Saturday, May 27, 2017

More popular than Hamilton: A history of opera


Opera is an art form that is absurd and incongruous—or, as Samuel Johnson had it, "exotic and irrational." Accompanied by an orchestra, characters sing to one another to express their feelings. They fall in love at first sight. They can behave either in an unrealistically magnanimous, noble and self-sacrificing way, or very, very badly indeed. And often the heroine (sometimes together with the hero) ends up dead.

Given its patent lack of realism or uplift, what explains opera's popularity over four centuries? And yes, I did say "popularity." The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently announced that its paid attendance for the 2016-17 season averaged a disappointing 75 percent. The company staged 225 performances (of 26 operas) in a house with a 3800-seat capacity, not counting standing room. That means that in this sub-par season the Met still sold more than 640,000 opera tickets.

For comparison, let's take a look at one of the most popular shows in Broadway history, Hamilton. Seven to eight shows a week is more than 400 performances in a year, almost twice as many as the Met stages. And yet this year Hamilton sold fewer than 550,000 tickets. Yes: by the measure of tickets sold, opera is more popular than Hamilton. [1]

Despite this, opera is continually in crisis—mainly because no matter how many tickets are sold, the costs for mounting opera are higher than ticket sales can cover. The average ticket price at the Met is $158.50, yielding box-office revenue for 2016-17 of more than $100 million. But the Met's annual budget is over $300 million. The shortfall is covered by the generosity (and vanity) of rich donors and by wringing salary and benefit concessions from the artists and crews whose long-cultivated talents and hard work actually make the shows happen. It's no wonder that in the first half of the 18th century Handel's London opera companies went broke twice, even though he was producing the greatest operas of his time (his own).

For writers looking back over the colorful 400-year history of opera, its continual struggle against reality in all its forms would seem to be very rich material. And the latest attempt to capture the intersection of artistic, social and economic forces on the opera stage, Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker's A History of Opera (W. W. Norton, 2012), was widely praised on its initial publication. An updated second edition was published last year; in Opera News reviewer Fred Cohn called it "as good a survey of the art form as any I’ve read." [2]

In any one-volume treatment of such a vast and complex subject, certain elisions and simplifications will be inevitable. But I was brought up short just a few pages into the introductory chapter when Abbate and Parker write,
The aria. . .is a static mode. It is fundamentally about contemplation, and through contemplation the communication of mood to the audience. . .In some sense, then, arias stop time—they let nothing else happen while they unfold, allowing us to sample a kind of internal time, one in which the character's mind reveals itself. And what is said here about arias goes equally for all the contemplative parts of the opera: the duets, trios, and bigger ensembles.
Curiously, they don't mention the expression of emotion, which is what I would have said that arias are "fundamentally about." They go on to qualify their observation by saying that "one of the great departures of nineteenth-century opera is that all these fixed forms may be liable to injections of outside action" (p. 25).

Counterexamples from before the nineteenth century come immediately to mind. Thinking only of Mozart and Da Ponte's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), for example, the Countess's third-act "Dove sono" seems at first to be a straightforward aria of (melancholy) remembrance. As she looks back to the days of her courtship and early marriage, she asks, "What happened to those lovely moments / Of sweetness and pleasure?" But towards the end of the aria, the tone shifts: "Perhaps my faithful soul / Which still loves despite its suffering / Can give me the hope / Of changing his ungrateful heart!" In this section Mozart especially emphasizes the word speranza: hope. This aria is its own four-minute drama, in which a neglected and unhappy wife finds the resolution to try to win back her husband's love. It is hardly dramatically static or simply contemplative or merely mood-setting:



(Renée Fleming as the Countess in the 1994 Glyndebourne Opera production directed by Stephen Medcalf and designed by John Gunter, with the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink.)

And as for the 19th century's "great departure" of injecting action into ensembles, the Act II finale in Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic masterpiece in which, each time it seems that the Countess has made the Count ashamed of his jealous suspicions and Figaro and Susannah have finally won his acquiescence to their marriage, new characters burst in that completely upend the dramatic situation and throw everything into doubt:


(Hermann Prey as Figaro, Mirella Freni as Susannah, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Count, Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, Hans Kraemmer as Antonio the gardener, Paolo Montarsolo as Dr. Bartolo, Heather Begg as Marcellina, and John van Kesteren as Basilio in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1976 film, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm.)

Perhaps, you may be thinking, Abbate and Parker were referring to those benighted operas written before Mozart's time. But in Handel and the Opera Seria (a work that does not appear in Abbate and Parker's bibliography) Winton Dean says that in Handel's works the aria is "a means of dramatic expression" (p. 152). He goes on to detail the many ways in which arias in Handel operas illuminate character, reveal intentions, and, yes, dramatize emotion and conflict.

So Abbate and Parker's generalization does not withstand scrutiny. There are other errors of fact and judgment as well:
  • "For a long time, the historical 'first' in this genre [of German-language opera] was said to be Heinrich Schütz's Dafne of 1627. . .the fact that Schütz was an established master of severe church music made him a particularly attractive candidate" (p. 64).

    More to the point, perhaps, Schütz studied in Venice with Gabrieli and, later, with Monteverdi. With such training it shouldn't be a surprise that he attempted opera. Not to mention that it has never been unusual for composers to write for both the theater and the church: Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini did so as well. And, to my ears, Schütz's sacred music is anything but severe: listen to the sensuously intertwining voices in "Auf dem Gebirge" from Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Music for Choir); this could be an operatic love duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLMds0Skz4w
  • ". . .the version [of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689)] that has survived is one arranged for performance at a girls' boarding school in London" (p. 66).

    Not quite. Nothing is known about the performance for which the earliest surviving score was prepared. That score has been dated after 1748, but it is probably based on an earlier source. The earliest surviving libretto is a single copy from that girls' school performance in 1689, and it is not known whether there was any earlier staging (so to describe it as "arranged" for this performance is misleading). There are textual differences between the score and the libretto, so in any case there is no single version of this work. [3]
  • The authors state that in the later 18th-century opera seria had "not changed much since Handel's day. . .with the action likely to be an evening-long celebration of the status quo, the final curtain closing as an absolute ruler heaps boundless wisdom and mercy on his humble subjects" (p. 127).

    As a characterization of opera seria in Handel's day or any other, this is perhaps deliberately cartoonish. It does not describe, for example, many of the serious operas of Vivaldi, Jommelli, Handel or Haydn. This characterization does seem to betray, though, an unwillingness on the part of the authors to engage seriously with serious opera.
Such sweeping and unfounded generalizations about opera in the years before 1800 might lead you to suspect that Baroque and classical opera aren't really the focus of Abbate and Parker's attention. You'd be right. There are two chapters and 54 pages (or less than 10% out of 567 pages of text) devoted to opera's first 150 years of development; as many chapters and more pages are devoted to Wagner alone. [4]

Opera before 1750 encompasses the works of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Lully, Charpentier, Purcell, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Rameau, and Handel, not to mention composers such as Bononcini, Hasse, Jommelli, Leo, Pergolesi, Porpora and Vinci. Most of these composers are ignored. Monteverdi and Cavalli receive glancing attention; a few of the others are the subject of a sentence, a paragraph or a page. Handel is the primary focus of an entire section, but it is only 12 pages long (Wagner gets nearly five times as much space).

Moving into the second half of the eighteenth century, Haydn's operas go completely unmentioned. From this book you would have no idea that Mozart was only the seventh-most-popular opera composer in Vienna, after Paisiello, Martin y Soler, Cimarosa, Guglielmi, Sarti, and Salieri. Salieri, Cimarosa and Paisiello are granted one-sentence mentions; the other composers in that list aren't acknowledged.

In short, if you are interested in a history of the culture of opera and of opera's place in culture, this isn't the place to look. As an example of where the authors direct their attention, the "inexorable rise in the power and prestige of music publishers," a hugely important development in the later 19th century, is confined to a single remark (and a parenthetical one at that). In the very next paragraph, Wagner's "penchant for silk" is discussed at length, including a substantial quotation from one of his letters (p. 343).

Another odd emphasis is the profusion of film references scattered throughout the text. The chapter on Mozart begins with a lengthy description of a scene from the Coen Brothers' The Shawshank Redemption that features prisoners listening to the duet "Canzonetta sull' aria" from Le Nozze di Figaro; the very first illustration in the book is a still from this movie. But at least this reference is used to make a point about the sheer beauty of Mozart's music complicating and deepening our responses to the opera's comedy. [5]



(Renée Fleming as the Countess and Alison Hagley as Susannah in the 1994 Glyndebourne Opera production. The Countess dictates a letter to be sent from Susannah to the Count arranging a meeting that night in the garden; an English translation of the words might be: "'A song on the breeze: A gentle zephyr/This evening will sigh/Beneath the pines in the grove.' The rest he'll understand." Susannah agrees: "Certainly, the rest he'll understand.")

Other film references strain to make a point. Sure, perhaps the existence of Laurel and Hardy's The Devil's Brother/Bogus Bandits (1933), an adaptation of Auber and Scribe's Fra Diavolo, makes a point about the once widespread but now faded popularity of that opera. But what does the performance of "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Le barbiere di Siviglia in Broadway Melody of 1938, or Lauritz Melchior singing "Winterstürme" from Wagner's Die Walkure in the Jane Powell vehicle Luxury Liner (1948) signify, other than that these are famous and readily excerpted arias?

And despite the authors' apparent encyclopedic enthusiasm for movies featuring opera, they miss some highly pertinent examples. "Largo al factotum," for example, features in Peter Yates' 1982 film Breaking Away (not mentioned by Abbate and Parker) where it is not a standalone showpiece but an expression of townie Dennis Christopher's love of bicycle racing and also his social and romantic aspirations. Speaking of Rossini, Chuck Jones' great Rabbit of Seville is mentioned, but mysteriously absent is his even more brilliant Wagner parody What's Opera Doc? ("Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!") And while we hear about the use of the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Fritz Lang's Blue Gardenia and in Lars von Trier's Melancholia, inexplicably the authors don't discuss its incorporation into Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of obsessive love, Vertigo.

In the final chapter the authors pull together a more extensive discussion of opera on film (although they ignore its place on television). ". . .[T]o track 'opera' in cinema over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is to see a kind of seismographic trace of its place in culture." They point to examples primarily from the first two decades of sound film and note that in more recent times opera appears more rarely in movies and when it does has generally become a signifier of "European elitism." "If the movie seismograph is correct," they write, "this falling-away on the part of the general public has been going on for more than fifty years" (pp. 548-549). This analysis conveniently ignores movies from the past two or three decades where opera plays a more complicated or different role, such as Moonstruck, Pretty Woman, La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful), Quantum of Solace, or, indeed, The Shawshank Redemption. And if TV is included, what are we to make of Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from Turandot becoming the theme of the World Cup, watched by billions?

The authors do occasionally offer some interesting insights. Among them:
  • "Amid competition from increasingly revered masterpieces, writing new operas became ever more perilous" (p. 373). About opera after 1950? No—after 1850, when the programming at La Scala in Milan became dominated by revivals of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. Concerns about the dearth of viable new operas are nothing new, it seems.
  • In recent years with the rise of broadcasts of live opera into cinemas there has been a supposedly new emphasis on eliciting convincing, realistic acting (and not just beautiful singing) from opera stars. But the authors point out that this was an important concern of both Verdi and Wagner, and indeed the basis of critiques of singers in 18th-century French tragédie-lyrique (p. 398). I would go back even further and point to Monteverdi's famous letter to librettist Alessandro Striggio in 1616, in which he asks for realistic characters for whom he can write music that will "move the passions": "Ariadne moved the audience because she was a woman, and similarly Orpheus because he was a man. . ." [6]
  • The authors suggest that one reason for the theatrical effectiveness of Puccini's operas is their "blatant discontinuity" and lack of concern for "trivial narrative coherence." They give the example of Manon Lescaut, in which we never see Manon and Des Grieux during their blissful days of love. Instead we witness their meeting in Act I, and at the beginning of Act II discover that, after their breakup, Manon is living with another (richer, older) man (pp. 416-417). Another opera that reinforces this apparently paradoxical point is La Bohème, where we witness Mimi and Rodolfo vowing to stay together at the end of Act III, and at the beginning of Act IV discover that, after their breakup, she is living with another (richer, older) man. Puccini had a relentless focus on dramatic momentum, and to maintain it cut an entire act from La Bohème.
    But a few good insights can't redeem the whole book. Abbate and Parker's A History of Opera is actually quite old-fashioned: in their view operatic history begins in earnest with Mozart, hits the bel canto high points of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and reaches its apotheosis with Verdi and (especially) Wagner. Both authors are 19th-century specialists, and it shows: in this book it's as though the rediscovery of Baroque opera that's occurred over the past 50 years or so never happened. Most of the text is devoted to retelling 19th-century opera plots and pointing out musical details. Sometimes those details can be illuminating, but what's missing is a fuller sense of opera's context, significance and history.

    The death of opera has been reported many times, and each time the reports have been greatly exaggerated. Opera will survive as long as humans are susceptible to beauty and to the emotional power of music. To prove the point, Lucia Popp as Susannah from the Act IV garden scene of Le Nozze di Figaro:



    (From the 1980 production at the Paris Opera conducted by Georg Solti. A translation of the words: "At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, leave my heart, and do not trouble my delight. Oh! I feel this place, the earth and the sky, are responding to love's fire; the night conceals my secret joy. Come, my love, do not delay: love's joy awaits you. The sky is dark and all is hushed. Here the brook murmurs; the breeze plays, whose sighs soothe my beating heart; the flowers smile and the grass is cool; everything invites us to love. Come my beloved, amid these sheltering trees, and I will crown you with roses.")


    1. Opera is also more popular by the measure of ticket revenue: Over the same number of performances, 225, the Metropolitan Opera took in more money at the box office than Hamilton (more than $100 million versus less than $90 million)—despite the average ticket price at Hamilton being almost twice that at the Met ($300 vs. $158.50).
    2. Fred Cohn, A History of Opera [review], Opera News, Vol. 80 No. 9, March 2016: https://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2016/3/Departments/Chronicle_Plays.html
    3. The textual and musical sources of the opera are described in detail in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas by Ellen Harris (Oxford University Press, 1987) and Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: An Opera edited by Curtis Price (W. W. Norton, 1986), neither of which appears in Abbate and Parker's bibliography. 
    4. For comparison's sake, opera before Gluck is covered in 252 pages (out of 785 pages of text, or about one-third of the total) in A Short History of Opera, 4th ed. by Donald Grout and Hermine Weigel Williams (Columbia University Press, 2003), and in 85 pages (out of 364 pages of text, or about one-quarter of the total) in Opera: A History by Christopher Headington, Roy Westbrook and Terry Barfoot (St. Martin's, 1987).
    5. Although one of the characters says that "I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid." In fact, this duet happens at a dramatically crucial point in the opera and sets in motion the action which will conclude it—again, so much for the static nature of song in opera. As for the beauty of Mozart's music complicating the comedy of Da Ponte's libretto, Bernard Williams makes this point more tellingly in his brilliant essay on Cosi fan tutte published in On Opera (Yale University Press, 2006).
    6. Quoted in The New Monteverdi Companion, edited by Dennis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, Faber and Faber, 1985, pp. 34-35.

    Saturday, May 20, 2017

    "What have I to do now but to learn to suffer?": Charlotte Smith


    Charlotte Smith, by George Romney, 1792 (detail)

    Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, described their family as "great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so." Among the novels Austen read were those of Charlotte Smith. In Austen's The History of England, written in 1790 or -91 when she was about fifteen, she compares Queen Elizabeth I and her cavalier servente Robert Devereux to Emmeline Mowbray and Frederic Delamere, characters in Smith's first novel Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788). Emmeline is, of course, the heroine, and Delamere is her importunate, impulsive and jealous lover. [1]

    History of England

    Page from Jane Austen's The History of England mentioning Frederic Delamere and Emmeline;
    image courtesy of The British Library

    There is also evidence that Austen read other books by Charlotte Smith as well: I think I will be able to show some suggestive parallels to Celestina (1791) in particular. Indeed it would be remarkable if a "great novel-reader" and lifelong circulating library subscriber had not encountered the work of Smith, a prolific and popular writer from the mid-1780s through the first years of the 1800s.

    Charlotte Turner Smith's life and hard times

    Charlotte Turner was born in 1749 into a well-to-do family. But her mother died when she was three, and over the next decade while Charlotte and her siblings were being raised by her mother's sister Lucy her father ran up substantial debts.

    When Charlotte was fifteen her father married a middle-aged heiress, Henrietta Meriton. Charlotte and her stepmother clashed from the first, and after six months—still ten weeks before her sixteenth birthday—Charlotte married Benjamin Smith. Benjamin's father Richard was an affluent merchant, a director of the East India Company, and the owner of plantations in Barbados—and, of course, of the slaves who worked them.

    If in her marriage to Benjamin, Charlotte hoped to find happiness—or even just relief and solace—she was quickly disappointed. He was a heavy drinker, a womanizer and a spendthrift with a violent temper, and Charlotte was regularly pregnant (over two decades of marriage she would give birth to twelve children).

    Richard Smith was under no illusions about his son, and when he died in 1776 he left the bulk of his wealth to his grandchildren instead. But along with Richard's second wife (Charlotte's aunt Lucy) and Charlotte herself, Benjamin was one of the will's executors. This was unwise: to cover his mounting debts he embezzled more than £10,000—a vast sum in the 18th century—from his own children's legacies. He was arrested and sent to prison in 1783, and Charlotte joined him there for much of the seven months of his imprisonment. Other relatives took control of Richard's estate, and the will was never settled in Charlotte's lifetime.

    She turned to writing to try to improve the family's fortunes (and, perhaps, to ensure herself of an independent income). Her Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays was published in 1784 on commission, that is, at her own risk (for an explanation of the various modes of 18th-century publishing see "Northanger Abbey and women writers and readers"). Its success (nine further editions with additional poems would be printed in her lifetime) encouraged her to continue.

    Elegiac Sonnets title page

    After her family spent the winter of 1784-85 in France avoiding Benjamin's creditors, Charlotte published two translations of works she encountered there: Prévost's scandalous Manon Lescaut (1785), which was withdrawn under moral censure (but reissued anonymously the following year), and a selection of Gayot de Pitaval's Les Causes Célèbres (Famous Cases), published under the title The Romance of Real Life (1787).

    One of the famous cases Charlotte translated was "The Marchioness de Gange," in which the title character is unjustly accused by her jealous husband of adultery, is attacked in her bedroom by her brothers-in-law (whose sexual and monetary propositions she has refused) and is forced by them to drink poison. To escape she leaps out a second-floor window and flees to a nearby cottage, only to be pursued and stabbed multiple times—an attack that only ends when the blade of the assailant's sword breaks off in her back:
    By this time the ladies were returned to the room where Madame de Gange lay weltering in blood, and, to all appearance, breathing her last. Her blood ran from her in streams; her respiration was short and laborious; but, as she was not actually dead, they thought it possible yet to assist her; and one of them went to the window, and called out for a surgeon to be immediately sent for.—On hearing which, the Abbé [one of the brothers-in-law] found their work was yet incomplete: whereupon, he rushed like a demoniac into the room, and, approaching the dying victim on the floor, snapped his pistol close to her breast; but it missed fire; and at the same instant Madame de Brunel, one of the ladies present, seized his arm and turned the pistol aside. The enraged Abbé, seeing this blow which he thought so effectual defeated, gave Madame Brunel a violent stroke with his fist, and then attempted to stun the Marchioness with the end of his pistol; but the women now all pressed round him, overwhelmed him with blows, and driving him in spite of all his efforts to the door, they thrust him out and shut it upon him. They then returned to the unhappy lady; and one of them, who knew something of surgery, staunched the blood, and took from her shoulder the end of the sword, encouraged by Madame de Gange herself, who, weak and fainting as she was, besought her to put her knee against her shoulder to force out the broken weapon.
    As one scholar has written, "This is an extraordinary scene of feminine strength, rationality, resourcefulness, solidarity, goodness, and fortitude, and of masculine lust, sadism, and desperate violence." [2]

    Masculine lust, sadism, and desperate violence might be an apt description of Benjamin Smith's behavior towards his wife. In a 1788 letter to her publisher Thomas Cadell, Charlotte spoke of his "more than usual brutality," his "fit[s] of fury," and his being "capable of any thing." From such a man, she wrote, "I and my family have every thing to fear." [3] When she realized more than £330 from The Romance of Real Life, she determined to leave her husband. The separation was a desperate step, because it was legally seen as desertion, and it meant that Benjamin was relieved of any responsibility to support his wife or the eight (of nine) surviving children who lived with her. (At age 17, their eldest surviving son William had joined the East India Company and shipped out for Bengal.) Charlotte had to rely on her writing to provide for herself and her children.

    She wrote quickly. Over the next decade she produced ten multi-volume novels, and she also produced poetry, nonfiction, and books for young readers. I've read three of her first five novels, and it's clear why they were popular: her writing is vivid, her characters are memorable, and as in the novels of Richardson and Burney, her steadfast and virtuous heroines are subjected to harrowing and suspenseful trials before they are finally united with their true loves.

    Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle 

    Emmeline title page
    As with many first novels, Emmeline has a number of autobiographical elements. It offers two portraits of unhappy marriages. The first is that of Mrs. C. Stafford, whose initials "C. S." are suggestive (as are the details of her early marriage to an incompatible man):
    . . .possessed of every reasonable means of happiness, [Mr. Stafford] dissipated that property, which ought to have secured it's continuance, in vague and absurd projects which he neither loved or understood; and his temper growing more irritable in proportion as his difficulties encreased, he sometimes treated his wife with great harshness; and did not seem to think it necessary, even by apparent kindness and attention, to excuse or soften to her his general ill conduct, or his 'battening on the moor' of low and degrading debauchery.

    Mrs. Stafford, who had been married to him at fifteen, had long been unconscious of his weakness: and when time and her own excellent understanding pressed the fatal conviction too forcibly upon her, she still, but fruitlessly, attempted to hide from others what she saw too evidently herself.

    Fear for the future fate of her children, and regret to find that she had no influence over her husband, together with the knowledge of connections to which she had till a few months before been a stranger, had given to Mrs. Stafford, whose temper was naturally extremely chearful, that air of despondence, and melancholy cast of mind, which Emmeline had remarked with so much concern on their first acquaintance. [4]
    Though Mrs. Stafford is courted by George Fitz-Edward, a friend of Frederic Delamere, she remains faithful to her unworthy husband; she cannot free herself from her marriage because male infidelity and violence were not grounds for divorce in the 18th century. [5]

    The second portrait of an unhappy marriage is that of Lady Adelina Trelawny. Like her author she loses her mother at a young age and later sees her father remarry:
    'Miss Jobson, with a tall, meagre person, a countenance bordering on the horrible, and armed with two round black eyes which she fancied beautiful, had seen her fortieth year pass. . .I was but just turned of fifteen, was full of gaiety and vivacity, and possessed those personal advantages, which, if she ever had any share of them, were long since faded. She seemed conscious that the splendour of her first appearance would be eclipsed by the unadorned simplicity of mine; and she hated me because it was not in my power to be old and ugly. Giddy as I then was, nothing but respect for my father prevented my repaying with ridicule, the supercilious style in which she usually treated me. Her vulgar manners, and awkward attempts to imitate those of people of fashion, excited my perpetual mirth; and as her dislike of me daily encreased, I am afraid I did not always conceal the contempt I felt in return.' [6]
    To escape from her stepmother and comply with her father's wish to see her independently established Lady Adelina marries the first unexceptionable man who asks her:
    '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.' [7]
    Mr. Trelawny spends his time hunting, gambling, and traveling abroad without his wife. After years of neglect Lady Adelina falls in love with another man and conceives a child by her lover. That lover is none other than. . .Fitz-Edward. Lady Adeline decides to go into seclusion:
    'After long deliberation, I saw no way to escape the disgrace which was about to overwhelm me, but hiding myself from my own family and from all the world. I determined to keep my retreat secret, even from Fitz-Edward himself; and to punish myself for my fatal attachment by tearing myself for ever from it's object.' [8]
    The implicit critique of restrictive divorce laws represented by the plights of Mrs. Stafford and Lady Adelina is quite radical for its time.

    The heroine Emmeline also goes through romantic trials, most of them due to her Lovelace-like lover Delamere, "whose ardent inclinations, whatever turn they took, were never to be a moment restrained." [9] The orphaned Emmeline has been raised by her uncle Lord Montreville, a second son who inherited his estate on the death of Emmeline's father. (Emmeline is believed to be illegitimate.) Delamere is Lord Montreville's son, who has fallen passionately in love with Emmeline; she cares for him as well, but only as a brother. Undeterred, he follows her wherever she goes, insists on forcing his company and attentions on her, and finally, with the aid of a confederate (Fitz-Edward again!) abducts her. Parallels to the romantic persecutions of Fanny Burney's Evelina and Cecilia, and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, are plain.

    As Delamere's chaise gallops northward Emmeline falls into a high fever due to "excessive weeping. . .'extreme perturbation of spirits and great fatigue.'" [10] (Smith's female characters are frequently prostrated at moments of crisis.) Delamere, in a panic, agrees to return with her rather than follow through with his dastardly plan, and his parents (who disapprove of his love for Emmeline) force them to separate.

    To paraphrase Chekhov, if in the first volume there's an orphan in a castle, in the last volume it will be revealed—spoiler alert!—that the orphan is actually the legitimate owner of the castle. On the way to this revelation (and true love with a handsome naval officer), though, there are false accusations, the unwelcome attentions of Delamere and two other suitors, misunderstandings, duels, hazardous sojourns in foreign lands, midnight pursuits, and fateful (and highly coincidental) meetings.

    More spoilers: Remarkably, after temporarily losing her reason and nearly dying, the adulterous Lady Adelina is allowed a happy ending: her profligate husband conveniently dies of dissipation, and after an appropriate period of mourning Lady Adelina is able to marry Fitz-Edward. There's a happy ending for the heroine as well: after nearly 500 pages of suffering, Emmeline finds love, wealth, and, surrounded by friends, a "perfect and lasting felicity." [11]

    Celestina

    Celestina title page
    If Emmeline looks back to the novels of Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, Celestina looks forward as well to the novels of Jane Austen. Once again the heroine is an orphan raised by a wealthy family. And once again the son of the family in which the heroine was raised falls in love with her. His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby.

    In Austen's novel when Marianne first meets Willoughby, "His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story. . .Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting.  His name was good. . ." [12] Austen seems to be deliberately drawing attention to Smith's novel, perhaps the "favourite story" Marianne is reminded of. But Willoughby's name is not Celestina's only pre-echo of Austen:
    • After Willoughby discovers his love for Celestina, he remonstrates with himself, "resolving to conquer a passion which a thousand circumstances made it the height of folly to indulge."

      In Pride and Prejudice Darcy prefaces his proposal to Elizabeth Bennet by "representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer." [13]
    • When Celestina is separated from Willoughby she muses, "Of the pleasure of living for a beloved object, though perhaps personally disunited for ever. . .she was fully sensible."

      In Persuasion, Anne Elliot tells Captain Harville, "All the privilege I claim for my own sex. . .is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone." In both novels the hero and heroine are separated for years by misunderstandings, but—spoiler alert!—reunited at the end. [14]
    • At the home of the Thorolds Celestina observes "the universal hurry of the household, except Mr. Thorold, who on these occasions retired to his study for the evening. . ."

      In Pride and Prejudice, to avoid the universal hurry of his household, "after tea, Mr. Bennet retired to the library, as was his custom. . ." [15]
    • In Celestina Mrs. Elphinstone's sister, "not quite fifteen," elopes with her lover Mr. Beresford and leaves behind a letter: "You shall hear of me soon; when I shall have exchanged the name of Emily Cathcart for that of your still affectionate sister, Emily Beresford."

      In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth's sister Lydia, a "well-grown girl of fifteen," elopes with her lover Mr. Wickham and leaves behind a letter: "You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham." Neither seducer, of course, has any intention of marrying. [16]
    • In both Celestina and Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby suddenly disappears from the heroine's life. In Smith's novel it is because he has received news that Celestina may be his (half-) sister. When Willoughby abandons her, "The day, and another and another, wore away, and still no letter from Willoughby arrived—the forlorn hope which she had till now fondly cherished, that he still retained a lingering preference for her in his heart, now faded away; and an almost certain conviction succeeded, that he not only quitted her for ever, but disclaimed her even as a friend."

      When in Sense and Sensibility Willoughby abandons Marianne, "No letter from Willoughby came. . .[Marianne's] mother was surprised, and Elinor again became uneasy. . .Elinor was very earnest in her application to her mother, relating all that had passed, her suspicions of Willoughby's inconstancy. . ." [17]
    • In Celestina Willoughby, under financial pressure to sell his ancestral estate, "imagined, those beautiful woods, the growth of centuries, fallen in compliance with the improving taste of a broker or warehouseman. . ."

      His "acute uneasiness" is echoed by Fanny Price's dismay at Mr. Rushworth's planned "improvements" to Sotherton in Mansfield Park: "'Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? "Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited."'"

      Fanny Price, although a poor relation rather than an orphan, is Mansfield Park's "orphan in the castle." As with Smith's heroines, Fanny is loved by a son of the wealthy family with whom she has grown into adulthood, but the family patriarch strongly opposes the match. [18]
    • In Celestina, after a long separation without contact, Willoughby, just engaged to another woman, encounters Celestina by chance in London:

      "'Celestina!' cried he—'Oh God! is it you, Celestina?' She looked at him with eyes where surprise was softened by tenderness, and tried to recover voice enough to utter more than—'Willoughby!' which the immediate emotion drew from her: but he gave her not time; for fixing his eyes on her's, all that she had been to him. . .and all that he had just agreed to be himself [to another], rushed in upon his recollection at once, and in an agony of grief, remorse, and despair, he threw her hand from him, and turn[ed] away. . ."

      In Sense and Sensibility, after a long separation without contact, Willoughby, just engaged to another woman, encounters Marianne by chance in London:

      ". . .she started up, and pronouncing his name in a tone of affection, held out her hand to him. He approached; and addressing himself rather to Elinor than Marianne, as if wishing to avoid her eye, and determined not to observe her attitude, enquired, in a hurried manner, after Mrs. Dashwood and asked how long they had been in town. . .[Marianne's] face was crimsoned over, and she exclaimed, in a voice of the greatest emotion, 'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?'

      "He could not then avoid it; but her touch seemed painful to him, and he held her hand only for a moment. During all this time he was evidently struggling for composure. . .

      "'But have you not received my notes?' cried Marianne in the wildest anxiety. 'Here is some mistake, I am sure some dreadful mistake. What can be the meaning of it? Tell me, Willoughby; for Heaven's sake tell me; what is the matter?'

      "He made no reply: his complexion changed, and all his embarrassment returned; but. . .he recovered himself again, and after saying, 'Yes, I had the pleasure of receiving the information of your arrival in town, which you were so good as to send me,' turned hastily away with a slight bow, and joined his friend." [19]
    The first versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were written in the 1790s, only a few years after the publication of Celestina. But Mansfield Park and Persuasion were written two decades later. That Austen seems to be echoing passages and situations from Celestina in her later novels speaks to the great impression it must have made on her as a teenager.

    The Old Manor House

    Old Manor House title page

    In The Female Pen B. G. MacCarthy writes of Charlotte Lennox's first novel The Life of Harriot Stuart (1750) that it is "a tale centring on the flight of the heroine from marriage with a hated suitor. There are hairbreadth 'scapes from redskins, pirates, ravishment and other perils; and there are the usual misunderstandings between the true lovers who are finally united." [20] With only minor modifications this description could also be applied to Smith's The Old Manor House (1793).

    Here the orphan resides not in a castle, but in a room high in a turret in a dark Gothic mansion. And this time she is not secretly an heiress, but instead the penniless niece of the housekeeper. Despite her low-born origins the niece is improbably named Monimia (after the heroine of Thomas Otway's drama The Orphan (1680)). Mrs. Grace Rayland, owner of Rayland Hall, refuses to use this highfalutin' name and instead calls her "Mary," a choice with which at least some readers may be secretly in sympathy.

    Monimia's sweetheart is Orlando, named after the knight-paladin of Ariosto's narrative poem Orlando Furioso (1532). Orlando Somerive is a second son and must make his own way in the world, since his elder brother will inherit their father's estate. Mrs. Rayland, a relative of the Somerives, has no heir and Orlando is her favorite. However, she refuses to make her intentions clear with respect to the disposition of her estate. Meanwhile, she is falling increasingly under the sway of Monimia's sinister aunt, the avaricious  Mrs. Lennard.

    Orlando has grown up with Monimia as a playmate, but as they approach adulthood new feelings emerge. He begins to visit her secretly at Rayland Hall after dark to teach her to read—risking, if discovered, banishment and disinheritance. Adding to the complications of their love, Monimia's blossoming beauty is not overlooked by the neighborhood rakes (and it must be said that of Smith's swooning heroines, Monimia is among the most helpless).

    In a post about Fanny Burney's Cecilia (1782), I mentioned that the title of Austen's Pride and Prejudice may have been taken from its final chapter. However, the phrase also repeatedly occurs in Charlotte Smith's work: once in Celestina, and twice in The Old Manor House.
    Orlando felt. . .the greater those hazards were that he incurred for Monimia, the dearer she became to him. 'Well, Sir,' said he, 'and if Mrs Rayland's favour can be held only by the sacrifice of every honest affection, I will disclaim it. Why should she discard me for loving an amiable, beautiful girl, who—?'

    'Nay, nay!' cried his father impatiently—'Why has she invincible pride, and obstinate prejudice?' [21]
    In order to establish himself Orlando joins the army, only to be shipped out to America to combat the rebelling colonists in the War of Independence (a rebellion with which Smith, remarkably, is clearly in sympathy). He experiences storms at sea, shipwreck, military futility, near-death on the battlefield, and capture by natives; he is reported killed in action. When he finally makes his way homeward, he discovers with horror that it is as though he has returned from the dead. Mrs. Rayland has passed away, the grasping epicurean priest Dr. Hollybourn is the new owner of a nearly abandoned Rayland Hall, and Monimia has disappeared into the great city of London. His against-all-odds struggles to uncover Mrs. Rayland's true will, regain his inheritance and find Monimia sometimes stretch credulity, but the narrative momentum rarely slackens.

    The details of the court proceedings surrounding Mrs. Rayland's wills have the ring of truth; that realism may be due to Smith's own experiences with the endless legal wrangling over her father-in-law's estate. Some have speculated that these real-life intrafamilial disputes, which dragged on for more than three decades, may have provided source material for the fictional case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1852-53).

    When Richard Smith's estate was finally settled in 1813, thirty-six years after his death, it was too late for Charlotte. She died at age 57 on 28 October 1806, surviving her husband (who died in debtor's prison) by only eight months. Her final years were marked by ill health and increasing financial difficulties as her novelistic style fell out of favor.

    And though Anna Barbauld reprinted The Old Manor House in her anthology The British Novelists (1810), and in her introduction praised both Emmeline and Celestina, after the 1820s all of Smith's novels went out of print and remained so for 150 years. As I hope I've been able to show, Smith was a significant precursor of Jane Austen. However, she also deserves to be more widely known as a fascinating novelist in her own right. And her stances on the rights of women, on the democratic ideals informing the revolutions in France and America, and on slavery (she was strongly anti-, despite the financial reliance on the slave economy of her husband's family) are strikingly modern.

    For more on other writers who inspired Austen such as Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Lennox, and Samuel Richardson, please see other posts in the series Jane Austen's predecessors.


    1. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, 18 December 1798. From R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others, Oxford University Press, 1932, pp. 38-39; "Elizabeth" from The History of England, in Minor Works: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen Vol. VI, edited by R. W. Chapman. Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 147.
    2. Amy Thomas Campion, Scandalous Figures: Authorial Self in Eliza Haywood, Laurence Sterne, Charlotte Smith, and Lord Byron. Doctoral thesis, University of California Berkeley, 2010, p. 108.
    3. Quoted in Appendix D: Life, in Charlotte Smith, Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, edited by Louise Fletcher. Broadview Press, 2003, pp. 502-503.
    4. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. VII, p. 192
    5. Louise Fletcher, "Introduction," in Emmeline, p. 33.
    6. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XI, pp. 218-219. 
    7. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XI, p. 222.  
    8. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XII, p. 230.
    9. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. XII, p. 230. 
    10. Emmeline, Vol. II Ch. V, pp. 173 and 175.
    11. Emmeline, Vol. IV Ch. XVI, p. 476.
    12. Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Vol. I Ch. IX 
    13. Celestina, Vol. I Ch. III; Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Vol. II Ch. XI.
    14. Celestina, Vol. II Ch. II; Austen, Persuasion, Vol. II Ch. XI.
    15. Celestina, Vol. II Ch. VI; Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III Ch. XIII.
    16. Celestina, Vol. II Ch. XI; Pride and Prejudice, Vol. III Ch. V.
    17. Celestina, Vol. III Ch. X; Sense and Sensibility, Vol. I Ch. XVI and Vol. II Ch. V.
    18. Celestina, Vol. IV Ch. II; Austen, Mansfield Park, Vol. I Ch. VI.
    19. Celestina, Vol. IV Ch. III; Sense and Sensibility, Vol. II Ch. VI.
    20. B. G. MacCarthy, The Female Pen: Women Writers and Novelists 1621-1818, New York University Press, 1994, pp. 294-295. 
    21. The Old Manor House, Vol. III Ch. III