Clutching My Pearls is my ongoing blog series about my take on Jane Austen’s beliefs and ideas, as based on her novels. I’ve also been blogging about now-obscure female authors of the long 18th century. For more, click "Authoresses" on the menu at right. Click here for the first in the series.
- She read Louisa, or the Cottage on the Moor, because she parodies it in her juvenile fiction Love and Freindship.
- I believe Austen borrowed two plot devices from The Farmer of Inglewood Forest for Sanditon, and
- I contend that a beloved character in Persuasion owes much to a character in another Helme novel.
I'll follow up on that soon.
The difficulties facing women writers
Many scholars interpret Jane Austen's "silent years" in Bath and Southampton as resulting from her social and domestic obligations and the lack of a congenial atmosphere in which to write.
This is well known to my fellow Austenites, and I hope I don't offend them when I suggest that Elizabeth Helme--and many others like her--could not wait for a congenial atmosphere to write. They had to feed their families and many knew dire poverty. Charlotte Smith actually spent time in debtors' prison because of her husband's debts, as did playwright Maria Barrell.
Helme had five children, worked as a teacher, produced ten novels and as many non-fiction works, as well as doing translation work in French and German. But little is known about her life. We have a rare glimpse of Helme in her preface to Clara and Emmeline, in which Helme referred to a speech that actress Sarah Siddons made when she left Bath for London. Siddons told the audience that her children were “three reasons... that bear me from your side." Helme wrote, “I have five as powerful reasons to induce me to write," adding that in addition she had "a natural inclination for the employ."
Mrs. Siddons acting in "Isabella" with her son, detail, National Portrait Gallery
Helme was one of those who became a prolific author. She wrote for the Minerva Press, which was not a prestigious publishing house, but one which "catered to the popular taste" for the sensational and the gothic, according to A Literary History of England. Despite her success, she was forced to turn to the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance in 1801 and again two years later. The Fund was a private charity set up to provide authors with temporary emergency assistance. Beneficiaries of the Fund included Thomas Coleridge and Robbie Burns' widow.
One of Helme's letters to the Fund survives, dated October, 1803.
“Gentlemen: Sinking under mental and bodily evils, I have no recourse but to throw myself on your humanity... for seventeen years I have written for the public, and by that means supported myself respectably, and materially assisted a large family, but a very close application for the last three years, rendered necessary by the failure of all other [financial] means, have entirely destroyed my health… [and] reduced me to the painful necessity of making this application..."
Helme received a grant of ten pounds from the Fund in 1801 and again in 1803 at a time when the average grant was for eight pounds, equal to the annual wages of a poor labourer. Receiving ten pounds for a letter was the best return on the investment of her writing time that Helme ever knew. We can be pretty certain Helme's payments from her publisher did not reflect the hours of effort it took to write a novel. Minerva Press paid as little as twenty or even just ten pounds for a manuscript! And if she had held out for more money--well, there were dozens of other aspiring novelists and translators to take her place. As scholar Clare Brant remarks in a review of a book about female authors of this era, "profits for authors were generally pitiful." But the work could be done at home, and writing was one of the few things genteel women could do.
As scholar Kate Scarth points out, Helme's "works did well critically and commercially" even though she has now sunk into obscurity. Scarth's podcast about Helme reviews what little is known about her life.
As I've previously pointed out, if you are interested in abolition and slavery in Austen's time, and you've been told novel-writers of the period shied away from the topic, you should know about The Farmer of Inglewood Forest.
Helme is unequivocally anti-slavery. The Farmer includes depictions of enslavement, branding, flogging, the rape and murder of a female slave, and uprisings in which planters are killed. Two emancipated Africans, Felix and Julia, have agency in the novel. They openly condemn their former masters and they criticize English society. And this is just a sub-plot in the middle of a lot of other dramatic plot threads.
Some modern readers might be put off by the emphasis on female chastity and the way titillating scenes of vice alternate with exhortations to virtue. But we must bear in mind that Helme was writing to a market, and reviewers of the day praised books that stressed morality.
Although Helme died in utter poverty, The Farmer of Inglewood Forest went on selling well for decades. It was a standard work, issued again and again in cheap editions. A condescending 1854 editorial in The Ladies Companion mentioned The Farmer in its list of "wild and overdrawn" melodramas favoured by the working class: “we knew that in the twilight of the summer evening or round the wood-fire on the cottage-hearths, the pages of the Cottage on the Cliff, the Farmer of Inglewood Forest, the GIpsey Mother, or some other equally euphoniously-named story, was stirring the dead-locked, matter-of-fact stolidity and supineness of the bucolic brain with a ray of fancy and romance.”
The main theme of The Farmer is virtue versus vice. A brother and sister raised in the country by virtuous parents are seduced by the glittering lures of London. The young daughter in particular is taken in by the blandishments of a "new age" thinker. She abandons Christian morality and is seduced (groomed, I think we would say) by her lover. Elizabeth Helme, the author, arranges dire consequences for her.
I think Helme must have chosen the surname "Godwin" for a reason. William Godwin was, at the time, a very well-known name. He was an anarchist philosopher, and he was best known for his belief that marriage and monogamy were artificial social constructs which should be done away with. He was also the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft. He married her when she became pregnant with his child. They apologized to their radical friends for backsliding on their principles, but the fact was that illegitimacy was a terrible social burden to place on a child. At any rate, naming the farm family "Godwin" is surely intended to bring William Godwin to mind.
I have argued that there is no compelling reason to believe that Mansfield Park is named after Lord Mansfield, the chief justice whose legal ruling led to the end of slavery within the British Isles. As I've said, why name a mansion owned by the slave-owning Bertrams after Lord Mansfield? The Bertrams don't lose the house; they aren't punished as a result of owning slaves. So I don't see what the message is. (See here for more speculation about the choice of "Mansfield").
But here, I must admit, Helme has named her virtuous Christian family with a sly allusion to a philosopher whose ideas were widely condemned at the time. It's a counter-example to my argument that Austen would not give the name of an abolitionist to the home of a slave-owning family.
I discuss Helme's novel Modern Times here. More about Helme to come.
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Brant, Clare, review of Women Writing About Money, in The Review of English Studies, Volume XLVIII, Issue 190, May 1997, Pages 259–261
Baugh, A. (Ed.). (1959). A Literary History of England Vol. 4 (2nd ed.). Routledge. Two quotes:
"In the sub-literary depths of romanticism there were hundreds of stories in imitation of Mrs. Radcliffe, Lewis, and the horror-mongers of the Continent. Here iniquity rioted in ruined castles and dim oratories and crypts and dungeons, where monstrous villains oppressed the innocent, and ghosts walked, and demons lured their victims to destruction. But into these noisome fastnesses we need not descend."
"The happiest and most productive years in the life of Jane Austen were passed in two small towns of Hampshire... In the uncongenial atmosphere of Bath she accomplished little; nor were the three years in Southampton, where, after her father's death, she lived with her mother, more fruitful. Not until she breathed again the congenial air of the provincial town of Chawton did the creative instinct reassert itself."
Cross, Nigel. Authors and the Literary Fund. Thesis. 1980. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1317590/1/254288.pdf
Very interesting reading!
Levy, Michelle and Irwin, Reese, "The Female Authors of Cadell and Davies," in Women's Literary Networks and Romanticism : A Tribe of Authoresses. Liverpool University Press, 2017.