Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. I’ve also been blogging about now-obscure female authors of the long 18th century. For more, click "authoresses" on the menu at right. Click here for the first in the series.
So why is Miss Squire my author of the week? Well, for one thing, even trite and second-rate novels give me food for thought about the opinions and preoccupations of Austen's era. I'm learning about attitudes toward the class system and relations between the sexes. And for another, I'd like to bring Miss Squire to the attention of scholars because Squire uses people of color to teach a moral lesson in her first novel and her second novel includes a narrative of the slave trade. But first, a bit about the plots of her two novels...
Miss Squire’s second novel, Incident and Interest (1810), kicks off with the first meeting between the heroine and a cad, by the name of Rodolph Glenrose. At first, I thought I was reading a comic novel: Clarissa is lost in maiden meditation near the scenic cliffs of Bristol when the cad sees her and is stunned by her beauty. “[F]earful of alarming her, [he] gently retreated a few paces: but disdaining to take a survey of his retrograde path, lest he should lose a movement of the magic fair one, was soon precipitated over the cliff.”
Glenrose survives the tumble over the cliff and becomes obsessed with Clarissa. She seems to have a thing for bad boys—red flags were going off for me all over the place. This guy stalks her until her mother takes her back to their home village to get away from him, he follows, disguises himself as a farm labourer, stalks her some more, then he asks her to meet him all alone at six o'clock in the morning--and she GOES?!!?? When he pulls the old, “I’ll kill myself if you don’t marry me” routine, she faints, he bundles her into a carriage and whisks her off to Gretna Green.
I could digress now and talk about how fainting absolves the 18th-century heroine from agency, but I'll leave that for another day. There’s a breed of goat that faints a lot; Clarissa is like that, which is unfortunate, because once married to this miserable scoundrel, she receives a lot of shocks and the servants are always finding her in the morning laid out on the carpet. She discovers that Glenrose is a bigamist—actually, I think he has three wives, plus he gets the nursery-maid knocked up. And he spends Clarissa's money on drinking and gambling. She finally leaves him and hides herself away in a village under an assumed name, terrified that he will demand custody of their surviving child. He pursues and finds her and threatens to shoot himself. Thankfully he actually does it.
Clarissa gets her happy ending because of the timely return from India of Edmund, her childhood sweetheart. Edmund was a foundling. He learns that he is the illegitimate offspring of one of the many (eight, by my count) women in this novel who mate up with lying cads. The subtitle of this book is Copies from Nature, which suggests to me that Miss Squire did not think highly of the opposite sex.
The Beggar and His Benefactor, an epistolary novel, opens with a scene in a coach yard and an ungrateful beggar. I think Miss Squire wanted to set up gratitude as a theme in her novel. The problem is she forgot to work gratitude (or suspense, or character development) into her plot.
After the opening story, the narrative moves to the standard epistolary novel opener: “As you have often expressed a wish to have a summary account of the events which have befallen my family, I will endeavour to recapitulate them for your amusement…” Matilda tells the story of her mother Marian, who was jilted by her soldier lover, who married a "handsome creole, the only daughter of a wealthy planter in St. Kits." Marian is invited to forget her sorrows by travelling around to enjoy the scenic splendours of Plymouth and Cornwall. For example, she and her friends take in the stately home and mausoleum (shown at the right) of the eccentric Sir Peter Tillie, who decreed that after his death, he should be bound to a chair at the top of a tower. (More about Sir Peter here).
Most of the book is devoted to travelogue. It concludes with a brief narrative concerning the main family in the story; everyone is either dead or miserably poor, but, the survivors “have minds to feel gratefully sensible for the kindnesses [their] friends have shewn them; and it is their earnest hope—that God will be pleased to preserve them for ever in the same sentiments; and spare them the contempt they would merit, if like the ‘Beggar, they dared to deride their Benefactors.’”
A nameless “negro man” in the opening scene gives the novel The Beggar and His Benefactor it’s title, even though he’s never mentioned again. “A negro man with one arm supported in a sling, and in the other hand carrying his hat to receive alms, approached the coach to ask charity; some of the outside passengers dropped a few pence into his hat.”
One poor man gives him a halfpenny and exchanges some friendly words with him, but as the coach pulls away, the beggar complains: “why a barber, or a child, could have given me a halfpenny.”
The narrator/letter-writer adds: “The high tone with which the ungrateful negro spoke of the kindness he had received, threw my reflections back upon myself.” She meditates on the need to resist feelings of “discontent and envy.”
Later—and again in a way completely unconnected to the plot--we hear the tale of a virtuous negro slave whose good attitude is contrasted favourably with the "ungrateful" beggar: “William was… purchased in the West Indies.” Taken by his master to England, he served him honestly and well, even transporting 10,000 pounds across the country for him. “Having left a family in the West Indies, William was desirous of returning thither; and his generous master has successfully established him in business in his native island.” He gets a gold watch, too.
That's all there is about people of color in the novel--but even this little is more than you'll find in Mansfield Park.
Incident and Interest includes an inset narrative, the confessional backstory of the cad Rodolph Glenrose. After being kicked out of the army, he ended up in Africa, working for “a black merchant, who carried on a large trade in ivory and negroes, and was settled in the vicinity of the river Gambia. My knowledge of commerce, however circumscribed in Scotland, was, in this remote country, and to my ignorant employer, a subject of great importance…”
Glenrose successfully ships slaves across the ocean and the merchant owes him a lot of money. Rather than pay Glenrose, he invites him to dinner and feeds him vegetables laced with alligator gall.
“As soon as I gained [my] vessel, I sent for a negro doctress, whose skill in anti-poisons was renowned.” Once he's cured of the poisoning, Glenrose steals the ship and its cargo and sails to Surinam, (the Dutch East Indies), where he marries a prosperous Dutch widow. "I had so little respect for her feelings as to establish a seraglio of black women in a house contiguous to hers. She died, and left me once more at liberty! Therefore, selling my slaves and stores, I set sail again for England.”
Although he describes his adventures abroad, neither the character or the author editorializes about the “black merchant,” the skilled "doctress," or the slave trade. The section pertaining to slavery is presented quite matter-of-factly.
In fact, despite all the plot points I have related, Miss Squire seems unable to wring the drama and pathos you'd expect out of her stories. You know how Jane Austen's brisk, compressed, love scenes disappoint some readers? Austen has nothing on Squire in the cool brevity department. Here is the one sentence denouement of Incident and Interest: “By the subsequent marriage of Edmund and Clarissa, a smiling progeny succeeded to the inheritance of their virtues; and the deaths of all their old friends in a few years added considerably to their fortune.”
And here is the romantic climax of The Beggar and His Benefactor:
“As scenes of courtship are truly uninteresting... [wait, what?] I shall forbear from telling you any thing further of Marian’s adventures in that way, than, that she was addressed by a very worthy clergyman, a native of North Wales. As there was no reasonable ground of objection to the union, Marian listened to the advice of her friends, and accepted the offer.”
And after that, the narrator tells us, Marian and the clergymen have kids, dad loses all his money, mom and dad die, and the family ends in poverty. Cue lecture on gratitude.
Well, I could argue that Miss Squires is breaking a path for grim realism in fiction. Her heroine Clarissa leaves her abusive husband 38 years before Helen Huntingdon does the same in Ann Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Usually, the good and suffering characters are rewarded at the end of the novel with an unexpected inheritance. That doesn't happen in The Beggar and his Benefactor. Edmund the foundling in Incident and Interest is not the missing heir to an earldom.
We can also note that Miss Squire does not rely on insanely improbable coincidences for her plot twists. In a review for another 1810 novel, Caroline Ormsby, the Monthly Review said the author's "chief contrivance, in conducting his story, is to invoke the aid of death, to take those characters off his hands whom he wishes to put out of his way." This could also be said of Miss Squire.
Feminist academicians tell us that histories of the development of the English novel under-value the contributions of women novelists. Now that these obscure old novels are being digitized, it raises the tantalizing possibility that there might be a genius, unrecognized in her lifetime, waiting to be rediscovered.
I can tell you one thing, though: Miss M. C. Squire is not that forgotten genius...
In Incident and Interest, as with many, many other novels, the Indies are used as (1) a place to send characters when you need them to be off stage for a while and (2) a source of convenient wealth. There are two convenient East Indian benefactors in Incident and interest.
The phrase “incident and interest” was a common collocation of the time. It was used by Jane Austen’s nephew when he described contemporary reaction to her novels: “To the multitude her works appeared tame and common-place, poor in colouring, and sadly deficient in incident and interest.”
Miss M.C. Squire was a resident of Plymouth but also spent some time in London. Possibly Miss Squire and her family fell on hard times and she offered to write a novel or a travelogue and a great many kind people pre-paid for a copy (I presume that’s how this subscription thing worked). Perhaps, too, her family misfortunes are reflected in her novels. Perhaps she was crossed in love.
Squire, M.C. The Beggar and His Benefactor! A History.... In which is Introduced a Description of Plymouth, and Its Beautiful Environs; with a Variety of Authentic Anecdotes. Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme.1809.
Squire, M.C. Incident and Interest, or, Copies from Nature. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown. 1810.
Miss Squire's publishers also published Jane West, Adeline Opie, Anne Radcliffe, William Woodsworth, and Sir Walter Scott.