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.
Every time I read one of these forgotten novels of the long 18th century, I make note of any references to slavery and colonialism, women's rights, and other topics of current academic interest. For example, several characters in this book have colonial wealth; most notably, Lord Fitzgerald, who came back from India with a large fortune. He intends to marry his son to an heiress with an East Indian fortune. While Lord Fitzgerald has his faults as a parent, he is not critiqued in the novel for the source of his wealth, though of course it is inferior to inheriting your wealth but a class/rank standpoint. The heiress, Elvina Dorrington, is not faulted for her Indian riches, but for her lack of sound religious principle and her "languid" and sensual character.
There is no reference to slavery or plantations in Modern Manners even though the term "slave" is used a number of times. Lord Wimbledon can’t get to sleep because his friends are noisily drinking 'til the wee hours. One of them shouts, “time is made for slaves.” Wimbledon picks up a book the heroine had been reading—it’s Cowper’s poem “The Task,” in which the poet references slavery and Lord Mansfield's Somerset case ("We have no slaves at home --then why abroad?") although this is not mentioned. Cowper is referenced to show that the heroine Emma Osborne is no airhead, and therefore Wimbledon grows ashamed of his own pleasure-seeking, trivial life.
Arabian harems were a source of fascination for the Brits, and the wealthy Fitzgeralds dress up in exotic costumes for a masquerade ball. Lady Fitzgerald dresses as a “slave,” Lord Fitzgerald is a sultan, their daughter Julia is a veiled Arab princess. There are no reflections on the irony of dressing up as a slave when the source of your wealth is East Indian exploitation.
Julia Fitzgerald elopes from the ball with the flashy Captain Farquarson, but when she realizes he's an unprincipled fortune-hunter, she tells him ‘”I am no longer your slave.” Later, she sorrowfully tells Emma: “do not sink me into a mere child, the slave of passion… I have inflicted the wound myself.”
These examples show us how casually people used the term “slave” at this period to describe any kind of constraint. Slavery was a fact of life, but Arab slavery--that is, seraglios or harems--were sexually titillating and exotic.
Now I finally come to the reason why I lighted on Modern Manners in the first place: I have been seeking out novels of this era with characters named "Mansfield." "Lord Mansfield" is the secondary romantic hero in this book, who patiently woos and wins the lively Julia Fitzgerald. If we are to argue that the title "Mansfield Park" was recognized by Austen's readers as a reference to the real Lord Mansfield, what does it mean when an author names one of her characters "Lord Mansfield"? Did the name "Lord Mansfield" in a book published three years after Mansfield Park send a message about slavery? (If you don't know about the Lord Mansfield/slavery connection here is a backgrounder).
Personally, I don’t think the author of Modern Manners is trying to send an anti-slavery message with the name "Lord Mansfield." I think it’s just another solid English name. More broadly, I'm dubious about the idea that authors of this period introduced highly subtle allusions about social issues in the middle of their love stories. If they wanted to inveigh against slavery or masquerade balls or the depravity of London, they went ahead and inveighed, or had one of their characters do so. Nor, contrary to what you might have been told, was there any danger or difficulty around discussing slavery in a novel at this period.
There is no biographical similarity between this fictional Lord Mansfield and Lord Mansfield the Chief Justice, who died 24 years before this book was published. But I concede that others might think it is no coincidence that after Julia tells Captain Farquarson, “I am no longer your slave,” the character named Lord Mansfield springs into the garden, sword drawn, ready to rescue her.
As for contemporary critics, If the name "Lord Mansfield" raised associations in the readers' minds back in the day, the one reviewer who wrote a lengthy and favourable review of the novel in the Gentlemen's Magazine did not think it worth mentioning. He names and describes four other main characters, but he doesn't discuss Lord Mansfield. Mansfield is dismissed in one sentence with the “the rest of the gallants [who] are all very fine young men—very hopeful specimens indeed.”
If novel-readers of the day were not as preoccupied with the horrors of slavery as we think they ought to have been, what were they preoccupied with? Well, female chastity, of course, female education, and whether novel-reading had a tendency to overheat female imaginations. As Jane Austen remarks in a famous passage in Northanger Abbey, novelists were guilty of “degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding.” There is a particularly extended example of this in Modern Manners, in which the secondary heroine Julia (representing "Modern Manners," jousts with some older minor characters who fear that "all fictions are immoral, their very source springing in falsehood, and supported by the extravagant vagaries of fancy." The character of Mr. Seymour is given several soliloquies in the book on various topics, and I think he is the author's alter ego:
“And does Miss Fitzgerald ever read novels?” cried a maiden lady, looking very superciliously at Julia as she spoke.
[An old gentleman asks if “any lady could resist them?”]
“Resist them?” cried the lady, looking both angrily and haughtily, ‘you must have a very contemptible opinion of the female understanding but I, sir, never read them.”
“And I, madam,” said Julia, “pity you for a prejudice, which deprives you of a gratification, which works of imagination, when written with taste and feeling, must create.”
“As works of imagination merely, my dear young lady,’ returned the old gentleman, (whose name was Seymour), “I should not plead for them; no, not even if written with taste and feeling… we folks of the last century will have our opinions, and an obstinate one of mine is, that these weapons are often so bright and dazzling, that the sentiments and morals, are lost amidst their fascination and brilliancy…."
[He acknowledges there are some excellent authors who are exceptions to the rule. This conversation continues for several pages and then segues into a discussion of female education, which allows Julia to exclaim:] “Surely, Sir... you are not an advocate for intellectual blindness in the female sex? Are not our powers of mind equal to you lords of the creation? And have we not a right to exercise them? Would you confine us to the grim country mansions of our forefathers, to gain our only knowledge from the tapestry figures, and the housekeeper’s receipt book? Fie, my good Mr. Seymour, I thought you had been more liberal.”
[the conversation continues until it is interrupted by the sudden entrance of another character who announces that Lord Wimbledon is racing against a famous jockey.]
The lady who wrote Modern Manners probably had never met a Lord in her life or attended a masquerade ball. One critical reviewer pointed out how incorrect it was for "gentlemen to address ladies by their Christian names on the first day of their acquaintance" as Nevison does with Elvina. The author seems to have lived outside of London, because she apologizes for the number of typographical errors in the book because “the Business of the Press has been conducted at such a Distance as to preclude any Correction.” Perhaps she lived in or near Harrogate, which she spells "Harrowgate."
If you read my synopsis of this book, you might wonder if the anonymous author has borrowed some of her plot points from Austen, although that is by no means certain, since multi-generational stories, lively girls who fall for cads, or dislike of private theatricals, aren’t unique to Austen. The author appears to admire the writer Jane West, because she emulates her traits of explicit moralizing, winking at her readers about novelistic tropes, and referring to herself as a “spectacled old woman,” à la West’s alter ego of Prudentia Homespun. The character of Mr. Seymour includes “West” in his list of good authors who are worth reading despite being novelists: ‘while we have the works of an Edgeworth, an Hamilton, a West, and a Moore,* who, by lashing the follies of the times, and making (if I may be allowed the expression) fiction the vehicle of truth; yes, while their lessons exist, shall we quarrel with the mode in which they are conveyed?."
Alas, "Austen" does not make the list of Mr. Seymour's admirable authors. although by the time Modern Manners was published, four of Austen's novels had been published. Perhaps Austen didn't lash the follies of the times as severely as the anonymous author thought she should.
Modern Manners received two reviews. The Monthly Review found it "improbable without being fanciful, and in which the observations meant to be moral and religious are… trite and wearisome.”
The other review, in the Gentlemen's Magazine, was lengthy and favorable, and the reviewer even surmised about the identity of the writer: “Judging from the internal evidence we should pronounce this to be a juvenile performance, thought the fair author has chosen to represent herself as an elderly spinster. We would not be so impolite as to call a lady’s word in question; but there is a graceful and easy veracity in the narrative, and a spirited versatility in the delineation of the characters, which cannot well be reconciled with the idea of matronly sedateness… In this conclusion we are persuaded that every Reader will concur; it will be quite as natural to him as that which he would form in overhearing from the next apartment a fine song delightfully executed and accompanied; he would never, by any possible range of conjecture, imagine the unseen warbler to be an old lady in spectacles.”
Despite that one good review, Modern Manners was not picked up by many circulating libraries, only 3 out of 20, according to the invaluable British Fiction website. This is perhaps why we don’t see any further novels from “the author of ‘Modern Manners,’ etc.”
*The authors Mr. Seymour lists are Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), Elizabeth Hamilton (1756-1816), Jane West (1758–1852), and John Moore (1729–1802), although possibly this is a reference to Hannah More (1745-1833). I reviewed John Moore's Edward: various Views of Human Nature, Taken from Life and Manners, Chiefly in England (1796), in an earlier post.
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