Clutching My Pearls is dedicated to countering post-modern interpretations of Jane Austen with research that examines her novels in their historical and literary context. I also read and review the forgotten novels of the Georgian and Regency era and compare and contrast them with Austen's. Click here for the first post in the series. Click here for my six critical questions for scholars.
This is how Mrs. E.G. Bayfield opens her novel The Splendour of Adversity, a domestic novel and it’s why I picked it to read. I wanted to see another example of a domestic novel, set in a country village, like Jane Austen's Emma. Austen's novel is famous; this one, published two years earlier, is forgotten, but they both represent a conscious move away from melodramatic "sentimental" novels with their abductions, forged wills, and mislaid foundlings, in favour of situations that were, as Austen would say, “probable” and close to real life.
Splendour opens with a chat around a whist-table in a quiet village, as some local widows and spinsters talk over the late rector of their village and the arrival of the new one. His name is not "Knightly," as one lady had announced, but Knightwell. And it turns out that Jane Colyer, a quiet spinster who has been living in Hazlebury for a few years, already knows him.
We then flash back to the reason why Knightwell and Jane were unable to marry. Rev. Knightwell was on the point of proposing, but his brother died and he had to take care of his widow and four children, so he couldn't afford to begin a family of his own. Now that he's moved to Hazlebury, Mr. Knightwell and Miss Colyer reunite as friends “and thus did the estimable pair emulate and encourage one another in the exercise of superior virtue.” She helps educate the children, especially the oldest girl, Albinia. Their mother the widow is “destitute of any internal resources," unlike Mrs. Elton in Emma, who is blessed with them. The Widow Knightwell wants to enjoy the social life at some seaside resort instead of living quietly at the rectory. If I tell you she rouges her cheeks (!) then I've told you everything you need to know about the artful hussy...
As the title hints, this book is about handling adversity with Christian fortitude--adversity which tests, refines, and prepares the soul to be worthy for Heaven. There is so much adversity that I began to wonder: “so how realistic is this, exactly?” But after all, don’t we have selfish mothers who neglect their children, and don’t we have neighbours embroiled in horrible feuds in modern life? So the situations are not that improbable, I suppose.
You are also reminded of the difference between a realistic novel with realistic characters and a sentimental novel with sentimental characters, when Lionel Saverland, the son of the previous rector, comes rushing into the rectory garden like a dime-store Shelley and starts emoting all over the shrubbery. “'Yes! Here it is—Oh! Sacred shade, witness, witness my emotions at this moment! How have I longed, how have I sighed for such an opportunity as this! Yet now that it is arrived I cannot enjoy it as I would—Oh! Bitter--bitter retrospective memory!' And with an air of wild suffering” he rushes away, to bump into Albinia, who is instantly smitten.
Lionel loathes his current clerical posting in the city of **** and he yearns for a living in the country: He resents having sophisticated city congregations nitpick at his sermons and in particular, he is repulsed by the “wretched habitations of squalid famine.” He’d much rather encounter a starving peasant in a rural setting: “To approach the death-bed of the honest and virtuous cottager, who inhabits a tenement on the wild mountain’s brow, to speak words of comfort, hope, and peace, to the departing soul of him who has warded off poverty by labour, and who has been trying to do his duty in his contracted sphere—this would be happiness—it would be pleasure of the purest kind! But to enter the noisome chamber of disease, brought on by sloth and intemperance, to hear the dreadful imprecation, to see the blood-shot glaring eye!”
Miss Colyer warns him: “Oh! Lionel Saverland, if you do not repress this discontented, this fastidious spirit of yours, it will be a barrier to your happiness.”
A few years go by, and Lionel's dream comes true. He marries Albinia and off they go to their country parish. What could go wrong?
Meanwhile, Albinia's younger sister Rose is lucky enough to snag an Irish peer as her husband. But the authoress does not throw a veil of sentimental romance over the marriage. Lord and Lady Brereton are described in the typical way that nobility are described in these books—they are selfish and live for pleasure. It never occurs to Rose to help out her poorer relations.
The authoress also throws in a bigamist fortune-hunter, an Amazon, and a maidservant who has married her master (but she is no Pamela, see more below).
The main antagonist doesn’t show up until volume three. He is a wealthy farmer who enlists all the other ratepayers in his parish to refuse to pay tithes to Lionel Saverland, our sensitive vicar. This is the first novel I’ve come across in which the payment of tithes features in the plot. Austen lampooned the issue in her Plans for a novel in which the heroine’s clergyman father “expires in a fine burst of Literary Enthusiasm, intermingled with Invectives against holders of Tithes.”
Here, the narrator's sympathies are for the minister in this Hardy-esque battle of wills, despite his self-indulgent emotionalism, but this was not always the case. Clergyman were often lampooned as fat, lazy, gout-ridden port guzzlers at this time. "Take the pig, but take the child," says the hard-pressed farmer's wife in the poem "The Tithe Pig," here depicted in Staffordshire pottery. Our authoress is not concerned with critiquing British institutions like the Anglican church. Like Austen, she examines character, and if people behave well or badly in the station of life in which they are placed.
It is sad to see Lionel's dreams of being a wonder-working minister in a village end with the humiliation of preaching to empty pews. Yes, Lionel Saverland is a Sensitive Plant, but he is an object lesson for the reader. Despite his weaknesses, Albinia loves and supports him with unswerving devotion, as a wife should.
We've seen Rev. Knightwell give up his own happiness to support his ungrateful brother’s widow, and seen Rev. Saverland sinking into debt while his parishioners abandon him to go listen to some itinerant Methodist, but the greatest adversity of all in this novel is caused by… (da dunh dunnnh!) ....DEW!
Rev. Knightwell is carried off before his time by a “cold, which originated from being out too late in the autumnal dew,” which “settled on [his] lungs."
The youngest Knightwell nephew, also named Ambrose, is an invalid for life because he is left on the sea-shore by his neglectful mother: “to amuse himself by picking up shells on the shore, till his clothes were moistened by the evening dew, or wetted with the salt spray of the sea.”
And finally, Lionel Saverland, driven to frenzy by the cruelty of Farmer Mallow, rushes out into the pouring rain (okay, that’s even worse than dew) and broods in the darkness down by the river. He is further injured when he stops Farmer Mallow’s runaway carriage-horse, risking his own life to save that of his bitterest enemy, but surely it was the damp that caused his demise shortly after.
Albinia and Lionel’s story ends tragically, and in fact this novel does not end with a wedding, but with reflections on the need for fortitude and self-control and not expecting too much out of life. Once widowed, Albinia turns down an offer of marriage and instead, starts a school to support herself and her two children. So if you think marriage-plot novels are unrealistic, you can try the dismal, dew-filled doings of The Splendour of Adversity.
I was disappointed in this story because the authoress started off with three or four families in a country village, but didn't stay with them. We meet a few village characters, such as Mrs. Follett, a widow who is described thusly: “her foibles were common ones, the extremes of neatness and cleanliness, and a little eagerness for the chit-chat of the village, which is almost universal in minds which are destitute of resources, and where occupation is merely corporeal.” But after introducing us to Mrs. Follett, Mrs. Staple, and Mr. Nutcombe all gathered around the whist table, the action moves away from Hazlebury. I was particularly interested in "Miss Donaldson." She is the first portrait of a neurodivergent person that I’ve encountered in this old literature. She knows how long the previous rector served the village: “Fourteen years, two months, and three days!” She sets everyone straight as to dates, places, and times. She is "unmoved" when a man’s coat catches fire. But she plays no part in the story.
Austen is much more skilled at giving her minor characters, however eccentric, something to do in her plots. As well, she pays attention to the unities of the plot when it comes to introducing and dismissing characters. She makes reference to this near the end of Northanger Abbey when the narrator tells us about Eleanor's marriage to a nobleman who was not mentioned earlier in the story: "aware that the rules of composition forbid the introduction of a character not connected with my fable—that this was the very gentleman whose negligent servant left behind him that collection of washing-bills." In Emma, we don't meet Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax until volume two, but they are discussed in volume one. We hear about Mr. Elliot and we see him in Lyme at the end of volume one of Persuasion before he is re-introduced to us in volume two. Well yes, the poultry thieves in Emma were introduced at the last minute...
One gathers that no heroine, however saintly, should have to put up with fat relatives. The marriage proposal Albinia turns down comes from her uneducated but well-meaning cousin Frederick, who is a rustic country squire. His mother is a former-cook-maid who married her master, and she is ridiculed for her weight: “her large and unwieldy person, and fat capacious sides, exceeded all that Albinia could have imagined of vulgarity, even of a cook-maid transplanted to the parlour, yet she tried to dissemble her disgust, and, with good humoured sweetness, followed her into the house.” The mother pressures Albinia to marry her son, and she would often "plead his cause... sometimes pinning Albinia completely in her place by spreading her great bulk before her, as she sat in the window….” until the “good lady waddled off…”
Mrs. E.G. Bayfield is thought to be the author of The Splendour of Adversity. If another of her title-pages is to be believed, she is also the author of The Woman of Color (1808), a novel which has received much critical attention recently as the main character is a Jamaican heiress who experiences racism during her visit to England. However, the authoritative bibliography of English novels suggests that publishers were making false claims of authorship on their title pages to boost sales, and we can't rely on this information. For example, Mrs. Bayfield did not write A Winter in Bath, or rather, there was a book by a different author called A Winter in Bath," and her publisher re-named one of her books to A Winter at Bath to fool the public. Therefore, we can't trust this title page and the question of who wrote The Woman of Color is unanswered.
The Splendour of Adversity does not deal with slavery or empire. It has references to the Peninsular War and its heroines are "patriotic." It has one passing mention of the "East India charter." The Rev. Knightwell's brother goes to the West Indies but as a soldier. He does not get rich; he dies of yellow fever.
The Splendour of Adversity received two short but favourable reviews: “This novel is a very respectable attempt to call novel readers back to a love of truth and nature.” The Monthly Review notice was written by Laetitia Matilda Barbauld, a prominent bluestocking writer, who opined: “Though the title of this book may be deemed affected, the tale will be found simple, and rather pleasing, some of the characters are drawn with skill and discrimination; and the tendency of the whole is favourable to virtue.”
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For more about Laetitia Matilda Barbauld and her book reviews, see Waters, Mary A. "‘'Slovenly Monthly Catalogues': The Monthly Review and Barbauld's Periodical Literary Criticism". Nineteenth Century Prose, vol. 31, no. 1, 2004, p. 53.
For more about the unreliability of author attribution, see Garside, P. D. ‘Mrs Ross and Elizabeth B. Lester: New Attributions’, Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text 2 (June 1998). Mrs. Bayfield's "'chaste pen'... got associated with a chain of potboilers."
For more about tithes, the difference between a rector, a vicar, and a curate, and all things related to the church and religion in Jane Austen's England, I recommend Fashionable Goodness by Brenda S. Cox.
Clerical incomes, city ministers versus country ministers, the role of a clergyman in a country village and absentee clergymen are all discussed in Mansfield Park, especially in the conversations between Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram.