Tag Archives: Maria Edgeworth

The Female Freke: Crossdressing, the Gothic, and Female Education in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda

Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) is a curious novel that, despite feeling disjointed in its plot, is perhaps Edgeworth’s greatest, being more fully developed than other works like Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812). It is novel of manners with Gothic elements, much like Fanny Burney’s Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), and belongs on the same bookshelf as the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, and Jane Austen, who refers to the novel in Northanger Abbey. While Belinda is very much a traditional romance novel, detailing how the heroine, Belinda, ends up marrying the hero, Sir Clarence Hervey, after they overcome the obstacles to their relationship, two far more interesting women, Lady Delacour and Harriet Freake, are at its core.

Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth

Belinda Portman is rather a bore to the reader. Her character is not well developed and she has no real adventures. Her only purposes in the novel are to fall in love with Clarence Hervey and reform Lady Delacour. It is Lady Delacour who first brings life to the novel when Belinda is sent by her aunt to stay with her. Lady Delacour introduces Belinda to the world of fashion, including Clarence Hervey, but she also introduces her to her own dysfunctional life. Lord Delacour is a drunk whom Lady Delacour cannot abide. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Helena, she ignores and shoves off on friends or relatives. She also associates with the wrong people, most notably Harriet Freake. Harriet thinks nothing of behaving in unruly ways, as seen when she instigates events that lead to Lady Delacour fighting a female duel with her great society rival Mrs. Luttridge. Of course, the women dress as men in the process. Neither woman dies in the duel, but the pistol backfires and hurts Lady Delacour’s breast, causing her to be convinced she has cancer. Ultimately, however, everything will be improved for Lady Delacour because the sweet Belinda will reconcile her to her husband and daughter. Unfortunately, her good behavior also brings upon Belinda the wrath of Harriet Freake.

Harriet now befriends Mrs. Luttridge, Lady Delacour’s enemy. She then involves herself in several adventures to harass Belinda and her set. When Belinda learns that Clarence Hervey has another love interest, a young woman named Virginia, she allows Mr. Vincent, a gentleman from the West Indies, to pay court to her. Mr. Vincent has a negro servant, Juba. Harriet shares apartments in the same building as Mr. Vincent, and when a dispute occurs over who has rights to the building’s coach house, Harriet swears she will punish Juba. Juba fears her, referring to her as a “man-woman” and an “obeah-woman” (a West Indian witch). It’s death to mention an obeah-woman so Juba becomes convinced he will die. Soon he is seeing an apparition at night of a woman in flames at the foot of his bed, and he believes this woman will kill him. Belinda, however, realizes the flaming woman is a head drawn in phosphorus by children and that Harriet is playing a trick on him. Because Belinda ruined her fun, Harriet is now out to get revenge on her.

Harriet’s behavior suggests she may be a lesbian. She is not above dressing in men’s clothes. In one scene, she is out shooting with the men. In referring to her past, she remarks upon when she was a “schoolboy.” She also states that when a woman likes a man, she should tell him so, although she makes no professions of love to any man. I suspect she’s just not interested in men, although her forwardness and directness are in keeping with that of literary women who throw themselves at men, such as Lady Olivia in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4), Joanna, Countess of Mar in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809), and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). (See also my previous blog post “Male Imprisonment and Female Wanderers: Sir Charles Grandison’s Influence on the Gothic Novel.”) Edgeworth is really more daring than these other novels in suggesting Harriet is a lesbian. Not only does Harriet show no interest in men, but she lives with Miss Moreton, a young lady who ran away from home, and who may be Harriet’s lesbian partner; we are told Harriet leads Miss Moreton a rough life, getting her to dress up like a man. Belinda concludes that Harriet is obviously unhappy. However, no analysis is given to the cause of her unhappiness. I suspect it’s because her society has no place for lesbians, and her feelings of rejection by her society result in her anger and meanness. Even Edgeworth is not on Harriet’s side, having given her the name Freke to emphasize to readers what a freak she is.

It is hard to feel any sympathy for Harriet, a woman who uses the supernatural to terrify others. Besides frightening Juba, she plays upon Lady Delacour’s fears. Lady Delacour eventually sees a doctor and learns she does not have cancer, but she does need an operation. She is fearful she might die from the operation and turns to religion. At this point, Harriet decides to dress up like a man whom Lady Delacour previously wronged and appear outside her window to haunt her. Fortunately, she is caught in the act, actually having her leg caught in a trap in the yard and being found by the gardener.

Later, Harriet and Mrs. Luttridge decide to get revenge on Belinda by ruining her engagement to Mr. Vincent. They lure Mr. Vincent into gambling at the Luttridges’ house where the tables are fixed so that he cannot possibly win. Clarence Hervey tries to step in and save Mr. Vincent from ruin, but Mr. Vincent refuses, seeing Clarence as his rival for Belinda’s hand, even though Clarence is planning by this point to marry Virginia. Ruined by gambling, Mr. Vincent attempts to borrow money in secret from a Jew to pay his gambling debts, but when his gambling addiction is revealed, Belinda decides to break off the engagement.

This gambling plot is interesting for several reasons. First, gambling is considered a transgression against God, as I’ve discussed at length in my book The Gothic Wanderer. A long tradition of gamblers appear in Gothic novels, the most notable being Valancourt in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). His gambling causes Valancourt problems with the novel’s heroine, Emily St. Aubert, but in the end, Emily still marries him. In William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), the title character also brings his family to ruin through gambling. Edgeworth had Godwin’s novel in mind as evidenced when at the end of Chapter 15 she has Lady Delacour ask Belinda whether she’d rather have rouge or the philosopher’s stone and whether she’s read St. Leon. St. Leon actually acquires the philosopher’s stone in the novel, which is itself a form of gambling since it can turn lead into gold, thus disrupting national economies. Also of interest in Belinda’s gambling plot is how the Jew is a stereotype in the novel, wanting to extort unreasonable interest from Mr. Vincent. This and similar depictions of Jews in Mrs. Edgeworth’s novels resulted in a Jewish-American reader complaining about such depictions, leading to her writing Harrington (1817), perhaps the first novel to contain positive depictions of Jewish characters, predating Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) by two years.

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was an English born author who lived in Ireland and created the first Irish regional novels, which ultimately inspired Sir Walter Scott to write his novels.

Although Belinda is now unengaged, her true love, Clarence Hervey, is not. Up to this time, we’ve heard little about his betrothed Virginia, but the end of the novel goes into detail about how Clarence found the orphan Virginia as a child and decided to raise her in the forest and educate her with the view of someday making her his wife. Her name isn’t even really Virginia, but he calls her that as a tribute to Paul et Virginia (1788) by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de St. Pierre.

Virginia grows up respecting Clarence and feeling obligated to love him, but she has seen the picture of a young man whom she believes is a hero, and that is what she grows to want—a hero. She has not been allowed to read novels because novel-reading is what caused her mother to lose her virtue; however, she does grow up reading romances, which distort her understanding of the world, especially since she grows up in isolation save for the woman who cares for her and occasional visits by Clarence. (Edgeworth based this story of a man educating a young woman with the intent to marry her on the real-life story of her father’s friend Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton (1788). Day, inspired by Rousseau’s Emile (1762), raised two young ladies, Sabrina and Lucretia, but Lucretia he decided to discard as not suitable for him. Sabrina he eventually also gave up on ever becoming his wife and she ended up marrying another.)

Lady Delacour, determined that Belinda shall marry Clarence, now steps in to resolve matters by revealing that Virginia does not love Clarence. She does this by showing Virginia a picture behind a curtain. Virginia faints when the picture is revealed. This scene is a play on the horror behind the veil in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with better, if fanciful results. When Virginia faints, Clarence realizes she does not love him but the imaginary hero pictured in the image. Clarence has just recently discovered Virginia’s father is Mr. Hartley, a man who, like Mr. Vincent, has made his fortune in the West Indies. Mr. Hartley now comes forward to reveal to Virginia that the man in the portrait that she found in the forest is none other than Captain Sunderland. The captain had watched her through a telescope and fallen in love with her. He had left behind his portrait for her to find before going to the West Indies, where he saved Mr. Hartley’s life during a slave rebellion. Consequently, he is a hero and worthy of Virginia’s hand.

Clarence is now free to marry Belinda, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Harriet Freake. We are never told what becomes of her, but we are left with the feeling that she will continue to cause trouble. Even though her efforts to appear as an apparition and frighten people in the novel have been unsuccessful, she continues to haunt the reader long after the book is finished. One wishes Edgeworth had written another novel from Harriet’s perspective, but this female Gothic wanderer, even in the eyes of her creator, was unredeemable.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. For more information about Tyler and his books, visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Ivanhoe: Sir Walter Scott’s Bridge from the Gothic to Realism

This year, Ivanhoe (1819), Sir Walter Scott’s most popular and perhaps greatest novel, celebrates its 200th anniversary. I first read Ivanhoe more than thirty years ago as a teenager. Since then, I have slowly been working my way through all his novels, but as my knowledge of literature has grown and especially my interest in the Gothic, I’ve always wanted to go back and reread Ivanhoe and recently did so. (I will not provide a summary of the novel here, but one can easily be found online; I am assuming readers are familiar with the novel.)

One of countless 19th century editions of Ivanhoe.

As a historical novelist myself, I revere Scott as the father of the historical novel—there were some historical fiction novelists before him, but he popularized the genre. As a lover of the Gothic, I also am well aware that Scott never wrote a truly Gothic novel, and yet, he sprinkles Gothic elements into many of them. I have long felt that he is the bridge between the Romantic or Gothic novel and realism in British literature. Of course, the novels of manners that preceded him—works by Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and others—were largely realistic as well—but Scott does something special in Ivanhoe. He takes Gothic elements and removes the supernatural from them, making them real.

I do not know if Scott ever read Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties (1814), although we know he met Burney, seeking out a meeting with her, so I suspect he did read it and was perhaps influenced by it in writing Ivanhoe. My reason for thinking so is that in the novel, Burney creates a character she refers to as “A Wandering Jewess.” The main character, Juliet, or Ellis as she is known throughout most of the novel, is not Jewish at all, but she wanders about England through a variety of difficult situations as she tries to earn a living, all the while unable to reveal her true identity. I won’t go into details about the novel, but an entire chapter of my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption is dedicated to Burney’s novel. It is sufficient here, I think, to say that Scott’s inspiration for creating his Jewess character, Rebecca, may have been inspired by Burney’s novel.

Scott was revolutionary in introducing a Jewish character into a novel in a sympathetic manner, although here again he was preempted by Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington (1817), written as a sympathetic portrait of Jews after a reader complained to Edgeworth about her anti-Semitic depictions of Jews in several of her previous novels. Scott was a fan and friend of Edgeworth and heavily influenced by her first regional novels, set in Ireland, in writing his own regional novels set in Scotland, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Harrington also influenced him in writing Ivanhoe. That said, Edgeworth’s novel is completely realistic. While Scott’s novel is also completely realistic, he sprinkles supernatural and Gothic images throughout it.

The Wandering Jew was a popular image in Gothic literature, as I discuss in depth in my book The Gothic Wanderer. Here, I will simply state that the Wandering Jew was cursed by Christ to wander the earth until His Second Coming. The Jew usually has hypnotizing eyes. He also has supernatural powers, such as being able to control the elements. He makes his first appearance in Gothic literature in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795). Later versions of his character include Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (1798), the vampire figure, and Rosicrucian characters who have the elixir of life that gives them immortality and the philosopher’s stone that can turn lead into gold, as in William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799).

Ivanhoe makes use of the Wandering Jew theme from the beginning. Ivanhoe is disguised as a pilgrim from the Holy Land who is wandering through the countryside when he meets up with the Jew, Isaac of York. Through the combination of these two characters, we have a Wandering Jew reference early on. Other Gothic elements borrowed here are that Isaac, as a usurer, is accused of “sucking the blood” of his victims to become fat as a spider—a vampire image, and a surprising one since the first vampire novel, The Vampire by John Polidori (1819), was not published until the same year as Ivanhoe, although vampire-type characters feature in several earlier Romantic poems, notably Coleridge’s “Christabel” (1816). Ivanhoe, in disguise, also has a mysterious origin since his identity is not known—this is typical of heroes in literature and especially supernatural beings, but also of Juliet in Burney’s The Wanderer.

Later, Scott reverses the Wandering Jew imagery when Front-de-Boeuf holds Isaac as his prisoner. We are told that Front-de-Boeuf fixes his eye on Isaac as if to paralyze him with his glance. Isaac’s fear also makes him unable to move.

Rebecca and Ivanhoe by T. Lupton

Rebecca, Isaac’s daughter, has perhaps the most Wandering Jew characteristics. She is a healer, who has knowledge beyond most people. This knowledge makes people think she is a witch, ultimately leading to her nearly being burned at the stake, but she is more closely akin to the Rosicrucian Gothic Wanderer figures who have knowledge beyond most people. She says her secrets date back to the time of King Solomon, and when Ivanhoe is wounded, she says she can heal him in eight days when it would normally take thirty. Later, Rebecca also takes on the angst of a Gothic wanderer figure in the unrequited love she feels for Ivanhoe that cannot be restored. Many female characters of this period are also Gothic wanderers in their unrequited love, including Lady Olivia in Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4), Elinor in Burney’s The Wanderer (1814), and Joanna, Countess of Mar in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809). Finally, Rebecca ends up before an inquisition and almost ends up being burnt for witchcraft. This scene reflects many Inquisition scenes in other Gothic novels, including Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) and the slightly later Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin.

Personally, I find Ulrica to be the most fascinating Gothic wanderer figure in the novel. She is a Saxon maiden who was forced to marry a Norman lord, and consequently, is filled with guilt and angst. She compares herself to the fiends in hell who may feel remorse but not repentance. When Ivanhoe’s father Cedric reminds her of what she was before her marriage and how the Normans have badly used her, she decides upon revenge via death. Ultimately, she burns down the castle and dies in the flames after mocking her husband. In fact, she mocks her husband by pretending to be supernatural. As he’s dying, Front-de-Boeuf hears an unearthly voice telling him to think on his sins, the worst of which was the murder of his father, a sin he thought hidden within his own breast.

Scott is also not above poking fun at the Gothic. Athelstane, heir to the Saxon kingdom that has been usurped by the Normans, ends up dying, only to be resurrected from the dead. This is a play both on Christ’s resurrection and the vampire figure. It is also a humorous moment in the novel. Other than being extremely strong, Athelstane has nothing heroic or supernatural about him but is a bit of an oaf more interested in filling his stomach than loving the Saxon heiress Rowena or regaining his ancestors’ crown.

Rebecca as portrayed in a 1913 silent film of Ivanhoe.

Frankly, I’ve always been a bit surprised that the novel is titled Ivanhoe since I don’t think Ivanhoe much of a hero, especially since for a good part of the novel, he is lying wounded. Ultimately, King Richard is the novel’s real hero. Like Ivanhoe, he is incognito in the beginning, disguised as the Black Knight, and he displays great physical strength. Ultimately, all the major acts of heroism fall to him. He frees the Saxon and Jewish characters, including Ivanhoe, when they are taken prisoner, and in the end, he saves England from the treachery of his brother, Prince John. Richard even heals the bad feelings of the Saxons toward the Normans, making Cedric and Athelstane relinquish their efforts to restore a Saxon king to the English throne. In my opinion, King Richard, as depicted in this novel, may be our first real superhero figure. A later novel, James Malcolm Rymer’s The Black Monk (1844-5), which is far more Gothic than Ivanhoe, would later also use him in a similar way where he returns to England incognito.

In the end, of course, Ivanhoe and Rowena marry, despite Rebecca’s love for him. Rebecca then visits Rowena to tell her she and her father are going to Granada where her father is in high favor with the king and where, presumably, as Jews, they will be safer. She says she cannot remain in England because it is a “land of war and blood” where Israel cannot “hope to rest during her wanderings.”

And so, in the end, Rebecca and her father embody the Wandering Jew figure, having to wander from England now to Granada, and who knows where they may wander again.

But ultimately, what is most remarkable about Scott’s novel is that the Wandering Jew figure in Gothic literature to this point did evoke some sympathy for the cursed man who must wander for eternity, and perhaps by extension, to the Jewish people. Scott, however, went a step further by creating realistic and sympathetic Jewish characters. For that reason, Ivanhoe is a bridge from the Gothic into realism, and beyond that, a step toward tolerance and humanity.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism, The Wandering Jew

Romantic Wanderers and Cross-Dressing in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs

The Scribner’s 1991 reprint of The Scottish Chiefs

The Scottish Chiefs (1809) by Jane Porter (1776-1850) is one of the earliest historical novels and some scholars claim it to be the very first. It tells the story of Sir William Wallace and his efforts to restore Scotland’s freedom after King Edward I of England invaded the country and tried to suppress it to his rule. Porter grew up first in Durham and then in Edinburgh and from early childhood heard tales of Sir William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other Scottish heroes from a family nurse and many others in her neighborhood. The result was that in 1809, she penned her most famous novel The Scottish Chiefs. The novel would go on to be translated into numerous foreign languages and become a bestseller in Europe. It was so popular that Napoleon had it banned because of its message of revolt against an oppressive tyrant. It is said that US President Andrew Jackson was inspired by it when fighting the British in the War of 1812. It remained popular into the twentieth century, so popular that a comic book version was made of it: http://comicbooksonline.blogspot.com/2007/08/classics-illustrated-067-scottish.html and in 1921 Charles Scribner’s and Sons decided to produce a special illustrated edition of it, complete with a foreword by Kate Douglas Wiggin (author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) and illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, one of the greatest illustrators of the time. A 1991 reprint of that edition is the copy I own and have read.

I first heard of The Scottish Chiefs in 1992 when I found the Scribner’s illustrated edition in a bookstore. I loved the illustrations and loved British literature so I bought and read it. I admit I found it rather dull, and as the years passed, I remembered little of it, but it did make me know the name of Sir William Wallace for the first time, before I traveled to Scotland in 1993 and before the film Braveheart made his name once again famous to a wider audience in 1995.

I recently decided to reread the novel after rewatching Braveheart. I knew the film was grossly historically inaccurate in many ways, and more so, it was a very different story from that which Jane Porter told. I also wanted to reread the novel because of my interest in Gothic and historical fiction and my having recently learned that Sir Walter Scott had known Porter. Scott is, of course, arguably the father of the modern historical novel, so I wondered whether Porter had influenced him. I was also interested in rereading the novel because I had a few years before read Porter’s other well-known novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and thought it quite interesting.

While Porter does not use Gothic elements in either of her two best-known works, she does rely upon the wanderer theme. Thaddeus of Warsaw is less a historical than contemporary novel since its events take place just over a decade before its publication. Its main character is a Polish refugee. The novel tells the story of how Poland was invaded and divided up between Russia and Prussia. Thaddeus befriends a British officer and also learns he is part-British. He then travels to England where, eventually, he meets his long-lost father. He also falls in love. Once Thaddeus is in England, the novel becomes largely a novel of manners. What is interesting to me as a student of the Gothic wanderer figure is that Porter repeatedly refers to Thaddeus as a wanderer in the novel because he is an exile from his native land.

Sir William Wallace and his wife Marion,, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth.

Porter does not use the term wanderer in The Scottish Chiefs very often, but the novel is not without interest, and her prefaces do play on the wanderer theme. Unfortunately, Porter’s prefaces are hard to come by since they are not always reprinted in copies of the novel. The Scribner’s edition I own does not contain them, and the Wiggin introduction is more focused on how much Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister enjoyed the novel as children (this edition was, after all, being marketed to children so to have a famous children’s author introduce the novel was, apparently, a better marketing strategy than to have Jane Porter herself introduce it.) I did find the prefaces online at the University of Pennsylvania’s website: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/porter/chiefs/chiefs.html. In fact, it might be said that the prefaces are more interesting than the novel itself.

The 1831 preface contains a lot of insight into Porter’s interest in writing about Sir William Wallace. Porter describes her childhood hearing tales of Wallace from various people she knew, particularly an elderly neighbor named Luckie Forbes. Equally important, she heard from her sister’s nurse, Bel Johnston, about Bonnie Prince Charlie and how his cause was lost at the Battle of Culloden. Porter personally knew many of the widows of men who fought at Culloden. They were venerable old ladies in her childhood.

But the most striking point made in the introduction is when Porter relates how, as a child, she and her siblings were playing outside when a poor gentleman came to their home. The children begged him to come inside and rest, but he refused. He was an elderly man who explained that he had suffered from fighting with Prince Charles. Porter’s mother convinced him to come inside and let her give him something to eat once she explained that war had also made her a widow. He informs her then that he “received a wound worse than death: I shall never recover from it!” and then goes on to say, “I cannot go back…. I ought never to have come back anywhere. Sin should always be an outcast!” Porter’s mother tries to comfort him by saying Prince Charles’ followers were unfortunate, but “their fidelity could not be a sin!” What we have here is a Gothic wanderer figure—someone haunted by the past and past wrongs who has consequently become an outcast. All these widows and those who supported Prince Charles were outcasts in Porter’s childhood, some forty years after the Battle of Culloden, so Porter was very familiar with the outcast theme. Her desire later to write of Scottish history reminds me of Margaret Mitchell’s childhood being raised on stories of the Old South that eventually led to her writing Gone With the Wind (1936)—the Confederate cause was a lost one just like that of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Later, this old soldier leaves the Porter family and is referred to as “wandering along the fields towards the town.”

But what makes this particular soldier even more fascinating is that eventually it is revealed that he is really a she. Porter relates how later the soldier had an accident. Upon a doctor examining him, it’s revealed that not only is a limb fractured but also two ribs broken, and that the soldier is a woman. Knowing she’ll die from her wound, the woman says that if her relatives are contacted, they will “come to lay in a decent grave the last remains of an unhappy wanderer….” Eventually, the woman dies but her relatives reveal her identity as that of Jeannie Cameron, a woman who fought with Prince Charles as if she were a man. Many people considered Jeannie Cameron as possibly Prince Charles’ lover, and in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749), she is referenced as such. Readers can easily find out more about Jeannie Cameron, although the truth about her age and her role in Prince Charles’ service are somewhat confused. Visit Wikipedia for more information on her, including the fact that she was likely possibly a mix of several women whose identities were confused and melded together: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanie_(Jenny)_Cameron

If Jeannie Cameron is not a historical person, or not the person legend claims she was, it is surprising that Porter mentions her as if she were a real person whom Porter knew personally. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Porter to say whether she is being honest here, or just using what would become a standard device in historical fiction—the revelation of a stranger’s identity as being that of someone famous. (See my blog on James Malcolm Rymer’s The Black Monk, in which King Richard I keeps his identity secret; King Richard does the same thing in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), posing as the Black Knight.) What I do know is that cross-dressing happens twice in The Scottish Chiefs where women put on men’s clothing, and I suspect these instances were inspired by Jeannie Cameron’s story, whether or not Porter ever really met her.

A comic book version of The Scottish Chiefs

Sadly, a full-length biography of Porter has never been written, nor do there seem to be many scholarly articles about her. Thomas McLean, a scholar in New Zealand, has written a few articles about her and is working on a project about her and her sister and brother. Her sister Anna Marie Porter was also an author and her brother Sir Robert Ker Porter was a noted painter. Porter’s relationship with Sir Walter Scott especially needs more discussion. We know Sir Walter Scott was a regular visitor to the Porters’ home when they lived in Edinburgh. Scott, however, never acknowledged Porter as a source of influence upon his writing historical fiction, but instead said he was influenced by Maria Edgeworth, whose Castle Rackrent (1800) is also a contender for the first historical novel. In her article “Transporting Genres: Jane Porter Delivers the Historical Novel to the Victorians,” (published in Victorian Traffic: Identity, Exchange, Performance, edited by Sue Thomas), Peta Beasley discusses how Scott never acknowledged Porter’s influence on him and even wrote a scathing comment about her portrayal of Wallace in a letter to his friend James Hogg. Beasley also discusses the possible date for the commencement of Scott’s first historical novel, Waverley (1814). Scott said he began it in 1805 but then mislaid the manuscript so he did not appear to resume it until 1810 or later (by which time he had no doubt read The Scottish Chiefs). In any case, it is a shame that more isn’t known about Porter and I believe it’s time for a full-length biography of her, including a more thorough discussion of her relationship with Scott.

It’s also time for a critical edition of The Scottish Chiefs. In her prefaces, Porter insists that she has sources for almost all the incidents in the novel and only a few characters are fictional. (She never says who those fictional characters are). She does have a few notes in her novel but they are meager and just simply tell us what she is writing is true. For example, the most interesting woman in the novel is Joanna, the Countess of Mar. After Wallace rescues her and her husband, she falls madly in love with Wallace and becomes extremely jealous of her stepdaughter Helen, whom she suspects Wallace loves. Joanna professes her love to Wallace, who instantly rejects her, knowing it isn’t honorable since she is a married woman and also he is obviously not attracted to her. Regardless, Joanna persists in believing he can love her, and she dreams and manipulates behind the scenes so that Wallace, rather than Bruce, will be offered the crown and then she can marry him and become a queen. However, even after her husband, Donald, Earl of Mar, dies, Joanna is rejected by Wallace. At one point, she even dresses in men’s clothing so that she can get close to Wallace, but when he rejects her again, she threatens him. At the end of the novel, partially through her treachery, Wallace is captured by the English. When Joanna learns he has been killed, she blames herself and goes mad. Joanna is a true Gothic wanderer figure in the moment she goes mad, finally feeling guilt for her sinful actions.

Once Wallace is in prison in London and sentenced to death, Joanna’s stepdaughter, Helen Mar, travels to be with him. She disguises herself as a man so she can get inside the prison. There she and Wallace are married just before he dies.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, however, is Edwin Ruthven. He is a young boy of fifteen and a relative to Helen. He is completely enamored with Wallace and hero-worships him. Wallace treats him like a little brother, taking him under his wing. Edwin is no coward and repeatedly does brave things to the point where the English he is fighting are amazed that a boy is so strong and brave. All that said, modern readers cannot help but think Edwin is homosexual in the way he is portrayed, constantly professing his devotion to Wallace. At one point, Wallace and he are sleeping and Edwin is resting his head on Wallace’s bosom. In this scene, they are attacked and Wallace is taken prisoner, but not before Edwin tries to protect him by taking an arrow through the heart for him.

Of course, there is a fine line between a boy who worships his hero and being gay, and since Jane Porter, a female author, is writing the novel, she may have oversentimentalized the relationship between two men. Certainly, also, homophobia was not as rampant in 1809 as it has been in more recent years and the definitions of masculinity have changed since Porter’s time. Still, I suspect Porter was doing some literary crossdressing herself, projecting herself into the character of Edwin a bit too much in his speaking his admiration for Wallace. She likely projected herself into Helen as well, but in a more acceptable way because Helen’s romantic feelings for Wallace are heterosexual.

Helen descends the Glen of Stones, a scene that recalls for me the sisters in The Last of the Mohicans being taken along cliffs and forest trails as captives. Helen has just been rescued by a mysterious man in this scene.

I have been unable to find information online about most of these characters in the novel. While obviously Wallace and Robert the Bruce are historical, as is Donald, Earl of Mar, I could not find anything about Joanna Mar or Helen Mar. Helen’s sister Isabella Mar would marry Robert the Bruce so she is historical as well. Joanna’s mother was reputedly a princess of Norway so she must be historical and Porter says she was. As for Edwin, I could find nothing about him either. It is for these reasons that I think a critical edition of The Scottish Chiefs is long overdue so we can get a better sense of where Porter romanticized and where she drew from historical facts or at least from the ballads and stories she heard growing up about Sir William Wallace. Certainly, the Wallace depicted in this novel is a far cry from the one portrayed in Braveheart.

I will admit, despite my interest in the novel, that it is rather dull reading at times. I continually found my thoughts drifting away. I think the primary reason is because the characters are never fully fleshed out. They are more shadows than real people. Porter never really lets us into their minds but stands back and presents them through her sentimental and hero-worship lens. The only ones who really seem to live are Joanna, Helen, and Edwin. The rest show no real emotion. Wallace himself is one of the less memorable characters in the novel. His best scene is when he travels to England and visits Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel. At one point, Queen Margaret is rumored to have had an affair with him, but Wallace writes a letter to King Edward declaring she is virtuous, for which he is later thanked by her brother, the King of France when Wallace goes to France for support in Scotland’s cause. Wallace’s death scene is quickly brushed over—there are no explicit and gruesome details as there are in Braveheart.

The comic book version of Sir William Wallace’s death at a scaffold – no ripping out of entrails like in Braveheart.

One final interesting part of the novel is that the action begins with a box containing a secret that comes into Wallace’s possession and that he protects throughout the novel. In the end, it’s revealed that the regalia of Scotland is contained in the box. One wonders whether this mystery in the novel had any influence on Sir Walter Scott’s desire to find the regalia of Scotland, which he later located hidden away in Edinburgh Castle.

Ultimately, I have read a lot of Sir Walter Scott and I can well believe The Scottish Chiefs inspired him, but it is often as dull as James Fenimore Cooper’s novels and it reminded me a great deal of The Last of the Mohicans—especially in the scene where Helen is abducted and later rescued and led through the forest, including a dangerous journey over a bridge. One has to wonder how our ancestors could have been so taken by this novel, or even those of Scott and Cooper, but historical fiction was new then, and they had no movies to watch and no better historical novelists to read. These authors were pioneers of their time, and while I doubt anyone but literary historians are interested in them now (supposedly The Scottish Chiefs remains popular among Scottish children, but I doubt it’s any more popular than other books like Ivanhoe and The Last of the Mohicans which are also often published in children’s classics editions, but remain largely unread and not enjoyed if read. I read them as a child and found them dull and still do.) Nevertheless, Porter deserves a higher place in the history of historical fiction than she has so far been granted.

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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.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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New Biography Shows Fascinating Parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon’s new biography, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley provides a fascinating look into the lives of these two remarkable, though often misunderstood and maligned, women who were groundbreaking writers of the Romantic and ultimately the Feminist movements. The book is newly published this year by Random House, and while much of what it contains is the same biographical information provided in other books, Gordon has provided much more powerful connections between this mother and daughter by discussing them both in the same book.

"Romantic Outlaws," a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother's influence on her daughter.

“Romantic Outlaws,” a new biography, uses alternating chapters to explore the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and the mother’s influence on her daughter.

I decided to read this book because while I have studied and written about Mary Shelley, most notably her novels Frankenstein and The Last Man, and also about her father William Godwin’s novel St. Leon, in my own book The Gothic Wanderer. I have also read Shelley’s other novels—Valperga, Mathilde, Lodore, and Perkin Warbeck (I have yet to read Falkland)—and I wanted a better sense of how her life influenced those novels, especially after finding some comments about how her husband Percy Shelley influenced her depiction of Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to the throne, believed to have been Richard, Duke of York, one of the princes in the tower. I knew a lot about Mary Shelley’s biography but I had never sat down and read a full biography all the way through, and I wanted more insight into her life especially after the well-known years she was married to Percy Shelley, since the bulk of her writing occurred after his death.

So I intended to buy a biography of Mary Shelley, but then I stumbled on this book which also discussed her mother, whom I felt I really didn’t know much about. I knew Wollstonecraft had written some famous treatises and a couple of novels and of her affairs with Gilbert Imlay and Fuseli, but I was intrigued by the idea that she had a huge influence, despite being dead, on Mary Shelley’s life, and I thought it would be interesting to understand that influence better.

Romantic Outlaws is divided into alternating chapters about Wollstonecraft’s life and then Mary Shelley’s life. To some extent, Gordon has done this to tie together similarities and influences from mother to daughter, and that is apparent in a few places, but in others, less so. I have mixed feelings about this structure. Some other reviewers have complained that they had just get interested in one woman when the story flipped to the other woman. That is true, and at times, I got so caught up reading about Mary Shelley that when the chapter changed to be about Mary Wollstonecraft, I momentarily was confused which “Mary” was being referred to, but I quickly realized my mistake. It is possible the book would feel more organized if the book were divided in half, as two books in one, the first about Wollstonecraft, the second about Mary Shelley, but perhaps readers would ignore half then and only read the other half. Gordon made a decision to organize the book in this way, and despite its faults, it does have some advantages and did help to make the influence of Wollstonecraft on her daughter, as well as on Mary’s stepsister and half-sister and Percy Shelley, much more clear. I don’t think I would have ended up understanding Mary Shelley as well without having read so extensively about Wollstonecraft, and I think Gordon really showed that influence in a more complete way than any of the other books I have previously read about Mary Shelley.

I did learn a lot more about Mary Shelley than I knew in terms of her relationships, but I also was disappointed in the later chapters about her. Once Percy Shelley drowns, Gordon quickly wraps up the last half of Shelley’s life in a few chapters, which I wish had been spread out more. For example, she makes one passing reference to Mary Shelley’s friendship with the Carlyles, but I would have liked to know more about that friendship. I was also hoping to learn a little about her friendship with Frances Trollope, mother to the novelist Anthony Trollope and a novelist in her own write, but Frances Trollope is not even mentioned. Perkin Warbeck is only mentioned in passing. There is a little analysis of the other novels, but not what they warrant, especially in the case of The Last Man, which is arguably, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, although I do appreciate that Gordon refers to it as the single voice of protest against war and manifest destiny in this time period. I suspect part of why these later years are brushed over is because Wollstonecraft’s life did not provide enough detail to provide more alternating chapters to juxtapose with Shelley’s, or maybe Shelley’s life was simply not as fascinating once her husband died, and Gordon was more interested in events than literary analysis. In any case, I was disappointed that I did not get out of this book what I initially wanted.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a novelist with a revolutionary pen who fought for the rights of women and left a tremendous legacy that would ultimately fuel the modern feminist movement.

That said, I got a lot that I did not expect in regards to Mary Shelley. I especially appreciated the discussions of Frankenstein and its composition. Gordon makes clear that while Percy Shelley did do some editing of Frankenstein, it is less than the editing done to many famous books, such as The Great Gatsby, and furthermore, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein was heavily rewritten by Mary Shelley, years after Percy Shelley’s death, and made to be much darker in tone. Charges that Percy Shelley was the genius behind Frankenstein have hopefully now finally been laid to rest. I have always thought it ridiculous he should get so much credit anyway since his own novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, while written before he was twenty, are far inferior to Mary Shelley’s first novel, which she wrote at about the same age. Percy Shelley was no great fiction writer and even his poetry I have usually found tedious with a few exceptions. Furthermore, as Gordon makes clear, Mary grew up in a very literary home and would have inherited her parents’ talent and have developed writing skills early from all the reading she did and her father’s influence. She knew her mother’s writings well and this no doubt developed her literary skills. I suspect had Percy Shelley never entered the picture, she would have been a writer regardless given her family background, and while Gordon doesn’t mention it, Mary’s half-brother, William Godwin, Jr. (another person I wish Gordon had spent more time on) wrote a novel also. They were a literary family, regardless of Percy Shelley being involved with them.

But the most valuable part of this book is the treatment of Mary Wollstonecraft. I grew to have so much respect for her. Yes, perhaps she acted like a stalker in her pursuit of Fuseli, but she also was a true revolutionary, trying to create a new world for women. Whatever faults she had I think we can dismiss as being the result of the confines of her time and the strain she experienced in going against the grain of her society. As Gordon says in the book’s conclusion of both women, “They asserted their right to determine their own destinies, starting a revolution that has yet to end.” I will not go into details here about how they did this, but will instead encourage people to read the book.

Finally, what I found fascinating about Gordon’s book was her treatment of how literary legacies are fought over. She discusses Godwin’s biography of Wollstonecraft, his desire to publish a biography before anyone else, and the harm it did to his wife’s reputation, despite his intending otherwise. Gordon also makes passing reference to how women who might be inspired by Wollstonecraft’s ideas were treated in the literature of the time, notably Harriet Freake in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). That said, both of those characters, while meeting bad ends, have been read by modern literary scholars less as a condemnation of Wollstonecraft’s ideals and more as a subversive statement of how women were treated—a point Gordon overlooks. I wish again that more literary analysis had been included in this case, especially since The Wanderer is a feminist masterpiece in my opinion, as I discuss in more detail in my book The Gothic Wanderer, and I would have liked more comparison between Wollstonecraft and Burney, who was arguably the greatest female novelist of the late eighteenth century and very much a woman who used her novels to champion women, even if in more subtle ways—yet, while Gordon never directly says so, when she cites the female novels of the day that Wollstonecraft disapproved of, it often sounded like she was referring to plots found in Burney’s novels.

Mary Shelley also had to fight to preserve her husband’s literary legacy, and in many ways, she chose to whitewash it to remove the scandal and atheism Percy Shelley was known for. Similarly, Gordon explores how Mary Shelley’s own literary legacy has changed over the years. Ultimately, both of her subjects were rediscovered in the 1970s and today have been given their place in the canon of British literature, a place well-deserved.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband's shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Mary Shelley, too often in her husband’s shadow, was devoted to preserving and cultivating the Romantic legacy. Today, she is acknowledged as one of the greatest Romantic writers.

Personally, I found Romantic Outlaws to be a valuable and eye-opening book. It adds to and expands on the conversation about these two fascinating women, and it leaves room for further exploration. I will definitely be reading Wollstonecraft’s novels now, and Romantic Outlaws also made me want to read more of Godwin’s work. In truth, I found the book hard to put down, and while I wish it had even more information about these women, at 547 pages of primary text, it is a good length and reads with excellent pacing. Both informative and entertaining, Romantic Outlaws is literary biography made to read almost like a novel (in a few places early in the book I felt like Gordon bordered on fiction in presenting viewpoints of the subjects in the book, something she’s been charged with in her biography Mistress Bradstreet). My criticisms of this book are minor really when placed aside the tremendous amount of research and the vivacity of the presentation throughout that Gordon has accomplished. I was won over by Gordon’s style, and since I am a fan of Anne Bradstreet (and relative), I will be interested in reading that Gordon biography in the near future. Most importantly, Gordon has achieved what she set out to accomplish—to convince her readers of the powerful voices these two women had and to help us better understand them and their time.

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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 Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism, Mary Shelley