I wonder if Austen managed to plow through all four volumes and 700 pages. I confess to skimming and skipping the last half, when the author was gearing up to introduce a whole new raft of characters and more subplots and backstories. Austen scholar Deirdre LeFaye counted ‘a total of nearly twenty flashbacks in all,’ and I don’t know if that includes the long narrative summary which commences the novel. However, even though I didn’t manage to read Lady Maclairn cover to cover, this forgotten novel deserves another look for a number of reasons: the attitude displayed in the book toward the slave trade, the Big Family Secret storyline, the naturalistic portrayal of insanity, and the harsh portrait of a clergyman.
It appears that Lady Maclairn did not receive a review when first published. So here goes:
Mrs. Dawson, a wealthy widow, never forgave her son-in-law for taking her daughter away to Jamaica, where she died far from home after giving birth to little Rachel Cowley, our heroine. Mrs. Dawson’s will leaves her fortune to Rachel, but Rachel will only inherit if the father returns her to England to be raised by Mrs. Dawson's respectable friends, the Hardcastles. It is just as well for Rachel, because she is growing spoiled in Jamaica where she can lord it over the enslaved people. Her character improves in England where she grows up with gentle little Lucy Hardcastle and her older brother Horace. Rachel looks up to him and she grows into ‘’the habit of yielding up her will to Horace.’’
‘’The tribute of Horace’s admiration was directed to the cultivating the taste and forming the judgment of'' our heroine....’’
Mansfield Park aficionados will see the similarity in the description of how Edmund shapes Fanny's mind. Rachel, however, is not a penniless dependent, but an heiress. When she and Horace become childhood sweethearts, dad Hardcastle is worried that he’ll be accused of snaffling the heiress’s fortune for his own family, so he sends Horace away to boarding school in the hopes that their early preference for each other will be forgotten. He takes this seriously. Very seriously.
‘’I would rather see your brother dead, then the husband of this young creature!’’ [he exclaims to Lucy] ‘’or rather, let me implore death for my relief, before I see him pointed at as the base, the interested purloiner of this girl’s affections!’’ He then ‘’wept audibly.’’ You’d have quite the drinking game on your hands if you took a swig every time a character in this book cries. Or dies, for that matter, because we’ve already lost Rachel’s mom, her grandmother, Mrs. Hardcastle and a few other people. And the body count will keep rising, and we’re still in the backstory.
Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, dad consoles himself for his loneliness by taking an enslaved girl as his concubine. ‘’But in this deviation from his hitherto regular and moral conduct, Mr. Cowley forgot not decorum; his favourite resided with privacy at the more remote plantation,’’ where she bears him two sons, who Rachel only learns about when dad dies and her two half-brothers are mentioned in the will. I was intrigued by the existence of these characters but unfortunately, although they are mentioned a few more times (they are brought to England and sent to school), we never meet them and they play no part in the plot.
Dad’s will is a shocker to everyone. It appoints his new lawyer, Mr. Flamall, as guardian to Rachel and pretty much pledges her in marriage to Mr. Flamall’s nephew Philip Flint. Rachel suspects the will is forged, and she resolves to contest it (a lengthy process) and of course, refuses to marry Mr. Flint. She does agree to be packed off to Scotland, to the ancestral home of the Flints, with the confidence of an heiress that nobody dare do anything to her. Our hero Horace is ordered to accompany his ailing friend, Lord Dying-from-Consumption, to sunnier climes in Europe, and Mr. Hardcastle forbids the young sweethearts to correspond with each other. Because she’s a double heiress, Rachel doesn't hide her love like Fanny Price: ’’We wish not to conceal an affection on which our happiness depends. Horace knows that I love him, and I know he loves me and… we shall live for each other.’’ Rachel pledges to wait until she attains her majority at age 25 (according to the terms of the will).
Then the author introduces a host of new characters and their backstories, with marriages and deaths in bewildering succession. Suffice it to say that Rachel is going to live with Lady Maclairn, who is Mr. Flamall’s younger sister. Lady Maclairn’s first husband Mr. Flint has died and she is now remarried to Lord Maclairn. We also meet the first husband's spinster sister, Lucretia Flint, who is miserable and spiteful, a poor relative named Mary, young and beautiful, and there are more estranged relatives living nearby.
And all that’s just setting the stage for the real commencement of the novel, the epistolary part where Rachel Cowley writes to her friend Lucy Hardcastle. We never see one of Lucy’s answers because it is not necessary for plot purposes. Rachel does all the explaining about the dysfunctional family she’s now living with.
Our confident young heiress is openly scathing and rude to the local clergyman, whom she ridicules in her letters to Lucy. ''In what language shall I convey to your imagination the honours of his head, his tight, perfumed, well-powdered curls’’ and his painfully ''tight lacing’’ by which he reins in his growing corpulence. Rachel takes pleasure in disagreeing with Mr. Snughead, and he ’observed…. That for so very young a lady, I had a very decided spirit.’’
You thought Austen was harsh in her portrait of Mr. Collins? Maybe being a bit risky? Rachel compares Mr. Snughead to a ‘’reptile’’ and a ‘’spider’’: ‘’I cannot crush [people she despises] as many do a poor harmless spider; but I would probe them to the quick, without flinching. Some vices I can pity, but a spirit of defamation is my abhorrence; and an unworthy minister of a religion to which I am attached, as my supreme good, is my antipathy.’’ You see how the author distinguishes between the individual, and the Anglican faith, in her condemnation.
Back to some other characters: Lady Maclairn is the mother of Philip Flint by her first husband, and the mother of Malcolm by Lord Maclairn. Neither of these men turn into candidates for Rachel’s affection. Her preference for Horace is never brought into question. Malcolm is engaged to marry a local buxom farmer’s daughter, and Lucretia Flint is miserable and spiteful about that, too. There are more characters and more subplots, including, I believe, an elopement by a girl named Lydia. If I go back and read that section, I will update.
After Miss Flint administers a beating to poor Mary, Rachel steps in and sends the girl to live happily with Lucy. What a heroine can do when she has money!
Rachel is intrigued and perplexed by Lady Maclairn. The lady of the house is intelligent and gentle, a faded beauty, devoted to her ailing husband, but why does she meekly put up with the treatment Lucretia Flint hands out to her, and to everyone in the household? Why is she so reserved and hard to get to know?
The author drops some clues about Lady Maclairn and her relationship with Miss Flint, but I missed them as I skimmed along. Yes, there is a Big Family Skeleton in the closet, which explains why Miss Flint is so miserable and bossy and yet so seemingly haunted with remorse (she weeps a lot), and why Lady Maclairn is such a doormat in her own home (she weeps a lot).
Another interesting feature of this novel is that Lord Maclairn has mental health problems, but he does not rave and wander about like Ophelia in Hamlet. The description of his struggles sounds authentic compared to how fits of madness are described in novels of this ilk. Our heroine grows fond of Lord Maclairn, despite his wandering wits, because when he is feeling well, they can discuss literature and other topics together.
Although Mr. Flamall, the lawyer who forged Rachel’s father’s will, is offstage for almost all of the novel, he shows up in the various family backstories which Rachel uncovers, laboriously transcribes and sends to Lucy. Flamall has been a busy conniving villain. It was he who got rid of his sister Harriet's true love and forced her into both of her marriages to much older men. It was his plan to marry his ‘’nephew’’ (yes, hint, that’s nephew in scare quotes) to Rachel. But his plan is thwarted when Horace, taking a stroll on a Portuguese hillside, happens to come across an Englishwoman in distress with a sprained ankle. He assists and learns that she is the wife of one Philip Flint of Jamaica. Philip is not available to marry Rachel but he (understandably) kept his marriage a secret from ''Uncle'' Flamall.
Okay, okay, I’ll spill the beans although we don’t get to it until the fourth volume, after a long and hard slog through some other subplots and backstories involving many more characters. Lady Maclairn has a guilty secret because she was married already when she was forced into marriage with the elderly Mr. Flint. But the big secret is that Mr. Flamall and the respectable but bitter-hearted Miss Flint had an illegitimate child! She forced Lady Maclairn to pretend the baby was her posthumous child by her first husband. The ladies are trapped in a sort of mutual blackmail situation.
Philip was raised by Lady Maclairn, so he turned into a fairly decent human being. Want proof? Well, among his virtues, he is a humane slave owner. So there you go. A garrulous family servant mentions that Philip inherits ‘’a fine plantation, and I know not how many poor negroes. A good deed for them, poor souls! for Mr. Philip is a tender-hearted man.” And: “Cowley’s slaves are yet cherished as men, though unfortunate men! But I hate the subject.”
What I see in the passages mentioning Jamaica is not an outright anti-slavery editorial—you can find much more explicit and stronger condemnations in other novels. What I see is a sort of resigned acceptance of slavery as a fact of life, and a distinction made between a benevolent master and a bad master. Others may differ. Although we modern readers would find nothing to excuse in someone who enslaves people for profit, we find many examples of authors speaking complacently of kind and benevolent masters. Such is the case in this novel. As well, I couldn't find any reflection on the fact that much of the heroine's fortune derives from the toil of enslaved people. (For more on how slavery and empire was depicted in these old novels, click on the category ''East and West Indies and Slavery'' above right).
So here we have a novel that Austen and her niece laughed at for its excessive lachrymosity, but which contains some notable features. To investigate whether this is really an early version of a detective novel, I'd have to re-read it again and more attentively to find the clues that point to the Big Family Secret. One that sailed right by me at the time was when the younger brother Malcolm mentions that his mother Lady Maclairn ‘’suckled me herself; her health had not admitted of this duty when Philip was born.'' At other times, Miss Flint says something and Lady Maclairn turns pale and rushes from the room.
I don’t say that Lady Maclairn, victim of villany, was Austen’s inspiration for aspects of Emma—that is unknown and unknowable, but Lady Maclairn deserves a footnote in the history of the novel.
About the author
Very little is known about Rachel Hunter (1754-1813). The Orlando database of women writer's suggests that she may have come from the merchant class and married a merchant. She had a good education. She was also known as Mrs. Hunter of Norwich. Although Lady Maclairn received no review, another one of her productions, The Unexpected Legacy, received this comment: ''it includes several intermediate narratives, which are each distinct and separate stories: a mode of conducting a novel which divides and subdivides the interest and the attention of the reader; insomuch that we warn him not to be surprised if, after having read the ‘Unexpected Legacy,’ he should scarcely recollect at the conclusion either the nature of the bequest or the merits of the donor.'' Lady Maclairn likewise has no shortage of distinct and separate stories.
I haven't mentioned that Mr. Flamall commits suicide, Lucretia Flint dies of remorse and an infected knee injury, Rachel and Horace marry happily, and Lucy and Mary (the forlorn relative) also find husbands.
Lady Maclairn is available online at Project Gutenberg, thanks to the efforts of their wonderful volunteers.
Reveries Under the Sign of Austen (blog) has more thoughts about Lady Maclairn. Professor David H. Bell writes about Emma as a detective novel here. Edgar Allan Poe is generally credited with writing the first detective or mystery story in 1841, but I'm going to keep my eyes open going forward looking for books with embedded clues. As opposed to books where the characters pull their hair and gnash their teeth and exclaim that they have a deep dark secret, that is.