Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. The opinions are mine, but I don't claim originality. Click here for the first in the series. For more about other female writers of Austen's time, click the "Authoresses" tag in the Categories list to the right.
The Spinster’s Tale is jam-packed with numerous plot-lines, backstories, and weddings. Plus a separate short gothic novel is stuck in the middle. There are so many characters, it’s difficult to remember them all.
Have you seen people in social media point out that Regency romances are unrealistic because there weren’t that many eligible young dukes and earls in Regency England? Well, that was the case from the get-go; the novels written at the time featured handsome, eligible lords by the bushel. There are half-a-dozen titled men running around in this novel, all of them in want of a wife, and they all marry girls of humbler birth.
One thing that sets this novel apart is that two of the major protagonists, and one minor, are older ladies. The titular spinster, Mrs. Caroline Herbert, ("Mrs." denotes an older lady, not necessarily a married one) is approaching 50. The kind and charitable Dowager Lady Brumpton has a fun back story where she dresses herself in boy’s clothes and climbs out a window after she’s abducted by a libertine. The minor character Miss Woodley is the impoverished authoress of the novel-within-a-novel Langbridge Fort. “Romance is not my forte,” she tells one of the young heroines, “but I had been told nothing would sell now, but the horrible, the wonderful, and the improbable.”
In addition to centering older females, The Spinster's Tale has other features which might be of interest to academics...
- The author promotes the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist turned Christian mystic, who still has a following today. One of her characters can talk to angels, but her relatives throw her in an insane asylum.
- Two of the female characters wear men’s clothes for plot reasons, and so does one of the characters in the novel-within-a-novel. If you are interested in cross-dressing women in the long 18th century, this is your book.
- The admirable characters are always generous and thoughtful to the poor and they delight in useful schemes to improve life for working people. (Examples at the bottom of this post). For a Swedenborgian, works are important in addition to faith.
- Class is not much of a barrier for the various couples, nor are tyrannical parents. The men choose their wives for their sterling characters, beauty, and modesty. On the other hand, right after Fanny Mordaunt, orphaned daughter of a clergyman, accepts Lord Brumpton's proposal, she becomes her wealthy uncle's heiress, so equilibrium is preserved. There's also the story of a girl who elopes without parental consent and her husband turns out to be a rake and a gambler.
- Just about everybody finds love in this novel, including the spinster. A few characters die because of the sinful lives they’ve led, but others reform themselves and return to the paths of righteousness. The worst fates are reserved for people who are addicted to gaming and card-playing. “Mrs. Spencer was buried yesterday… this melancholy event has cast a temporary gloom over our social parties; but we shall soon forget her, whose irrational life made it impossible for any one to regret her loss.” Augusta becomes a courtesan and even though her titled lover marries her in the end, she still dies of venereal disease: "the consequence of her horrid connection with the debauched [manservant named] Duval which she thoughtlessly neglected, till it arrived to a most alarming state.”
- As for empire and colonialism, three times the author resorts to a West Indian fortune to enrich the characters when money is needed for plot purposes: “your kind heart will rejoice in hearing our son William is in health and settled in great business with a rich partner in Jamaica, and likely to make a fortune.” There is no mention of the contradiction between preaching morality and benevolence on the one hand, and enriching oneself through slavery. Inheriting a West Indian fortune is like winning the lottery.
- The pace is swift. If Austen's favorite author, Samuel Richardson, was notoriously prolix, this author barely sketches out the plots of her novels. The narrative parts of the story read like they were written by a teenager: "Lady Brumpton... had long wished for a friend of her own age, with whom she might converse or correspond without any reserve.” She finds this friend in Mrs. Herbert: “'in short your appearance and manner proclaimed the gentlewoman, and I loved you as a sister the instant I found myself seated by your side. Your sentiments are so congenial to my own, that I feel for you the most perfect esteem…'”
- Just like the novel Melinda Harley the brisk action is interspersed with sermonettes, and characters often philosophize in their letters to each other. “I would have all young people marry, when they can do it properly; that is where there is a mutual affection, and a fortune on either or both sides united; to live as they have been brought up for I never knew a marriage happy (for any length of time) where a sufficiency was wanting, to support the couple in that style their birth and education required.”
- Coincidences abound. Whether a character is walking along the beach or in a garden in Portugal, or noticing a carriage with the family arms turning into an inn-yard, they're bound to run into some long-lost relation or be reunited with a lost love.
- Some plot points might sound familiar: Fanny Mordaunt's friend Harriet loves coquetting around Bath: “As to the Duke [of Mitcham], her vanity had represented his behavior in so flattering a manner, that she expected every day when he would offer to marry her; but till she was certain he was seriously attached to her, she did not like to give up so consequential a lover as Mr. Grant, or the tender attentions of the elegant Major Blandford.”
- Every now and then the author inflicts her poetry on us.
- The novel-within-a-novel Langbridge Fort is laugh-out-loud bad. I'm half-convinced it is a parody. I might share some excerpts sometime.
- The author wraps up the main love stories early in Volume III. The narrator remarks: “As many of my friends have remarked to me, how greatly they were disappointed to have a well-wrote novel or tale, end with the wedding-day of the principal hero or heroine of the piece—I shall beg leave in this my humble attempt to amuse and instruct, to vary from the general mode of my sister authors, by continuing mine for some time longer…” So, we skip ahead to the next generation; the daughter of Lord Brumpton and his wife Fanny. The Duke of Mitcham was in love with Fanny, so he waits 18 years and marries her daughter (for anyone looking examples of Marianne-Colonel Brandon-type pairings.)
- The story closes with the death of the dowager Lady Brumpton, at the age of 69.
The Spinster’s Tale is dedicated by permission to Frederica, the Duchess of York. Like our modern-day Duchess of York, Frederica didn’t fit into the royal scene, had a reputation for being eccentric, and she separated from her husband. She was an animal lover and was known for being Lady Bountiful to the peasantry around her private estate, Oatlands. A recurring theme in The Spinster’s Tale is noblesse oblige; the privileged class have a duty to be good stewards of their their estates, and to take good care of the peasantry. Ann Wingrove has specific ideas about this which she shares in her novel: The Duke of Mitcham is generous to his honest steward, Mr. Wilmot, who, “with the entire approbation of his noble patron, built sixteen neat cottages, which was to be the habitation of female servants in the decline of life" but there was this interesting proviso, the servants had to "bring a certain assurance they had, during any part of their lives, lived six years in one place…”
Ann Wingrove was definitely of the "teach a man to fish" school of charity. “Two thousand pounds a year, was lent out to young industrious tradesmen, at three per cent, the interest of which was paid to six men, whose incomes would not enable them to live as their infirmities and advanced age required. Schools were opened for the poor of both sexes, where they were instructed in reading and writing, a few hours every day; and the other part passed in employments that would render them good labourers, servants, or mechanics, according as their strength or ability would permit.”
Ann Wingrove (1745?-1824?) lived in Bath. She has one other attributed work, Letters, Moral & Entertaining (1795). This is a collection of conventional moral lessons for young people. Her "Letter to Delia" on the dangers of reading novels has been noticed by academics. The reviewers praised Letters for its “moral and religious tendencies," but they weren't struck by her writing talents. Two reviews mentioned she should stick to prose and stay away from inserting her poetry. “Mediocrity of talent, and strict purity of design [i.e. motive]…. are yet, in a certain species of composition, abundantly serviceable to the morals of mankind.”
The publication of Letters was funded by subscription, the 18th century equivalent of crowdfunding. Wingrove had over 300 subscribers for Letters, Moral & Entertaining, some of whom ordered multiple copies, a truly impressive accomplishment for a debut effort that was unremarkable both for its subject-matter and its literary merit.
How did an unknown 50-year-old woman garner so much support for her first book? If I have the correct Ann Wingrove, she was the daughter of Benjamin Wingrove, a prosperous Bath baker, maltser and brewer who was part of an extended family of Wingroves engaged in the same trades. They must have been prosperous enough to send their daughters to school and to attain to some gentility. It is possible that Ann and her sister ran their own academy because a "Miss A. Wingrove" taught pianoforte, the harp, singing, and dancing in the 1790’s in Bath. I like to think she was a cross-dressing eccentric who wore breeches to take the male part for her female customers, since she definitely had a thing about cross-dressing. At any rate, she must have met many people who spent time in Bath and wanted lessons for their daughters. Perhaps, too, she made connections through the Swedenborgian community in the United Kingdom. Their small congregations springing up around the country were probably exchanging letters at this time, even before they had established a Swedenborgian journal.
The reason I think I’ve found the correct birth and death dates for Ann Wingrove is that the list of subscribers in Letters, Moral & Entertaining includes some names which also appear in the will of Ann Wingrove of Bath, probated in 1824. Ann left some of her friends “five pounds for a ring” or ten pounds, or more: Mrs. Gregg, Mrs. Bingley, Mrs. Reynolds, Mrs. Wood, Mrs. Tugwell, and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas King of Walcot-House.
Ann Wingrove's obituary, such as it was, only states that she died in her eightieth year. She might have outlived the people who knew about her books, and the editors of the Bath Chronicle, which posted the obituary, might not have known that 30 years before, her dancing academy was in the same building as their office at 9 Union Street.
Ann Wingrove was buried at St. Michael's burial ground in Bath, as were other members of her family but that cemetery was closed in 1967 and the remains were excavated and re-buried at nearby Haycombe Cemetery. Many surviving gravestones were placed around Walcot Chapel in Bath, which is now a venue for art exhibitions.
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In the final book of my Mansfield Trilogy, my character William Gibson entertains little Betsy Price with a tale about a shipwrecked traveler and a Polynesian princess, told in the overblown style of a sentimental novel. For more about my novels, click here.