Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 1: The abduction

The History of Sir Charles Grandison volume 1 title page
'Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? —I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.'
'It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining.'
'Do you indeed! —you surprize me; I thought it had not been readable.'
—Isabella Thorpe speaking to Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey [1]
Isabella Thorpe was not the only one who thought Samuel Richardson's The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) unreadable. Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Richardson's, said that "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself." [2] Sir Charles Grandison is one of the longest novels in English (although it is exceeded by Richardson's own Clarissa), but its length is not the result of its grand historical or temporal sweep. Instead, it is largely the minute relation of the daily thoughts and feelings of Harriet Byron—a young woman who comes to know Sir Charles and his family intimately through circumstances that will soon be made clear—over the period of a few months.

In its epic length and slow pace Sir Charles Grandison seems very unlike the works of Jane Austen, and yet it was one of her favorite novels. Fifty years after Austen's death, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh remembered that "Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was ever said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends." [3] Austen may have even written a play based on the novel for family performance. [4]

Title page of A Memoir of Jane Austen. Image: Internet Archive

In the "Biographical Notice of the Author" that appeared with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), her brother Henry wrote, "Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in 'Sir Charles Grandison,' gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative." [5]

Frontispiece portraying "Mr. S. Richardson" from the 1770 edition of Sir Charles Grandison. Image: The Frame Blog

Many writers have looked for traces of Sir Charles in Austen's heroes. Fortunately those traces are few. Sir Charles is a paragon of manly virtue, and although he self-deprecatingly invokes his many failings, we rarely see any of them. Sir Charles' major self-confessed flaw, as it is for Austen's Mr. Darcy, is pride. The situation of Sense and Sensibility's Edward Ferrars parallels that of Sir Charles in a significant way, for reasons that will later be revealed. And like Sir Charles, Emma's Mr. Knightley is seemingly always right.

But generally Austen's heroes (Mr. Darcy and Edward Ferrars included) are much more fallible than Sir Charles, and as a result, much more believable. As Sir Walter Scott wrote of Austen's characters in his review of Emma, they "conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. . .All [of her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations. . .in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life." [6]

Sir Walter Scott's review of Emma in the Quarterly Review. Image: British Library

What Jane Austen took from Richardson was his ability to involve the reader deeply in the emotional lives of his heroines. Like Harriet Byron, Sense and Sensibility's Elinor Dashwood and Persuasion's Anne Elliot exercise their calm good judgment on behalf of everyone around them. Like Harriet as well, they and Mansfield Park's Fanny Price find themselves unable to express the true depth of their feelings to the man they love. They are all also exquisitely sensitive to other people's feelings, Fanny so much so that she is almost paralyzed with indecision when she must choose between gifts from two different people when selecting a necklace to wear to a party at which they will both be present. Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet in her confrontations with Mr. Darcy and with Lady Catherine de Bourgh has Harriet's admirable frankness and firmness of purpose, and, in her intimate discussions with her sister Jane, some of Harriet's self-described "sauciness" as well. [7]

I began reading Sir Charles Grandison shortly after finishing Clarissa a few years ago (see Clarissa on a smartphone), but paused after the first volume. I've recently taken it up again, and thought I would use this blog as something of a reading diary as I continue with the book. I will be writing about each volume as I finish it, although this idea didn't occur to me until I was midway through the fourth volume. But my intention is to share my thoughts about the book more-or-less as they occur. We'll see if I can make it to the end without either this writer or his readers wanting to hang themselves.

Volume 1: The abduction

Harriet Byron. When we are introduced to Harriet Byron through a letter from her constant correspondent, her cousin Lucy Selby, we learn that she has just recently come to London with her older cousins Mr. and Mrs. Reeves. Harriet is beautiful, youthful (she has just turned 20), orphaned and will be rich: she is the heiress of £15,000, good for an annual income of about £750.

The inducements of Harriet's person and fortune have attracted several would-be lovers: the vain and combative rivals Mr. Fenwick and Mr. Greville, the unassuming Mr. Orme, the "unexceptionable" Mr. Fowler. None of them have made any impression on Harriet's heart.

Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. At a dinner party she meets the self-regarding, affected, blustering Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, who immediately fixes his matrimonial ambitions on her.

"Sir Hargrave Pollexfen took an empty glass, and with it humorously rapped his knuckles and was silent."
Illustration engraved by Angus from a drawing by Stothard, 1782. Image: Internet Archive

A few days later he pays a call on her to make her an offer of marriage, but the interview does not go well:
Pray, Sir Hargrave—
And pray, Miss Byron—
I have never yet seen the man who is to be my husband.
By G— said the wretch, fiercely (almost in the language of Mr. Greville on the like occasion) but you have—And if you are not engaged in your affections, the man is before you.
. . .I would fain have parted civilly. He would not permit me to do so. Though he was on his knees, he mingled passion, and even indirect menaces, with his supplications. I was forced to declare, that I never more would receive his visits.
This declaration he vowed would make him desperate, and he cared not what became of him.
. . .And you forbid my future visits, madam, said he, with a face of malice.
I do, Sir; and that for both our sakes. You have greatly discomposed me.
Next time, madam, I have the honour of attending you, it will be, I hope—[He stopt for a moment, but still looking fiercely] to an happier purpose. And away he went.
. . .You will now, therefore, hear very little farther in my letters of this Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. [8]
A prediction that, alas for Harriet, does not come true.

The next night, in the company of the Reeves, she attends a masquerade ball dressed as an Arcadian princess. (Her "sparkling" costume "falls not in with any of my notions of the Pastoral dress of Arcadia"; nonetheless, she can't help wondering "how many Pretty-fellows. . .will be slain." [9]) On leaving the ball, Harriet is directed to a strange chair by a new servant in the household, one Wilson. When the Reeves arrive home, having taken a later chair, Harriet is nowhere to be found.

The abduction. Wilson and the chairmen, it turns out, have been bribed by Sir Hargrave. He has had Harriet carried to a house in the wilds of Paddington (then a village amid fields on the western outskirts of London). There he intends to force her to undergo a marriage ceremony performed by a corrupt priest, and then rape her.

"Sir Hargrave took my struggling hand; and then I saw another ill-looking man enter the room." 
Illustration engraved by Walker from a drawing by Stothard, 1783. Image: Internet Archive

However, when Harriet's frantic resistance prevents this from happening, the next morning Sir Hargrave takes her blindfolded and gagged in his carriage, accompanied by armed servants on horseback, galloping down the road to his estate in Windsor. There on his isolated estate, surrounded by his own servants, he will see his plan through. These, no doubt, are the scenes that Isabella Thorpe considers "amazing horrid."

But on the narrow road crossing Hounslow Heath outside Windsor Sir Hargrave's carriage meets another one going the opposite direction, towards London. Both coaches are forced to stop, and as they are maneuvering around each other a resourceful Harriet is able to free herself from her gag and scream for help.

Sir Charles Grandison. The man in the other carriage is Sir Charles Grandison. On hearing Harriet's screams he orders his servants to block Sir Hargrave's way, and insists on speaking to the woman who has cried out. As Sir Charles approaches, Sir Hargrave, enraged by his interference, lunges at him with his sword. As Sir Charles later recounts it:
'I opened the chariot-door. Sir Hargrave made a pass at me. Take that, and be damn'd to you, for your insolence, scoundrel! said he.

'I was aware of his thrust, and put it by; but his sword a little raked my shoulder. . .I seized him by the collar before he could recover himself from the pass he had made at me, and with a jerk, and a kind of twist, laid him under the hind-wheel of his chariot.

'I wrench'd his sword from him, and snapp'd it, and flung the two pieces over my head. . .Your lovely cousin, the moment I returned to the chariot-door, instead of accepting of my offered hand, threw herself into my arms.—O save me! save me!—she was ready to faint. She could not, I believe, have stood. [10]

"Your lovely cousin. . .instead of taking my offered hand, threw herself into my arms." 
Illustration by R. Vinkeles, 1797. Image: Internet Archive

The rescue. Sir Hargrave laid low, Sir Charles carries the agitated Harriet to his carriage and takes her to the nearby house of his brother-in-law Lord L. in Colnebrooke, where Sir Charles and his sister Charlotte are staying. After Harriet has recovered she is reunited with the Reeves, and forms fast friendships with Charlotte, as well as with Sir Charles' other sister, Lady L., and her husband. Sir Charles tells Harriet that he looks on her as a third sister, which Harriet finds both delightful (to be admitted so quickly to such intimacy) and distressing (only a sister?). Charlotte drops hints to Harriet that Sir Charles is harboring a secret; is she warning Harriet not to fall in love with him?

If so, her warning may be too late. Harriet's aunt Mrs. Selby, reading between the lines of her letters to Lucy, tells her that she fears she is "entangled in a hopeless passion" for Sir Charles. She urges Harriet instead to consider a proposal made on behalf of Lord D. by his mother, the Countess Dowager of D. Harriet responds to her aunt, "since I have seen and known Sir Charles Grandison, I have not only (as before) an indifference, but a dislike, to all other men." [11]

The challenge. Meanwhile, Sir Hargrave refuses to be foiled in his marriage machinations. He issues a challenge to Sir Charles. Harriet receives a letter from Sir Hargrave's second implying that if she agrees to become Sir Hargrave's wife, he will urge Sir Hargrave to call off the duel. Harriet is torn; the prospect of marrying Sir Hargrave is abhorrent, but if she does not, Sir Charles' life may be in danger, and she will be the cause.

However, Sir Charles refuses the duel: "I have ever refused. . .to draw my sword upon a set and formal challenge. Yet I have reason to think, from the skill I pretend to have in the weapons, that in declining to do so, I consult my conscience rather than my safety. . .My sword is a sword of defence, not of offence." [12] Sir Hargrave is not appeased by this letter, and demands satisfaction; Sir Charles not only refuses again, but tells Sir Hargrave that he should be begging the pardon of Harriet on his knees. This will not sit well with Sir Hargrave, who will certainly want to take revenge. . .

Next time: Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 2: The confession

  1. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, John Murray, 1818 [published December 1817], Vol. I, Ch. VI.
  2. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 480. 
  3. J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, Second edition, Bentley & Son, 1871, Ch. V: Description of Jane Austen's Person, Character, and Tastes.
  4. The play was published as Jane Austen's "Sir Charles Grandison," transcribed and edited by Brian Southam, Oxford University Press, 1981. The extent of Austen's contribution to the play, which family tradition ascribed to her niece Anna, has been questioned by Marilyn Butler in the London Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 9, 21 May 1981: (subscription required).
  5. Henry Austen, "A Biographical Notice of the Author," Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, John Murray, 1818.
  6. [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201.
  7. In writing the first version of this post I flattered myself that this was my insight, but later discovered that in his study The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson, University of Minnesota Press, 1982, Terry Eagleton observed, "Jane Austen. . .put Harriet Byrons rather than Sir Charles Grandisons at the centre of her works" (p. 99).
  8. Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, S. Richardson, 1753. Vol. I, Letter XXII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation. 
  9. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Vol. I, Letter XXII. Miss BYRON. In Continuation. 
  10. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Quoted in Vol. I, Letter XXVII. From Mr. REEVES, To George SELBY, Esq In Continuation.
  11. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Vol. I, Letter XLIV. Miss BYRON to Mrs. SELBY.
  12. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Quoted in Vol. I, Letter XXXIX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation.

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