Review: Emmeline

Emmeline, by Charlotte Smith (Walmer Classics, 978-0-6457519-0-1 paperback)

A novel with the title Emmeline: The Orphan of the Castle, published in 1787, immediately suggests that the narrative will deal with a spirited and noble heroine, whose virtue will be threatened by a villainous admirer. The heroine will have a champion who will rescue her from the clutches of the villain, though not before she has endured death threats, encounters with brigands, and imprisonment in some fortress in the Apennines. There will be dungeons, secret tunnels, and mysterious apparitions. Along the way, the plucky protagonist will be thrilled by the power of nature, especially of the mountainous variety, and will probably compose poetry inspired by the terrain. The novels of Ann Radcliffe, wildly popular at the end of the eighteenth century, followed this pattern, perfectly reflecting the literary zeitgeist of early Romanticism, and the concomitant enthusiasm for picturesque landscape. Radcliffe was pre-eminent among a group of women novelists of the time whose works were gently satirised by Jane Austen in her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey. Turning to Emmeline, then, now republished as the second volume in the Walmer Classics series, we might expect a Radcliffian narrative, and to some extent that’s what we get, but there are important differences.

Charlotte Smith was Radcliffe’s precursor, and this novel, while anticipating some of the tropes of the female gothic, is not really of that genre. Our heroine, Emmeline, is the “natural” child of a nobleman and an unknown woman. Both parents are deceased, and Emmeline grows up an orphan at Mowbray castle in Wales, a crumbling ruin, where she is in the hands of the family servants who live there. Her adventures start when, on a rare visit from the family, she catches the eye of her rakish cousin Delamere. He is the nearest character to the classic gothic antagonist, but is not the Machiavellian schemer who frequently figures in Radcliffe and her peers. Rather, he is a driven, passionate, selfish young man, who fixates on Emmeline, and will pursue her at all costs. That pursuit is the mainspring of the plot, which follows Emmeline’s peregrinations, and her complex relations with the family, until the predictable outcome.

This narrative proceeds in a leisurely fashion – close to 800 pages are required to complete the story, and sometimes Smith is guilty of emphasising telling at the expense of showing, so that there are passages of wordy narrative where there is rather too much detail on, say, the logistics of changing horses on a post-chaise for a modern reader. But there is much to enjoy and admire here, not least the subtle analysis of society and the workings of eighteenth century patriarchy. Charlotte Smith had a troubled life. Following a disastrous marriage aged 15, she gave birth to twelve children, and was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison along with her feckless husband. Afterwards, they were frequently obliged to move in order to avoid his creditors. So, it is not surprising that a leitmotif of this, her first novel, is the impact on women of marriage to useless husbands. Mrs Stafford, Emmeline’s friend, is one such unfortunate, whose intelligence and good sense are just about sufficient to keep her family’s head above water. Smith has something of Jane Austen’s sharpness when describing Stafford and his ilk, and an eye for the comic detail. Here is Stafford, who loses money hand over fist by pursuing crackpot get-rich-quick schemes:

“Mr Stafford…was now gone for a few days into another county, to make himself acquainted with the process of manuring land with old wigs — a mode of agriculture on which Mr Headly had lately written a treatise so convincing, that Mr Stafford was determined to adopt it on his own farm as soon as a sufficient number of wigs could be procured for the purpose.”

Another minor character, the fop Elkerton, one of several suitors for Emmeline’s hand, flatters himself that she would be unable to resist him, and couches his appeal in terms which recall Jane Austen’s ironic universally acknowledged truth:

“Elkerton, in looking about for the happy woman who was worthy the exalted situation of being his wife, had yet seen none whom he thought so likely to succeed to that honour as Miss Mowbray; and if she was, on enquiry, found to be as she was represented (related to Lord Montreville) it would be so great an additional advantage that he determined in that case to lay himself and his pied horses, his house in Kent, his library, his fortune, all at her feet immediately. Nor did he once suffer himself to suspect that there was a woman on earth who could withstand such a torrent of good fortune.”

The society in which idiots like Stafford and Elkerton are afforded every opportunity, but where women are denied basic agency, is implicitly criticised at every turn. Certainly, women are the main sources  of intelligence and rationality in the narrative. It is no surprise to learn that Charlotte Smith was an early advocate of women’s rights. Her own life, which had many striking parallels with that of Mrs Stafford, gave her ample reason to side with such contemporaries as Mary Wollstonecraft on this issue. 

Smith is very illuminating on the business of class, and the rigidity with which a person’s perceived rank fixed their place in society. Emmeline is, of course, beautiful, sensitive and accomplished, but cannot be thought of by his family as a match for Delamere because of her origins. Various sub-plots also centre on the way in which societal norms impede the path to happiness of the characters, and how an upper-class background gives someone carte blanche to act in the most arrogant manner to those of lower social status. Even so, some social mobility is possible, for those devious enough. One of the most unpleasant characters in the novel is the social climber Crofts:

“To his superiors, the cringing parasite; to those whom he thought his inferiors, proud, supercilious and insulting; and his heart hardening as his prosperity encreased, he threw off, as much as he could, every connection that reminded him of the transactions of his early life, and affected to live only among the great, whose luxuries he could now reach, and whose manners he tried to imitate.”

Emmeline’s travels in escaping the clutches of Delamere take her first to the environs of London (Clapham is a pleasant village a few miles from the metropolis), the Isle of Wight, and eventually abroad, to France. A storm on the island presents a grandeur which “gratified her taste for the sublime” but it is when she crosses the Channel that the narrative most resembles the style that would soon become so popular, with the heroine immersed in dramatic landscapes. Even so, Smith never really fully buys into the idea of the romantic sublime. Her characters are more domesticated, and more likely to be overwhelmed by the prospect of an unpleasant meeting than by the mysterious power of nature. Fainting fits are frequent, usually resolved by the use of hartshorn and Hungary water.  Nevertheless, there are some passages which could easily have been written by Radcliffe. Here is Emmeline on the road:

“As they were travelling between Marseilles and Toulon, they entered a road bounded on each side by mountainous rocks, which sometimes receding, left between them small but richly cultivated vallies; and in other parts so nearly met each other, as to leave little more room than sufficed for the carriage to pass; while the turnings of the road were so angular and abrupt, that it seemed every moment to be carrying them into the bosom of the rock. Thro’ this defile, as it was quite shady, they agreed to walk.”

Shortly after, following a description of the various species of trees that could be discerned from the road, our heroine allows herself to be overwhelmed by nature:

“Emmeline in silent admiration beheld this singular scene; and with the pleasure it gave her, a soft and melancholy sensation was mingled. She wanted to be alone in this delightful place, or with some one who could share, who could understand the satisfaction she felt.”

The idea of the sublime surfaces in one or two other places, for example in the poetry of Emmeline’s friend Adelina, but otherwise, there are few passages that treat of the romantic sensibility commonly exhibited by the gothic heroine. Emmeline is, despite her complete lack of schooling, refined, intelligent, and artistically talented but more inclined to concentrate on practical matters than flights of the imagination. 

Emmeline’s journey from poor orphan to the inevitable happy and prosperous marriage with which all such narratives must finish, is a tortuous one, along which she encounters many obstacles, but none that are life-threatening, as in the novels of Mrs Radcliffe. Rather, she must forever react to the power exerted by malevolent men, and rely on help from other women (and one or two virtuous males) to navigate her passage. 

Charlotte Smith went on to write nine further novels, and it is to be hoped that this edition, well-produced as we have come to expect from Walmer, Britain’s most northerly publisher, is not the only work of hers to see deserved republication. She is an important figure in the development of the novel, and merits more attention from both readers and critics.

Thanks to Mike Walmer for the review copy. Some more reviews of Walmer books can be found on the Shiny New Books site.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Review: Emmeline by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One Response to “Review: Emmeline”

  1. Thanks so much for this really fine coverage, Rob. Loved hearing about the contrasts/similarities between Smith and Radcliffe, whom I haven’t yet read. Grateful.

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