I’m on the other side of the pond for a few days, attending the Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference. Before the conference begins, though, I’m getting in a couple of days at the British Library, reading some novels of the usual aesthetic quality. Most of the books I want to look at have actually been digitized at this point, which makes life easier. However:
Robert Torrens, Coelibia Choosing a Husband: A Modern Novel, 2 vols. (D. N. Shury for J. F. Hughes, 1809). One of the multiple unauthorized sequels to Hannah More’s Coelebs. This is a critique of More’s novel: the heroine forms her ideal of masculine behavior by reading an (overlong) inset narrative told by Mary, an overly sensible (as in “sense and sensibility” sensible, not rational) woman who commits adultery with Awesome Guy Henry. After a happy adulterous life with Henry, Mary discovers that everything falls apart once her transgressions have been revealed, and after many disasters (including sexual assault, prostitution, attempted theft) she is reunited with Henry, only to believe that he has been executed. Mary commits suicide. Coelibia, though, thinks Henry the Adulterer is still an Awesome Guy, and goes through a sort of Goldilocks and the Three Bears approach to courtship: she turns down the Poet (too sentimental) and the Peer (too rigid) before falling for the Artist (just right!), who is just like Henry. That’s because he is Henry. They get to live happily ever after. Torrens gets in some cracks at the dangers of extreme religiosity, which he believes leads to skepticism. There are also some interestingly Wollstonecraftian overtones to the novel, including calls for complete egalitarianism in marriage and for the necessity of avoiding prudishness in women’s education (in effect, Torrens recommends botany for learning the facts of life).
Mary Herbert, Baroness of Lea, Edith: A Tale of the Present Day (Richard Bentley, 1881). A Catholic novel. In Generation I, beautiful Madeline commits adultery (the day’s unintentional theme, I guess) and abandons her children. The children in question, including Edith, grow up to have a conflicted relationship with their father, whom they blame for their mother’s disappearance (even after they realize what she did). In Generation II, Edith falls in love with Sir Edward Baker (Not Good) but winds up married to Lord St. Aubyn (Good but Boring, and also a Nervous Wreck). Nevertheless, Sir Edward keeps pursuing her, even though he is married to an ugly heiress. Edith, however, manages to resist temptation, thanks in part to the assistance of saintly Dr. Murray, who is (gasp) a Catholic priest. After her husband’s death, Edith spends more time thinking seriously about religion, but gets no help from either the evangelical parson (too much Bible-thumping) or the Ritualist (too dishonest). Catholicism suits the bill, though. After her conversion, Edith is alienated from her son, and once he marries, she decides to become a Sister of Charity. Not surprisingly, she eventually runs into her mother, now Dying in Agony in a State of Squalor but Repentant. At the end, Edith is off to serve with the foreign mission in China. Sir Edward, meanwhile, dies in a hunting accident.