Given the amount of time that I spend writing about novels of dubious aesthetic merit, my readers may be surprised to hear that John Oliver Hobbes' (pseud. Pearl Craigie) Some Emotions and a Moral (1891) remains perfectly readable. Published prior to Hobbes' conversion to Catholicism, Some Emotions and a Moral, unlike her later duology A School for Saints and Robert Orange, is not explicitly religious (although, as I'll suggest in just a bit, that's not to say it doesn't have some religious implications). Although not quite nasty and brutish, the novel is certainly short at 120 pages, and as Vineta Colby remarks of Hobbes' works in general, it features "witty dialogue and epigrams, characters who act impulsively and capriciously, a series of loosely related incidents rather than a plot."1 The "loosely related incidents" are simple enough: author Godfrey Provence, recuperating in the countryside, meets the beautiful but ambitious Cynthia, who agrees and then refuses to marry him; both of them, bouncing about on the rebound, make ill-assorted marriages, she with Sir Edward Cargill (who dies) and he with Grace (who doesn't). Grace, in turn, dallies adulterously with George Golightly, while Godfrey and Cynthia dodge a similar outcome (thanks to Cynthia, not to Godfrey). And then Golightly abruptly kills himself at the prospect of running off with Grace, who is left stuck with Godfrey, and vice-versa. The end.
What intrigues me about the novel, though, is that it's also a meditation on Middlemarch. Not by reworking Eliot's novel in plot element-to-plot element fashion, but by dint of fragmentary, kaleidoscopic allusions, much as Amy Levy's near-contemporary Reuben Sachs takes on Daniel Deronda. The minor character Sir James Cargill combines Sir James Chettham (I don't think the similar names are coincidental) with Mr. Brooke; in particular, he has an unfortunate habit of emulating the latter's conversational style. "Sir James had not the smallest idea of what he meant," the narrator remarks after he delivers himself of an epigram, "but he thought it sounded so tersely put and so much like a leading article that he repeated it again" (30). Godfrey, meanwhile, inherits Ladislaw's background, as his mother had been disowned for marrying a foreigner (albeit a French Egyptologist this time). But he's also an artistic Lydgate, posed in this case between dedication to his novel-writing and the prospect of making money by editing a journal. The end of the novel, with Grace "sobbing on her husband's arm" while Provence "held her" yet "looked away" (120), echoes Lydgate and Rosamond at their reconciliation, when Lydgate realizes that "[h]e had chosen this fragile creature, and had taken the burthen of her life upon his arms. He must walk as he could, carrying that burthen pitifully" (ch. 81). Moreover, Godfrey is a decade Cynthia's senior--not quite as big a difference as Casaubon and Dorothea, but enough for other characters to take note--and where Dorothea yearns to be educated by her new husband, Cynthia is only irate when he "recommended her, kindly, but with an air of authority, the authors he would like her to read" (60). Their courtship is suspiciously reminiscent of Lydgate's and Rosamond's, not least when Cynthia holds his feet to the fire about accepting the editorship. And Godfrey may not be working on a Key to All Mythologies, but Cynthia can certainly look like a "key to all philosophies" (34) when she chooses.
While the novel's cracked-mirror allusiveness hints at its literary origins, its length constitutes part of the critique. Middlemarch's "provincial life" figures nothing less than the emergence of "the Victorian era" itself, as everything from the Great Reform Bill to the expansion of the railways makes itself felt at the regional, rural level. Even its romances are rooted in historical loss and change--Dorothea's anachronistic aspirations to sainthood, Casaubon's anachronistic scholarship, Lydgate's about-to-be-anachronistic research. But as even the title suggests, Some Emotions and a Moral pointedly disdains historical scope in favor of personality, and a rather diminished personality ("some emotions"?) at that. Except, perhaps, for Godfrey, whose intellectual work remains strangely nebulous--his novel is "an incomprehensible manuscript which Cynthia could not understand, and which he did not seem able to explain" (54)--the characters have no intellectual aspirations beyond occasionally quoting from Robert Browning and dipping into the nearest encyclopedia. Everyone, like the novel, is narrow, or in Godfrey's case, eventually narrowed. The novel makes no attempt to convey a sense of a greater outside world, but then, the characters show little sign of being interested in one; at best, they dream of high society, but it too is obviously claustrophobic and moribund. In that sense, one of the things Some Emotions and a Moral does is render Middlemarch's various romantic entanglements tawdry. Cynthia's decision to reject Godfrey the first time is little more than selfish pique, a Rosamond-like childish anger that he would not be manipulated into worldliness; when she rejects him again after she is widowed, "for his own sake," she winds up "changed to stone" (106), an act of renunciation that leaves her a questionably virtuous Dorothea without any hope of romantic rescue from a Ladislaw. That she does give up Godfrey and therefore proves she is not only "thinking of myself," as her aunt Theodosia says (105), certainly suggests a selflessness entirely absent from Godfrey's wife Grace, who goes after George Golightly because "[s]he was tired of Montague Street, tired of her child, tired of Godfrey, tired of herself--above all, tired of being poor" (112). Grace, who just wanted a husband, any husband, has what she wanted, just as Cynthia, who wanted money, also has what she wanted. But be careful what you wish for, and all that.
Although Hobbes was not yet a Catholic, this ending is, in some respects, very Catholic indeed, not least in its rejection of happy endings for all concerned. Grace's ironic name highlights what's absent. None of these characters appear to be spiritual in the slightest or moved by thoughts of God, although Cynthia's renunciation of Godfrey at the end comes closest. (Godfrey wants Cynthia to read Thomas a Kempis, yet seems strangely disinclined to imitate Christ himself.) All of them behave badly, cruelly, or stupidly, especially when other people are involved: Cynthia should not have mistreated Godfrey or married her eventual husband, Edward; Godfrey should not have married Grace or tried to resume his relationship with Cynthia; Grace should not have married Godfrey or attempted to elope with George; George should not have had an affair with Grace or committed suicide. In giving up Godfrey a second time, Cynthia may "atone for many sins" (106), but there's no earthly reward for that--and the other characters all remain fully grounded in their earthiness, suffering for "sins" they seem not to recognize require atonement. If, as Talia Schaffer suggests, the novel "exposes the Angel in the House as a figure whose self-absorption wrecks everyone's lives,"2 it also indicts the characters for the sheer littleness of their moral and spiritual imaginations. There's not much hope for the "growing good of the world" here, "unhistoric acts" or otherwise.
1 Vineta Colby, The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century (New York: New York UP, 1970), 193.
2 Talia Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000), 61.