and fashion - miserable at the loss of a ball, and enchanted by the adulation of every new partner. Their mother loved them with true maternal tenderness; and strove to moderate their girlish follies with so much judicious kindness, that she never terrified them into reserve or hypocrisy. Lady Lorimer was their confidential friend; and being the first person admitted on all occasions behind the scenes of their wild plans and vehement attachments, she was able to do far more by persuasion than their father by all his pompous authority.' (pp.182/3)
Through the voice of the author, it is possible to see here the influence of 'the proper lady' or what Coventry Patmore was to name, 'The Angel in the House.' The author is seen to uphold the cultural ideology of her period, and to consider her position as novelist in regarding the education and guidance of her woman readers.
She is a true 'proper lady', in that she continues to shine a guiding light onto the minds of the readers. Her witty narrative style enables her to deliver moral lectures on the correct conduct of women without fear of boring or alienating her readers. It is also apparent from the above passage, that the author reinforces the idea of stereotypes. These would rigorously confine women, as can be seen in the characters of Lady Lorimar and her daughters, and men, in the character of Lord Lorimar to pre-subscribed roles. Mary Poovey says that these roles: ' As a daughter, a wife, a mother, a widow, a virgin or a whore, every woman was defined by relationship - explicitly to man, implicitly to sexuality itself.' (5) These roles were not seen as controlled by social forces. By the end of the eighteenth century and onwards, the forces controlling a woman's life were seen as natural.
The idea of a woman's 'nature' became fixed. Thus, the Lorimar girls, in their silliness and finery are innocent and good because they are true to the concept of the ideal woman, whereas the Willingham daughters in their beautiful clothes are affected and coquettish because they display signs of 'unnatural' female behaviour. However, it is apparent that authors such as Catherine Gore were intelligent enough to realise that the 'natural' woman was one which pleased a man. Notions of what was 'natural' was governed by male expectation. Male expectations of women and female writers were of course, what underpinned the patriarchal system of language. Women strove to write within this system. In common with many authors of the period, Gore peppered her narrative with references to solidly acceptable male predecessors, such as Pope, Bacon and William Shakespeare. These occur at moments of reflection in the text, or as homilies at chapter headings to reinforce the moral lessons. For example:
It is one thing to understand persons, and another thing to understand matters; for many are perfect in men's humours, that are not greatly capable of the real parts of business, which is the constitution of one who hath studied men more than books. Bacon's Essays (cit. I, p.128)
'Prosperity is too important a medium of human probation to be unwittingly conferred; and Satan, grown wiser,' quoth Pope, 'than in the days of Job / Tempts more by making rich than making poor!' (I, p.70)
In her novel, Catherine Gore reproduces the morality, propriety and tensions which is found in the conduct books of the eighteenth century. But through wit and satire, she brings a fresh approach. Minnie, the Willingham heroine, is described as a model girl of excellent conduct.
Minnie continued to win upon the general regard of her circle by her unaffected courtesy, and by the readiness with which seemed or strove to enter into the habits of existence; - into their exaggerated interest in the debut of every new foreign singer - in the merits of fashionable milliners and personalities of fashionable novels. She felt indeed that she should have thought better of them and of their powers of conversation if they had not affected to be quite so fine - quite so superior, both to their neighbours and to their condition; and was sometimes tempted to fancy that the lady Duchesses and Countesses, the chosen friends of her sisters, were somewhat less presuming in their demeanour in their encounter with the ordinary occurrences of life.' (III, pp.54-5)
Thus, the simple, innocent Minnie is contrasted, as were the Lorimer girls, with the worldly, 'unfeminine' Willlingham sisters. Minnie, it is stated further on in the novel, was not brought up by Lady Maria, but left in the care of the caring, maternal Sophia Willingham. So the blame attributed to the Eldest Willingham girls faulty conduct, which causes the downfall of the beautiful sisters, rests firmly on the upright, 'unwomanly', shoulders of Lady Maria.
William Hazlitt, it appears, is very much of the same view on the correct conduct necessary in social life as is the author of Mothers and Daughters. He writes on the same subject and in a similar tone to Catherine Gore in his essay, published in 1830, entitled 'The Main Chance':
A girl in a country town resolves never to marry anyone under a duke or a lord. This may be very well as an ebullition of spleen or vanity; but is there much common sense or regard to her own satisfaction in it? ....But what, after all, is this haughty and ridiculous pretension founded on?...She is captivated by the sound of 'my lady' and dazzled by the image of a coronet coach, as the girl who marries a footman is smit with his broad shoulders, laced coat and rosy cheeks....Yet love and marriage are among the weightiest concerns of life....Neither in this case, upon which so much depends, are the main chance and our real interest by any means the same thing.' (6)
Thus, in his lecture to the reading public, the liberal Hazlitt, a respected male essayist, shares the same thoughts and opinions with his readers as does the female author of a frothy, 'silver fork' novel. The moral lecture is the same. It's strength and purpose are as one.
Yet the female mind was generally considered the weaker. Female authors could use their skills as nurturers of the human race to educate, and gently lead their young charges to goodness. Men could preach from the pulpit, taking the moral high ground. Male writers such as Hazlitt were encouraged to comment on the rights and wrongs of female conduct, but women must only praise or denounce their own sex. Therefore, novels written by women were considered indulgent towards a more delicate female readership, which was reflected in their choice of frivolous subject matter, that of romance and fashion. However, even this was at times considered strong enough to turn a young girls mind away from 'the straight and narrow.' Mrs. Gore was at times lectured on her responsibilities towards her readers and was often forced to justify her subject matter. In another of her 'silver fork' novels she has one of her characters say: 'We have perhaps had more than enough of fashionable novels, but as the amber which serves to preserve the ephemeral modes and caprices of the passing day, they have had their value...A novel of fashionable life does not presuppose a tissue of puerile vulgarity.' (7) Thus it is clear the purpose of her novel was to educate and uphold domestic ideology, just as male essay writers would seek also to reinforce those cultural constraints, by reiterating society's moral standards of behaviour, particularly in regard to the conduct of women.
Both writers identify the polluting or purifying source of morality as having its primary location in woman. Catherine Gore was no feminist. She believed that: '[a] woman of first rate facilities would only constitute a third rate man.' Which makes it all the more intriguing that in Mothers and Daughters her male characters are sharply drawn, and all appear to suffer from some defect of character. Nonetheless, responsibility for the daughters' correct moral conduct weighed heavily on the mothers. Lady Maria Willingham in Mothers and Daughters is an example of a bad woman and mother. A good example, besides the upper class Lady Lorimer, is Sophia Willingham, the more lowly wife of Lord Willingham's second son. She is heralded by the narrator as a loving, modest wife and mother, who eventually attains the status of Lady, realising, in effect, the ideal of the 'proper lady'. Minnie, of course, will continue this line in the next generation of 'proper ladies'.
Gore's treatment of the perfect lady becomes slightly blurred as she introduces the worldly Lady Robert Lorton. Of all the characters in the novel, Lady Lorton seems least a caricature. There is a sense that Lady Robert is used as a spokesperson for the author herself. She is a society hostess, who befriends the Willingham daughters in order to help them achieve their ambitions. She is represented as caring and intelligent; holding a salon to encourage intellectual and cultural activities. Class boundaries are relaxed at these parties. The Willinghams are surprised, for example when no fuss is made of the entrance of a high-ranking aristocrat: The Duke of Lisborough. Their snobbish attachment to a title blinds them to the nuances of their fashionable world. The message in the text is clear; the eldest Willingham girls, Eleanor and Claudia, for all their beauty and clever accomplishments are outsiders. They do not recognise or give the correct consideration to the codes of the social life which governs them.
The author seems to critique the girls' extensive travel in Europe. Their knowledge of the world outside an English domestic environment has contributed to the tainting of their femininity. There is something 'foreign' and 'unnatural' about their feminine charms. Far from giving them advantage over their peers, their rather suspect, continental accomplishments endow them with an air of unfeminine superiority which is threatening to men. Eleanor, the brightest sister has begun to acquire a reputation for cleverness and wit. This puts them at a disadvantage in a British marriage market. They naively trust to their worldly upbringing and their fine lady status to bring them rewards, when it is apparent to the readers of the novel, that this will prove their ruin.
Lady Robert is an example of an intelligent and worldy wise female character who is able to cross class and gender boundaries because of her name, but more importantly because of her knowledge and acceptance of the rules of society which govern women such as herself. Unlike the Willingham sisters, she understands the importance of a public face, thus she is able to sail quite close to the wind, yet easily maintain her position amongst fashionable society. It is she who makes marriages, not women such as Lady Maria. Lady Robert can move more freely amongst men, because of her assured status as a happily married woman. Her public conduct is exemplary. It is she who displays compassion towards the fallen woman: Lucy Barringhurst. The narrator has Lady Robert condemning the attitude taken by society in casting out Lucy Barringhurst when she commits adultery with a Mr. Titchbourne who has abandoned her: 'I am most anxious to engage your cousin's assistance in counteracting the evil influence of Charlotte Grayfield over her mind: I want her assistance to thaw the rigid virtue of this promising member of the All-Excellent caste'. (III, p.147)
The Willingham daughters, by contrast, are horrified at the idea of recognising the former Lady Lucy Barringhurst:
'Surely you do not mean to visit a divorcee?'
'Visit is scarcely a term to apply to the sick, the dying - the brokenhearted! I afford her such consolations by my friendship and society, as befit her misery and our former intimacy; but alas! there are no attentions of mine which can obliterate the perpetual irritations of remorse! There are no soothing words which I am capable of breathing, that can supersede with a dying mother the voices of her children.'
Lady Robert is here personifying the idea of the 'perfect lady' or the Angel in the House, but she moves on to something else in the following criticism of paternal mismanagement and neglect:
'Robert Titchbourne, (as guardian) in providing her, on her first appearance in the world with a handsome equipage and allowance, and procuring her a good opera box and subscription to Almack's, satisfied himself that he had fully executed his duty. He appears to have regarded her heart and mind as of very small account in the affair.' (III, pp.148/9)
Mr. Titchbourne becomes the villain, quite as much in the moral wrong as any scheming 'mama', as it becomes apparent that his infamous cousin has begun his seduction of Lady Lucy. The author does not stop at the negligent guardian, who of course, is responsible for his charge's welfare until he hands her over to her husband. Catherine Gore also makes use of the satirical tone and witty dialogue in the novel to express a fundamental dysfunction or fatal flaw in all her male characters. It is as though the men are either dissolute (in the case of Titchbourne and Staplyford), or guileless (the young Charles Willingham), or indecisive (the Duke of Lisborough), or buffoons (Sir William Wyndham). But they are weaker than the women; in matters of the heart, they are controlled and manipulated by the stronger female characters. The only character who cannot be placed in this category is, interestingly, not British. He is the French Count: Monsieur de Bethizy, who decides for himself who he will marry for money amongst the available daughters of the aristocracy, despatches the impertinent comments of a handful of the chosen one's worried male relatives with quick-fire sarcasm, and with 'a kiss of his fingers', carries her off. To a life of neglect unfortunately, as Monsieur de Bethizy is a charming villian.
It has already been established in this essay that Catherine Gore takes the route of female writer as moralist, concerned with what can be seen and judged as a 'womanly' and correct moral conduct. This can be compared to Fanny Burney's attitude to her work: 'A fear of doing wrong has always been the leading principle of my internal guidance.' (8) Gore is an intrusive narrator, but she very rarely uses this device to undermine male authority in Mothers and Daughters. Criticism of male characters, therefore is a harder business. Gore achieves this most successfully in her novel, by having none of her male characters achieve the traditional status afforded to the 'romantic hero.' The Duke of Lisborough should fall naturally into this category, being the intended match for the beautiful Claudia Willingham, but he is shown to be of unmanly character, unable to make a decision for himself. What's more, he rejects Claudia, although he is beginning to fall in love with her, on the advice of two female relatives. They chose his wife for him and she proves to be sickly, but manipulative and controlling. Frederick Lorimer, the only other contender for romantic hero, originally the 'impotent' younger son, approaches this status after returning having made his fortune, but is revealed as second rate to the pious and moral Mary Willingham, who has harboured a true passion for him for many years, and is rewarded by marriage. The male discourse of sound common sense and morality used by fathers, lovers and guardians, so often seen in the novels of Jane Austen, is almost entirely absent from Mothers and Daughters. Old General De Vesci, who would appear to be a contender for this type of character, is exposed by the narrative as snobbish and cantankerous.
There is not a single male character who does not appear to be manipulated by the stronger females. So it could be argued that in her treatment of the male characters, Catherine Gore uses her wit and satirical discourse to undercut the ruling patriarchal system. As I have stated, it is possible to see this occurring, but the narrative always returns to reinforce the ideological domestic doctrine. Anything subversive in the text is exposed by wit, but afterwards closed down. So, General de Vesci gradually becomes a kind-hearted benefactor to Minnie, and Frederick Lorimer marries the plain, pious Mary and settles down. However, by doing this, the author at the very least provides a balance in the narrative which, until the recognition of her treatment of the male characters, has appeared to attribute sole blame for ungovernable ladies, incorrect public behaviour, badly brought up girls, and society's losers to the female influence. It remains to be said, however, that the strength of criticism levied by the narrator here, could well suggest an undercurrent of dissent.
The light-hearted, witty tone characteristic of the novel is discontinued throughout the part of the narrative which deals with the adultery and turning out of home of Lady Lucy Barringhurst. Lady Robert's compassion, as we have seen, stands in stark contrast to the small-minded, petty comments of the two Willingham girls. Implicit criticism is directed at the uncaring, public face of fashionable society. The author, through Lady Robert, appears to deliver an attack on the hypocrisy of the fashionable society she moves in:
'We all know what Mrs. Grandison was - we all saw it - we all felt it with disgust. No woman could more flagrantly outrage the common decencies of society. But through one of those caprices of destiny, or of the men and women whom we are pleased to call the world, the sentence she had braved failed to overtake her; even as we sometimes trace an intermediary spot which the scorching course of the electric flame has disdained to smite.' (III, p.157)
Although one does detect dissatisfaction in the voice of the narrator here, the story returns to its previous incantation in a typical novelistic vein. True to form, the adulteress, Lucy Barringhurst, is permitted one last glimpse of her children, whom she is finally allowed to see, before she dies in pain and regret for her misdeeds.
From the above paragraphs, it can be seen that in Mothers and Daughters, Catherine Gore reproduced the dominant ideology of her day. The proper messages which lie behind the light-hearted narrative are an earnest plea for the 'proper lady' and sound moral conduct. The author tempts the reader with a tale of high living, airs and graces and fashionable society, but closes the narrative with an age old moral lesson.
But if this is the case, then the fact of the financially independent author of Mothers and Daughters (plus at least sixty other publications during her lifetime), exposes an underlying tension in the work and reveals an anomaly in Gore's public persona. It prompts one to ask the questions: How did the female author reconcile herself to the unfeminine world of income earning? How did she succeed in constantly promoting the ideal of the 'proper lady' whilst delving into traditional masculine realms of marketing and publishing?
It would appear that for writers such as Gore, a placid and confident public face was all-important. Like her character, Lady Robert in Mothers and Daughters, she understood that the strongest indication of success as a creative woman, was how shrewdly and assuredly she could 'know her market'. Perhaps, in her cleverness and masked as the 'proper lady', she could quietly undercut the patriarchal system, with no chance of discovery.
She very wisely kept away from a deeper discussion of politics in her 'silver fork' novels, briefly commentating in later years on aspects of child labour and the poverty of factory workers. However, I feel that, given the wider scope available to a man, Catherine Gore, with such a perceptive knowledge of what the reading public required of her, plus that accurate sense of timing; she could have made a famous name for herself as a politician. Perhaps a liberal, like Hazlitt. Instead, she appeared to happily choose a more socially acceptable public face, that of the morally secure woman writer as maternal instructor.
1. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, Chicago and London, 1984, Preface.
2. Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica, London, 1989, p. 124.
3. Benjamin Disrali, cit. A. Adburgham, Silver Fork Society, London. 1983, p. 211.
4. Janet Todd, The Sign of Angelica.
5. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, Preface.
6. William Hazlitt, 'The Main Chance', essay in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, vol. 17, p. 283.
7. Lord Willersdale, in Women As They Are. by Catherine Gore; cit. Adburgham, Silver Fork Society.
8. Frances Burney, cit. Todd, The Sign of Angellica.
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Hazlitt W. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. London 1934.
Munday M. The Novel and its Critics in the early Nineteenth Century. University of North Carolina Press. 1982.
Pooney M. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago and London 1984.
Todd J. The Sign of Angelica. Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800. Virago. London 1989.
Gore, C. Mothers and Daughters, A tale of the year 1830. Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley. London 1831.