Like it or not, Edward Ferrars occupies the post of the hero for Sense and Sensibility. Flatly declaring that he is not a hero confuses and muddles the entire novel. Plenty of people are “meh” about the Colonel Brandon/Marianne pairing, and if we conclude that the guy who marries Elinor at the end is a wimp, a liar and a pervert, where does that leave the message of the book and where does that leave the reader?
I thought you might be interested in knowing about Coraly, an 1819 novel whose hero is a blend of Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon. The heroine in this novel unquestionably is stronger than the hero, especially in her Spartan adherence to a rigid moral code. Yet, she loves the hero, he’s her guy, and they get married. So maybe our expectations for heroes are not quite the same as long 18th century expectations. Something to ponder...
There are other echoes of Austen in Coraly. There is a minor character named Middleton and the opening starts out like Emma. The plot has much more drama than you’ll find in an Austen novel, but you have to wonder if the anonymous female author was an Austen fan.
Coraly did not sell out and more than a hundred volumes of the 500 volume printing were remaindered. It looks like the author only got 35 pounds at best for her efforts. Maybe it failed to sell out because La Belle Assemblée, while praising the book, gave away the entire plot in its lengthy review. Anyway, our heroine Coraly is “an excellent and almost faultless character.” The reviewer thought she was “not unnaturally faultless,” but that’s a matter of opinion, I suppose. The book centers on her hardships and struggles and how she overcomes them while helping others. This leaves the hero with little to do.
But before we meet the hero, we have to arrange matters so that Coraly, who has already lost her mother at an early age, loses her father and becomes an orphan. “To say she had attained her eighteenth year without ever having felt sorrow, real or imaginary, would be to talk of impossibilities; but she did attain it without feeling what, in reality, deserved that name.”
Dad is a clergyman and he’s also well-off financially. He gives Coraly an excellent education. But he falls ill and father and daughter go to Bristol to see if the spa waters will help him. I might as well let the La Belle Assemblée explain what happens next: Reverend Fitzharland “meets with Lady Mary de Montford, a most amiable and lovely woman, the widow of a nobleman, and who, in Fitzharland’s youth, was his first love. Lady Mary is accompanied by her son, who realizes all the heroes, in his appearance, of whom Coraly has been used to read of in her favourite romances.”
Clergyman dad and his daughter and his long-lost love and her son spend a lot of time together, and soon Lady Mary promises to take care of Coraly after her dad dies, which he does.
“What a cursed dull old place!” Coraly hears him exclaim. “I have half a mind to give it up at first sight. Can you conceive such an infernal bore, as to be obliged to be here or a certain time every year of one’s life? Such a sacrifice for a paltry nine hundred a year!”
Coraly is shocked at this clergyman, who clearly plans to leave all the work of the parish to an underpaid curate while he hunts, fishes, and drinks. Coraly herself has to leave behind the parishioners for whom she has cared so diligently and go visit her vulgar cousins, the wealthy-through-trade Mandevilles. Emmeline Mandeville is angling for a society marriage, even if she has to marry a fusty old baronet. The heroine is delighted with a tour of the baronet’s castle, while Emmeline is bored. She remarks that If she marries the baronet he “will have something to do to make that castle a fit place for her to live in. In the first place, all those avenues must come down; and those frightful clump of great overgrown trees; and as to the house, heaven knows how that is to be set about…”
Shades of Sotherton and Norland! So again we see it was not uncommon to portray people who didn’t like the traditions of Merrie Olde England as being mercenary and shallow. Unsurprisingly, the baronet prefers Coraly but she turns him down because she doesn't love him.
Coraly is much happier living with Lady Mary, her father’s old flame, than with the Mandevilles, but she gets the impression that her son Major De Montford avoids her company—can he dislike her? Like Colonel Brandon, the major has “a fixed and settled melancholy over his countenance and manners.” And he’s got a secret. The mystery deepens when Coraly attends the opera and accidentally bumps into a vulgar, painted, woman who drops a locket at her feet. It's a miniature of the Major!
As the major eventually confesses to Coraly—he’s married! To that floozy!
While visiting an acquaintance on the continent, he was given some drugged wine and when he woke up, he was told he had made improper advances to the daughter of the house, a girl he didn’t much care for. As he explained, he was accused of wounding “the delicacy of a virtuous woman, who well acted the part of innocence… I was completely deceived and blinded, and I offered what I conceived the only reparation in my power, my hand to the daughter of my injured host.” Like Edward Ferrars, De Montford is stuck in a situation he can’t fix, and that limits his heroic potential.
When Lady Mary dies in her turn, Coraly needs a new place to live—because she can’t live with the major, obviously—so she shares lodgings with Mrs. Stanley, a gentlewoman from the West Indies who has fallen on hard times.
The author editorializes about how money makes the world go around. Poor Mrs. Stanley, struggling to provide for her children, “had thought most liberally, most benevolently of human nature; and it was with many a bitter tear, and many a grating sigh, she was compelled to acknowledge, that, with the exception of a few, a very few honourable instances, money is the main spring of the large majority of mankind: that with it you are every thing—without it, nothing."
One is reminded about Emma’s musings on the difference between Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Campbell: “The contrast between Mrs. Churchill’s importance in the world, and Jane Fairfax’s, struck her; one was every thing, the other nothing—and she sat musing on the difference of woman’s destiny…”
Coraly is not “nothing” because she inherited money. Though she can't have the man she loves, she builds meaning into her life by helping Mrs. Stanley, with the help of Mrs. Stanley’s long-lost West Indian aunt, Mrs. Cunningham who pops up out of nowhere. Strange how you never see Coraly and Mrs. Cunningham in the same place, though.
The major, as I mentioned, has nothing to do but mope around in despair because even if he gets a divorce, Coraly won’t marry him. Divorce is not sanctioned by the Church of England. “Coraly had told him, under such circumstances she could never be his. He knew her delicacy, her purity, her undeviating rectitude; and if in a moment of passion he wished her less strict, he was compelled, when reason resumed her power, to confess he never had loved her as he did, had she been any thing but what she was…”
With time on his hands, our hero pursues an affair with an artful, designing widow, and although he professes to love Coraly, he neglects her in favor of the widow. Plus he manages to get himself wrongfully accused of murdering his older brother Lord Valhurst (a name also used by Fanny Burney). Coraly’s court testimony helps him out of that scrape and because his older brother's dead, he is now the heir to the title and fortune. Then the major’s dissolute and conniving wife dies, so he and Coraly can get married, right?
Not yet! Coraly is abducted--not by a deranged love rival, but by the artful widow. Our heroine is locked up in a house by the coast, guarded by criminals. Fortunately, after some weeks, she escapes, thanks to a young smuggler who also uses the house, who recognizes her as someone who helped his dear old mother.
De Montford’s contribution to this crisis is to contemplate suicide, which Coraly prevents in the nick of time.
Coraly forgives him for his weakness—suicide is both a crime and a sin—but she “corrected his errors” through her superior piety. The writer quotes the poem “Henry and Emma”:
O powerful Virtue!
O victorious fair!
At least excuse a trial too severe;
Receive the triumph, and forget the war.
There are more amazing coincidences and discoveries before we get to our happy ending. The good are rewarded, the bad suffer the consequences of their vices. The vulgar Emmeline Mandeville gets her comeuppance when she marries the lazy clergyman and he discovers that her family is broke. (Coraly gives the Mandevilles some of her own fortune.) In a brisk summary, we learn that they have a lot of children and are quite unhappy together.
(Final spoiler) And, it turns out that the kindly West Indian aunt, Mrs. Cunningham, is Coraly with a wig, face stain and an eye patch!
DeMontford is rewarded with Coraly's hand and she becomes a titled lady.
“Yes, De Montford, young, handsome, brave, noble, and accomplished; a scholar, a soldier, regarded by all classes with admiration; with honours and wealth poured on him by an approving sovereign—had let to learn one lesson; he learned it from the gentle, unassuming, pious daughter of the excellent Fitzharland—that a true and genuine sense of religion is above all other advantages, and that without its aid, they are insufficient in the hour of trial and affliction.” (I presume that “they” refers to De Montford’s attributes listed at the beginning of this sentence but it's quite the hike back to the beginning.)
In Sense and Sensibility, Austen infers that Elinor's moral and mental excellence makes Edward protest that he is not worthy of her, but this is handled with gentle, ironic humour, not a ringing moral lecture: "in spite of the modesty with which he rated his own deserts, and the politeness with which he talked of his doubts, he did not, upon the whole, expect a very cruel reception. It was his business, however, to say that he did, and he said it very prettily. What he might say on the subject a twelvemonth after, must be referred to the imagination of husbands and wives."
Interestingly, a speaker mentioned Dr. Kelly’s interpretation of the sheath/scissors incident at the recent JASNA conference in Victoria, BC, and raised a laugh amongst the large audience of devoted Janeites, an indication that devoted and well-educated Austen fans are not necessarily in accord with the modern academy. Dr. Robert Morrison's talk about sex in Sense and Sensibility was likewise met with mixed reactions.
The negligent and irreligious clergyman in Coraly is the kind of clergyman Henry Crawford assumed Edmund Bertram would be in Mansfield Park. Not only is this critical portrayal of clergyman not unusual, the La Belle Assemblée reviewer thought it was copied from another novel: "the successor of Fitzharland is so like the profligate rector, and his manner of taking possession of the living so similar to his succeeding the pious Fitzwarren in Good Men of Modern Date, that it seems almost a copy..."
The author qualifies Coraly's religious fervour with this: "She was not a fanatic; for she was humble, rational, and uniform; not melancholy, nor enthusiastic: she had been taught and she believed, that the social duties are not only consistent with Christianity, but are sustained, confirmed, and elevated by it.” This is presumably a reference to Coraly’s many charitable actions but also reminds us of how Elinor Dashwood performs the social duties both for herself and her sister until Marianne sees the error of her ways:
Novels of this period often contained a disclaimer in the foreword, explaining that the novel does not offend morality and can be safely read by the ladies. The authoress of Coraly saves this disclaimer for her conclusion: "Should the historian of Coraly live to old age, one recollection only will make her feel proud, and that pride will arise from the conviction, that none of her fair country-women will be worse from the example of her heroine. From the genuine and early inculcated principles of religion, she derived all her virtues; and, by their influence, she won from error the husband of her heart."
Previous Post: A man of color in a Regency-era play Next post: Book Review of Fashionable Goodness