Creating a perfect heroine is an artistic challenge. First, without faults to overcome, it’s hard for a character to have a character arc. The perfect heroine has to struggle against circumstances that are none of her own making – she is an orphan, or an outcast, she is treated unjustly, she is misunderstood, she is the victim of jealousy or selfishness. And if she is a perfect 18th century female, it’s hard to give her any agency. She can’t travel on her own or earn her own money or give anybody a dressing-down. More typically, the 18th-century heroine weeps her way through her travails until she gets to her happy ending. However, I’ve recently encountered two heroines who are not entirely ridiculous: one is Adela Cleveland in Sarah Burney’s Traits of Nature (1812) and the other is the mother in Jane West’s The Advantages of Education (1793).
Sarah Burney is the half-sister of the more famous Fanny Burney. “Yet her [own] literary achievement is not inconsiderable,” as scholar Lorna J. Clark points out. Burney published “five works between 1796 and 1839 which sold well, [including Clarentine], one of which was a bestseller, several of which ran to second editions, were translated into French and German, and pirated abroad.” In other words, she outsold Jane Austen in her time.
Adela in Traits of Nature is the daughter of a broken marriage. Her vengeful father banishes little Adela to the distant home of a kindly clergyman. Her mother’s disgrace, and the hint of illegitimacy, hang over Adela’s head. She grows up to be beautiful, principled, intelligent, kind, and accomplished. Through no fault of her own, she is mistreated wherever she goes. Her reunion with her mother goes badly because a free-loading female friend insists on reading naughty poetry in the evening. The mother becomes cold and resentful when she senses Adela's disapproval. “Adela grieved at these symptoms of diminished affection [from her mother]; but she could not, even in her humblest moments, condemn herself... and was persuaded, that whatever might be the rights and privileges of a parent, it was impossible they should be so unlimited as to authorize the contamination of that mental purity which it was every woman’s duty to preserve unblemished…."
Adela remains as dutiful as she possibly can toward such an unworthy parent: "She considered it as an indispensable duty to silence every murmur, and submit to every discomfort… Wearily and heavily, therefore, now dragged on her hours, each of which, except those devoted to exercise and charitable visits. acquired augmented bitterness…”
Adela goes to visit her London cousins; the mother and oldest daughter also turn on her. Our heroine's behavior is irreproachable, but cousin Jemima is jealous because Lord Ennerdale, (Adela's childhood sweetheart) prefers Adela to her. Adela stands up for herself, firmly and with dignity. "But [Adela's] unshaken self-command, which could neither be incited to tears by their injustice, nor provoked to passion by their acrimony, exasperated their pride beyond all bounds."
In the third volume, Adela’s sister presses her into service to help nurse Lord Ennerdale's ailing son. (Lord Ennerdale is a widower.) Adela temporarily moves into the London home of Lord Ennerdale’s sister-in-law to lend a hand. This brings more jealousy, snobbery, and venom down on her head:
“'And you, Miss Cleveland. What motive instigated you to so much solicitude?'
"Adela fancied that this question was asked with a lurking sneer… Adela again raised her eyes from her work, and with the most petrifying coldness, answered: 'I shall be in this house but a very short time longer; my motives for remaining in it, I have frankly acknowledged, yet, even if your Ladyship discredits them, I am entitled, as the guest of your daughter, to hope that you will spare me any insinuations... '“
The horrid people she has to deal with can only push Adela so far before she pushes back.
Unable to marry Lord Ennerdale because her brother hates him, Adela is pressured by her father to marry a man she doesn't love. Dad's a horrible person, but she keeps trying to win his love and respect. By modern standards Adela would be a masochist to put up with the treatment she receives from her father and brother. By 18th-century heroine standards, she is a tower of strength.
After five volumes, Adela finally gets her happy ending.
In Jane West’s The Advantages of Education, (1793) Maria Williams is the young heroine, but her mother is far more interesting. Perhaps I shouldn't define Mrs. Williams as a heroine since she does not marry at the end of the novel, but she has agency and she acts heroically. A widow with a modest income, she is loving, intelligent, prudent, upright and perceptive.
Mrs. Williams's own marriage was not happy, but she stayed loyal to her husband ‘til death did them part. Her daughter's boarding school education didn't do much for her except give her vain and frivolous friends. So Mrs. Williams starts educating her at home. She trains her daughter to be well-read, domestically inclined, and benevolent, like herself.
Maria falls for Sir Henry, a handsome baronet, who (unknown to her) has already seduced and abandoned another respectable young lady. But this Willoughby-like character arouses the mother’s suspicions—why did he come into the neighbourhood under a false name? Afraid that Maria might elope with him, she manages to keep him at arm’s length, while still showing respect for her daughter’s feelings.
“Mrs. Williams expressed her surprise, that the pain of injured honor which he appeared so strongly to feel, would allow him to employ his thoughts or time, on any object but its vindication.” (So why are you hanging around my daughter?).
She then suggests that he owes it to himself and his family to look elsewhere for a wife: “Permit me to plead the cause of that family, of whose honour and splendour you have confessed yourself to be so tenacious… Ladies, whose high birth merit your alliance, may, I doubt not, be found, who, to all Maria’s good qualities, can unite the essential requirements which she [doesn't have], I mean rank and fortune… “
Sir Henry protests that he only wants the lovely Maria, and hang rank and fortune, but he is unable to marry openly. His old uncle, who controls his inheritance, won’t allow it – but that uncle will soon be dead, so really, there is nothing to wait for.
“I will not presume to dictate your line of conduct,” Mrs. Williams answers, “but I feel it inconsistent with my own notions of honour, to encourage your addresses [to my daughter], while you urge the necessity of mystery and concealment.”
Sir Henry impulsively promises to get his uncle’s permission. (There is no uncle, and he plans to bring in an imposter and hold a fake marriage ceremony.)
“But pray, sir, in what part of England does this gentleman reside?”
“He generally spent his time in travelling, and seldom stayed long in any place.”
“Indeed, that restlessness of disposition is rather extraordinary, when we consider his age and infirmities.”
Sir Henry, a little embarrassed, answered, “that such a method of life was prescribed by his physicians.”
“His illness then must be of a different kind to those complaints with which old people are generally troubled…”
Before long, Sir Henry is exposed, and Maria marries a worthier man.
Another striking difference for me between Austen and the others is the quality of the writing. This morning I popped open Northanger Abbey, considered to be Austen's slightest work, to confirm a quotation, and was immediately basking in the hilarious description of Isabella Thorpe's matrimonial ambitions and Catherine's naïve reactions.
Reading the works of some of Austen's contemporaries has been quite an eye-opener for me, in terms of comparing Austen's techniques as well as her characters. I’ll never look at Mary Bennet the same way again, for example, and I'll get back to that in future posts.
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In A Marriage of Attachment, Julia Bertram, a heroine-in-waiting, actually comes to appreciate Fanny Price's virtues and she takes a more critical look at her own past selfishness. Click here for more about my Mansfield Trilogy.
A.E. Walnofer's Out of the Bower features two intelligent young heroines who must act for themselves. Set in the seamier side of London during the Regency period, the tale also features a red-headed hero!