Austen scholars: “Austen’s novels are preoccupied with class and wealth in England!”
Silver Fork novelists: “Hold my beer.”
“There is something, perhaps, of Jane Austen’s influence to be traced in the novels of Catherine Grace Gore,” says the 1915 edition of the Cambridge History of English Literature. Yes, Gore has collected together her three or four families in a country village, except for the fact that the families are of higher rank and wealth than you typically find in Austen.
We have Mrs. Armytage, a Yorkshire widow who has the full control of her late father’s and late husband’s lands and wealth. She is an assiduous manager of her property, a competent landlord, and benevolent patroness of many charities, but she is proud, controlling, and inflexible.
Her son and heir Arthur is good-natured but thoughtless. He makes an impulsive marriage to a pretty girl from a much lower social class, which creates a breach between himself and his mother, especially when the new bride's vulgar relatives show up uninvited. Add to the mix an envious gossiping neighbour, and you have a slow-motion train wreck which I found pretty engrossing for the first two-thirds of the novel.
Read on to spot the hints of Austen to be found in Mrs. Armytage:
Just as with Austen, (and scads of other novelists) we have critical, satirical portraits of the upper class. Just as with Austen, we see people who live up to the responsibilities of their rank and position, and others who do not. Mrs. Armytage is an upholder of the traditional values of the squirearchy. She has no use for the Duchess of Spalding, a maneuvering socialite whose daughters are in the mold of Miss Bingley. The decadent Spaldings are set against the upright Duke of Rotheram and his family and the rustic, old-fashioned Maranham sisters, each of whom represents a different caricature of spinsterhood: the Amazon, the female pedant, and the invalid.
The Maranham spinsters have a mysterious and beautiful ward living with them. A veil of mystery hangs over the lovely Rosamund Devenport's parentage. Her beauty and simplicity enchants the foppish son of the Duke of Spalding, but it’s not easy to get past the three spinsters. Over lunch, the oldest sister testily informs him: “We do not boast, like your mother, the Duchess, six acres of glass in our garden… (but) we can produce an apricot worth eating. The overgrown, washy things your famous Horticultural Societies are poisoning the country with, appear to my palate little better than pumpkins…”
The subtitle of the book, after all, is Female Domination, and it is clear that female domination is not a good thing. Mrs. Armytage’s son and daughter are adults, but they are treated like children. The Duchess of Spalding dominates her husband to such an extent that he withdraws from family life, like Mr. Bennet but without the humour. He only takes a part in the narrative when his son asks him to bless his marriage with Rosamund Devenport, the girl of unknown parentage. The Duke forbids the match because of his “pride and prejudices,” until Rosamund's dramatic backstory is finally explained.
Mrs. Armytage’s gentle daughter Sophia and a deserving young man (kept offstage until the end of the novel) are another ill-starred couple, but they don't get a happy ending. Sophia’s suitor doesn’t have enough money to propose marriage. Sophia is doomed to suffer “disappointed hopes” and “blighted affections.” The kindly old vicar, Dr. Grant, consoles and supports her.
So is this novel a critique of the snobbery of the upper classes and the stultifying restrictions of society? Not unequivocally. Just as with Austen, we also have scathing portraits of social climbers, people from the lower ranks who only want to be accepted by the upper ranks. They are not presented as sympathetic figures merely by virtue of being from the middling classes. Marian, the daughter-in-law Mrs. Armytage deplores, has an uncle who is a West Indian planter and another relative who is a Bristol merchant. Both of these characters represent the type of nouveau riche vulgarity that makes Mrs. Armytage shiver.
There is also a rich planter from the Southern United States who comes for a visit and becomes enamored with the idea of marrying into the nobility, although he is so unaccustomed to life in English country-houses that he mistakes a duke for an upper servant. But the time we spend with the Spaldings at Spalding castle dragged for me: especially the vapid conversations of the foppish Spalding son and the other houseguests.
There are some comic touches but overall, the tone of Mrs. Armytage is darker and a little more didactic than Austen.
I thought the surprise visit of Marian's father to Mrs. Armytage's manor was a masterpiece of psychological realism, and I liked the portrayal of her household of ancient servants who shuffle slowly along the corridors of the stately home while registering their approval or disapproval of events.
A contemporary reviewer said of Catherine Gore: "[She delineates] with truth and delicacy, those lighter shades of character by which society is checquered. In her fine appreciation of character, we are reminded of Miss Austen."
What I admired about the first two volumes of Mrs. Armytage was the fact that we saw flawed human beings contending with a difficult situation. The title character has her faults, but so does her son Arthur. He is a coward who uses his sister Sophia to bear the brunt of parental displeasure. Instead of escorting his new wife to present her to his mother, Arthur sends Marian all by herself, to introduce herself, while he lingers behind in the village. Then, having obtained this wife, with whom he was so infatuated during their courtship, he leaves her to live with her formidable mother-in-law for weeks and months at a time.
But after the character-driven action of the first two volumes, Gore resorted to melodrama to wind up her storylines. Mrs. Armytage goes from being domineering to being insanely unreasonable. A rich uncle appears out of nowhere to leave his fortune to Sophia's deserving young man; he writes to ask for her hand but Mrs. Armytage destroys the letter. Broken-hearted Sophia dies of Wasting Victorian Heroine Disease (aka consumption). Then Mrs. Armytage is so eager to publicly condemn her daughter-in-law for a perceived indiscretion (of which she is innocent) that she is deaf to the voice of reason.
A last will and testament comes to light which overthrows Mrs. Armytage's entire world; she flees to the continent. Her son and her daughter-in-law suddenly become highly-principled and unselfish. They go searching for her and find her dying in Italy. Arthur and Marian arrive unexpectedly at her villa in the middle of the night; Mrs. Armytage fears that she is going to die in a home invasion:
“With hasty steps, the intruders traversed the floor, and approached her; while, overcome by weakness, she sank into a chair under the expectation of an assailing arm—perhaps a mortal blow! A single humble and heartfelt ejaculation to Heaven avowed her apprehensions and her resignation.
“But the arm that encircled her was no hostile arm—the sobs that reached her ear burst from no alien bosom. It was her son—her afflicted son—who was hanging over her! It was Marian who was kneeling at her feet!
“‘Will you receive us?—will you accept us!’ -–faltered Arthur, again embracing her.
“A kiss imprinted on his clasped hands, and the burning tears that fell upon them, silently avouched the repentance and the renewed affections of his mother!”
An 1839 appraisal of Catherine Gore in the Dublin Review, (also quoted above), says: "We consider Mrs. Gore to be one of the most elegant and unexceptionable of the female writers of the present day; her style is easy and graceful, the plot of her stories simple, and yet not careless, and the tendency of her works almost always excellent;—professedly a moral writer, she has not marred her own purpose by taking a too ambitious line."
She was a prolific novelist, or, as another reviewer -- who was not a fan -- complained, "A year has scarcely elapsed, and this voluminously bad writer inflicts another book upon the public." This reviewer, writing for the Monthly Review, thought Gore's novels were "over-rated." He called Mrs. Armytage “a work without interest, incident, or even good writing to recommend it.” He faulted her novels for “paucity of incident, trifling details of the most uninteresting events, elaborate attempts at description, and interminable conversations.”
I think it's worth noting that Catherine Gore was the chief breadwinner of her family, churning out her novels and short stories while raising ten children. That alone should earn her some respect, as far as I'm concerned. Click here for a fuller biography of this remarkable woman.
A modern scholar of the silver fork novel, Edward Copeland, argues that in fact, Mrs. Armytage is a book with layers. It's really an extended allegory about Whig and Tory politics. “Arthur, liberal and generous in spirit and expansive in his sense of class… is a modern Whig… Arthur’s eventual triumph over the narrow principles of his old-style Whig mother… is an example to the nation." The whole thing is symbolic and “thoroughly political.”
Well, yes, this is a novel with a message, but personally, I think when a novelist gives the subtitle Female Domination to a book, it means that her book is about female domination. In addition to showing the consequences of female domination, Gore also explains the cause -- an explanation that wouldn't be necessary if she was just using her title character as an allegorical stand-in for old-style Whigs. Gore, like many other novelists of the era, editorialized about the unfortunate consequences of faulty education -- Mrs. Armytage's faults can be traced to her girlhood. An only child with a willful temper, her moral education was deficient:
She was taught to ride, to run, to settle with the steward and housekeeper, to parley with the farmers, to dispute with the tax-gatherers. A little Latin, and a great deal of arithmetic, bounded her accomplishments. Of music she knew nothing… Law and theology, Blackstone and Tillotson, were the studies inculcated by her preceptor, the curate of the parish… (who) discerned in the mind of his pupil a fund of sound and sober sense; and doubted not that it would in time avail to reform her faults of character.”
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Final content advisory for anyone thinking of reading this novel: Mrs. Gore's novels, like most novels of the time, upheld the values of morality, virtue, and charity. Gore shows her pro-abolition sympathies, yet she thought nothing of using a racial slur to describe enslaved persons. The Southern planter is described as a n****r-driver. When the planter marries, we are told “Lady Amabel assured her [mother] that Leonidas [the planter] had determined to give up his n****rs for her sake…” The nouveaux riche West Indian uncle votes for abolition in Parliament even though it is against his interests and he loses "four thousand a year" as a result. His principled stand wins him the respect of Mrs. Armytage's neighbour Lord Rotheram. Gore's pro-abolition sentiments coexist with a patronizing nonchalance which is jarring to modern sensibilities.
Helen Taylor narrates an audio version of Mrs. Armytage at Librivox which I recommend.
Copeland, Edward. The Silver Fork Novel : Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Wilson, Cheryl A. Fashioning the Silver Fork Novel. Pickering & Chatto, 2012.
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. For more, click "Authoresses" on the menu at upper right. Click here for the first in the series.