Review by Helen Parry
Despite her virtuous nature, Emmeline Mowbray is destined to cause trouble because she is a beautiful, illegitimate orphan growing up in an isolated and decaying Pembrokshire castle in an eighteenth-century novel of sensibility. In other words, she is going to have to deal with lovelorn men who are keen to sleep with her but not actually marry her. When she is sixteen, her rich uncle Lord Montreville decides to pay her a visit, bringing with him his son and his son’s friend. The son, Lord Delamere, promptly falls in love with Emmeline to the great annoyance of Montreville – and the misery of Emmeline. To escape Delamere’s harassment, Emmeline moves secretly to lodgings in Swansea. Here she befriends Mrs Stafford, an unhappily married young woman who becomes her staunchest ally.
The novel charts Emmeline’s adventures across the country, in London and then on to France and Switzerland and back, mostly on the run from Delamere, a man who cannot understand the word ‘no’ and even bursts into her bedroom to propose to her, given the chance. Around her central dilemmas – whom should she marry? Is there a way of finally refusing Delamere without hurting his feelings or, conversely, offending Montreville and his perma-raging wife? – accrue the stories of other characters, which play out variations on possible futures for her. There is Mrs Stafford, struggling to save her children from destitution and ameliorate the worst excesses of her profligate and uncaring husband. Should Emmeline marry Delamere, will this not also be her fate?
There are Emmeline’s cousins, Frances and Augusta; the nice one makes an excellent match to the man she loves who luckily is also wildly rich and titled; the other, despite being a massive snob, contracts a private marriage to a social inferior in a moment of lust or boredom and resorts to taking a lover. Then there is Lady Adelina, married too young to another young rake, who has an affair and becomes pregnant with an illegitimate child. Choose wisely, Emmeline. Ah – but you may not choose freely, because your uncle will interfere if your choice is not advantageous to him.
As an eighteenth-century woman like Emmeline, the most important decision you would ever make would have been whom to accept as your husband. Upon that depended your financial and physical security, your health and the welfare of your children, and once you had made that decision you were trapped. Charlotte Smith well knew the dangers of an imprudent marriage. (And of no marriage at all: the only true spinster in the novel, Miss Galton, is sour and spiteful after a lifetime of having to depend on others’ generosity.) According to Wikipedia, Smith’s father was a spendthrift and married her off when she was just fifteen in what she described later as a form of legal prostitution. Her husband was violent, reckless with money and unfaithful. Smith took her children and left him. In Emmeline, she draws on her own experience – most directly in the character of Mrs Stafford, whose plight mirrors her own – but also to build a novel that explores female sexuality and rights in a society that represses both.
Smith makes her point about the double standard structurally, by juxtaposing all the stories of her assorted female characters and contrasting the penalties they pay or must avoid with the freedoms accorded to the male characters. Her women negotiate a world in which they are both vulnerable to men and blamed for their behaviour. Female virtue is a negative: not being seduced or appearing to be seduced; and women must regulate their behaviour according to arcane rules that may not always be clear (will it compromise Emmeline’s reputation to travel in a carriage with a pregnant woman? She and Mrs Stafford are uncertain), but will be cruelly upheld.
This was the first novel Charlotte Smith wrote, and it was published in 1788 (Emmeline’s observations of the miserable state of the French peasantry are interesting in this context). Being still pretty early in the development of the novel, Emmeline cheerfully combines a loose, episodic structure with elements of realism, melodrama, Romanticism, Gothicism and comedy of manners. Imagine Fanny Burney rewrote Clarissa but gave Clarissa more options and common sense.
It sits firmly in the tradition of the novel of sensibility, heightened emotions and sensitivity in a character being signs of their moral superiority. Smith, however, lifts a mirror to show the darker side of this. Estimable characters give a healthy outlet to their overpowering emotions by regularly fainting or weeping. Foolish characters let their unrestrained emotions rule their behaviour, resulting in, for example, duelling or extra-marital sex. One character literally dies of rage.
You might think that 790 pages about a young woman’s affairs of the heart might be too much. You would be wrong! Despite her virtue, Emmeline is an engaging heroine, kind and practical: she is sometimes fatally soft-hearted but she does have an impressive capacity for resistance and can rise to a spirited defence of herself if needed. Alongside the high-mindedness of Emmeline and her friends is the malice, envy and vanity of a lovely host of minor characters who delight in thwarting our heroine (‘indulging in their natural malignity’), or just over-indulging in ribbons and being vulgar. This new Walmer Classics edition is nicely typeset and easy to read and, if you are a beautiful eighteenth-century orphan, it is weighty enough to see off unwanted suitors most efficaciously.
Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.
Charlotte Smith, Emmeline: The Orphan of the Castle (first published, 1788; Walmer Classics,2023), ISBN 978-0645751901, 790 pp., paperback
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