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.
Sir Edward, however, is head-over-heels for Cecilia.
Lord Fanshaw’s own wife Horatia accidentally proves that the lord had a point; when Horatia makes some joking remarks about Cecilia, which are carried back to her by a character helpfully named Tabitha Wormwood, Cecilia is incensed. She demands that Sir Edward cut off ties to the Fanshaws immediately and forever.
Our hero can’t do it; he owes the Fanshaws, especially Lord Fanshaw, “both gratitude and esteem." Cecilia, accusing him of not loving her enough, breaks off the engagement. Sir Edward leaves his affairs in the hands of his steward and goes abroad to heal his broken heart.
Cecilia has many other admirers, including a visiting German count who is a renowned soldier back in the German principality of *****. Count Falkenstein had an “unfavorable opinion” of “women in general, nor could he forbear to express his disapprobation of the freedom which the English ladies, both before and after marriage, enjoyed.”
A little foreshadowing here: we are told that the count is honorable, brave, handsome, and noble, but he expects unquestioning obedience from a wife. After he and Cecelia are married, he writes to his relatives back in Germany to assure them that she is not like the other outspoken English ladies: “My lovely bride has a just conception of the gentle duties of her sex, and adores that nice sense of honor which cannot tolerate the levity too prevalent in a country where the fair sex enjoy almost unlimited liberty,”
So, are we setting up for a story where the heroine realizes, too late, that she threw away a wonderful man and rashly married a tyrant? You might think so. You might assume that the narrator is going to take Cecilia’s side in what follows.
Cecilia and the count move back to Germany, the honeymoon is over, and they start quarreling, but the narrator faults Cecilia for not being forbearing enough. The count is in a bad mood already because he’s fallen out of favour with his ruler. As for Cecilia, he thinks she’s flirting too much. During one of their quarrels, he exclaims: “From this moment, Cecilia, you are free… I will deliver you from the presence of a husband you no longer love…. I will seek an honorable death in some foreign land. My fortune is your’s. Farewell, for ever!” Does Cecilia say to herself, "I guess I was emotionally manipulating Sir Edward the same way--now I see how wrong I was"? Nope.
Cecilia begs her husband to forgive her, lest she be a victim of “eternal anguish and remorse.” Falkenstein forgives her while acknowledging “Though at moments, I fear, I am captious and unjust, this heart while it beats will throb with affection for the most lovely and beloved of women. Bear with its infirmities, dearest Cecilia, with that sweetness you have, till of late, so often shown..”
The count, we must understand, is not a manipulative, controlling, Teutonic jackass. No, the count is a a hero of sensibility. His honour means more to him than his life. His “heart pants” to “rush on the face of danger… and reap fresh laurels on the field of renown,” yada yada, and Cecilia, with the approval of the narrator, struggles to appease and obey him.
Before long the count, impelled by an insult to his honor, challenges his political rival to a duel, and loses. Cecilia is a widow in a foreign country before she’s 20 years old, and her sister-in-law, like Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, can’t wait to kick her out of the castle, which now belongs to the count’s six-year-old nephew. Cecilia “was not ignorant that the castle and estate, as the count had left no child, would devolve to his eldest nephew; but… Cecilia could not suppose that [her sister-in-law] could forget what was due to the memory of a generous and noble brother.” Hmmm, is Miss Holcroft saying something about the injustice of primogeniture and the inheritance laws of the principality of ****, or is she just setting up a dramatic plot point? I vote the latter.
Now Miss Holcroft turns to the first in a chain of coincidences. Who happens to be in the adjoining room in the inn where Falkenstein fights his fatal duel? Who rushes to console him in his dying moments? Who brings the mournful news to the castle? Yes, it’s Sir Edward.
Of course he wouldn’t be so crass as to attempt to revive his romance when Cecilia has only just been bereaved. And she is so ashamed of having rejected him over a trifling joke made by Lady Fanshaw that she declares: “pride and propriety raise an insurmountable barrier between us, and we must never meet again!”
Never, you got that? Never, because insurmountable reasons.
The authoress now keeps us all in suspense while inserting an Italian semi-gothic subplot or two, involving more duels, rapacious priests, and convents, in which Sir Edward helps a young Italian nobleman. Up until now, The authoress has mostly used narration with little dialogue to tell her story. In this middle section of the novel, we switch abruptly to long stretches of dialogue between Sir Edward and some European nobleman who sit around talking about various things, including dueling.
It is often said that Jane Austen never wrote a scene involving only men. Miss Holcroft has no such reticence--she doesn’t hesitate to give us page after page of male conversation. I surmise it is because her father was the writer Thomas Holcroft, and she grew up in the middle of a tight-knit coterie of London radicals. William Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband), was always dropping by and the men would sort out the problems of the world until the small hours of the morning.
We’ll skim through this lengthy dialogue to get back to the main plot, only pausing to notice another example of a character expressing an opinion about the condition of women: Speaking of the Turks, a baron says: “Oh, do not name a set of barbarians… who are not only slaves and infidels, but who are the tyrants of the fair sex: were I, like them, blessed with four wives, instead of being their jailor I would be their humble suitor, and I should love them all so extravagantly that not one of them should suspect she had a rival in my heart.”
This ties in with my observation that people in Austen's time tended to see the women of England as being fortunate to be English, as compared to women in other countries, particularly in the East and the Far East.
I need to back up a bit and mention that Sir Edward does good deeds wherever he goes in the course of the novel, like rescuing a family from highwaymen. Back at university, he helped out a poor fellow student, Theodore Elton, who got suckered into losing a lot of money at gaming. Theodore goes on to become a clergyman, like his father. Wherever Sir Edward goes or whatever kind office he performs, he carries a torch for Cecilia, or as they said in those days, he wears the willow.
So Cecilia leaves Germany with a modest pension. She bumps into a family who know Sir Edward, who tell her what a great guy he is, except, gosh, he sure seems to be harbouring some secret sorrow, and isn’t it too bad he never married? He'd make such a great husband. Back in England, Cecilia unfortunately bumps into Tabitha Wormwood, who puts the worst possible construction on everything that’s happened and spreads her malice around town. The foppish Lord Isleworth also exults over Cecilia’s downfall, because she had turned down his hand before accepting the hand of the foreigner. Cecilia ferociously defends her late husband and sends Isleworth packing.
Another aside: although novels like this are usually set amongst the nobility, many specimens of the nobility are presented as deficient in humanity and good sense, such as Lord Isleworth: he is “half conscious that... though a Peer of the realm, and though possessed of fine horses, a fashionable equipage, a French cook, a Swiss porter, and an Italian valet, and though pampered with every luxury that wealth could procure, with all his fancied importance, in reality, was an insignificant, not to say a contemptible being.” This is not necessarily a condemnation of the aristocracy in general. In these novels, there are Good Aristocrats, who fulfill their duties, and Bad Aristocrats, who are evil, and Foolish aristocrats, who are weak and selfish and foppish. Isleworth is one of those.
More amazing coincidences follow: Cecilia falls very ill at an inn and is assisted by a young clergyman and his sister. It's Theodore Elton and his sister! She wants to live out of society, so she finds a quiet home with a clergyman and his wife. Their son, also a clergyman, comes to visit, with a young Italian friend. Yes, it’s the Eltons, as well as the young Italian nobleman who Sir Edward helped out of some scrape or other back in Italy.
Both Theodore and Casimir fall in love with our heroine, so she escapes, seeking deeper solitude in the Scottish highlands. And who should she run into in the middle of nowhere but Tabitha Wormwood? This time, she decides to go to Paris and enter a convent. Surely she won’t run into anybody she knows there. But guess who is renting the adjoining room in the inn on the way to London? Hint: Cecelia overhears him talking about his deathless love for her.
Still deeming herself unworthy, Cecilia continues to Calais, where just about everybody shows up, including the Fanshaws (remember them?) and Theodore Elton. And Sir Edward. He drops to one knee and proposes--"accept the vows of your adoring Edward"--and she finally says 'yes.'
The story is quickly wrapped up after that. Elton and the young Italian count conquer their passion for Cecilia and the author awards them with nice wives; we are assured that Lord Isleworth is miserable in his marriage with Lady Augusta Merton… a peeress in her own right: "his lady, like himself, was proud, haughty, narrow-minded, and destitute of every mental or personal grace: he was miserable at home, and comfortless abroad…” Sir Edward and Cecilia are happy ever after because, as Mr. Knightley put it to Mrs. Weston in Emma, Cecilia understands "the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid."
The Critical Review said of The Wife and the Lover: "Generally speaking, our best novelists are females. Miss Holcroft... does not class with the higher order, but certainly soars above mediocrity... The language is chaste, and so is the moral."
It's been a while since we've had a portrait of one of our forgotten authoresses. Sometimes we don't even know their life dates. Fanny Holcroft (1780–1844), like her father Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809), was painted by Amelia Opie's husband, because her father was part of a coterie of radical intellectuals to which the Opies belonged in the heady days of the French Revolution. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven" and Fanny was just old enough to catch the enthusiasm, the ferment of ideas, the hope that a new age was dawning for all mankind. (In comparison, Godwin's daughter Mary Shelley was born in 1797, during the anti-Jacobin backlash, when life for Holcroft and Godwin was much like being a blacklisted Hollywood writer during the Red Scare.)
Thomas Holcroft was a man who put his political principles first, and in consequence, was charged with treason (but the charges were dropped), and he was often on the brink of debtor’s prison. Fanny Holcroft’s confidence in taking her characters to Europe--something Austen would never have attempted--is explained by the fact that her father took the family to Europe for three years, partly because he had become so unpopular in England, and partly to escape his debts.
So why does the daughter of a radical, an associate of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, write a novel advocating wifely submission? Is she rebelling against dad and reverting to a conservative outlook? As it happens, her father also created a long-suffering forbearing wife in his play The Deserted Daughter (1795), and Godwin's publishing company sold books for young ladies which advocated wifely submission. Was it their sincere belief that wives should submit to their husbands? Or were they all writing to the market? Or was it ironic subversion? I doubt it was the third thing, but possibly the second. Scholar Amy Garnai has examined Fanny Holcroft's plays and concluded that in her plays “as well as in her novels, Fanny never moves beyond conventional themes, behaviors, and tropes.”
If Miss Holcroft didn't believe in the message she was preaching in this novel, she had a very good reason for trimming her beliefs to the prevailing winds of opinion. When Holcroft died in 1809, he left six children under the age of ten. Fanny’s stepmother and her step-siblings were literally facing homelessness and starvation. Their friends wanted to help, but were disastrously poor themselves. So, full respect to Fanny Holcroft; she tried starting a school with her stepmother, she worked as a teacher and a music teacher, and lived out the rest of her life in Miss Bates-like genteel poverty. One of her former pupils called her a "Quixote... in Honor and Truth," that is, someone who was so earnestly virtuous, so sweet and idealistic, that she was a bit eccentric.
Fanny Holcroft died “of mania” in 1844, age 64.
Incidentally, chalk The Wife and the Lover up as yet another novel in which a character is dispatched to the West Indies purely to remove him from the sphere of action. Once Lord and Lady Fanshaw serve their purpose in the novel's opening, they hop on a boat. Lord Fanshaw is kept offstage, serving as the governor of one of the West Indies colonies until he is needed for the novel's conclusion. And he is a Good Aristocrat, remember. Miss Holcroft was by no means indifferent to slavery--she wrote the abolitionist poem, The Negro, but she used the West Indies to park the Fanshaws in until she needed them.
The West Indies would have had unhappy personal associations for Fanny Holcroft because her half-brother William committed suicide, aged 16, in a ship that was set to sail for the West Indies. He had bought passage with money stolen from his father, and when Holcroft came looking for him, he shot himself. A grim family tragedy. Later, Holcroft thought that Godwin had based a stern father in his novel Fleetwood on this tragedy, and he broke with Godwin. They were only reconciled on Holcroft's deathbed.
Garnai, Amy. Thomas Holcroft’s Revolutionary Drama: Reception and Afterlives. Rutgers University Press, 2023.
The full and fascinating story of William Godwin and his circle is told in William St. Clair's book The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.