This has been the case in many novels, some of which I’ve reviewed here, including: Anna, or Memoirs of a Welch Heiress (1785), Fanny or the Deserted Daughter (1792), Edward or various views of Human Nature (1798), Glenmore Abbey (1805), and There is a Secret, Find it Out! (1808). Therefore, I wanted to check out the novel titled Eliza Willis or History of a Natural Daughter to see if Eliza really was a natural daughter, or the misplaced daughter of an Earl, as these foundlings usually turn out to be. And yes, Emily Willis discovers who her parents are, and they are both from good families. But--shocker!-- they never got married. Mom gave birth in secret and went on to marry someone else.
This novel then, presents as its heroine a girl from the wrong side of the blanket, who must contend with being treated as being sexually available on account of her low status, who nonetheless is rewarded with a wealthy baronet for her husband. It is another entry into the genre of novels which center around chastity and reputation.
While some characters in the book (the fools and villains) speak disparagingly of Emily because she is illegitimate, others stand up for her. Her chief confidante and mentor, Mrs. Easy, declares: “As to your Birth, there is nothing particular in it. You are blameless…”
Clearly, the anonymous author does not believe in visiting the sins of the father (or the mother, because of course women are punished more severely than men) on the innocent child, and the story argues for kinder social attitudes towards illegitimate children.
Emily Willis is an intelligent and sensitive (but not too sentimental) heroine. We are introduced to her in a refreshingly different way; instead of leaving it all to the omniscient narrator, we see Emily through the eyes of Mrs. Easy, an intelligent widow of modest means who shares a mail coach with Emily and the family appointed to be her guardians. The Hippocrenes are presented (sometimes at over-length) as a comical family but they are also thieves who make away with Emily’s one thousand dollar inheritance from her foster-mother Mrs. Dawson. This sets up the pattern for the book, in which the brisk forward movement of the plot is interrupted by long comical dialogues between various groups of eccentric characters.
Our heroine is no shrinking violet. She wants to find a job; she knows she must work. Mrs. Easy counsels her against going into business or getting a job in a shop because she is too young and pretty: “That face of yours would subject you to a thousand Inconveniencies in such an exposed way of Life.” Mrs. Easy finds her a position as a companion in the home of the elderly and aristocratic Mrs. Freelove.
The author plays with our expectations where Mrs. Easy is concerned. Is she a panderer or is there some kind of plot afoot? Once Emily goes to Mrs. Freelove’s, Mrs. Easy no longer answers Emily’s letters—and she needs help because the usual problem which afflicts unprotected heroines arises—Emily's beauty is her curse. Because of her beauty, elegance, and charm, she is propositioned by well-born gentlemen, two of them in fact: Sir George Freelove, a baronet, and Lord B_____, an earl.
Here’s the author’s description of Sir George: “Sir George Freelove was about Three-and-twenty, and exceeding handsome; well-featur’d, well-complexion’d, and well-made; strong without awkwardness, and delicate without Effeminacy; neither a Fribble nor a Bruiser.”
Sir George had tried the good ol’ “the marriage ceremony is just priestcraft” line on Emily, but instead of fainting and weeping, Emily replied with spirit:
“'Pray, Sir, if you had a Sister in my Situation, would you chuse to have her united to a Man in an illegal Manner?'
'What have you and I to do with custom?... Come my Angel,' continued he, once more seizing her Hand, 'you was not made to be a Slave to that tyrant Custom….'
'You and I, Sir George,’ said Emily, with more Haughtiness than she had ever assumed, ‘are of a different Opinion on this Subject: I am neither to be lulled by Flattery, nor out-witted by Sophistry. I am determined to be Virtuous in the strict Acceptation of the Word…'”
Jealous servants and a jealous female house guest conspire to paint Emily as a designing adventuress, even though she resolutely turned down both men. Mrs. Freelove abruptly dismisses her.
Back in London, Emily discovers the Hippocrenes have absconded to Ireland. Though Emily sheds a few tears at finding herself abandoned and almost penniless, she resolutely carries on, finds some work sewing shirts, and fortunately reconnects with Mrs. Easy. (It turns out a servant was lazy about checking and forwarding Mrs. Easy’s letters to her.) Mrs. Easy is a loyal friend and confidante for Emily, indeed the only one she has in the world.
Emily finds a new situation with a new comical couple--with the Hippocrenes, the joke was that they both aspired to be playwrights, the joke here is that Mrs. Languish is a hypochondriac. Emily has plenty of time to think wistfully about Sir George, the baronet, because even though she repulsed his overtures, he has won her heart. Sir George can’t forget Emily either, and he writes to her, proposing marriage. She nobly turns down the offer to escape from her life of penury because of the social gulf between them; she knows his relatives would abhor the match and she fears he himself might come to regret it one day.
Then a guest, Lady Coverley, comes to visit Mr. and Mrs. Languish. She falls ill, and Emily helps nurse her. When Lady Coverley learns Emily was raised by a woman named Mrs. Dawson, she confesses that she (Lady Coverley, that is) is Emily’s mother! Admitting to her early indiscretion is enough to send Mrs. Coverley raving mad with remorse and guilt, and then she dies. At least Emily has learned the name of her father--Melvile-- though she has lost her mother. By punishing Lady Coverley with death, the author condemns the creation of illegitimate children without placing the stigma on the child.
Emily’s nerves have had quite a shock, so she resigns her job and finds another home with an old schoolfellow who is on the point of marriage with Mr. Frankair. Emily becomes their permanent houseguest, and thereby meets the neighbours, including Colonel Melvile, a wealthy man in his mid-forties. Melvile, did you say?
Emily’s aunt-in-law and one of her cousins are greatly disappointed when their rich, single, uncle suddenly has an heir, and they object on the grounds of her illegitimacy: “’Aye’, said my Lady, ‘it will bring a pretty Scandal on the Family indeed’…’See her indeed,’ said Jenny, ‘No... I hope you will never consent to that, I dare say she’s an impudent Thing, and not fit to keep us Company.’ ‘No Child,’ said my Lady, ‘I hope I have given you a better Education, than to make you Company for such Wretches: But your Father’s a Fool, and wants to make one of me…’” (Aunt Melvile is one of three wives in this story who openly disparage and quarrel with their husband, which to me provides a counterpoint to the ‘women are slaves of the patriarchy’ interpretations of the past).
Now that Emily is an heiress and recognized by her father, she can accept Sir George’s proposal of marriage. Sir George handsomely declares that he was attracted to her for her beauty but fell in love with her mind and has been reformed by her principles. Emily pardons everyone who has wrong her. Mrs. Freelove, the aunt of the baronet, is so impressed that she gives her blessing with thee/thou pronouns: “thou art worthy to be my Niece—thy illegitimacy shall be no Obstacle, since thy Father and Mother sprung from such good Families.” We finish off with a wedding, and a comical reintroduction of the Hippocrenes, who are down on their luck.
This was probably my favorite foundling story that I’ve read so far. We can also categorize it as “reformed rake” story because Sir George was adamantly opposed to marriage before he met Emily, but he transformed into a love-sick swain. He also indignantly rejects a friend who suggests that he slip some laudanum in Emily’s wine and have his way with her. Their conversation is one which I will not repeat here, as it was rather shockingly graphic as compared to Austen.
In Emma, Harriet Smith, with only beauty and a sweet manner to recommend her, could not aspire to marriage to a baronet, as even Emma must acknowledge once it is revealed that she is a tradesman's daughter: “Such was the blood of gentility which Emma had formerly been so ready to vouch for!—It was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman: but what a connexion had she been preparing for Mr. Knightley—or for the Churchills—or even for Mr. Elton!—The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed.” Emily has both the nobility and wealth, not to mention the genteel education, that Harriet lacks.
At any rate, this is one 18th century novel that I would recommend reading for pleasure, as opposed to purely for research, even if the comic dialogues went on too long for my liking; the writer handled her/her story well and her heroine is sympathetic and likeable.
So far as I know, the true identity of the anonymous author has never been discovered. S/he also wrote: Memoirs of a Coquet; Or the History of Miss Harriot Airy (1765). Emily Willis stayed in print for several decades. Emily Willis is not to be confused with the 1799 novel The natural daughter: with portraits of the Leadenhead family.
As I mentioned, we meet an assortment of characters who sport various faults and foibles who engage in extended dialogues. This gallery of grotesques, says The Critical Review, are “such as common life daily furnishes, [though] that of Hippocrene and his wife are strained rather a little too high.” However, the reviewer commends the “natural manner” of these commentaries in the story.
Zunshine, Lisa. Bastards and Foundlings: Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-century England. Ohio State University Press, 2005.
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