- Friendless, orphaned girl is thrown upon an uncaring world. Her backstory involves a lot of bad luck and death.
- She is beautiful, accomplished, devout, and virtuous.
- She fends off unwanted male attention, up to and including assault.
- She is pressured to accept an unwanted suitor, or is accused of trying to ensnare a man.
- She turns down a marriage proposal from a suitor who is much beneath her in education, intelligence, or social standing.
- Despite her perilous or lowly condition, she refuses to marry for money, or give her hand without her heart.
- Other women are jealous and behave spitefully towards her.
- She gets into trouble with the law although she is completely innocent.
- She has to move from place to place when her situation becomes untenable.
- A happy coincidental reunion restores her to her family or to her familial rights.
- She marries the man she loves.
CMP#172 The History of Charlotte Summers, the Fortunate Parish Girl (1749)
I read somewhere (but can’t track down the quote) that Charlotte Summers is an uber novel of its type: go through the plot of Charlotte Summers and you can find the themes and tropes which preoccupied British literature for the next century. In fact, this type of novel was thoroughly satirized by the writer Robert Charles Maturin in an article for the British Critic. This plot seems to have predominated in the latter half of the 17th century:
The debate around female education in the Georgian and Regency periods of England was an astonishingly long-lived and vigorous dispute that was taken up in drawing rooms, newspapers, journals, advice books and even novels of the period.
In Power Over Themselves, Veena Kasbekar outlines the prominent voices and arguments on each side of the female education debate--I say "each side" because the debate is roughly divided into "radicals" like Mary Wollstonecraft and "reactionaries" like Hannah More. While Kasbekar makes it clear which team she's on, she presents the arguments clearly.
When I started reading novels of the long 18th century, I was surprised how often the topic of education came up, and how often the education the heroine or some other character received, or didn't receive, was mentioned by the author either directly or indirectly. For example, in Mansfield Park, Jane Austen stresses that Maria and Julia Bertram received a thorough education in dates and facts, but imbibed no moral principles. In Persuasion, Anne Elliott's knowledge of literature, poetry, and belles lettres is just about the only thing that can console her in her dreary life.
Kasbekar writes that novels "served an implicit educational purpose by demonstrating how the hero's or heroine's education directly influenced her or his reaction to the vicissitudes of life and love." As in novels, so it was in eighteenth-century life: in Power Over Themselves, Veena Kasbekar recounts how the writers, philosophers, and moralists of the past fiercely debated what sort of education women should receive, what sort of knowledge they were equipped to handle, the purpose of that education, and the dangers of too much education.
I am personally interested in the novels but many types of literature are discussed in Power Over Themselves, including the infamous conduct books and sermons for young women, and guides to female education, written for women by women.
CMP#162 A review of The Portrait, by Miss Elliott (1783): 18th century girlpower!
In an earlier post I suggested that Pride and Prejudice is so magical because Austen had the good sense to demote Jane Bennet from main heroine status and promote the saucy sidekick to main heroine. In novels of this era, the formula called for the sweet and virtuous heroine to have a saucy friend and confidante, who is allowed to say irreverent or catty things that the heroine cannot.
Elizabeth Bennet made an unusual main heroine because she was so outspoken and “arch,” as Austen calls her, while demure Jane would never say or even think a critical word against anybody.
I have found another example of this sweet-girl/saucy-sidekick switcheroo, in the sprightly two-volume novel The Portrait (1783) by a “Miss Elliott.”
Maria Bellmont is the sauciest of the saucy. Naturally I assumed she was a saucy sidekick because The Portrait opens with a letter from her sister Charlotte, writing to their friend Harriot Marchmont. I thought Charlotte would be the main heroine, but Charlotte gets married in the first volume, and the lively Maria takes center stage for the rest of the novel.
Not only that, but the deus ex machina in the novel is another "girl power" female, Lady Mortimer, who comes up with a ploy to help Maria win the man she loves.
CMP#160 Lady Maclairn, the victim of villany (1806) by Rachel Hunter
Austen scholars know that Jane Austen was familiar with the 1806 novel Lady Maclairn, the victim of villany (It’s spelled ‘villany’ on the title-page), because her niece Anna recalled how she and her aunt had a good laugh over its emotional excesses. There also exists a short satirical note that Austen wrote to Anna about it.
I wonder if Austen managed to plow through all four volumes and 700 pages. I confess to skimming and skipping the last half, when the author was gearing up to introduce a whole new raft of characters and more subplots and backstories. Austen scholar Deirdre LeFaye counted ‘a total of nearly twenty flashbacks in all,’ and I don’t know if that includes the long narrative summary which commences the novel. However, even though I didn’t manage to read Lady Maclairn cover to cover, this forgotten novel deserves another look for a number of reasons: the attitude displayed in the book toward the slave trade, the Big Family Secret storyline, the naturalistic portrayal of insanity, and the harsh portrait of a clergyman.
It appears that Lady Maclairn did not receive a review when first published. So here goes:
Mrs. Dawson, a wealthy widow, never forgave her son-in-law for taking her daughter away to Jamaica, where she died far from home after giving birth to little Rachel Cowley, our heroine. Mrs. Dawson’s will leaves her fortune to Rachel, but Rachel will only inherit if the father returns her to England to be raised by Mrs. Dawson's respectable friends, the Hardcastles. It is just as well for Rachel, because she is growing spoiled in Jamaica where she can lord it over the enslaved people. Her character improves in England where she grows up with gentle little Lucy Hardcastle and her older brother Horace. Rachel looks up to him and she grows into ‘’the habit of yielding up her will to Horace.’’
‘’The tribute of Horace’s admiration was directed to the cultivating the taste and forming the judgment of'' our heroine....’’
About the author:
I blog about my research into Jane Austen and her world, plus a few other interests. Welcome! My earlier posts (prior to June 2017) are about my time as a teacher of ESL in China (just click on "China" in the menu below). More about me here.
© Lona Manning 2023