My Jane Austen group decided to start the year by discussing one of Austen’s precursors, not to mention favourite writers, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). Edgeworth was born eight years before Austen and lived much longer than Austen’s not quite 42 years – lucky her! She was also prolific, so we had plenty to choose from. According to Wikipedia, she was “during the period 1800–1814 (when Walter Scott‘s Waverley was published) … the most celebrated and successful living English novelist.” Australian academic Dale Spender supports this in her Mothers of the novel*, writing that:
If ever there was a period in the history of letters when women unquestionably led the way it was in the last quarter of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century when the only challenges to the pre-eminence of Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth came from other women – like Elizabeth Inchbald and Ann Radcliffe.
So, Edgeworth is well worth looking at, and my group gave it a good shot. Some books were read by more than one member, and some members read more than one book, but I was the only one to read Leonora. In case you are interested, here are the books we read:
- Letters for literary ladies (1795)
- Castle Rackrent (1800)
- Belinda (1801)
- Leonora (1806)
- The absentee (part of Tales of a fashionable life) (1812)
- Harrington (1817)
- Helen (1834)
Now, Leonora …
Its plot is essentially this: kind, newly married, well-to-do Leonora invites to her English home, Olivia, who had been exiled to France because of her unconventional, shall we say, behaviour in marriage. This was a time when divorce was shocking and required “guilt”. Sensation-seeking Olivia’s ideas about marriage are romantic:
I married early, in the fond expectation of meeting a heart suited to my own. Cruelly disappointed, I found—merely a husband.
In Leonora, Edgeworth leaves aside her Anglo-Irish themes for an English-French one. She pits English common-sense, through Lady Leonora guided by her mother the Duchess, against French “sensibility”, through Olivia, an English woman who behaves like a French “coquette” under the guidance of her friend Gabrielle. The novel anticipates Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility (1811), but while Marianne’s “sensibility” can be seen as teenage silliness and idealism, Olivia’s is self-centred, lacking in morality – and, unlike Marianne, she’s unlikely to change. The book critiques this sort of over-dramatic, over-blown behaviour, and makes a case for steady love based on early passion developing into deep respect and friendship!
Leonora, it must be said, does not exhibit the subtlety nor the realism that makes Austen so special. The characters tend to the black-and-white, and the discussion of sense versus sensibility lacks the nuance that Austen brings to it. Austen’s characters are more “rounded”, with sensible Elinor also capable of feeling, and emotional Marianne not being completely devoid of sense. In Leonora, sense and sensibility are presented very much as dichotomies, though Leonora is shown to have strong feelings in addition to sense, which works, of course, to her advantage in the end. Despite this lack of subtlety, the book is worth reading, for several reasons.
To start with, it’s an epistolary novel, a form which, Wikipedia says, has been around since the 15th/16th centuries. I don’t always like these novels, mainly because the letter form can break the narrative flow. I did find it a little challenging at first to work out who was who – until sorting that out became part of the fun. Given there’s no one authorial voice, it also took me a little while to work out which character/s, if any, Edgeworth, was aligning with. Was she, an Irish-sympathiser by-and-large, supporting British “sense” or French “sensibility”? However, the form provided Edgeworth with a neat way of presenting multiple first person points of view. It gave a freshness to the narrative, and enabled her to easily present different perspectives and characters. (By their own mouths shall they be known!)
Of course, I enjoyed the sense versus sensibility theme, not only because of the Austen comparison, but also because Edgeworth aligns them with national characteristics. Leonora was published during the Napoleonic Wars when England (the United Kingdom) was fearful of French invasion. It’s not surprising then that anything “French” was viewed askance. Leonora’s mother writes to her that a
taste for the elegant profligacy of French gallantry was, I remember, introduced into this country before the destruction of the French monarchy. Since that time, some sentimental writers and pretended philosophers of our own and foreign countries have endeavoured to confound all our ideas of morality.
Sensibility, then, is aligned with France and lack of morality – and, of course, vice versa for sense and England.
There is also some commentary on fiction and the novel, and that always interests me. Austen is, of course, famous for it in Northanger Abbey. (Indeed, one of the novels she references in her defence of the novel is Edgeworth’s Belinda.) Here, for example, is Leonora’s response to her mother, who had Olivia tagged at the outset. Leonora’s mother criticises Gothic novels, which Olivia reads: “they must have scènes and a coup de théâtre; and ranting, and raving, and stabbing, and drowning, and poisoning; for with them there is no love without murder”. Sensible Leonora has a more generous take:
Many people read ordinary novels as others take snuff, merely from habit, from the want of petty excitation; and not, as you suppose, from the want of exorbitant or improper stimulus. Those who are unhappy have recourse to any trifling amusement that can change the course of their thoughts. I do not justify Olivia for having chosen such comforters as certain novels, but I pity her and impute this choice to want of fortitude, not to depravity of taste. Before she married, a strict injunction was laid upon her not to read any book that was called a novel: this raised in her mind a sort of perverse curiosity. By making any books or opinions contraband, the desire to read and circulate them is increased.
Haha, I love the comment on the effect of banning books! Anyhow, interestingly, Olivia’s mentor Gabrielle, who later in the novel urges more dastardly plotting, tells her that such novels do not provide good advice for life:
Permit me to tell you, that you have been a little spoiled by sentimental novels, which are good only to talk of when one must show sensibility, but destructive as rules of action.
(And she goes on to say that “Love has been with you the sole end of love; whereas it ought to be the beginning of power.”)
I’ve been pretty brief here – really?, you say! – because each of the points I’ve touched upon could make a post in themselves. Leonora is not a subtle book, but I enjoyed reading it, partly for its place in literary history and culture, partly for its commentaries, and partly because it has a liveliness that I found engaging despite myself.
* Bill (The Australian Legend) is making a study of Mothers of the novel, starting here.)
Library of Alexandria, 2012 (Orig. pub. 1806)
ASIN: B0073UNBJC (Kindle ed.)
Available online at Project Gutenberg