Sunday, August 24, 2014

Excessive women: The novels of Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, and Elizabeth Inchbald


Part 3: Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791)

A flirtatious beauty with an illicit passion for a man educated for the priesthood: it's a description of Elizabeth Inchbald, who (like Eliza Haywood and Charlotte Lennox) spent time on the stage, married an older man while still in her teens to maintain her respectability, and turned to writing out of financial necessity.

Mrs. Inchbald met the handsome, charismatic John Kemble when he joined the acting company that she and her husband belonged to. Kemble, brother of the actress Sarah Siddons, had trained for the priesthood but instead turned to the stage; he went on to become a famous Hamlet and Macbeth. He was 20 years younger than Inchbald's husband. Soon after Inchbald meets him, according to her biographer James Boaden, she "has almost daily differences with Mr. Inchbald; and visits as constantly from Mr. Kemble." [1]

We can further guess at Inchbald's feelings for Kemble because a few weeks after meeting him she began to outline the novel that became the first part of A Simple Story. In it, a flirtatious beauty, Miss Milner, falls in love with her 30-year-old guardian Dorriforth, a Catholic priest.

The parallels between Kemble and Dorriforth are highly suggestive: both are educated at a Jesuit English College in France, both are intended for the priesthood, and both are the objects of forbidden passion. Inchbald's love for Kemble was adulterous, while Miss Milner's for Dorriforth is triply taboo since he is her guardian, a Catholic (she is a Protestant), and a priest.

Miss Milner is described by another character as "a young, idle, indiscreet, giddy girl, with half a dozen lovers in her suite." [2] When the 18-year-old woman goes to live with Dorriforth on the death of her father, her pleasure-loving ways soon put them on a collision course. Dorriforth is a sober and earnest man who values "prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance." [3]

But familiarity breeds attraction: despite their apparently mismatched sensibilities, Miss Milner soon discovers that she has fallen passionately in love with Dorriforth. And one of the barriers to their union is removed when Dorriforth's elder brother Lord Elmwood dies unexpectedly; as the new Lord Elmwood, Dorriforth receives a dispensation from his vows of celibacy so that he can marry. However, another impediment soon arises in the form of a rival, Miss Fenton, whom it becomes clear Lord Elmwood intends to wed as soon as the mourning period for his brother is over.

Miss Milner has a key advantage over her rival, though: proximity. Since she lives with Lord Elmwood, he soon discovers how she feels about him, and comes to realize that he has long felt the same way about her. But this change in their relationship is not a happy one. Once Miss Milner is sure of him, she begins to act in a willful and headstrong way:
...she, who as his ward, had been ever gentle, and (when he strenuously opposed) always obedient; he now found as a mistress, sometimes haughty; and to opposition, always insolent. [4]
An invitation to a masquerade ball brings their quarrels to a head. Miss Milner is eager to attend, but Lord Elmwood forbids it. Miss Milner declares to her companion Miss Woodley her intention to go despite Lord Elmwood's prohibition. Miss Woodley remonstrates with her:
"But you know, my dear, he has desired you not—and you always used to obey his commands."
"As my guardian, I certainly did obey him; and I could obey him as a husband; but as a lover, I will not."
"Yet that is the means, never to have him for a husband." [5]
Be forewarned that there is no way for me to talk about the rest of the novel without revealing spoilers, so don't read on if you don't want to know what happens.

Miss Milner's disobedience causes a breach between them, and Lord Elmwood resolves to travel abroad to forget her. On the day he is to leave, though, and with his carriage at the door, they each realize how reluctant they are to part—and resolve to stay together forever as man and wife. And by happy chance Lord Elmwood's friend (and Miss Milner's former antagonist), the priest Sandford, is there to preside over an impromptu marriage ceremony.
Never was there a more rapid change from despair to happiness—to happiness most supreme—than was that, which Miss Milner, and Lord Elmwood experienced within one single hour. [6]
There is one troubling omen to disturb the felicity of the day, however. During their impromptu marriage ceremony Lord Elmwood realizes that they have no wedding ring; he takes a ring he's wearing and places it on her finger:
[She] felt an excruciating shock; when, looking on the ring Lord Elmwood had put on her finger, in haste, when he married her, she perceived it was a—MOURNING RING." [7]
END. Do not read on—or be forever scarred!

The copy of A Simple Story that I checked out of the library had this foreboding comment written at the end of the final chapter of the first part of the novel, and it took me a day or two before I could make up my mind to continue. The mourning ring and the scrawled warning presaged tragedy, suffering and death. And indeed those occur—on the very next page. But the novel still has two more volumes and almost 150 pages to go, and the aftermath of these events on another generation of characters to portray.

It's not known whether Jane Austen read A Simple Story, although we know that she was familiar with Inchbald's melodrama Lover's Vows (1798). Inchbald's play also features a young woman in love with a priest; a proposed household performance of the play is a key sequence in Mansfield Park (1814). There is a fascinating post on Lover's Vows and its role in Mansfield Park on Austenonly.

There may also be an echo of A Simple Story in another Austen novel: a beautiful and headstrong young heroine who disregards the admonishments of an older male mentor figure may sound familiar to readers of Emma.


In Miss Milner, Inchbald created a character who seems to be largely a self-portrait: a woman who is boldly willing to profess her desires and who does not always meekly assent to male authority. That Miss Milner gets to marry the object of her forbidden love is perhaps wish-fulfillment; that things do not end well for the couple is perhaps Inchbald's acknowledgment that, as in her own life, events in reality rarely work out as we might hope.

Last time: Charlotte Lennox and The Female Quixote

The time before that: Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess

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1. James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald, 1833, v. 1, p. 76.
2. Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story, Vol. I, Ch. II.
3. A Simple Story, Vol. I, Ch. I.
4. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. VII.
5. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. VIII.
6. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. XII.
7. A Simple Story, Vol. II, Ch. XII.

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