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Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde: A Missing Link to Romanticism and the Gothic

This blog might well be titled, “Charlotte Smith, where have you been all my life?” because Smith was a major influence on the development of the early novel, and yet I only just discovered Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806) about a year ago when my friend Ellen Moody began blogging about her. Then I began to wonder why I had never heard of her. She was a poet much respected by the Romantics—in fact, she was a distant relative by marriage of Wordsworth and gave him letters of introduction when he went to France. She also wrote ten novels that were very popular and influential in their day. She wrote them all between 1788 and 1798. The first, Emmeline, or the Orphan of the Castle, was a bit immature in style and structure, but it set the tone for much of her later work. The plot concerns an orphan, the believed illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, who, to make a long story short, discovers she is the legitimate daughter of her father and therefore the rightful heir to the castle, despite the manipulations of a rather sinister uncle. Emmeline also has a series of troublesome suitors before she marries the man she loves. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Radcliffe when I read it—the sinister uncle, the illegitimacy, all feel very Gothic, although it is not a Gothic novel.

Charlotte Smith's second novel, Ethelinde, has just been released by Valancourt Books as a critical edition with an introduction by Ellen Moody.

Charlotte Smith’s second novel, Ethelinde, has just been released by Valancourt Books as a critical edition with an introduction by Ellen Moody.

Then I read Smith’s second novel, Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake (1789). By her second novel, Smith had matured into an accomplished novelist. The novel has just been released for the first time in a critical edition by Valancourt Books, complete with an introduction and notes by Ellen Moody. Upon reading this book, I could well see why Moody feels such enthusiasm for Smith.

Moody had previously told me that Smith uses Gothic elements in her novels, although none of the novels can be rightly termed Gothic. I would certainly not consider Ethelinde to be Gothic, but there are some Gothic elements in it, and Moody says that it was an influential novel upon Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen, which I can well believe. In her introduction, Moody draws parallels between the novel and Austen’s Mansfield Park specifically.

When I read Ethelinde, I really felt like it was a bridge between the earlier eighteenth century novelists and Radcliffe and Austen. There is much in the novel that owes a debt to earlier sentimental or sensibility novels and the novel of manners. At one point, Ethelinde is in danger of being raped, a clear nod to Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). Ethelinde is also subjected to a host of disagreeable relatives, which reminded me a great deal of Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778). In Evelina, the title character is more or less persecuted by her middle class relatives who lack genteel manners. In this novel, Ethelinde has both middle class and wealthy relatives, none of whom are quite as comical as in Evelina, but who still have comical elements and some of them are far more cruel in their snobbery and putting on airs once Ethelinde finds herself largely without a protector and penniless.

But what most interested me about this novel was how it is a precursor to Romanticism and Radcliffean Gothic. The Romantic Movement is usually dated from 1798 when Wordsworth and Coleridge published The Lyrical Ballads, but there is much in Smith that shows Romanticism was already alive a decade earlier. Ethelinde opens at Grasmere Castle, a fictional castle in the Lake District. It was so popular with readers that many went to the Lake District and came away disappointed that it wasn’t real. It’s possible that the depiction of the castle inspired Wordsworth later to settle in Grasmere. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were admirers of Smith’s poetry as well, which often focused on nature.

Ethelinde is at the castle with a pleasure party that includes her cousin, Lady Newenden, and her husband Sir Edward Newenden. The first volume of this five-volume novel takes place at the castle and concerns Ethelinde enjoying nature while also being courted by some disagreeable young, rich men who are friends of her relatives. Eventually, she meets a young man, Montgomery, who seems to be at one with nature and develops a connection with him, especially after he saves her from drowning while all the other men stand and watch or yell at the servants to save her. Montgomery is the character whom I believe is referred to in the subtitle as the recluse. He and his mother live humbly and isolated in Grasmere, but they are of genteel blood. Ethelinde is immediately taken with Montgomery, who at first seems like a character right out of Wordsworth.

The attention to nature in this first volume of the novel also predates Radcliffe’s focus on nature in her novels. In Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Emily St. Aubert is constantly admiring the beauty of nature and feeling how it calms the soul. By comparison, the villains in the novel, especially Montoni, do not notice nature or see it as a solace or inspiration to the soul. In Ethelinde, the title character enjoys nature, while her obnoxious cousin, Lady Newenden, can find no pleasure in it, constantly complaining she is cold or hot when she is outdoors and fretting over her health—often for attention. Lady Newenden quickly becomes one of the villains of the novel when it is revealed she is likely to or already cheating on her husband. Before the novel is over, Sir Edward will separate from his wife; he will also be accused by her parents of being the adulterer because it becomes obvious that he has feelings for Ethelinde. While in time Sir Edward admits to such feelings, Ethelinde remains true to her love for Montgomery.

Another significant theme in the novel is that of illegitimacy. Smith had already played with this theme in Emmeline, and it was a common theme in earlier novels such as Evelina. Smith, however, does not make illegitimacy so shocking or detrimental as does Burney. In Evelina, the heroine is concerned that her father will not recognize her as his legitimate daughter. In Ethelinde, while Ethelinde is clearly legitimate, many of the supporting cast of characters are not, including Mrs. Montgomery’s brothers and her niece. Nor is illegitimacy something that leads to Gothic situations of incest as in Radcliffe where it nearly leads to a marquis raping his niece in The Romance of the Forest (1791). In her book Art of Darkness, the critic Ann Williams remarks, “Gothic plots are family plots; Gothic romance is family.” The same is true in Ethelinde, minus the Gothic elements. There are twists and turns and surprises along the way for the relatives, most notably when Montgomery’s illegitimate cousin ends up being married to Ethelinde’s brother, Harry Chesterville.

Smith, although focusing on a female main character, and therefore writing what could be considered feminine Gothic, if the book were truly Gothic, also plants the seeds for the masculine Gothic in two of her characters, Harry Chesterville and Sir Edward Newenden. In masculine Gothic novels, such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795), William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the male characters are often tormented by guilt over their past crimes, by how their poor decisions destroy their families, and by longing for what they cannot obtain. In the novel, gambling, which will be a major transgression in Gothic literature (see Chapter 4 of my book The Gothic Wanderer), leads to the destruction of Ethelinde’s family’s wealth. Her father cannot control his gambling and thus loses most of the family fortune. Then her brother goes on spending sprees that ultimately bankrupt them. While Ethelinde’s father, Colonel Chesterville, feels great guilt over what he has done and fears for Ethelinde’s wellbeing as a result, it is her brother, Harry Chesterville, who becomes the true Gothic wanderer figure who commits transgression through his inability to curb his spending. He ends up in debtor’s prison, leading to his father’s worries turning into illness and his eventual demise. Harry is tormented, describing himself as the “murderer” of his own father. At one point, he becomes so consumed with guilt that he attempts suicide. Harry is like other men in Gothic fiction who seem unable to stop their addictions—fortunately, he is Ethelinde’s brother and not lover. Radcliffe would allow Emily St. Aubert, her Gothic heroine, to marry Valancourt, who also falls into the gambling transgression in The Mysteries of Udolpho, although Valancourt is, thankfully, not a villain and has all the attractions, initially, of Montgomery in his love for nature.

Charlotte Smith, whose own life with an abusive husband she had to leave, causing her to turn to her pen to support herself and her children, included many autobiographical elements into her novels.

Charlotte Smith, whose own life with an abusive husband she had to leave, causing her to turn to her pen to support herself and her children, included many autobiographical elements into her novels.

While Ethelinde will love and eventually marry Montgomery, his forest god appeal wears off as the novel continues and he is seen as a bit more one-dimensional. The really interesting male in the novel, who also is a forefather to the masculine Gothic wanderer figure, is Sir Edward Newenden. In her introduction to the novel, Moody compares Sir Edward to Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), who is tormented by love for the woman he cannot have. In the end, Sir Edward is in the same situation, loving Ethelinde, torn between his love for her and social proprieties that make him try to work things out with his wife. When Lady Newenden dies and Sir Edward is finally free to marry Ethelinde—she believes Montgomery has died at sea at this point—Montgomery dramatically reappears and Sir Edward is forced to step aside to see another man marry the woman he loves. Actually, even if Montgomery hadn’t reappeared, Ethelinde makes it clear that her love for Montgomery would make it impossible for her to marry Sir Edward.

Sir Edward is interesting because he is mentally tormented, but not quite a transgressor. I would argue that he did commit a transgression in marrying Lady Newenden for her money, but we are definitely intended to sympathize with him. He is also an early version of several other characters who haunt the pages of near-contemporary novels because they cannot have the love they desire. Interestingly, those characters are usually women. In Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1800), Harriet Freke cannot have the man she loves because she is too outspoken and even crossdresses—her last name is no accident—women who are not feminine are freaks. In Burney’s The Wanderer (1814), the outspoken Elinor, believed to be a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, also fails to obtain the hero’s love. Both women are examples of transgressing against the patriarchal code while the true heroines of the novels are sufficiently feminine and well-bred enough to know their place in society. Sir Edward, by being a divorced man and having married for money, has also transgressed against society and morality, and therefore, is not worthy of winning the heroine’s hand.

Finally, I would add that the novel has many interesting references to the colonies. Many of the male characters go to the colonies to seek their fortunes. While Smith does not overtly speak out against the exploitation that occurs because of the colonies, they are, to some extent, depicted as dangerous or immoral places. It is in the West Indies that Mrs. Montgomery’s brother, Harcourt, ends up having an illegitimate daughter (not that that can’t happen in England, but it is a sign that morals are lessened in the colonies), and Montgomery nearly dies when returning to England from India. Later novelists would be more brutal in the threat the colonies pose to morality in England—especially the Bronte sisters in Jane Eyre (1847), Wuthering Heights (1847), and Villette (1853), H. Rider Haggard in She (1886), and Bram Stoker in Dracula (1897).

In short, Ethelinde and Charlotte Smith played a central role in the development of the novel of manners, the Gothic, and Romanticism. I would refer people to Moody’s introduction for more about Smith’s influence on Jane Austen. Certainly, Ethelinde has been neglected for far too long. It is a missing link between Richardson, Burney, and Radcliffe. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Romanticism, the Gothic, and the development of the novel.

You can purchase the new edition of Ethelinde from Valancourt Books at or at most online or local bookstores.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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The Sylph: The Duchess of Devonshire’s pre-Gothic and pre-Romantic Novel

In recent years, Georgiana Cavendish, nee Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, has enjoyed renewed interest due to the 2008 film The Duchess starring Keira Knightley, as well as her being an ancestral aunt to the late Princess Diana. But it was not until my friend and fellow literary scholar, Ellen Moody, author of Trollope on the Net, told me that it was believed the Duchess had also written a novel that I really became interested in learning more about her.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) had many portraits painted of her including this one by Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was celebrated as a great beauty in her day.

The Duchess is the alleged author of the epistolary novel The Sylph (1779), which was published anonymously because of her social position and also because of its subject matter, presenting the unhappy marriage of a woman whose husband is a rake, adulterer, and gambler, which in many ways paralleled her own marriage. Speculation exists that the novel was actually written by Sophia Briscoe, a contemporary novelist, but the Duchess in private is said to have acknowledged she was its author. To this day, her family denies her writing the book. I am not surprised, however, by the possibility that she is the author considering she was also the aunt to Lady Caroline Lamb, author of the fabulously interesting Gothic novel Glenarvon about her own love affair with Lord Byron. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lamb learned a few things from her aunt, although I think the Duchess’ novel superior in many ways.

The Sylph’s title is a reference to the sylphs that appear in Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock, in which they are depicted as fairy-like creatures who look after the female protagonist. The Duchess quotes from The Rape of the Lock as the frontispiece to the novel, describing sylphs’ roles:

“Ye Sylphs and Sylphids, to your chief give ear,
Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Demons, hear!
Ye know the spheres, and various tasks assign’d
By laws eternal to th’aërial kind:
Some in the fields of purest æther play,
And bask, and whiten, in the blaze of day;
Some guide the course of wand’ring orbs on high,
Or roll the planets thro’ the boundless sky:
Our humbler province is to tend the Fair,
Not a less pleasing, nor less glorious care.”

In the Duchess’ novel, the Sylph also takes on the role of protector to a young lady. Because it is difficult to find information about the novel online, I will briefly summarize the plot. The book is available at Project Gutenberg and in print copies, but little has been written about it in terms of literary criticism.

The novel begins with a letter by Sir William Stanley describing an accident he has that requires him to recuperate in the country where he becomes acquainted with the Grenville daughters. Of course, he quickly falls in love with one sister, Julia, who is our protagonist and whose letters make up the bulk of the novel. Julia agrees to marry Sir William, and he takes her off to London to live. Her adventures are then revealed through her letters to her sister Louisa, with letters included from Louisa, as well as from several of Sir William’s male friends and acquaintances describing the adventures in further detail, as well as their plots against Julia.

The novel in many ways can be compared to Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, or a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World (1778). Julia, like Evelina, finds herself in London learning about the wickedness of that city and trying to maintain her morals. Many difficulties ensue for Julia, including attending a masquerade ball and returning with a masked man she believes is her husband but turns out to be Lord Biddulph; he seeks to have his way with her in her bedroom, but fortunately, she escapes his wiles. Julia then tells Sir William what has happened, but he is under the thumb of Biddulph because he is a terrible gambler and deeply in debt. His debt is so bad that when Julia offers her jewels to Sir William to pay his debts, she learns he has already sold them and replaced them with glass and paste jewels, which she is too naive to have realized.

Early in her entrance into wicked London life, Julia begins to receive letters from an anonymous writer who describes himself as the Sylph. This character is fascinating because he keeps his identity secret, but he tells Julia he can see what she does and even know the thoughts of her mind. It is worth quoting this passage at length to understand his supernatural claims:

“I am a Rosicrusian by principle; I need hardly tell you, they are a sect of philosophers, who by a life of virtue and self-denial have obtained an heavenly intercourse with aërial beings;—as my internal knowledge of you (to use the expression) is in consequence of my connexion with the Sylphiad tribe, I have assumed the title of my familiar counsellor. This, however, is but as a preface to what I mean to say to you;—I have hinted, I knew you well;—when I thus expressed myself, it should be understood, I spoke in the person of the Sylph, which I shall occasionally do, as it will be writing with more perspicuity in the first instance; and, as he is employed by me, I may, without the appearance of robbery, safely appropriate to myself the knowledge he gains.

“Every human being has a guardian angel; my skill has discovered your’s; my power has made him obedient to my will; I have a right to avail myself of the intelligences he gains; and by him I have learnt every thing that has passed since your birth;—what your future fortune is to be, even he cannot tell; his view is circumscribed to a small point of time; he only can tell what will be the consequence of taking this or that step, but your free-agency prevents his impelling you to act otherwise than as you see fit. I move upon a more enlarged sphere; he tells me what will happen; and as I see the remote, as well as immediate consequence, I shall, from time to time, give you my advice.—Advice, however, when asked, is seldom adhered to; but when given voluntarily, the receiver has no obligation to follow it.—I shall in a moment discover how this is received by you; and your deviation from the rules I shall prescribe will be a hint for me to withdraw my counsel where it is not acceptable. All that then will remain for me, will be to deplore your too early initiation in a vicious world, where to escape unhurt or uncontaminated is next to a miracle.

“I said, I should soon discover whether my advice would be taken in the friendly part it is offered: I shall perceive it the next time I have the happiness of beholding you, and I see you every day; I am never one moment absent from you in idea, and in my mind’s eye I see you each moment; only while I conceal myself from you, can I be of service to you;—press not then to discover who I am; but be convinced—nay, I shall take every opportunity to convince you, that I am the most sincere and disinterested of your friends; I am a friend to your soul, my Julia, and I flatter myself mine is congenial with your’s.”

The reader, however, realizes the Sylph is not really a supernatural being but a human who must be close enough to Julia to see her and know what she is doing. He writes several letters of advice to her and she responds, and although he cannot always rescue her from evil, he is a wise counselor to her.

In the end, Sir William’s debt gets the better of him and a truly horrid situation results. Lord Biddulph agrees to rescue him from debt in exchange that he divorce Julia so Lord Biddulph can marry her. Sir William refuses to sell his wife in this manner and ends up committing suicide. Julia writes to her sister, asking that she and her father receive “your poor wanderer” and she returns to them in the country. The Sylph now writes to tell her she no longer needs his services since she is returning to the “peaceful vale of innocence.”

But the Sylph returns in a new appearance soon after. Early in the novel is a letter from Woodley, a childhood friend of Julia’s who moved away but has now grown up and returned, hoping to marry her, but he arrives just after she has married Sir William. Realizing the mistake in choosing a husband that Julia has made, Woodley has bided his time and is the Sylph who has sought her welfare through all her trials. Now it is revealed to her that he has been disguised as the Baron Ton-hausen, a friend of hers in London whom she thought a foreigner and whom she admired and almost wished she had chosen over Sir William as a husband. Woodley has had smallpox and changed over the years since childhood so she did not recognize him, but her friendship with the baron allowed him to be close enough to observe and advise her.

When Woodley’s identity as the Sylph is revealed, Julia calls him “Proteus,” and “three in one” and a “variable being.” Proteus, from Homer’s Iliad, was able to change or metamorphose his form. She also compares herself and Woodley to Henry and Emma, the title characters of a poem by Matthew Prior. (Today, the poem is best known for being alluded to in Jane Austen’s Persuasion).

Of course, once she gets over her surprise, Julia agrees to marry Woodley and we can assume they live happily ever after.

I find The Sylph to be a remarkable novel for many reasons. The novel reminds me of Burney’s novels, including Evelina as I already mentioned, but also Burney’s later novels. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced Burney to some degree. The horrible results of debt in the novel remind me of Cecilia (1782), in which Cecilia tries to pay the debts of a man who threatens suicide if she does not. More importantly, I think the magical depiction of the Sylph, though a male in this novel, is very similar to the more extensive idea of a supernatural being who can metamorphose herself in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). In that novel, Burney draws upon the wanderer theme of Gothic and Romantic literature (note above that I quoted Julia as describing herself as a “wanderer”), and especially the Wandering Jew. Burney’s heroine, Juliet is known through most of the novel as Ellis; she hides her identity from others, and plays so many different roles that she might have been seen as a female “Proteus,” although instead, Burney refers to her as a “wandering Jewess,” and one of the characters in the novel remarks of Juliet:

“You have been bruised and beaten; and dirty and clean; and ragged and whole; and wounded and healed; and a European and a Creole, in less than a week. I suppose, next, you will dwindle into a dwarf; and then perhaps, find some surprising contrivance to shoot up into a giantess. There is nothing that can be too much to expect from so great an adept in metamorphoses.”

A more in-depth discussion of Juliet’s metamorphoses and Burney’s use of the Gothic Wandering Jew theme can be found in my book The Gothic Wanderer.

I really don’t know what kind of influence The Sylph had upon its contemporaries, but it certainly is a remarkable novel of the period, and many of the themes in it became significant ones for the Gothic novel, including gambling, the idea of metamorphosed identities, Rosicrucianism, and depictions of Jews. There is only one reference to Jews in the novel when Julia writes that her husband is surrounded by “Jew-brokers” who are “such wretches” and “infernal agents,” but it’s interesting that they are included as being responsible for Sir William’s downfall. Biddulph is also an interesting Gothic wanderer type villain; he is largely the cause of Sir William’s death. At first, he feels haunted by Sir William’s suicide, and recalling Milton’s Satan who has “hell within him,” Biddulph remarks, “my mind is a hell,” but Biddulph is also partially in denial of his responsibility in Sir William’s death, saying how thankful he is that he didn’t seduce Julia (regardless, he still caused Sir William’s death).

Also interesting about the novel is how it builds on the Romantic Myth of Consciousness, where someone begins in stage of innocence, moves into experience, and then seeks to escape the miseries of being experienced about life by entering into wise innocence. When Julia finally returns home, Woodley as the Sylph, remarks that she is returning to a “vale of innocence,” but really it is wise innocence she seeks. The use of the word “vale” is interesting here too, not only because of its religious implications, but because Woodley’s family originally owned the land where Julia’s family lives, so the area is known as “Woodley-vale.” So in marrying Woodley, Julia is able to enter into the vale—Woodley becomes her vale, her refuge of wise innocence. Woodley’s name also recalls the role of Nature in Romantic poetry since she finds her refuge in a wooded vale or forest, far from the wickedness of city life.

The Sylph is a remarkable novel that deserves far more attention than it has received over the years. The Duchess of Devonshire is truly a foremother of the Gothic and Romantic traditions as well as a fascinating novelist in her own right. I highly recommend the novel to readers.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy: The Children of Arthur, Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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