Nicola Field:Charlotte Nooth, A Study of Charlotte Nooth's Treatment of Themes and Concerns Prevalent Within the Work of Madame de Stael.
Publishing at the height of the Romantic era, Charlotte Nooth and Madame de Stael were two of a multitude of female writers producing literature in this period. Unlike the work of so many of her contemporaries, Stael's books went on to receive huge critical acclaim across both Europe and the United States. Praised for heralding a new era in both fiction and literary criticism, Stael was pronounced by Byron to be 'the most eminent woman writer of this…century' (Besser, 107). In contrast Charlotte Nooth is virtually unknown today. Her two texts, Original Poems and a Play (1815) and Eglantine; or the Family of Fortescue (1816), have received little critical attention since their date of publication. Why then should we start to look at them now and how are they linked to the work of Madame de Stael? The connection between these two writers is a poem written by Nooth that praises Madame de Stael and confirms that she was familiar with this author's work. What is of interest is how Nooth felt towards this prominent female figure and whether she had any influence on her own writing. By looking at how Charlotte Nooth treated some of the major themes and concerns prevalent in Madame de Stael's work I hope to determine how the ideas considered so important by one female writer were judged by another female author of a similar generation.
'Addressed to the Baronne de Stael-Holstein'
Charlotte Nooth's poem to Madame De Stael appears in her first publication, Original Poems and a Play. As it is the only direct reference Nooth makes to Stael in any of her work it is necessary to begin with a close reading of this poem, to ascertain not only how familiar Nooth really was with Stael's writings, but to consider the nature of her feelings towards them.
The first stanza of Nooth's poem seems to be largely concerned with the idea of art and genius being able to transcend all nationality. Nooth begins by stating that 'rival France' might be the place of Stael's birth, but the contents of her 'mighty mind' will never be contained within one country's boarders alone. She writes of how when 'Genius…deigns to visit Earth' its influence is cast 'More wide than Faction's brand was ever hurl'd'. From these lines it might be inferred that Nooth was well aware of Stael's influence in intellectual circles across Europe. Certainly she appears convinced that what Stael has to say is of some significance. Not only does she describe this writer's mind as 'mighty', she also depicts its contents as a great 'treasure' and a 'glorious gift'. Put this together with her comments on genius and it might be assumed that Charlotte Nooth held considerable respect for the author she is addressing.
In the second stanza of the poem Nooth moves on to make reference to a specific text of Stael's. This text is Corinne, or Italy (1807), Stael's second major novel. It is about a half-British, half-Italian woman, who unable to reconcile her 'thirst for fame and her longing for human affection' eventually dies of a broken heart (Harvey, 684). Nooth begins by stating how Stael's depiction of Corinne's 'Tuscan lyre' has caused 'the tear' of many a female reader to flow. The Tuscan lyre she writes of may be an allusion to book thirteen of Corinne, where the heroine performs an improvisation on her lyre in order to impress her lover Lord Nelvil. In the same scene Corinne empathises with the women of the region - Cornelia, Agrippina and Portia - 'who lost and mourned the men they loved'. (Besser, 81) Unfortunately for the reader it is soon apparent that a similar fate awaits their heroine and this is perhaps the reason for her tears.
Nooth's allusion to the lyre may also refer to Corinne's very first appearance in the novel when about to be crowned at the Capitol, she enters the city improvising verses and strumming her lyre. The most famous woman in Italy, Corinne's coronation is her award for being a great poet, improvisatrice, actress, dancer and skilled artist. This scene is a great celebration of female achievement and yet it is short-lived. Unable to be both a great artist and the type of reserved, modest woman that Nelvil wishes for a wife, Corinne ends up giving them both up. Perhaps Nooth's suggestion here is that female authors, such as herself, can empathise with Corinne's situation because they too are in the position of trying to reconcile their artistic ambitions with their society's demands that they be modest and reserved.
A similar sentiment to this is reiterated by Nooth a few lines later in this stanza. Nooth writes that: 'All see Corinne as Nelvil saw her first.' In Stael's account of this first meeting she describes Corinne as 'like Domenichino's sibyl' and states that 'in her expression there was something inspired' (Gutwirth, 90). According to Madelyn Gutwirth, by the nineteenth century sibyls had become a popular way of referring to inspired women authors. It seems then, that Nooth is definitely making reference here to female writers. She continues the stanza by stating how Nelvil later rejects Corinne as a result of the 'foul Daemon curst' making him a 'slave to Habit, Prejudice and Pride'. If Nooth is still referring to the position of women writers here then it might be suggested that for her Nelvil represents the patriarchal society of the day, which refuses to accept the worth of female authors. It also seems to be pointing to how men in general are persuaded by the conventions of society to disassociate themselves with any woman who doesn't conform to the traditional model of female behaviour. In contrast to man's inconsistency, Nooth implies that women are always constant in their feelings and subsequently suffer for them. She does this by explaining how Corinne resigned 'ev'ry thought' to Nelvil and 'For him alone had lived, and loved - and died'.
In the latter half of the second stanza Nooth moves away from the actual plot of the novel Corinne and goes on to its more travelogue-style descriptions instead. She relates how Stael's 'magic pen' has captured the beauty of Italy 'In many a rich and glowing line'. This is despite the fact that this country is now what Nooth considers a 'sinking state'. In this section of the poem I believe Nooth writes disapprovingly of the French occupation of Italy. She states how this country was once the place where the 'voice of Tully spoke', yet now it is "crushed beneath a tyrant yoke'. The tyrant she refers to must, I feel, be Napoleon for at the time of Corinne it was the French Emperor who held power over this nation.
Tully, or Marcius Tu'llius Cicero as he was properly known, was a Roman statesman of the first century BC and probably the greatest orator that Rome ever produced (Howatson, 133). His literature had a profound influence over hundreds of writers in later centuries, as did his ethics. Tully was a great believer in the maxim that that all humans should treat each other with a common respect. Also, importantly, he believed in the restoration of a republican constitution. That Nooth should write of a figure such as Tully being silenced by Napoleon's invasion suggests a great deal about what she thought of his occupation of Italy. It seems that she felt all the things Tully represented had been destroyed under his control. Certainly it seems that she believed that the arts had suffered greatly for she writes how: 'Art dies on Nature's lap, and all again is rude.' Although the meaning of this line isn't entirely clear, I interpret it as meaning that the arts have been destroyed in this country, despite its great beauty and history. In Old English the word 'rude' meant 'roughly made' (Crowdy, 449). If this is how Nooth intended the word to be understood then she is perhaps implying that art being produced in Italy at this time was now of an inferior standard.
A similar argument to this is put forward by Stael in Corinne. In book seven of the novel a lively conversation takes place between some of the characters on the merits of French, English and Italian literature. In the midst of this discussion Corinne puts forward the declaration that Italy's lost independence has resulted in a deplorable effect on its literature (Besser, 79). If my interpretation of the poem is correct then it seems Charlotte Nooth may also have shared this sentiment.
In the final stanza of the poem Nooth leaves her discussion of Corinne and moves onto another important text written by Stael. This text is De l'Allemagne or On Germany (1813), an exhaustive, nonfictional overview of German culture and history. At the beginning of the stanza Nooth suggests that the 'sons' of Germany have only been given life and become 'great' because of Stael's treatment of them in her text. It is interesting that Nooth should depict men being made great by a 'Lady', as this is surely something that wouldn't have been approved of. Is it that Nooth is making some comment here on the ability of female writers? She goes on to note how the effect of On Germany will be to 'rouse' many a wise man into exploring the fictions his country has produced, mentioning such writers as Klopstock and Goethe. Her description of how they will 'melt o'er Goethe's page' seems an unusual way of representing such a scene, but perhaps it says something of how Nooth perceived his fiction. Most famous for writing Werther, Goethe was renowned for the excessive sensibility of his prose. That people should melt when reading his work suggests that Nooth may have considered it excessively sentimental.
Having discussed the far-reaching effects that On Germany had on the population of its namesake, Nooth finally concludes her poem with the demand that Stael now turn her attention to England and English culture. She asks Stael 'wilt thou not another wreath bestow?' This line seems to be a reference back to Corinne and the scene where the heroine is crowned at the Capitol with a 'laurel wreath' (Besser, 85). Corinne's wreath is a reward for her artistic achievements; it seems Nooth now wants the same for England's. She insists that Stael's pen should 'trace the records of its Fame'. She then enters into a discussion on the great nature of the English people and finishes by demanding that Madame de Stael should 'give th' expecting world De l'Angleterre'.
Nooth's reasons for making such a demand may stem from several causes. Firstly Stael was well known for her opinion that the literature of one country could provide important insights for another (Besser, 79). If Nooth shared this belief then she may have just wanted to ensure that English culture was introduced across Europe, as Italian and German culture had been by Stael's previous texts. It might also be, however, that Nooth was attempting to defend English culture against Stael's attack upon it in Corinne. In this novel Stael writes harshly about the nature of English society, with Corinne herself condemning it as stultifying and restrictive. Nooth's insistence in her poem on the greatness of English people would appear to indicate a much more patriotic vision of her society and it is almost as if she is challenging Stael to come and find out for herself. Perhaps, if no where else, this is the one point in the poem where Nooth seems to question Stael's work, rather than seemingly praise it.
Charlotte Nooth's poem to Madame de Stael raises a number of important themes and concerns. The most significant of these are her discussions on the position of female writers, the nature of women in general and her defence of English society. The poem also proves that Nooth was familiar with two of Stael's texts - Corinne and On Germany. I now hope to compare how Charlotte Nooth treated the themes and ideas prevalent within these two texts within her own fiction, focusing in particular on the issues raised in her poem. As such I shall be looking at the themes of women's devotion to men, the use of the moral argument, the handling of Romantic concepts and the question of female subservience.
The Suffering of Women and their Devotion to Men.
One of the main points in Charlotte Nooth's poem to Madame de Stael is her description of Corinne's devotion to Lord Nelvil - her resigning of every thought to him. In On Germany the devotion of women to men is also an important concern of two of its most significant chapters, 'On Women' and 'On Love within Marriage'. In the first of these Stael remarks that: 'The most beautiful virtue, devotion, is women’s pleasure as well as their destiny.' (Stael, 294) In her chapter about love within marriage de Stael reiterates this point by claiming: 'women’s destiny is to be one continuous act of devotion to conjugal love.' (Stael, 318)
While such devotion may be for Stael a compulsory part of women’s nature, she is also certain that it leads to much suffering. She complains that for the woman in an unhappy marriage: 'suffering is a power that goes far beyond all the other pain of this world' and for such a woman 'despair takes hold of all [her] abilities and consciousness itself grows dim with misery.' (Stael, 319)
Stael's claim that women always devote themselves to men then suffer greatly for it is a vision that seems to have been shared by Charlotte Nooth. In all three of her texts we see examples of such devotion and suffering. The obvious example is of course Selina Fortescue in Eglantine. Although cheated and then abandoned by the man she 'idolised to an excess' (I, 86), Selina’s persistent loyalty to her husband epitomises everything Stael had to say on the subject. The reader’s first introduction to Selina is through a letter she writes to her daughter. In this letter Selina says to Eglantine, 'You have only known me since that incurable disease, the sickness of the heart, has changed me to what I am, a poor, emaciated being, languid and spiritless.' (I, 79)
The suggestion here is that Selina’s sufferings in affairs of the heart have resulted in both a physical and spiritual deterioration in her health. It is similar to the kind of deterioration that Stael presents of Corinne when Nelvil leaves her. Ill, feeble and wasted, Corinne chooses to spend of the rest of her days in isolation. (Besser, 83) Likewise, Selina chooses the same. Segregated away from all her friends and family, she mourns for the husband who abandoned her some fourteen years earlier. When Landen goes to America to search for the Captain she becomes immediately anxious about the possibility of seeing him again. Letters that bring news of the Captain instantly cause her to faint. Suggestions he might be engaged to Matilda instantly spark hysteria. After all these years Selina still remains the devoted wife to her husband. It is not a fate, however, that she would wish upon her daughter. She warns Eglantine to beware of love, 'that insidious tyrant of the female heart, who soothes us with the hope of happiness, only to plunge us into the certainty of disappointment.' (I, 76).
Such disappointment is all Matilda de Brooke is left feeling after her love affair with the younger Edward Fortescue. Having waited over six years for Edward to return and marry her, his homecoming is marred by both his confession that he is 'a liar and a thief' and the news that an accident has left him on his deathbed. Despite his wrongdoing Matilda refuses to desert Edward and is more moved by the knowledge that he always intended to marry her, than his admission that he cheated his own family. For Matilda, 'even falsehood and dissimulation lost their dark hue and horrid shape, when viewed through the deceptive medium of her passion.' (II, 291)
Nooth’s description of such passion as 'deceptive' indicates that she recognised the dangers of such feelings. When the narrator comments, however, that Mr Milner wouldn’t have been so surprised by Matilda’s reaction 'had he known the female heart better' (II, 289) there is the suggestion that such passion was typical of the female sex.
Just as the women of Nooth’s novel are devoted to their men, so too are many in her poetry. In ‘A Manks Elegy’ the poem’s male protagonist laments his lost friends and fortune, but in particular fears the loss of the woman he loves. Certain she will have already forgotten their attachment now he has fallen on hard times, he thinks that for her, 'Twas not perhaps too much to shed a tear, / Then send me from her thoughts as one gone bye.' As if to immediately revoke this claim Mary appears behind Edward and reveals her intention to 'share his fate' however harsh it may be. What’s more, it’s stated that never in later times does she think 'too great / The Sacrifice' she made for the man she loved.
In the poem ‘Song’ another example is given of a woman forced to convince her partner of her love for him, even in his absence. In this poem the woman’s argument about how she feels for her lover is similar to the position that so many of Nooth’s female characters seem to adopt. She states that: 'the heart once possess’d by affection like mine / May in fondness encrease, but can never decline.'
While Nooth may share Stael's conviction that women are destined to devote themselves to men, she doesn't necessarily consider this a good thing. As I've mentioned already, Selina is keen to warn Eglantine against the dangers of such passionate feelings and the narrator makes a similar warning about Matilda's. In the poem 'Vergiss Mein Nicht' (Forget Me Not) Nooth condemns women for being too 'ready at believing' and for seeing only 'with Affection's eyes'. The narrator of the poem suggests that women would be spared much 'disappointment' if they didn't promise to devote themselves to men. The narrator's argument is that a similar promise made by men is a 'claim so seldom kept'.
In Nooth's play Clara; or the Nuns of Charity the female characters soon discover to their cost that such a trait is typical of the men they love. In the case of Sister Isabel it is revealed that this woman was once a Saxon princess who having been seduced and secretly married to the Count of Rohan, is then as quickly abandoned by this man when he sacrifices 'her love to policy'. Broken-hearted, Isabel hides herself away in a convent for the next eighteen years and vows never to speak to a man again. For Clara, the heroine of the play, the form of betrayal is of an entirely different sort. Accused of murdering her fiancé's son, Clara is devastated to learn that her future husband is instantly willing to believe her guilty. Even when she protests her innocence, Valmonsor refuses to hear a word of it. For Clara it is his readiness to believe she could do such a thing that ultimately breaks her heart. If such accusations were made against him she insists: 'I would pledge my life against thy truth'. (Original Poems, 88, V.i)
While in all three of Charlotte Nooth's texts there are numerous examples proving that this author shared Stael's conviction that women suffered for their devotion to men, Nooth does not allow her female characters to suffer to the same extreme that Stael does. She rewards each of the women in her texts with some sort of happy ending. Clara and Isabel, for instance, are not left to languish alone in the convent, broken-hearted and spiritless (as Corinne is left); both are eventually reconciled with, respectively, their former husband and fiancé. For Selina and Matilda there are also happy endings. Having convinced themselves that they will never love again, both are finally remarried by the end of the novel to men portrayed as much more worthy of their affection. Such endings suggest that while Nooth may have disputed one of her own character's claims that women were 'fickle, changing' creatures (Eglantine, II, 11), she did not believe that woman's devotion should be so all-consuming that it ended in their tragic death.
Rather than being completely overwhelmed by their sensibility, Nooth's female characters discover a much more 'sensible' form of love with men who have also learnt to temper their passion, (see chapter on Romantic themes). Subsequently it seems that Nooth was interested in promoting to her readers the need for a more rational, sober state of mind when dealing with affairs of the heart, than the highly strung disposition exhibited by such characters as Selina and Matilda. In doing so she offers the character of Eglantine as an example of the better way for a young lady to behave, (see p21).
Use of the Moral Argument and Self-Justification
In her poem to Madame de Stael, Charlotte Nooth criticises the patriarchal society that refuses to accept the worth of female authors. In her own work Nooth uses a number of techniques to justify her position as a woman writer. One of these was to assert the moral purpose of her writing, a purpose that Madame de Stael had also agreed with. In On Germany Stael insisted that the feelings that distinguished chivalrous Christian writings were 'honour and love, bravery and pity'. Only through a writer's portrayal of 'adventures, love affairs, (and) misfortunes' did she believe such feelings could be demonstrated. (Stael, 301)
While many female writers of this period also shared Stael's opinion that the purpose of fiction was definitely a moral one, there was often a far more selfish reason for taking this high moral ground than mere personal Christian belief. As Eva Figes points outs, for many women writers:'moral content was a form of self-justification, the only defence against the charge that women scribblers were filling young girls' heads full of romantic nonsense.' (Figes, 15) For Charlotte Nooth self-justification seems to have been the overwhelming reason for promoting good moral conduct in her novel. In the preface to Eglantine Nooth pleas for indulgence for her work on the grounds of 'the moral and religious tendency which she has endeavoured to give to her story.' (I, ix) The purpose of her novel is, she claims, to: 'leave upon the minds of her readers a veneration for Virtue, and a contempt for Vice.' (I, 10) In making such a claim Nooth attempts to protect herself from the accusation that her work may be poisoning the minds of young women. Instead she propounds the common moralists' point-of-view that a novel could serve as a kind of dramatised conduct book for young women. (Spencer, 142)
It is the example of many of the lead characters in Eglantine that provide the source of moral guidance in the novel. Madame de Stael commented in On Germany that: 'modern men have drawn from Christian repentance the habit of turning continually inward upon themselves.' (Stael, 300) In Eglantine this idea of Christian inner reflection is a prominent one. For Nooth's characters, however, this reflection is not a continuous act, but one which comes much later after the event, with the character now suffering the consequences of their actions and aware of the error of their judgement. In this novel there are three death bed confessions alone, each coming from men who admit to doing great wrong, but now realise the error of their ways. For old Mr Fortescue his last major regret is having set 'a BAD EXAMPLE' to his children (II, 198). Later he reiterates this point by stating how he is to blame for not giving his children 'a GOOD EXAMPLE' (II, 207). Nooth's use of upper case in these instances is meant to emphasise how important such examples were. It is the attempt to set her daughter a good example that prompts Selina Fortescue to write her warning letters to Eglantine. In laying bare her own great mistakes Selina hopes to stop her daughter making the same.
For the two Fortescue brothers their deathbed confessions are a chance to make amends for the wrongs they have done the women they leave behind. For Captain Fortescue this means securing his brother's promise that he will take care of his wife and child; for Edward Fortescue it is about shielding his fiancée from his crimes. For both old Mr Fortescue and his youngest son, Christian repentance is emphasised as the overriding reason for their confessions. As Edward Fortescue draws close to death we see how: 'this unhappy man had his heart touched at last, and was awakened to a sense of his awful dependence on a Supreme Being.' (II, 313) Scared of what fate might await him after death, Edward is keen to seek the forgiveness of Matilda and asks her if they will ever meet again. Matilda assures him they will and Mr Milner states that it is to Edward's 'honour' that he 'at last became sensible of his faults'. For old Mr Fortescue this fear of the future is also the prompt for his confession. Asking desperately if anyone can tell him 'what the future will be', Fortescue writes his life history as a 'warning admonition' to those who might read it. Having repented for his abominable lifestyle, Mr Milner feels assured in offering this old man an 'exhortation full of confidence in the Divine Mercy'. (II, 201) By illustrating the desperate attempts by these men to save their souls, Nooth demonstrates to her reader the necessity for leading a good Christian lifestyle. She also emphasises, however, the Christian precept of forgiveness. In doing so Nooth ensures that her novel sets a good moral example.
The stories of the Fortescue men and also Selina Fortescue provide one form of moral example. The conduct of the heroine herself, however, provides the true example of appropriate female behaviour. As one contemporary reviewer of Eglantine noted: 'Eglantine possesses almost every personal charm and every mental accomplishment'.(Augustan Review, III, 365) As such she is a model of "perfection" and rarely sets a foot out of line. Whilst staying with her aunt, Lady Winterton she is always careful to obey her host's wishes, even when she doubts the prudence of some of her decisions. More importantly, in front of Captain Fitzroy, Eglantine is always a model of perfect female modesty and reservation. With her 'natural, simple and unaffected' (I, 120) character she is everything a young lady ought to be. Subsequently Fitzroy is quick to realise that with her 'genteel manners' and 'sensible' disposition, Eglantine is very much 'qualified to be the companion of a man of taste and discernment. ' (I, 226)
Through the provision of good moral conduct in her novel, or at least the admission that such conduct should be adhered to, Nooth is able to fulfil Stael's argument that art should have a good moral purpose. With it she covers her own back from criticism for writing in the first place. This form of self-justification, however, is just one of several methods which both Nooth and Stael use throughout their work. Another prominent technique used by these authors is that of making frequent reference to other famous artists. In Corinne the heroine, a great artist herself, is always quick to remember those great artists and thinkers who came before her. In her improvisations at the Capitol, Corinne celebrates such men as Petrarch, Michaelangelo, Raphael and Galileo. In doing so Corinne seems to align herself with these men. In a similar manner, in On Germany Stael dedicates great sections of her work to discussion of famous German writers. These include Goethe, Schiller and Lessing. As Charlotte Nooth notes in her poem to the Baronne, it is through Stael's consideration of these authors that she proves her own worth as a writer. On a much smaller scale, Nooth does something very similar.
At the beginning of every chapter in Eglantine, Nooth chooses to place a quotation from the work of other renowned authors. Burns, Shakespeare, Voltaire and Metastasio are just a few of the writers she quotes. Often these quotations are in a foreign language (including Latin) and sometimes there is no name attached to the quotation by which to identify its author. How many of Nooth's female readers would have been able to identify or even understand these quotations is uncertain, but it is perhaps not at this particular readership that she aimed them. By using these quotations Nooth is proving to her male contemporaries that she is both well educated in great literature and also fluent in foreign languages. By showing herself as learned I think Nooth hopes to prove her own worth as a writer, despite the fact she's female. Many years later George Eliot was to use the same technique in Middlemarch for very similar reasons.
It is not just in her novel Eglantine that Nooth uses the work of other authors to justify her own. In Original Poems Nooth includes a section of 'Translations from the French, Spanish and Italian' (Eglantine, I, iv) . This is announced in a notice for the text, printed at the beginning of Eglantine. That the advertisement for Original Poems should make a particular point about mentioning the translations suggests how important they were for adding credibility to an otherwise unknown author. By including such poetry Nooth once again demonstrates both her learning and her appreciation for past great writers. Such appreciation is taken a stage further, with Nooth's play Clara; of the Nuns of Charity. Here, Nooth doesn't just make reference to other writers, but actually bases the play itself on the text of another author. This author is Madame de Genlis, another French writer of the late 1700's / early 1800's. The text on which Nooth's play is based is her novel the Siege de Rochelle. While there may be several reasons for Nooth's decision to adapt someone else's work for the stage, it seems probable that one of these has to do with the fact that this novel was 'already in high estimation with the public' (Augustan Review, III, 380) . By using a story already known to be popular with the public, Nooth not only ensures a better reception for her play, but also builds up her own reputation as a dramatist on the back of another writer's success.
With the exception of Madame de Genlis' novel, it seems that most of the texts translated or referred to by Charlotte Nooth were those written by male authors. In the text of Eglantine itself the work of such writers as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson both a get a mention. Perhaps the most interesting reference Nooth makes to a male author, however, is her mention of Chesterfield. The Earl of Chesterfield was renowned for the letters he wrote to his son in the mid-1700's. These letters were full of instructions to the boy on correct manners and behaviour. In Eglantine Major Fitzroy is reported to have written a 'corrected Chesterfield' (I, 280) for his children. The irony of such a statement is that in Nooth's day it was largely the women who were producing 'corrected' conduct books, as a means of justifying their writing in the first place. By reworking the conduct book into a dramatised format such women could soften the criticism against them. They also rewrote the format by swapping the father/son relationship for the mother/daughter one. In Eglantine the plot of the novel is constructed around Selina's letters to her daughter. In these letters Selina's role is to educate her child and warn her against the dangers of immoral behaviour. In the nineteenth century women were held especially responsible for their daughters' education. As Jane Spencer points out this maternal authority then became a paradigm for women's own literary authority ('Of use to her dauther', 201). Through the dramatisation of maternal wisdom not only Nooth, but other writers such as Jane West and Charlotte Smith were able to maintain some form of respectability, whilst establishing themselves in the literary order.
Romantic Themes and Ideas
Writing in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Charlotte Nooth must have been aware of the huge literary movement sweeping across the continent during this period - namely the Romantic Movement. Romanticism was certainly something Madame de Stael knew plenty about. It is she who is widely accredited with having first introduced the term 'Romantic' across Europe, through her chapter on Romantic poetry in On Germany. Her discussion in this text of the work of Romantic German writers such as Goethe and Schiller helped to greatly publicise key Romantic ideas. In particular Stael held up Goethe's novel Werther as 'the most remarkable book' Germany had ever produced (Stael, 183). Its uniqueness was its ability to outline all those elements that affected Romantic sensibility, such as suffering caused by love and spiritual disquietude (Besser, 99). The hero of Werther is a 'highly strung young man of great sensitiveness' (Garland, 544). During his lone wanderings across Germany he meets and falls in love with a young girl called Lolte, who unfortunately is already promised to a local man called Albert. Overcome by his passion and alienated from his society, Werther despairs and eventually shoots himself. The character of this young man was later to share affinities with a Romantic figure, known as the Byronic hero. He too was a wanderer, separate from his society and with a capacity from incredible passion.
In the work of Charlotte Nooth there is one key character who might be described along the lines of a Romantic hero - this is Frederic Milner in Eglantine. Frederic desperately wants to be a writer. In the first report of him in the novel it is stated how having currently 'failed in his literary pursuits', he now intends to take a tour around the Western counties, meaning 'to sketch and write his way along' (I, 74). In setting out on such a pursuit Frederic imitates so many of the Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, who themselves took tours around Britain, writing and drawing as they went. Whilst Frederic is on tour he attempts to write a tragedy (an ambition of so many of the Romantic poets), he reads Southey, a prominent figure of this era, and he draws such figures as gypsies, the 'common people' so frequently celebrated by such poets as William Wordsworth. In so many of his literary and artistic ambitions Frederic resembles many of the key English writers of this period. His passionate feelings for Eglantine, however, place him more on a par with Goethe's character Werther.
When Frederic goes to visit Eglantine at Oak Lodge it is revealed that he has been secretly in love with old friend for many years. As they sit in the garden together Frederic confesses to Eglantine of 'the immeasurable love' he feels for her and the passion which shakes his 'very soul with agony' (II, 9). When Frederic realises that Eglantine does not return his feelings he is totally devastated. Characterised by his 'strong emotion', 'impetuous feelings', and 'excess of a passion' (II, 8-9), he is later described by the Mansel girls as behaving like a 'madman…raving and talking to himself'. They describe seeing him: 'in the meadow, flinging himself upon the grass, and beating his forehead, and repeating verses…or else something out of a tragedy.' (II, 12)
In this excessive display of emotion Frederic assumes a similar persona to the character of Werther. Like Goethe's hero, Frederic also feels isolated from his peers. Having already been rejected from a tutor's post because he knows nothing of polished society; he now feels he's been alienated from the woman he loves, because surrounded by all the 'trappings of wealth and fashion' Eglantine has acquired a taste 'for all the luxuries of life'. Frederic is a poor curate's son and knows he can never offer Eglantine any of those luxuries her new admirers can bestow. Moreover Frederic feels 'Eglantine is spoilt'. For him, her time spent with the upper classes has resulted in her becoming 'vain, and sophisticated, and unfeeling, like the rest' (II, 5). If it weren't for her introduction to the high life Frederic is sure she would have been his wife. Instead she has set her sights much higher.
Frederic's distraught reaction to Eglantine's rejection suggests that like the character of Werther, he too will now suffer a miserable, despairing existence. Nooth, however, has other ideas and they say a lot about what she felt towards such extreme sensibility. Throughout most of Eglantine Frederic nurtures a deep distrust towards the restrictive customs and manners of upper-class society. For him the 'Odious, artificial trammels of society…harden and chill the heart, and paralyse every generous feeling.' (II, 5) Shortly after his falling-out with Eglantine however, Frederic is offered the position of tutor with one of Mr Landen's relations. Such a position offers Frederic what the narrator describes as an 'opportunity of mixing in good society, and rubbing off the romance and visionary notions of a lonely student.' (II, 58) As hoped, this position has the desired effect. Working for Mr Elrington provides Frederic with a diversion for his thoughts and feelings. Furthermore his association with 'the well-bred and well-informed' associates of his employer result in his improved 'manner and deportment'. The most profound effect of his stay with the Elrington's is the change in his feelings towards Eglantine. During his stay with this family he is witness to a union between two people who sincerely love and esteem each other, yet to the 'heated imagination of Frederic' they appear 'tame and spiritless'. He believes that in such a love affair a couple should display 'unabated admiration' for each other. Given time he realises that such enthusiasm 'cannot be permanent'. With such a realisation comes the eventual subduing of his feelings for Eglantine. No longer does Frederic romantically exhale 'his soul in midnight plainings to the unpitying moon' (II, 163). Instead by the end of his stay with the Elrington's: 'His clear and comprehensive mind burst from the clouds of passion, and the mists of romance…His cure was gradual…but it was complete. He was no longer in love with Eglantine.' (II, 163-4)
Unlike Goethe's treatment of Werther, Nooth allows her sensitive character to recover what might be described as his senses. Through his eventual association with the society he once so mistrusted, Frederic's passion is ultimately tamed and his highly romantic temperament replaced by that of a 'sensible' young gentleman's. At the same time he gives up his literary ambitions to study for the church instead. Such a huge transformation in his personality suggests that Nooth did not really approve of the extreme sensibility demonstrated in such texts as Werther. As I've already pointed out, in her poem to Madame de Stael, Nooth implies that Goethe's work was too sentimental, that it made his readers 'melt'. Through the character of Frederic she offers an alternative ending to Werther. In her example English sense overcomes German sensibility, a point that was made in many novels of this period (Figes, 82). By introducing Frederic to the fellowship of the upper classes and subsequently taming his sensibility, Nooth makes the point that such emotion should always be contained within the customary framework of polite society.
A man who has always fitted such a description is the character of Mr Landen. Like Frederic, Landen represents many of those feelings that were connected to the Romantic Movement. In one of his very first scenes in the novel Landen gives a passionate speech about nature and man's attitude towards it. He states that:
The book of Nature is replete with interest and delight to those who know how to read it, and bring to its ever-new and varying pages a mind capable of lively impressions and improved by literature. The herdsman and the mechanic live among the most beautiful scenery without any perception of its charms. (I, 65)
Such a speech as this seems to reinforce the Romantic poets' belief that their role was to find through nature those exalting (sublime) moments, when they passed from sight to vision. Certainly they believed that nature was the source of poetic genius and they spent most of their lives trying to recreate nature in their poetry. Landen goes on to say:
To receive form Nature a mind capable of the acutest feeling, thirsting for excellence, and ardently desiring the attainment of moral beauty...is, under many circumstances, a misfortune rather than a blessing; such qualifications lay us open to…the keenest anguish of disappointment. (I, 66)
This statement seems to display an affinity with the Romantic poets' argument that the more they tried to become one with nature and recapture the sublime in their poetry, the more disappointed they became when they failed to achieve their ambition. Of course, the more you know what you want to do the greater your disgust when you can't do it.
In addition to his theories about nature Landen exhibits certain traits and emotions that align him with the characters of Frederic and Werther. Just as these young men are passionate about their young ladies, Landen demonstrates an absolute devotion to Selina Fortescue. Having grown fond of her during their youth he still feels some twenty or more years later a 'mad devotion' to the woman. Indeed the narrator stresses how: 'he had fostered his attachment to Selina 'till it assumed the character of an overwhelming passion which withered and desolated his mind.' (I, 274) Landen's passion for Selina has resulted in 'many anxious and miserable hours' (I, 255). It has caused him to wander for many years amongst foreigners in search of some distraction from his feelings and prompted him to fly the society of two very 'amiable women' out of a deep-rooted loyalty to his first love. While Landen's love for Selina might be as overwhelming as Frederic's though, there is an obvious difference between their behaviour. Unlike Frederic, Landen is always careful to keep his feelings for Selina contained when in public. Throughout the novel he is exemplary of the perfect gentleman. There are no scenes in Eglantine where Landen throws himself upon the ground in despair or starts uttering verse to himself. Neither does he embarrass Selina by confessing his feelings towards her. The reader only learns of his love for Selina when they are witness to his private moments. In public Landen is careful to retain respectability at all times. His determination to retain his dignity whenever possible is indicative of his upper class upbringing. In Landen the reader is presented with a perfect example of Romantic sensibility combined and therefore restrained within the manners of an English gentleman.
Nooth's constant taming of Romantic sensibility in those characters who display any tendency towards such a temperament would seem to indicate that she didn't thoroughly engage with the ideas of the Romantic Movement. In her poetry there might seem to be little influence of the Romantic themes and techniques prevalent in this period. Indeed one critic's review of Original Poems praises Nooth for 'abstaining from innovation in language' and for her 'close and simple style of writing', which is in contrast to the work of those 'visionary and impassioned bards' who in this daring age attempt to 'soar beyond the reach of tame realities' (Augustan Review, I, 377). This critic's suggestion is that Nooth's poetry is very unlike that of the Romantic poets. While this observation can be sustained up to a point, there is some evidence to suggest that Nooth was in some ways influenced by Romantic ideas of the time. The most obvious of these can be found in her poem 'Beauty'. In this poem Nooth asks 'What call we Beauty?' She gives a list of possible answers such as the 'frail and fleeting flower' or the fine, attractive woman. She then dismisses these both by stating how in reality beauty is something that only exists in the mind of the beholder. She writes:
Tis like the bow which paints the sky,
Seen various by each varying eye,
Tho 'all its presence own;
For while we gaze - the charm we make,
The dear illusion that we take
We owe to self alone.
Her suggestion that 'while we gaze - the charm we make' is similar to the Romantics' belief that the imagination collaborated with nature to create what it perceives. In 'Tintern Abbey' William Wordsworth wrote how what the eyes and ears both see and hear is 'both what they half-create / And what perceive'. It seems Nooth also shared the belief that the imagination played as an important role as the senses in the workings of perception. It was a point she was to reiterate again in Eglantine when she discusses Mr Landen's love for Selina. Here the narrator describes how: 'He had gazed on the mother during the ardour of youth, and created half the charms he had seen.' (I, 260) Again Nooth is making the point that beauty is something determined partly through the imagination of the beholder. As the readers themselves know, Selina is not nearly as charming as Landen believes her to be; it is only he who imagines her to be the most beautiful woman alive.
Throughout the rest of Charlotte Nooth's poetry it is possible to identify hints of other Romantic ideas within her work. In 'Written on the Seashore' she describes roving along the banks of the Mersey, watching the 'swelling tide' and listening to the 'rippling waves'. Immersed in nature she is both able to form her 'artless song' and 'lose the past, in Hope's delicious dream!' In this poem there is a sense of the inspiring ability of nature. In 'Larne Water' Nature becomes personified. In the form of a human shape the 'Spirit of the Sea' majestically rises from beneath the waves. What follows is a battle of words between the sea spirit and a man, meant to represent 'Enterprise'. The use of a spirit in conflict with man seems reminiscent of Coleridge's use of spirits in 'The Ancient Mariner'. Nooth also chooses to use spirits in her collection of Irish ballads. In 'Sir Dennis and the Banshee' it is a female spirit who returns to save Sir Dennis from an ambush on his home. The interesting point about this poem and the rest of her Irish ballads, however, is Nooth's decision to both depict the lower classes of Northern Ireland and to write about them in their own dialect. A similar project to this had previously been undertaken by Robert Burns, who in 1786 published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. As we know from Eglantine that Nooth was familiar with the work of Burns it is possible that this book might have influenced Nooth to write a similar collection of poems while in Northern Ireland. In addition, she might have been influenced by William Wordsworth's comments that the purpose of poetry should be to describe 'incidents and situations from common life…in a selection of language really used by men' (Wu, 52).
Evidence of Romantic ideas within Nooth's poetry suggests that she was in some ways influenced by this new literary movement. Despite her references to nature, spirits and common people, however, the overriding interest in her poetry seems to be with commerce, money and good society. In 'Larne Water' civilisation beats nature and is therefore shown to be superior. In 'Written on the Seashore' Nooth ends the poem by hoping that 'long may Commerce' bless the shores of the Mersey. Having taken the time to depict the beautiful scenery beside this river, Nooth is careful not to forget the great commercial benefits it has also provided. In those of Nooth's poems that discuss genius there is often the suggestion that such genius needs material support to maintain it. In 'Lines Written after being shown the Magdalen', Nooth describes the lot of an artist living in poverty. She comments on how such an artist has to give up his pen because 'Debas'd by Want' he must till the land instead. She asks that men of wealth help to support such struggling artists, her claim being that money's 'magic touch unlocks the gates of Art'. In her 'Meditation on a Guinea' Nooth claims that money is the 'lamp to Genius'; only when supported by money are 'Words, thoughts, and Actions' shown to be the best. Nooth's preoccupation with what she sees as art's dependency on money seems a far cry away from the interests of the Romantic poets. While there is undoubtedly then some influence of Romantic ideas in her work they are not, it appears, her overriding concern.
In her poem to Madame de Stael, Charlotte Nooth recognises that the character of Corinne is representative of female artistic achievement. In her own work she attempts on several occasions to justify her own position as a female writer and prove her worth to others. Considering this then it is perhaps a little surprising that Nooth never attempts to portray female artistry directly in her own work. After all, surely this would have been the easiest method of promoting female ability?
The closest Nooth gets to creating a female artist is in the character of Eglantine. During her first morning at Oak Lodge Eglantine sets out across the gardens equipped with sketchbook and pencil. Finding little of interest amidst the shrubbery her imagination is finally sparked by her discovery of the castle ruins. When Mr Landen finds her here he notices that Eglantine has 'cultivated the talent of delineating Nature, and embodying the gratifications of sight.' (I, 67) From this it can be inferred that Eglantine has considerable talent as an artist. Once Landen takes Eglantine on as his pupil and begins instructing her in a little drawing and Italian he finds that 'she evinced a greater desire for improvement, a clearer capacity for reasoning, and in short, a stronger understanding than he had ever before found in any woman.' (I, 259) The implication of this statement is that with the proper instruction and education, Eglantine could be the equal to any man. Despite hints, however, at Eglantine's potential artistic and intellectual abilities, Nooth restricts Eglantine's ambitions to finding a suitable husband and making herself an agreeable companion. She dreams of nothing more than adorning a drawing room, directing a nursery, or soothing 'the wearied mind which seeks for relaxation in her society' (I, viii). It is in giving her heroine these conventional aspirations that Nooth's work differs most from the work of Madame de Stael's. While in Eglantine the attitude of the heroine conforms completely with patriarchal demands of women in this period, Stael's novel Corinne can, according to G.R. Besser been seen as 'an insurgent, if muted outcry against woman's subservience to patriarchal ideals' (Besser, 92). Within her novel Stael paints a particularly harsh picture of the lives of English women. She writes of how Corinne loathed the monotonous existence of these women who, taciturn and withdrawn, sat around for hours after dinner simply waiting for the men to join them. She is sure that for such women the only difference between each day is 'the date on the calendar' (Besser, 81). In contrast to these women Corinne is talented and ambitious and has no qualms about aspiring to literary glory.
Nooth, on the other hand, for all her own attempts to prove herself as a writer, does little to offer her own female characters an alternative to her patriarchal society's definition of a lady. Rather all the women in her texts are portrayed as subservient to men and dependent on their approval. One reason why Nooth might choose to depict women as subservient to men might simply be that she wanted to defend the nature of English society. After all, in her poem to Madame de Stael Nooth praises the nature of English people and in her treatment of Frederic and Landen insists that any extreme sensibility should be contained within the customs and habits of good society. It was common in this period for female writers to celebrate English domestic arrangements as superior to those on the continent and it is possible to detect a hint of patriotism in Nooth's texts. When Mr Landen reveals in Eglantine his intention of travelling to America, Captain Fitzroy is quick to remark that this country is 'a worse England', lacking in history and full of people 'unpolished by the arts' (I, 245). When Matilda speaks of living abroad Mr and Mrs Milner are also quick to point out that 'there is no place like England' (II, 175). Mr Milner's argument is that 'the place makes the person', with a country's habits, motives and opinions all helping to mould a person's personality. This being the case his argument is of course that England will produce the more superior kind of person. With Nooth's play Clara it is possible to propose that this drama shows life on the continent to provide no better treatment of women than that which they receive in England. As I discussed in an earlier section, both the Counts in this play either betray or abandon the women that love them. Moreover, the women in this drama are still expected to exhibit all those traits associated with women in Britain. Clara, for instance, is known for her 'feeling heart' and her angelic disposition. While Stael may condemn Lord Nelvil and the English society he represents in Corinne, Nooth highlights in Clara that wherever women live and whatever their nationality, they are still subject to the same patriarchal ideals that prevail in nearly every European society.
This resignation to the fact that women were stuck under patriarchal rule whatever their circumstances is the most likely reason for Nooth's decision to portray women as subservient to men, rather than any real conviction that such rule was appropriate. Accepting the world as it was Nooth may have chosen, like writers before her such as Burney and Austen, to use her fiction as a means of teaching her readers how to adapt and survive in the male world (Figes, 16). This meant being knowingly subservient to men and for this reason each of her female characters wants to be the good, loyal wife, obedient to their husbands. Not one of them demonstrates any other ambition nor questions their position in society. Through their example Nooth hopes to teach her reader how to become the 'lovely and well-principled woman' that every good man wanted for his wife (Eglantine, II, 314).
Although Nooth's overriding purpose may have been instructing young women on the best methods for surviving in society, this doesn't mean she never makes any attempt to improve the lot of specific groups of women. She looks, for instance, at the governesses forced to seek such work to support themselves financially. The story of Matilda de Brooke, the governess in Eglantine illustrates the deplorable treatment often received by such women from their employers. Although a young person of 'polite and agreeable manners', Matilda is never allowed by the Filmers to mix with either the family or their guests. Instead she is: 'shut out from society, and restricted to pass her whole time in a remote nook of an elegant mansion, surrounded by luxuries and pleasures, of which she was not to partake.' (I, 194) Matilda describes her time at the Filmers as being like that of 'a prisoner' and she is always aware of 'a sensible line of demarcation' between them and her. (I, 214, 215) Subsequently Matilda's isolation renders her melancholy and spiritless. This, of course, is in complete contrast to the treatment Frederic receives as tutor with the Elrington's. Here he is encouraged to mix with good society and spared any embarrassment by being spoken of as 'the young gentleman who assists me with my young people', rather than as the 'tutor' (II, 162). This difference in treatment not only illustrates what difference an employer's attitude could have in improving an employee's situation, but also suggests the greater respect conferred on male employees in contrast to that given to their female equivalents. By highlighting the plight of Matilda, Nooth managed to rouse an encouraging response. In The Monthly Review a critic comments on how the discomforts of Miss de Brooke are so 'feelingly exhibited' in the novel that they hope her story will be 'read by every lady who engages the services of such a dependent' (MR, vol. 83, 99). In portraying the story of Matilda, Nooth makes some attempt to better the treatment of women in society. It is only a protest made, however, on behalf of a marginal group. On the situation of women in general Nooth remains remarkably quiet.
Having compared the work of Charlotte Nooth with that of Madame de Stael's, it would be foolish to conclude that there are many striking similarities between the work of these two writers. The reality is that they are very different. While Stael openly praises Romanticism, sensibility, and female artistic ability, Nooth condemns excessive emotion, takes only a partial interest in Romanticism and offers only a muted attempt to prove female artistic worth. While Stael's Corinne blatantly flouts patriarchal ideals and pursues her intellectual ambitions, Nooth's Eglantine looks forward to marriage and children and keeping her husband happy. Perhaps the only areas in which the work of these two writers seem to share any similarity is in their portrayal of female devotion and their use of fiction for a moral purpose. Generally it might be argued that Madame de Stael was an innovative and outspoken writer who frequently dared to tread on ground that was traditionally considered a male preserve. Nooth, on the other hand, stuck to the much more conventional terrain permitted to female writers. Knowing Nooth to be familiar with the work of Stael and having written a poem to praise her, it is perhaps a little surprising that Nooth doesn't attempt to emulate Stael more in her work. Before we condemn Nooth for her conventionality, however, it might be worth giving some consideration to the position she was in.
For various reasons, including financial independence and influential friends, Madame de Stael was in a far more favourable position to air her opinions in writing than Nooth was. It must also be noted that Stael received as many unfavourable comments about her writing as she did honourable ones. By the time of Nooth's first publication it is known that her father was dead, but there is nothing to tell us whether she married or had some other means of financial support. It is possible that Nooth might have written to earn herself a living, although the mention of such friends as Lady Shepherd suggests she had wealthy supporters (Eglantine, I, iii). Even if financial gain wasn't a motive for her writing, the prevalent attitude of the society around her may well have been enough to put Nooth off taking any risks within her own fiction. One need only look at some of the comments in the reviews of Eglantine to appreciate that there was still a relatively hostile attitude towards female writers in this period. While in The Critical Review the reviewer is pleased to describe Nooth's novel a success, it is a judgement that is only granted because of the 'Good taste and sound judgement' she generally diffuses throughout her text (CR, s.5, v.4, 318). In other words Nooth's novel conforms and is therefore acceptable reading.
In The Monthly Review the critic is not so encouraging. Although it is acknowledged that Selina Fortescue's narrative 'may afford an useful warning against imprudent marriages', the reviewer is quick to insist that that it is not appropriate for a mother to tell such tales about a father to his daughter (MR, ns, v.83, 99). He then states that Matilda's revelations to Eglantine are not 'a becoming communication to a new acquaintance on their first day of meeting'. (Although if the reviewer had read the novel properly, they'd know that Matilda reveals her story over a number of meetings.) If simply by using the women in her novel to provide a warning against bad conduct to her readers, Nooth is accused of depicting unladylike behaviour, imagine what criticism there would have been if she had made Eglantine a replica of Corinne. The reviewer, however, does not stop here. He goes on to provide a list of all the grammatical errors in the novel, seemingly intent on ridiculing Nooth's ability as a writer. In particular a Latin motto wrongly quoted is held up as an example of why 'ladies' should never quote Latin. The reviewer's patronising denigration of female intellect here is another example of why Nooth may have been wary of following Stael's example.
One further explanation for Charlotte Nooth's conventionally can be found amidst the narrator's comments on female genius within Eglantine. Near the very beginning of this novel Nooth quotes Elizabeth Smith, who observed that: 'it requires great sweetness of temper, and mildness of character to be forgiven for possessing superior mental endowment.' (I, 22) In other words, however intellectual a woman is, it is only those typical female qualities that are considered of any importance. The narrator goes on to comment that the display of female genius 'generally draws upon the luckless head of its possessor no small portion of ill-will' and that 'even those acquirements which are within every woman's reach, are of very dangerous attainment' (I, 22, 23). The narrator is quite sure that intellect provides no sort of gain for a woman in this period. In fact it is a distinct disadvantage, the reason being that any woman who dares to presume herself an intellectual equal to any man is likely to be severely scorned and ridiculed. Even Madame de Stael was ready to admit herself that an outstanding woman was doomed to unhappiness as a consequence of her own uniqueness. In Corinne, after all, it is partly the heroine's success as an artist that ultimately costs her the man she loves. Furthermore, in On Germany Stael readily confesses that 'Fame itself is only a brilliant way to bury the happiness of a woman' (Stael, 318).
Considering both this and the comments on female genius made within Eglantine it is perhaps easier to understand why Nooth should choose to make her work far more conventional than Stael's. Comments in the prefaces to both her texts indicate that Nooth was not only weary of the 'tremendous ordeal of public opinion' (Eglantine, I, v), but prepared 'should encouragement be with-held' to give up her writing career (Original Poems, 5). If she were really so fearful of any sort of hostile reaction to her work, then it is understandable why Nooth might have been brave enough to praise Madame de Stael's work, but never dared to imitate it herself. In the end, the work of Charlotte Nooth might not be as outstanding, revolutionary or challenging as Madame de Stael's, but it does at least provide a useful contrast. By comparing the work of these two authors the reader is not only forced to recognise the incredibly bold nature of Madame de Stael's writing, but also reminded of the many conventions of society that still prevented most women in this period from copying Stael's example.