If you want superb writing and amazing delineations of character, you can't top Jane Austen. If you want a female author of the long 18th century who discusses imperialism, the status of women, race and class, there are plenty of writers who were more explicit on these issues. I've been featuring some on this blog. Today, meet "M.E."
So goes one of several dismissive contemporary reviews for The History of Melinda Harley, Yorkshire (1777). The Westminster Review gave it only one sentence: “the history of an ephemera, that is born and dies on the same day.”
Another reviewer joked: “It is the general character of many romances, that they are good for nothing; but we must except the History of Melinda Harley from this censure, for we can affirm, from our own experience, that it is admirably calculated—to procure sleep.”
Ouch, ouch, and ouch, anonymous authoress! I feel for you. Yes, the plot is slight, the characters are wooden, and the detail is sparse, but I became quite interested in the wide variety of moralizing comments that Melinda Harley trades with her BFF Amanda Beaufort while Melinda is away visiting with family friends. The girls share their thoughts on the folly of dueling, the pending loss of the American colonies, and the consolations of religion.
Some of their exchanges are the sort Mary Bennet would approve of: “Most of our wants are artificial, and his happiness is much better assured who has learned to contract his desires.” “It is a great inducement to the exercise of benevolence, to view human nature in a fair light, and to put the best construction on one anothers’ actions.” Some remarks are explicitly political or feminist in tone.
Some of these epistolary sermonettes touch on situations with similarities to Austen novels. I am not saying Austen drew from this novel, rather, that both writers drew from topics and situations prevalent at the time. I will share a few examples but I won’t point out which passage in which Austen novel they remind me of. If you’re not a Janeite, it won’t be relevant to you, and if you are a Janeite, you don’t need me to tell you...
“I know of nothing more agreeable than to be in company with well bred people, who are always endeavouring to please and to gain the favourable opinion of one another… True politeness, then, must consist in an easy stream of conversation… and in pleasing without flattery, or contradicting without provoking.”
“External accomplishments, such as dancing, dressing, music, etc, are no doubt necessary in a certain degree, but should this be [a girl's] only care, while little or no pains is taken to cultivate the mind… surely we should endeavour to qualify ourselves for being reasonable companions…”
“Your notions of female education are very just, and I still hope to see a more rational system introduced and encouraged by the men. It is generally allowed that nature has done her part, and that we even excel the men in fancy and quickness of apprehension. We should surely endeavour, then, to wipe off that aspersion thrown upon our sex, by a late celebrated writer, who avers that no flattery is too gross for us, and that he never knew a woman who could either reason or act consequentially for 24 hours together.”
In addition to speaking up for the capacity of women to be rational, Amanda declares that "marriage is not essential to happiness." Speaking of a neighbour who rashly married a bad-tempered man, Amanda opines: “Thus, poor woman, does she reap the fruits of her own folly and obstinacy. She was indeed past the prime of youth, but surely marriage is not essential to happiness; and I know nothing that can render a woman more despicable than this notion of marriage being absolutely necessary; besides, it is the very way to prevent it, and experience shows, that many women have passed through life in a very happy, easy, and respectable manner, without entering into the matrimonial state.”
As a side incident, Amanda tells Melinda that their neighbour Julia Finchley “went off in a post chaise” with a dashing army captain while her family was at church: “The poor old father set off on his return from church, in quest of his daughter, but returned home the next day, having learned from some of the country people that the seducer had provided himself with four horses to his chaise, and was seen driving fast away on the road to London, where probably the poor victim will soon be left to shame and misery, as I hear that the Captain is ordered for America in the spring.”
Melinda responds: No doubt the captain “has promised to marry her in London… though I am by no means disposed to palliate his conduct, yet I am afraid that she has been deficient in that modest reserve and retiring delicacy, which rather shuns the public eye, and keeps such men at a due distance. Indeed I always thought her too brisk and forward…”
Melinda also blames--yes, novels!—for Julia’s downfall: “I have likewise been often surprised at her parents too great indulgence, in allowing her indiscriminate fondness for novels and romances to be so much gratified. Instead of endeavouring to gain useful knowledge, she always delighted in that kind of reading which warms the fancy, and softens the heart." Many a novel and a conduct-book laid out the rules for how young ladies should deport themselves. In this novel, it is the heroine herself who lays it all out in discussing Julia Finchley: "She was too often gauding [gadding] abroad... instead of conversing with a dignified modesty, her behaviour was too unreserved, which, however innocent in the main, probably at first might encourage her seducer.”
Melinda then turns to what Julia ought to have done, and implicilty, what she herself does:
“As there is a levity and dissipation in the present age, there is surely nothing so proper to check this as a proper sense of religion, one of the chief securities for female virtue; and without which we are apt to contract a hard and masculine temper, the most disgusting of all our faults, to men of taste and sensibility. Much depends, likewise, on the proper management of our time, which is general should be divided betwixt reading, working, walking, and genteel amusements; early rising, due exercise, and proper amusements are necessary to preserve health and good humour, while works of taste and fancy, with the assistance of useful books, infuse habits of virtue, and a due sense of decorum.”
“I begged her to take comfort, and insisted on her drinking a glass of wine to support her spirits, until I sent for a physician. Alas, said she, your kindness is in vain, death now can only be my physician…Still, if I could see my father, said she, and obtain his forgiveness, I should be perfectly resigned; hoping that my example may prove of lasting benefit to many others, and that providence has permitted this [ie her seduction and death] for wise ends.”
“[T]he good man is determined, if possible, to convert the present misfortune to the future good of his family; he has made a diligent search after all the foolish plays and novels in the house, and yesterday he committed them all to the flames; but, in honour to Richardson, Fielding and Dr. Smollet, has preserved Pamela, Clarissa, Tom Jones, Humphrey Clinker, and a few others excepted. All the family who are in health, are to rise at six in summer, and seven in winter. Every morning one of the girls, by turns, reads aloud a paper of the Spectator; and, while the rest are at work in the parlour, another reads aloud, an hour before dinner, Hume’s History of England. Before supper another paper of the Spectator or Guardian is read again, except on Sunday, when one of Fordyce’s sermons to young women is then preferred.”
And yet, the critics laughed at Melinda Harley and called it boring and insubstantial. There's no pleasing some people...
The topic of empire arises in Melinda Harley when the heroine meets another houseguest, “a Mr. Lanton, who is a relation of Sir Robert’s and lately returned from the East Indies, with a genteel easy fortune." Melinda specifies that his wealth was "gained at no expense of character, guiltless of rapine and depredation; he is cheerful, frank, and open, gives a fine character of Mr. Haskins the present governor, and says that he [Haskins} has done all that a man could do to re-establish the [East India] Company’s finances under proper management and economy; and at the same time to protect the poor natives from being any longer oppressed by their cruel task-masters, which had occasioned the depopulation of a great part of that once happy country… What a reproach to Englishmen, so jealous of their own liberties, thus to have made so wanton an use of their power over the defenceless inhabitants!”
Melinda might be referring, among other things, to the Great Bengal famine of 1770, in which poor weather conditions and bad harvests were exacerbated by the East India Company's collection of taxes, and purchases of food for their own army, and their failure to mitigate the sufferings of the Indians.
I couldn't find a "Mr. Haskins" listed as a governor or director of the East India Company. The novel has a few typos--for example, "Mr. Ash" is first introduced as "Mr. Ask," so perhaps this name is a printer's misreading of "Hastings." Melinda, in common with the Austen family, admires Warren Hastings: “I love and admire the character of Mr. Hastings the present governor of Bengal—May he meet with a reward equal to his merits.”
At any rate, none of the five contemporary reviewers of this novel mentioned, much less criticized, Melinda and Amanda for having political opinions. One reviewer specifically called the novel "inoffensive."
Plot spoilers? Is there a plot?
These prosings take up more space in the letters than discussions of actual events, including Melinda’s growing attraction to an eligible gentleman named Viner. Amanda teases Melinda that she must be “half in love” with young Mr. Viner, as she mentions and praises him so often in her letters. Melinda does not attempt to deny it: “Indeed, my dear Amanda, I frankly own that I respect and esteem him, otherwise I should be insensible to real merit…” She vows, however, that she will never engage her affections without her parents’ consent. Like a good heroine, Melinda doesn't dream of a man before being assured the man is dreaming of her.
When the marriage proposal does arrive, Melinda relates the event matter-of-factly, as though she was describing what she had for lunch. What did she say, you ask? Just what she ought, of course, a lady always does. She referred Mr. Viner to her parents. Well, she did acknowledge to Mr. Viner, and later to her correspondent Amanda, that she would never consider a proposal of marriage from any other man.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Melinda's parents think Mr. Viner’s fortune is too modest and they pressure her to marry Mr. Ash, a Bristol merchant. During this section of the novel, Melinda actually acknowledges that she has emotions: "I did not close my eyes all night."
When Mr. Ash realizes he has a love rival, he challenges Mr. Viner to a duel. This gives the author a chance to make this joke with his name:
Mr. Ash has a serious hunting accident, Mr. Viner charitably rushes to his assistance--but in vain. Mr. Ash dies and Mr. Viner catches a bad cold. The suspense of Mr. Viner’s illness lasts for a few brief letters before we have his recovery and our happy ending.
There is also an epilogue, a sermon on the meaning of Galatians 2:16, or works versus faith, which was also the burning issue in the next novel I will review, by Frances Trollope. Well, literally, they used to burn people over doctrinal issues, so that's a burning issue.
Singer is kinder than the reviewers who looked over the book when it was published. Let’s finish with some chauvinist snark from the Monthly Review, which pronounced it: “A very inoffensive, but a very dull and ill-written book, which, short as it is, the author has been under the necessity of ekeing out with—a sermon. If this piece of clumsy patch work was put together by a fair sempstress, we wish her better success in the labours of her needle, to which we would advise her for the future to confine her ambition.”
That reviewer assumes that the author is a female, as have I. She signs herself as “M.E.,” and this was, so far as I know, her only novel, I've found no information about her.
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I came across Melinda Harley when looking for examples of Bristol merchants in 18th century literature. A digitized copy of the novel can be viewed here.
I've always loved Austen's line in Mansfield Park, describing Mary Crawford's reaction to Tom Bertram: "she did not even want to attract him beyond what the simplest claims of conscious beauty required." Could this be a reference to Lord Chesterfield? "a decided and conscious beauty looks upon every tribute paid to her beauty only as her due..."
Perhaps Jane Austen did come across a copy of The History of Melinda Harley. As Elaine Bander remarks: "Ever thrifty, Austen found uses even for poorly written novels. Living as they did on a restricted income in a quiet country neighbourhood, the Austen family were in the habit of turning otherwise tiresome books and neighbours into sources of entertainment."
Singer, Godfrey Frank. The Epistolary Novel: Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence. United States, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.