Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. The opinions are mine, but I don't claim originality. Click here for the first in the series. For more about other female writers of Austen's time, click the "Authoresses" tag in the Categories list to the right.
She read novels with “avidity” and wrote “incredibly perceptive send-ups of their tics and tropes,” such as the fainting heroine. If you haven't read Austen's juvenile burlesque of the sentimental novel, Love and Freindship, it's hilarious!
Austen loved novels, but she was also developing her ideas about what she wanted to avoid in her own novels. While she enjoyed a good sentimental novel, it seems that she decided very early on that writing sentimental novels with weeping heroines was not for her.
In contrast to the weepy, fainting, heroines of sentimental novels, it is notable how seldom Austen's heroines cry--and it's her sillier female characters who are rendered helpless by a crisis, as for example Henrietta and Mary Musgrove when Louisa falls off the Cobb in Persuasion.
Recently, I started in on the now-obscure novel Constance (1785), under the impression that it was written by Eliza Kirkham Mathews, an author I wanted to write a blog post about. I was well into the novel when I learned that Professor Jan Fergus had studied the account-books of the publisher and has shown that, in fact, Mathews is not the author of Constance.
If I had planned to pick a Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins novel to read, I would have started with Rosanne, because we have Jane Austen's review of it: 'We have got "Rosanne" in our Society, and find it much as you describe it; very good and clever, but tedious. Mrs. Hawkins' great excellence is on serious subjects. There are some very delightful conversations and reflections on religion: but on lighter topics I think she falls into many absurdities...There are a thousand improbabilities in the story.' (Having been criticized for an improbability in my first novel, I do feel for Ms. Hawkins here.)
So this blog post will not be about Eliza Kirkham Mathews, but having gotten so far into the novel, I skimmed on to the end. Despite the occasional tediousness, I wanted to find out how Constance ended!
Farnford is willing to go to any lengths to obtain Constance's hand in marriage. He travels to her father’s estate and sweet-talks her dad (who needs money) into giving his consent to the match. Lord Farnford triumphantly brings dad's letter back to London and gives it to Constance.
After Constance has a good cry (naturally), she indignantly tells him, with a magisterial sentence that spools out into clause after clause: “If your lordship could be mean enough to rely on my father’s authority, you would soon see your error, he has an undoubted right to control all my actions, but he can have no dominion over my mind, nor will he, I am convinced, one moment urge the purport of his letter, when he knows how contrary it is to my inclination—his parental anxiety for my happiness, and the description of specious appearances have misled him; he will soon be better informed, and I hope, as you thought his patronage necessary in this influence, you will pay equal deference to his authority when he desires you to desist; your lordship was not ignorant of my opinion on the subject, and I must tell you that I cannot look on this privately obtaining the sanction of his approbation as any other than a very unhandsome method of endeavouring to impose on my judgement, and such as no gentleman would have adopted: it has however failed, and ever will fail.”
I enjoyed Constance's speeches in the first volume; by the third, the conversations between Farnford and Constance become tedious and interminable and made me wish she would just bash him over the head with a heavy vase. In this respect, Hawkins is like Richardson. We recall Henry Austen saying of his sister: "Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in Sir Charles Grandison, gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst [Austen's] taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative."
Further, if you are contemplating inviting a heroine like Constance to be your house guest, you might want to think again, because of the drama she brings in her wake. Like Amelia Mansfield, she’ll take over your well-ordered peaceful life with crises, weeping, fainting spells and illnesses which will have you summoning physicians and clergyman at all hours, when you were hoping for a quiet evening in with a pot of tea and a book.
No amount of weeping, fainting, or falling into convulsions deprives our heroine of her striking beauty. Remember how Sir Thomas decided not to take Fanny Price down to see Henry Crawford: "when he looked at his niece, and saw the state of feature and complexion which her crying had brought her into, he thought there might be as much lost as gained by an immediate interview."
Volume 4 is devoted to cleaning up the mess and reuniting Constance with Lord Clahorne. This includes a long letter of apology/confession from Lord Farnford, including a review of the deceptions he engaged in to come between Constance and Lord Clahorne.
If Sense & Sensibility was originally an epistolary novel, as scholars believe, then Willoughby's dramatic explanation/apology would likewise have been a letter in the original version, a long monologue without Elinor's interjections.
There is no resemblance between Farnford's letter and Willoughby's speech to Elinor, and I don't mean to imply that Austen borrowed the idea from Constance. The situations and the transgressions are different. But there are similarities. Both Marianne and Constance extended forgiveness, something the modern reader is not so likely to do--well, I'm not inclined to do, at any rate. In Constance's case she was thinking in explicitly Christian terms of Farnford's redemption and salvation. Another similarity is that neither Willoughby's confession nor Farnford's letter are essential to the denouement of their respective novels.
Four volumes gives Ms. Hawkins enough time and space to bring her heroine and hero to the brink of death and back, and nearly kill off her bad guy as well. Basically we have our cake and eat it too; we nearly have a tragic ending with three dead people, followed by a happy ending with two marriages, plus a restored fortune.
Hawkins must have been encouraged with the reviews she got for her debut novel. The Monthly Review said Constance was “one of the best-written productions of this sort that has appeared since Cecilia.” The Critical Review said: “In this artless narrative, the incidents are numerous and striking, the situations interesting and pathetic, the morality unexceptionable [that is, no-one would take exception to the moral lessons].”
In my next series of posts, I'll be looking at the debate, one might say a moral panic, around the idea that novels should include moral lessons.
In an earlier quote of Hawkins I referenced, she is very sympathetic to the situation of “fallen woman.” Likewise, there are two fallen women in Constance, and the heroine behaves with compassion toward them and wants to hold the guilty men accountable.
Update: When I wrote this I contended that Willoughby's dramatic appearance to justify himself in Sense & Sensibility was not necessary to the plot. I think I overlooked the main point he was making, and I discuss it here.
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Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins (1759-1835) acted as her father’s secretary when she was still a child. He was a magistrate, and the first biographer of Samuel Johnson (although his book was severely panned by the critics, unlike Boswell's). Hawkins is identified as a conservative writer. She weighed in on the French Revolution debates of the late 18th century. Perhaps her first-hand experience of the Gordon Riots of 1780 in London in made her especially wary of populist uprisings. Also, she spoke out sharply against the exploitation of India, which goes to show that the issues of slavery and colonialism crossed the left-right divide. Through her father, she knew many of the prominent people of the 18th century, including Johnson, and she wrote several books of anecdotes about them. The Twickenham Museum describes her as "a local gossip." There is a memorial plaque to her and her brother in St. Mary's church, Twickenham. I could not find a portrait of her, but she is described as being very tall, with strong features.