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.
In my study of 18th-century novels, I don’t usually read Gothic novels because (1) they currently receive plenty of attention in academic circles and (2) I’m studying Jane Austen in the context of the conventions and tropes of the sentimental novel, not the gothic. But Glenmore Abbey popped up in my search results twice for containing some phrases which Austen satirically used. Remember how Mrs. Elton kept boasting about her “resources,” which would keep her occupied and entertained in the small village of Highbury? The same term appears in Glenmore Abbey. And twice, characters are offered the “balm of consolation” poured into “wounded bosoms,” à la Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Finally, Glenmore Abbey never received a review when it was published, and I like giving attention to such long-ignored books.
But I'm not going to denigrate Mrs. Isaacs for writing with trite clichés, although she certainly does at times: “To do justice to the ruined towers of Glenmore, the pen of ancient romance should delineate the thick clustering turrets, the broken columns, the fallen pillars, and mouldering battlements, that frowned over the gloomy domain. It was extensive and had once been well cultivated, but neglect had rendered it a barren waste, and the high trees, around many of which the climbing ivy had entwined itself, were merely a resort for the seafowl and birds of prey… (etc.)”
Let’s be fair, she’s probably writing for money, and she’s writing to a specific formula, in emulation of the very successful Anne Radcliffe—in other words she is ticking the boxes with a tale that includes mystery, suspense, a touch of the supernatural, and moral lessons...
Our story opens with young Arthur Fitzelvan, the second son of a second son of an Earl, and the first of four noble families where the oldest son is a waste of space and the second son is principled and decent. Arthur has just inherited a half-ruined Abbey from his dissolute uncle. He pays a visit and hears a haunting female voice singing a plaintive air. He discovers the singer is a beautiful and artless girl. He learns from the aged servants that Ellen is the natural daughter of his late dissolute uncle, who, come to think of it, was harboring a guilty secret when he died.
Ellen has grown up in almost complete isolation in the Scottish Highlands. I think Arthur is the first young man she has actually laid eyes upon. She harbors a secret sorrow because it is believed her mother threw herself off a nearby cliff into the ocean, distraught over her fall from virtue, leaving the infant Ellen behind.
Arthur sets about patching up the Abbey, and he sends Ellen to live with his kind and decent family in England.
Unlike many Regency writers, Mrs. Isaacs only introduces characters when and as she needs them for the plot, and she does not introduce characters just for the sake of ‘’a parade of character types,’’ to borrow Juliet McMaster’s expression. Thus in England we meet other young men and women, (such as Arthur’s sister Adeline, who is harboring a secret sorrow), all of whom play some role in the plot or are involved in a sub-plot. We meet the morally upright Mr. and Mrs. Fitzelvan and Mr. Fitzelvan’s snotty older brother who is angling for a mercenary marriage for his daughter. When the action moves to London, we meet some society folk, like the beautiful Lady Westmere, who is harboring a secret sorrow.
I very confidently placed down some prediction markers at the end of Volume One: Ellen will be revealed to be of legitimate and probably noble birth. Also, a mysterious lady who lived near Glenmore Abbey, and a mysterious older man who stalks Ellen in London, (who is harboring a secret sorrow) will prove to be related to her. Let's read on and see if I was right...
Arthur’s faith in Ellen is shattered when he mistakenly thinks she is carrying on an affair with the local clergyman’s son. I have come to understand this is a common plot convention of the era; the credulous hero who is ready to believe the worst of the heroine. I’ve encountered it in several other novels, including The Children of the Abbey and Secrets Made Public. (And of course Hero and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing). Ellen forgives Arthur the first time he throws her under the reputation bus, but the second time he refuses to take her word that nothing is going on, she gives up and returns to Scotland with Arthur’s newly-married sister Adeline. Adeline’s husband Sir James seems to be harboring a guilty secret, and Ellen is surprised to hear a haunting female voice singing a plaintive air issuing from somewhere in the ruins of the castle. Then we meet the neighbors: Lord Glendore, (not to be confused with Glenmore) who is harboring a guilty secret, and his sister Lady Eloisa, who was the mysterious lady who lived near the ruined Abbey. Lady Eloisa is harboring a secret sorrow.
It’s very quiet in Scotland, but “happily for Ellen, she had resources within herself, which would never suffer her to know the horrors of ennui,” and as well, Ellen can’t go for her daily walk without seeing some strange goings-on, or meeting a mysterious stranger, like a half-crazy hermit who harbors a secret sorrow, or the older man who was stalking her in London and who came to Scotland to stalk her some more. Then Ellen realizes that Adeline must be harboring a secret sorrow and possibly a guilty secret, because she is sneaking out at night to meet a man.
All the secret sorrows and guilty secrets arise from several thwarted or unlucky love-matches. We discover that Adeline is not meeting with a lover but with her disgraced older brother who eloped with the clergyman’s daughter. The neighborhood half-crazy hermit is broken-hearted because his fiancée threw him over for a wealthier man while he was abroad.
After the death of Adeline’s husband in a riding accident, Ellen is free to search out the mysterious female voice and discovers—her own mother! Lady Ellen, the heiress of Kincardine, was locked up in the tower some sixteen years ago to punish her for supposedly having an illegitimate child, because, everybody believed Arthur’s dissolute uncle when he accused her of adultery.
This was actually upsetting to me, I confess, because it’s such a horrible thought. As Henry Tilney said, “do our laws connive” at atrocities like this? Surely to goodness this is a criminal act, even in Scotland? But nobody pays the price because Sir James is dead, and gloomy Lord Glendore, also responsible for this crime, suddenly dies. This means General Glendore, the younger son, is now the Earl of Glendore. He was the mysterious older man who was stalking Ellen. The General spent many years abroad because he believed his lovely wife was unfaithful many years ago with his dissolute best friend, and he assumes that she and their baby daughter are dead. I mean, if you can’t believe what your dissolute best friend tells you, who can you believe?
Lady Ellen is restored to him. The authoress does not give Lady Ellen any dialogue, so we don’t know what a woman who spent sixteen years in near-solitary confinement would have to say.
There are several morals to this story: The first is that mercenary marriages are bad. Parents shouldn't be tyrannical and force their offspring into marriages they don’t want. Adeline is miserable because she married Sir James when she really loved the clergyman’s son. That’s why he was secretly meeting with Ellen--to ask her to plead his case with Adeline. Now that she is a widow, society belle Lady Westmere atones for throwing over her fiancée, who became the half-crazy Scottish hermit. They reunite, presumably after he’s had a bath and a shave.
But eloping with the man you love, without parental permission, is even worse than a mercenary marriage. Selina the clergyman’s daughter dies of remorse and thunderstorms (“Heaven itself is armed against me, and denounces a dreadful vengeance on the violation of filial duty!”), and her husband, Arthur’s older brother, follows suit, but not before Ellen “administered the healing balm of consolation” to them.
With so many unhappy marital situations on display, the authoress thought to include an example of a couple who are perfectly happily married, Lady Westmere’s sister and her husband, and we can also include the older Fitzelvans, who endured some poverty in their early years but pulled through happily. And of course we have our happy ending coming up.
Finally, and most importantly, nothing but nothing is more important than a woman’s reputation for chastity, which is tricky when the men in your life are always ready to believe the worst. So, never mind about punishing anyone connected with locking up an innocent woman for 16 years, we’ve got something more important to focus on--long-hidden letters from Arthur’s dissolute uncle which prove that Lady Ellen repelled his overtures. Her reputation is restored, her daughter Ellen’s reputation is restored, Ellen forgives Arthur for not believing her—again—and they live happily ever after. Any other leftover young men and women who haven’t eloped or tried to elope (i.e., who are still alive) also find mates and get happily married.
Is there a secret message to this story, something in protest of the patriarchy? I don’t think so. Injustices are meted out by an unforgiving system to male and female alike (although the females have the worst of it). The author’s message is consistent: we must humbly accept whatever the Divine Disposer of Events sends our way, while maintaining our own integrity.
There is no information for Mrs. Isaacs from the usual bibliographic and literary sources. She did not write prefaces for her novels, so the bottom line is, I know nothing about her. A Bibliographical Guide to Anglo-Jewish History suggests that Mrs. Isaacs might be Jewish, but there is nothing in the novel to indicate this; the clergymen, churches, churchyards, and death-bed scenes, are all Christian. She published seven books, including a compilation of short stories and poems which includes a few noble titles in her list of subscribers. Looking over the list of subscribers, I can’t even tie her down to a particular part of England. She had several different publishers, including Minerva Press.
Scholar Veena Kasbekar has this to say about William Lane, the proprietor of the Minerva Press: ‘’Because of the second- or third-rate nature of his publications, Lane’s contribution to women’s literature has not been fairly gauged. Whether or not he exploited them as hack waters, he provided indigent women with a source of income by publishing their works."