Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. Click here for the first in the series.
Elizabeth Gunning Plunkett overcame an early scandal -- or perhaps capitalized on her notoriety -- to become an author. This discussion of her novel The Gypsy Countess (1799) contains spoilers.
Comparing the style, tone, and realism of Jane Austen--versus the melodrama of The Gypsy Countess -- really brings home how Austen was radically different from her contemporaries.
Having said that, I have not come to disparage The Gypsy Countess but to praise it. Two aspects of this book really deserve some credit, I think. The first is the independence and wit of the main two female characters.
Chawton House, the Center for Early Women's Writing (and former home of Jane Austen's wealthy brother) just held a virtual conference on the topic of "Adventurous Wives." The keynote address by Professor Elaine Chalus featured four real-life 18th century women who showed intrepidity and courage.
I nominate Julia, the Gypsy Countess of Gunning's story, to the list of adventurous literary wives. She, not the hero, is the one who rescues her friend Ellen from the insane asylum. Although each of the three heroines in the book is madly and deeply in love with their respective sweethearts, the men they love don’t play much of a role in the revelations of the plot. Gunning keeps them offstage for most of the story. it’s the strong relationships between the three women that are in the foreground.
Julia and her sister-in-law Rosanna are married and wealthy. This means they have more agency than an unmarried heroine. They can travel alone, (as long as they have an escort of male servants.) They can make things happen. They can generously reward the poor but honest people who help them rescue Ellen.
The other notable feature of the book is the way Gunning handles her multiple storylines. The Gipsy Countess is an epistolary novel. We learn from Julia's first letters to her brother Henry that they recently found each other after a long separation. He's going back to India and she’s agreed to write out the story of her life and send it on the next ship bound for India. This scenario is the framing device used to introduce a complicated plot, with several subplots which involve both the past and the present:
Many 18th century novels have mysteries and undisclosed secrets, usually about the true parentage of the heroine or hero, that sort of thing. But I haven’t seen a novel of this vintage that reveals the past bit by bit to explain the present in the way this novel does. Tristram Shandy has a lot of digressions, but plot isn't important in Tristram Shandy. Here, plot is paramount.
In addition to switching rapidly between the storylines, the story also switches between narrators. Julia divides the letter-writing duties with her sister-in-law; For example, in the kidnapped-by-gypsies-subplot when little Julia is rescued by Lord Ossington only to disappear the next morning, the narrator is Rosanna. This heightens the drama, because Rosanna tells the story from her point of view--she is a young girl who doesn’t know where her new friend has gone. By the way, Anyway, If Julia had told that part of the story, there would be no suspense. Later, the third heroine, young Ellen, is added to the medley of letter-writers to tell her story.
However, all this switching between plots and narrators, and alternation between the past and the present, was too much for a contemporary critic: “The first two volumes of this novel contain too much dissertation and digression; and narratives, little connected, displace each other by turns, as if for the express purpose of preventing a continuation of interest.”
Critic Godfrey Frank Singer, writing in 1933, didn’t like it either: “the intermingling of the story of the present with the story of the past becomes so confused that the reader is at a loss to make out just what is taking place.”
If you think all this is difficult on the reader, imagine what it was like for Henry, the supposed recipient of all these letters, who just wants Julia to tell him what happened after she was abducted by gypsies. Plus, halfway into the narrative, he learns that Julia’s neighbor Ellen--coincidentally--is the girl he loved and lost. And she’s disappeared without a trace. If we are tempted to skip to the end to find out what happened, I'm sure Henry must have skipped to the end of the huge bundle of letters his sister prepared for him.
But I think Elizabeth Gunning deserves credit for devising something much more complicated than a straightforward narrative or a even a narrative with a framing device or an inset story. I’ve never come across such an ambitious exposition scheme in an 18th century novel.
Singer, the 1933 critic, also adds, “Miss Gunning undoubtedly wins for herself in this novel the distinction of being the most long-winded writer in the eighteenth century after Richardson himself.” Oh, I don't know about that. Writers churning out three-volume novels for the Minerva Press, for example, had no motivation to be concise, because then they'd have to come up with more plot. Better to wring every last bit of emotion and suspense over what plot you do have. These novels of sentiment placed a lot of emphasis on the emotions of the characters, and hence, the emotional identification the reader was supposed to feel. Julia and Rosanna and Ellen often interrupt their narration to explain, at some length, that they are so excited or happy or anxious or miserable that they can scarcely write coherently to explain what has just occurred.
The emphasis on emotions means there's a lot of tears, trembling, turning of a deathly paleness, followed by cheeks turning scarlet, as the heroines (their younger, unmarried selves, that is) are covered with "confusion." These strong emotions were displayed by some of the male characters as well. As James Boswell observed: "It is peculiar to the passion of Love, that it supports with an exemption from disgrace, those weaknesses in a man which upon any other occasion would render him utterly contemptible."
Gunning’s goal wasn’t to achieve realism or probability. Her goal was to write a dramatic tale with lots of plot twists and to wring the maximum amount of emotion out of her story. And when the chips are down, Julia and Rosanna behave with courage and good sense.
If you are looking for strong, loyal, heroines in your 18th century literature, The Gypsy Countess and its author deserve respect. Gunning’s very sophisticated plot structure makes The Gypsy Countess an interesting footnote in the history of the novel.
Abduction by gypsies was the "stranger danger" of the 18th century. Incredibly, we are told that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, the "Invisible Hand" guy, was abducted by gypsies as a child. In an earlier blog post I talked about 18th century attitudes towards the Roma. In this novel, Gunning is really rather friendly toward the gypsies. Or rather, it turns out that Margaret, Queen of the Gypsies, isn’t a gypsy after all. Cassandra, the gypsy who looks after Julia as a child, is described very affectionately. There are no hard feelings over the kidnapping and no retribution is exacted.
Elizabeth Gunning moved in high society more than Austen ever did, and her backstory is as interesting and almost as improbable as the plots of her novels. As a teenager, she was involved in a mysterious scandal involving fake love letters that has never been explained. Her mother was also a novelist.
The Gypsy Countess is one of the books I highlighted in my blog post about authors who used colonialism, empire and the resultant large fortunes for plot purposes, not as a social or political commentary. India had plot value as a remote and exotic location where characters can disappear until you need them back again. In those days a trip to India took about six months. You sailed all the way down around the tip of South Africa, with a stop at St. Helena on the way there and back.
In The Gypsy Countess we hear about the cruel and selfish behaviour of several Indian “nabobs” (people who made their fortunes in India), but the cruelties described are those visited on the fair and defenseless Ellen, not cruelties to the natives of India. Gunning's criticism of Empire is very mild. One of the nabobs gets in trouble for trading on the black market. He wrote that he was “Conscious that I had not confined my efforts to acquiring wealth exactly within the bounds prescribed by the Company… though I could have named a thousand precedents who had beaten the same forbidden ground with myself.” Gunning’s readers would have understood the reference to the East India Company, the monopoly it then held on trade out of India, and the corruption endemic to the enterprise. The knock against nabobs is that they are vulgar upstarts with more money than class.
The biggest best-sellers of the 18th century were epistolary novels such as Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. But by the end of the century when The Gipsy Countess was published, the epistolary novel was dying out. For more about the epistolary novel, John Mullan and some other people who aren't John Mullan have an interesting discussion in this BBC "In Our Time" podcast.
There was one passage in The Gipsy Countess that reminded me of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, when Austen wrote, “run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint” because the habit is sadly fatal. Julia needs to give Ellen the good news that Henry is on his way-–he’s not going to India after all--but Ellen is in a feeble state after being rescued from the insane asylum. “I shall content myself with the credit of having made the communication with so much adroitness, that although my lovely sister-elect frequently changed colour, and sometimes shed tears, she neither fainted or was hysterical, of which, on both accounts, I had entertained very uneasy suspicions, her strength being in no condition to contend with such violent assailants.” If you haven’t read Austen’s parody of the sentimental novel, Love and Freindship, it’s hilarious. Austen sends up the emotionality, the elevated sentiments, and the improbable plot twists of novels of sentiment. I think she enjoyed novels like The Gipsy Countess, while laughing at them, too.
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Professor Chalus, the keynote speaker for the Adventurous Wives conference, is an expert on the life and diaries of Elizabeth Wynne Fremantle. Betsey Fremantle and her husband have a walk-on part in my novella, Shelley and the Unknown Lady, and I wish I could have found a way to include their backstory. Betsy was living with her family in Livorno, Italy, when Napoleon invaded. The family was rescued by Captain Thomas Fremantle and and he and Betsey were married the following year.