Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: Emmeline by Charlotte Smith

Welcome Gothic Lit Tour Visitors!
This post is part of the Classics Circuit's Gothic Lit Tour, in which different bloggers review different works of classic Gothic Literature on different days. I (Christina) am reviewing Emmeline by Charlotte Smith.

Full title: Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle

: As a serial in four parts, 1788

It's about: Sweet, beautiful orphan Emmeline Mowbray, illegitimate daughter of a Lord, has been raised by servants in a castle in Wales. As a teenager she is visited by her uncle, Lord Montreville, and his son, Delamere. Delamere is immediately seized with an uncontrollable, passionate love for Emmeline, and he asks her to marry him. Lord Montreville does not approve of such an unequal match, and Emmeline doesn't return her cousin's affections anyway, so they agree to spirit her away in the night to a secret location. Delamere discovers said location and follows. Emmeline runs to another place. Delamere follows. And so on.

In her continual attempts to escape Delamere's professions of undying love, Emmeline meets many new friends and becomes involved in the secret lives of several well-connected families. Despite the fact that she lacks money, connections, and a title, no one can resist her modest charms, beauty, good manners, etc. Several young gentlemen fall in love with her. There are duels and rumors of duels, seductions and rumors of seductions, weasely social climbers, fortuitous meetings in the woods. It's a long book.

A young teenage Jane Austen read Emmeline (it was hugely popular at the time). She mentions Delamere and Emmeline in her History of England, which she wrote in 1791 when she was fifteen. Austen later parodied Emmeline with Northanger Abbey.

I thought: Well, first of all, I've got to give a shout out to Loraine Fletcher for this excellent edition of a fairly obscure novel. She writes one of the most informative introductions I've ever read, providing an extremely useful historical background, the critical and popular response to Emmeline when it was published, and lots of pertinent biographical information about the fascinating Charlotte Smith. Plus there are footnotes throughout, explaining things I've always wondered about when reading Austen and Dickens: references to contemporary literature, the meanings of various titles, euphemisms for pregnancy and adultery, and which kind of carriage is which. Then there are a bunch of appendices with still more relevant material. My appreciation of the story is infinitely greater thanks to Ms. Fletcher. Awesome! Lady, you rule!

Three interesting things that I wouldn't have picked up on without the fantastic introduction:

1. Charlotte Smith wrote herself into this novel with a character, Mrs. Stafford, who shares her initials and many of the difficulties and injustices she suffered in her life. And it's not a secret- Mrs. Smith readily admitted to it, and the self-reference is meant to be obvious; Charlotte Smith wanted people to sympathize with Mrs. Stafford and, by extension, herself. Mrs. Stafford in honorable and sympathetic, really above reproach in every way. I'm pretty amused by the idea that an author would write an idealized version of herself into a novel, and it got me wondering whether authors do this nowadays, only more sneakily.

2. Charlotte Smith's early feminism. Well, okay, maybe I would have noticed this even without being told by Ms. Fletcher; it's not all that subtle. Emmeline can be interpreted as a tirade against early arranged marriages. (Check out my favorite excerpt for a pretty blunt statement by one teenage bride.) It's also a critique of women's pitiable reliance on men during this period, and especially the hopeless situation suffered by the wives and children of irresponsible gambling men. These issues are close to Charlotte Smith's heart, since her own life was terribly complicated by her husband's debts. Plus she had like 17 kids or something. Oyvay

3. Sensibility. I never really understood that being physically weak was actually a virtue during this period. Admirable women of status (and men, too!) had extremely physical reactions like fainting, fevers, and fits, when they were faced with emotionally taxing experiences, like unexpectedly meeting a long-lost lover or being rebuffed in love. What I would consider pathetic weakness was, to Charlotte Smith's audience, expected and even admired! (And, by the way, this brings a whole new level to my understanding of other literary and historical characters, like Marianne Dashwood and those awful girls in The Crucible.)

There aren't any monsters or murderers here, and that surprised me given Emmeline's inclusion in the "Gothic Literature" subheading. The horrors Emmeline faces are all related to seduction and, most of all, defamation. My, how times have changed. I think this is one reason Emmeline isn't a timeless classic, adored by the masses through the ages. It's hard for a modern reader to really view the titular character as a heroine (though she is undeniable good, loyal and selfless), when so much of her plight relates to a sense of honor that we just don't really have in modern society. The book is well-plotted and pretty easy to to read, but just not terribly engaging. It's nearly 500 pages of fine print, and almost all the action is misunderstanding and gossip and lots and lots of fainting fits. It can be read as an early feminist tract or a testament to the value of open and honest communication. If you're really interested in the period, you'll love it. But I found myself just wanting to kick all these melodramatic yet emotionally constipated people. I wanted them to all sit down in a room together and air their dirty laundry once and for all. But of course, that just didn't happen in English Society in the late 1700's.

Verdict: In between. A+ for the introduction. The novel itself is a little tedious- it took me nearly a month to read it.

Reading Recommendations: If you LOVE this period, check out Emmeline. Here are a few interesting wikipedia articles:
Charlotte Smith

Warnings: Uh, lots and lots of ridiculous fainting.

Favorite excerpts: "For my own part, I saw his follies; but none that I did not equally perceive in the conduct of other young men. Tho' I had no absolute partiality to him, I was totally indifferent to every other man. I married him, therefore; and gave away my person before I knew I had an heart." (my emphasis)

What I'm reading next: The Other Side: Stories by E. Thomas Finan