I read The Duped Guardian as part of my research for my backgrounder series about Mansfield Park as a possible allusion to Lord Mansfield and the Somerset case. Click here for more about how I explored the possible connection. This 1785 book contained a mention of "Mr. Mansfield," but I discovered it referred to a different lawyer named Mansfield, so I did not include this novel in my list of novels which mention Lord Mansfield. Here is my book review anyway.
Mrs. Cartwright orchestrates a story in which perils arise, and problems are resolved in a graceful and orderly fashion, like people dancing a minuet. Although there is drama, there is no great feeling of despair or tension, and this might be because the heroine, Harriot Pelham is intelligent and resourceful. She and her sidekick friend Lady Laura Antrim don't lose their heads or faint in a crisis, but rise to the occasion with female solidarity. There is a secondary heroine, Clara Aubry, a Harriet-Smith or Catherine Morland-like picture of ignorance, only fifteen years old, of whom one character says: “innocence, when it is accompanied by a naïve goodness of heart, has charms irresistible.” Given Clara's imbecility, Harriot needs an intelligent friend and confidante to write her letters to (since this is an epistolary novel), which is where Lady Laura comes in. She's the saucy sidekick of the story. They both look out for Clara.
Harriot‘s guardian is her brother-in-law, Mr. Hoyle, with whom she lives, along with her older sister Caroline. Let’s plunge into the action: Thanks to a carelessly dropped letter, Harriot discovers that Mr. Hoyle is conspiring with a female panderer to abduct her, take her to a secluded mansion, rape her, and then stick her in a convent when he’s tired of her. Then he'll take her inheritance. She is determined to avoid distressing Caroline by revealing that her husband is a monster, so when she’s caught weeping, she pretends that she’s been crying over the pages of a tragedy. This brings a gentle rebuke from Caroline about indulging in “fictitious misery,” a reference to the common trope that novel-reading was harmful.
After the initial horrible shock, Harriot pulls herself together...
Harriot resolves to take her pin money and live in seclusion under an assumed name in the countryside until she comes of age and can control her own fortune. With admirable sang-froid, she sneaks away with her wardrobe, art supplies, and even her guitar, before anybody realizes she’s gone. This is certainly more prudent than the escapes conducted by some other heroines who flee with only the clothes on their back and hardly a sixpence to their name.
The farm couple are also, by coincidence, providing a home for the sweet and artless Clara. Clara has been left in the country to grow up ignorant not only of society, but also of basic literacy. Dr. Lovegold, her avaricious guardian, and Lord Wormeaten, the subtly-named lecherous old nobleman he plans to marry her to--think women are easier to control if they are ignorant. Harriot promptly sets about teaching Clara how to write and sketch. She also befriends a little neighborhood boy, the neglected son of an unlikable widow. Harriet stays in touch with her friend Laura by letter, filling her in on what's happening.
Dr. Lovegold shows up at the farmhouse and takes her back to his home in anticipation of her marriage to old Lord Wormeaten. On their trip home, a dashing young hero named Charles Luttrell spots Clara going by in her carriage and falls instantly in love with her. He pretends that he’s dying of consumption, so he can gain entrance to the doctor’s house and court Clara. End of Vol. 1.
Since this is an epistolary novel, we get our information when one character writes an extremely detailed letter explaining what is going on to some other character. But these individual characters have limited knowledge of the whole picture, which Mrs. Cartwright tries to make the most of. Thus, Charles Luttrell decides that his friend Lady Laura would be the perfect person to shelter Clara until she’s old enough to get married, but he doesn’t realize that she lives with the lecherous Lord Wormeaten. While this limited knowledge adds to the suspense, it sometimes just ends up making everyone look extremely obtuse. (“You say you’ve met a beautiful young girl who's about to be forced into marriage with an ancient nobleman? What a coincidence! My guardian, an ancient nobleman, tells me he’s about to marry an innocent young girl.”)
Meanwhile, what of Harriot? When Harriot fled her sister’s house, she left a note letting her foul brother-in-law know that she was on to his diabolical scheme. He therefore has a strong motive to track her down and hush her up. By a lucky chance she learns that one of the unlikable widow is her brother-in-law’s accomplice. Harriot high-tails it out of the farmhouse before the two of them can snatch her. She seeks refuge in a convent in France.
The introduction of a convent into the narrative apparently obliges the authoress to drop in an extended editorial from Harriot on the superstitions and errors of the Catholic faith and the hypocrisy and avarice of Abbesses. I suspect it’s nothing personal, Mrs. Cartwright is just checking the boxes here. The real reason that the author has whisked Harriot across the Channel is because it provides a convenient way to kill off the evil brother-in-law and his accomplice. They pick up on her trail, hire a boat to follow her, and drown in a storm.
Harriot is now free to go back to her sister—who will never learn about her husband’s true nature. Meanwhile Clara has placed herself under the protection of Charles Luttrell, the man who loves her, who is—coincidentally—Lord Wormeaten’s nephew and his heir. Luckily, Lord Wormeaten is very good about the whole thing. The threat that he has posed through the whole book suddenly dissolves when he realizes he's been ridiculous to want to marry a child bride at his age. He urges Charles to marry Clara before he, Lord Wormeaten, dies so he can bless their union. Charles, by the way, did express his scruples about scooping up a fifteen-year-old heiress before she’s had a chance to look around her, but, satisfied that she loves him, and with the encouragement of his uncle, they marry.
Laura, the saucy sidekick, also marries the man of her choosing without any opposition, and all’s right with the world. Oh--wait a minute, what about Harriot? Although she has someone who loves her, Edwin Solmes, he’s not given a chance to do anything heroic, and Harriot, according to novelistic convention, is not allowed to confess her love for him. We don’t meet him until near the end of the book and we don't learn anything about him except that he's very pleased to see Harriot again. He "run'[s] on with such a rhapsody of thanksgivings” to the “Almighty Disposer of Events,” that Harriot jokes “it’s a doubt with me, Laura, whether the youth is not turned Methodist.”
Yes, as a novel, The Duped Guardian is deficient. Dramatic impediments are set up, and then waved away. But if Jane Austen wrote a story like this, the modern critical reaction would be to regard it as a protest novel--a feminist manifesto against the laws that kept females under subjugation to their parents and guardians and a bold argument for female education. The critics would extol the tale because it downplays the love stories in favor of showing our two female best friends capably handling a variety of crises. (For another novel of this type, though far more convoluted, try The Gypsy Countess). Harriot even has the time and compassion to sponsor her late brother-in-law's illegitimate child, now orphaned because of the shipwreck. In addition to showing female agency in the face of patriarchal oppression, the novel features a minor subplot about a nobleman who marries a girl of humble birth for love alone.
I only opened this book to check out the reference to a “Mr. Mansfield” which appears in Volume I, and I ended up reading the whole thing. It was breezy good fun.
Now, what does Laura mean by her passing reference to “Mr. Mansfield”? I'm sure it's a saucy reference because she's the saucy sidekick. She tells Harriot that Lord Wormeaten wants her out of the house before his new bride arrives “for fear I should endeavour to inculcate more fashionable propensions on her inexperienced mind, it is a determined point that I should never see her; to which end, he has very genteelly desired me to accommodate myself with some other friend till the arrival of that period, when Mr. Mansfield is to abdicate his reign, and my ladyship is in possession of the family Mansion.” [italics in original]
Mr. Mansfield is not a character in the book. It appears to be a reference to a real person whom the readers would know. But it's not Lord Mansfield, because Lord Mansfield was never “Mr. Mansfield.” His name was William Murray and Mansfield is the name of first, his baronial title, and then his earldom. Therefore, no one would refer to him as “Mr. Mansfield.”
I think Laura is referring to James Mansfield (1734 -1821), who was an eminent British jurist who served as a lawyer, a judge, as solicitor-general (at the time of this novel), and as an MP. His career overlapped that of Lord Mansfield.
And I think I've discovered what the reference to abdicating his reign means. Laura is saying that when young Clara is brought to Lord Wormeaten's house, no-one will protect her from being pressured into marriage. Lady Laura is alluding to a recent sensational court case in which James Mansfield, as Solicitor-General, protected the rights of a young heiress named Frances Mary Harford, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Baltimore. Lord Baltimore had left Frances 30,000 pounds, which is the same amount that Clara Aubry has in the novel.
Robert Morris, a thirty-year-old barrister, and one of the executors of Lord Baltimore's will, took young Frances out of her boarding school by claiming to be her guardian and he fled with her to Europe when she was only twelve-and-a-half. “The tender years of Miss Harford, her innocence and unsuspicious temper, Mr. Morris took advantage of, by intoxicating her little head with notions of fine buckles, Ranelagh and masquerades." Moving from place to place, Morris arranged for two hasty wedding ceremonies. Once she came of age, and presumably regretted what happened, her foreign weddings were declared null and void because she had been underage and the weddings would not have been considered legal in the countries in which they were held. Frances was legally freed from Mr. Morris in May, 1784 and she remarried two months later and lived abroad with her second husband, a diplomat.
This provides an example that not all mentions of the name "Mansfield" have to do with Lord Mansfield or Somerset v. Stewart, even when law cases are involved.
Mrs. H. Cartwright (dates of birth and death unknown) wrote a book about female education, a hot topic at the time, as well as several novels and essays. The Orlando database of women writers says she is “otherwise unidentified." The Feminist Companion to Literature in English notes that Mary Wollstonecraft threw shade at Mrs. Cartwright's novel The Platonic Marriage in her own novel, Maria. Ernest Albert Baker, in his 1936 History of the English Novel, describes Mrs. Cartwright as “an indifferent specimen of the third rate” among novelists of her era. I will say in her defense that heroines showed pluck, so I put her amongst the proto-feminists. I mean, if we are going to praise Austen as a feminist because she has Anne Elliot observe to Captain Harville that women "live at home, quiet, confined," then surely this tale of two women who thwart the criminal behavior of some powerful men deserves a mention.
The Duped Guardian received two short and half-hearted reviews. The Monthly Review said: “the work is neither tedious nor insipid; it may afford amusement to please an idle mind, and instruction to warn a thoughtless one.” Note that nobody said, "But whoa, there's a bit too much anti-patriarchal stuff in here."
The Critical Review pointed out that Mrs. Cartwright borrowed her plot about Clara, “the artless niece of the artful physician,” from “Mrs. Cowley’s last comedy, viz. ‘More Ways Than One.’” That appears to be the case. In the 1783 play, a suitor pretends to be sick to win the heart of Arabella, the ward of Dr. Feelove, who is trying to get her married off while holding on to as much of her 30,000 pound fortune as he can. The play's Mr. Evergreen became the novel's Lord Wormeaten, and saucy sidekick Miss Archer became saucy sidekick Laura Antrim. It is interesting how freely people borrowed plots and ideas from one another in this era, when they weren't openly plagiarizing.
The only mention of “slave” in The Duped Guardian is the typical declaration, made by the male lover, that he is the "slave" of his mistress, and the only mention of colonialism is when more than one character uses the phrase, not for the wealth of the Indies would I do such-and-such. No-one appears to have a colonial fortune.
The Somerset case was not the “great social evil” or the “political principle.” The “political principle“ refers to an action brought by radical politician John Wilkes “for false imprisonment,” and the “great social evil” refers to bigamy. Mansfield defended the “Duchess of Kingston, when that singular lady was tried by the Peers for bigamy, in 1776.” The Somerset case was not even worth mentioning as one of the “celebrated causes of his time.”
The Somerset case dates from 1772, and though this landmark case might be well-known to every well-educated Janeite today, it doesn’t necessarily follow that in the years and decades following 1772, Somerset v. Stewart was the first thing that popped into people’s minds whenever the name “Mansfield” arose, as I've discussed in previous posts.
Sir James Mansfield also presided over the trial of John Bellingham, who was convicted for assassinating Prime Minister Spencer Percival in the House of Commons lobby on May 11, 1812. Bellingham, not surprisingly, was sentenced to death, even though questions were raised about his sanity. Bellingham appears as a character and the Percival assassination features in my second novel, A Marriage of Attachment.
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Robert Morris brought a court action attempting to force his (now grown) child-bride to be returned to him. James Mansfield, as Solicitor-General, put a stop to that.