Article 7

ART. VII. Tales of Fashionable Life. By Miss Edgeworth, 3 vols. 12mo. Johnson, London, 1809.

[pp. 146-154] [original article in PDF format]

  1. IF the importance of a literary work is to be estimated by the number of readers which it attracts, and the effect which it produces upon character and moral taste, a novel or a tale cannot justly be deemed a trifling production. For it is not only that a novel even of the lowest order always finds more readers than a serious work, but that it finds readers of a more ductile cast whose feelings are more easily interested, and with whom every impression is deeper, because more new. Productions of this kind, therefore, are by no means beneath the notice of the reviewer, but fall very peculiarly within his province. The customers of the circulating library are so numerous, and so easily imposed upon, that it is of the utmost importance to the public, that its weights and measures should be subject to the inspection of a strict literary police, and the standard of its morality and sentiment kept as pure as the nature of things will admit.

  2. Miss Edgeworth, however, has more honourable claims to critical notice, and such as cannot be allowed to the ordinary class of manufacturers of novels. Though not perhaps what is called a fine writer, she possesses a considerable share of genius and originality; and has shewn, in her Treatise on Education, talents, which if not equal to that subject, are at the same time much superior to the task of fabricating books of mere amusement.

  3. As a writer of tales and novels, she has a very marked peculiarity. It is that of venturing to dispense common sense to her readers, and to bring them within the precincts of real life and natural feeling. She presents them with no incredible adventures, or inconceivable sentiments, no hyperbolical representations of uncommon character, or monstrous exhibitions of exaggerated passion. Without excluding love from her pages, she knows how to assign to it, its just limits. She neither degrades the sentiment from its true dignity, nor lifts it to a burlesque elevation. It takes its proper place among the other passions. Her heroes and heroines, if such they may be called, are never miraculously good, nor detestably wicked. They are such men and women as we see and converse with every day of our lives; with the same proportionate mixture in them of what is right and what is wrong, of what is great and what is little. Rejecting the common-place sources of artificial interest, Miss Edgeworth [146] derives her attraction from a genuine display of nature and a certain tone of rationality and good sense, which is the more pleasing, because in a novel it is so very new. The charm of probability by which her stories are so strongly characterized, is effected not only by an undeviating attention to nature, but by producing her under the forms in which she most usually presents herself, neglecting those which, though more imposing, are less frequent. Miss Edgeworth not only paints to the life, but loves to take subjects generally considered as dry and unproductive; such as are supposed unfit materials for fiction, because even in real life, they do not excite any warmth of interest. Character, for instance, seldom strikes till it is formed and finished; till it is manured into lights and shades so strong, as to mark it even to the transient observer. It is therefore character in this state only, which novelists in general think it worth their while to pourtray; but Miss E. loves to represent it even in its first elements, to trace the progress of its formation, to mark the effect produced upon it by influences, which, however real, have no connection whatever with the striking or the romantic, and to conduct it finally to a consummation neither of abandoned vice nor faultless virtue, but of that mixed good and evil, to which any other artist would despair to give interest and effect.

  4. This developement of character is often so exquisitely managed, as to leave the readers of romance no regret for the shining improbabilities to which they have been accustomed; but on the other hand, it cannot be denied that it is sometimes of so dull and homely an execution, as to leave no sentiment of tolerable complacency towards the design. To support, however, in any degree, the interest of a tale of fiction, and yet to divest it of the romantic tone to which fiction seems always to have owed its chief allurement, implies powers of no ordinary kind; and that on the whole, Miss Edgeworth is at least as interesting as the majority of her wonder-dealing rivals, there are, perhaps few of her readers, who will not readily allow. To our shame, however, we must acknowledge that we always think her most agreeable when she deviates a little from her rigid realities, and concedes to the corrupted taste of her readers some petty sprinkling of romantic feeling and extraordinary incident.

  5. The sober and didactic texture of her tales is obviously well adapted to the purpose of moral instruction, and her avowed aim in them is to illustrate the principles laid down in her Treatise on Education. If the moral tendency of novels is ever an object of great importance to the public, it must be peculiarly so when [147] they are written with the professed aim of establishing a set of principles. Into the merits of our author in this respect, it is therefore natural, with some anxiety to inquire.

  6. We never much admired the tone of Miss Edgeworth's morality. It is a striking fact, that in a treatise in which she professed to give a summary of the duties of tuition, she purposely excluded from her system all reference to the subject of religious instruction.* We recollect to have heard that in the cards of advertisement which a fashionable teacher in Paris distributed to the public, after a statement of the several languages and accomplishments which she was prepared to communicate to her pupils, a postscript was added, that any religion might be taught which the parents might prefer. Miss Edgeworth went a step beyond this: she seemed to take it for granted that parents had no preferences of that kind, and no wish that their children should have them.

  7. It was not to be expected that where the proper foundation was not laid, there should be any firmness or elevation in the superstructure; the morality of Miss Edgeworth, as detailed in her Treatise and in her Tales, is accordingly a system of manners regulated by prudence and a sense of propriety, having little connection with the heart, and rarely leading to any difficult or important efforts of virtue. There is little in her standard of moral duty to which every man of common discretion and average goodness of disposition does not naturally conform, and scarcely any thing in the motives which she proposes, of a nobler source than a regard to worldly and selfish interests.

  8. It is in vain to offer by way of defence, that the sphere of a novelist is confined; that in works of a trifling kind, it would be absurd to attempt to establish the foundations of moral obligation, or to inculcate with effect the more important duties. Such observations, though we should admit them to be true, are not applicable to the case in question; for our complaint is not that Miss Edgeworth has confined her instruction to matters of small importance, but that so limiting it, she at the same time leads her readers to suppose that they are receiving a complete lesson of morality, by neglecting to remind them that there are duties more sacred than those which she prescribes, and motives more commendable than those which she inculcates. It is [148] doubtless allowable to take partial views of a subject, but in so doing care ought to be taken that they are understood to be partial; otherwise it is not an incomplete, but an incorrect picture which is exhibited.

  9. This censure applies in our opinion, generally, to all the literary works of the author before us, and it is by none more justified than by that which forms the subject of the present review. In some of her other productions however, there is so much compensating merit, as almost to blind the severity of criticism to this great deficiency; but the tales before us have no claim to such favour. We have found in them a much greater predominance than in any of her other works, of that flatness and insipidity into which her peculiar vein of fictitious narrative is apt to lead, and on the whole consider them as decidedly inferior to any thing we had before seen from her pen.

  10. The volumes under review, form, as we are told by Mr. Edgeworth in a preface with which he furnishes his daughter, part of a series of works of which the Moral Tales were the first, and of which there are more to come, all illustrative of some principles detailed in the Treatise on Education. The immediate object of the present work, is to display the errors of fashionable education, and the follies of fashionable life. It consists of five tales, very unequal in length; the first and second volume each containing a single tale, and the rest being comprised in the third.

  11. Of these tales, we give the decided preference to that contained in the first volume. It is intitled 'Ennui;' and gives an ingenious account of the causes, progress, and cure of that prevalent epidemic. These are exemplified in the case of a young peer, who indulgently educated, and left at an early age master of an immense fortune, plunges without controul into fashionable enjoyments, and throughout the whole of his splendid career, finds himself tired and dissatisfied without knowing why. With good natural parts and a feeling heart, he is believed by himself and by others to be, destitute of both, because these qualities had never for an instant been roused into exertion. To call them forth was obviously the secret of expelling 'Ennui;' but it was a secret, which, having no friend to teach him, he is made to learn from experience. He visits his paternal estate in Ireland; and we, who knew how often our own ennui had been relieved by a journey to that country under the guidance of Miss Edgeworth, followed him with great pleasure; and with very sanguine hopes of his recovery. His malady is relieved by the vexations and comical incidents of an Irish journey. Difficulties [149] and privations, however slight, are new to him, and rouse him from his apathy. He arrives at his castle, and is awakened to still further exertion, and therefore to still further enjoyment, by the ambition of preserving his importance among his peasantry, and of repressing the insolence of neighbouring proprietors. A tolerably strong love-fit is the first incident which leads towards a permanent cure. Miss Edgeworth with all her contempt for common-place love-stories, is still a woman, and is not displeased to attribute some wonders to the passion. She therefore makes him fall in love with a witty Irish woman.—Of this lady we will give the author's own character.

    'High-born and high-bred, she seemed to consider more what she thought of others, than what others thought of her. Frank, candid and affable, yet opinionated, insolent, and an egotist: her candour and affability appeared the effect of a naturally good temper; her insolence and egotism only those of a spoiled child. She seemed to talk of herself purely to oblige others, as the most interesting topic of conversation; for such it had always been to her fond mother who idolized her ladyship as an only daughter and the representative of an ancient house. Confident of her talents, conscious of her charms and secure of her station, Lady Geraldine gave free scope to her high spirits, her fancy, and her turn for ridicule. She looked, spoke, and acted, like a person privileged to think, say, and do, what she pleased. Her raillery like the raillery of princes, was without fear of retort. She was not ill-natured, yet careless to whom she gave offence, provided she produced amusement; and in this she seldom failed, for in her conversation there was much of the raciness of Irish wit, and the oddity of Irish humour.'—Vol. I. p. 136.

  12. Lady Geraldine without participating in the flame of her admirer, does him a much greater favour by drawing him into conversation, making him exert his natural talents, and both telling and convincing him that he is not a fool. In the progress of this intimacy, he finds his 'Ennui' considerably subside; and he has not a single attack of it during the whole period of the Irish rebellion, owing to the activity into which he is compelled, in order to preserve his life from assassination, and his loyalty from suspicion.

  13. Still however, the ease and enjoyment derived from his title and estate, produce a recurrence of the symptoms, when he fortunately, makes the discovery that he is the usurper of the honours of another, whose place he has by the deceit of a nurse occupied from infancy; and the Earl of Glenthorn at once sinks into Christopher O'Donoghoe. Poverty, co-operating with another [150] very violent and most inopportune love-attack, induces him to study the law. He enters the office of a special pleader, and from that moment loses his 'Ennui' for ever. If we find any readers among the gay inhabitants of Lincoln's Inn, or the Temple, this may appear to them so violent an outrage upon probability, as to throw considerable discredit on some of our preceding remarks. Perhaps entering on the business with real earnestness, and having nothing else to depend upon, may impart interest even to precedents and entries. However that may be, we are told that they were of singular benefit to the ex-peer, who at the end of the usual period of study, finds that he has lost his 'Ennui' and gained a considerable portion of valuable technical knowledge. Upon the strength of this he marries the fair inciter of his diligence, her friends having very wisely suspended their consent until he should have proved himself a decided convalescent.

  14. This story, of which we have given but a very summary sketch, is not ill conceived, and is on the whole very well told. The following extract will convince our readers who well know how successful the author is in depicting Irish character and manners, that she is not less so in her sketch of the North Briton.

  15. Lord Glenthorn during his residence at his Irish castle, among other methods of relieving 'Ennui,' had recourse to that of giving away money to his indigent tenants.—His agent, a philosophic Scotchman, disapproved of his liberality.

    'I was quite angry (says Lord Glenthorn) with Mr. M'Leod my agent, and considered him as a selfish hard-hearted miser, because he did not seem to sympathize with me, or to applaud my generosity. I was so much irritated by his cold silence, that I could not forbear pressing him to say something.—"I doubt then" said he, "since you desire me to speak my mind, my Lord, I doubt whether the best way of encouraging the industrious is to give premiums to the idle."

    'But idle or not, these poor wretches are so miserable that I cannot refuse to give them something; and surely when one can do it so easily, it is right to relieve misery, is it not?'

    'Undoubtedly, my lord, but the difficulty is to relieve present misery, without creating more in future. Pity for one class of beings sometimes makes us cruel to others. I am told that there are some Indian Brahmins so very compassionate that they hire beggars to let fleas feed upon them; I doubt whether it might not be better to let the fleas starve.

    'I did not in the least understand what Mr. M'Leod meant; but I was soon made to comprehend it by crowds of eloquent beggars [151] who soon surrounded me: many who had been resolutely struggling with their difficulties, slackened their exertions, and left their labour for the easier trade of imposing upon my credulity. The money I had bestowed was wasted at the dram-shop, or it became the subject of family quarrels; and those whom I had relieved, returned to my honour, with fresh and insatiable expectations. All this time my industrious tenants grumbled, because no encouragement was given to them; and looking upon me as a weak good-natured fool, they combined in a resolution to ask me for long leases or a reduction of rent.

    'The rhetoric of my tenants succeeded, in some instances; and again, I was mortified by Mr. M'Leod's silence. I was too proud to ask his opinion. I ordered, and was obeyed. A few leases for long terms were signed and sealed; and when I had thus my own way completely, I could not refrain from recurring to Mr. M'Leod's opinion.

    'I doubt, my lord,' said he, 'whether this measure may be as advantageous as you hope. These fellows, these, middle men, will underset the land, and live in idleness, whilst they rack a parcel of wretched under-tenants.

    'But they said they would keep the land in their own hands and improve it; and that the reason why they could hot afford to improve before was, that they had not long leases.

    'It may be doubted whether long leases alone will make improving tenants; for in the next county to us there are many farms of the dowager Lady Ormsby's land, let at ten shillings an acre, and her tenantry are beggars:and the land now at the end of the leases is worn out, and worse than at their commencement.'

    'I was weary of listening to this cold reasoning, and resolved to apply no more for explanations to Mr. M'Leod; yet I did not long keep this resolution: infirm of purpose, I wanted the support of his approbation, at the very time I was jealous of his interference.

    'At one time I had a mind to raise the wages of labour; but Mr. M'Leod said—'It might be doubted whether the people would not work less, when they could with less work have money enough to support them.'

    'I was puzzled, and then I had a mind to lower the wages of labour, to force them to work or starve. Still provoking, Mr. M'Leod said—'It might be doubted whether it would not be better to leave them alone.'

    'I gave marriage portions to the daughters of my tenants, and rewards to those who had children; for I had always heard that legislators should encourage population.

    'Still Mr. M'Leod hesitated to approve: he observed 'that my estate was so populous, that the complaint in each family was, that they had not land for the sons. It might be doubted whether, if a farm could support but ten people, it were wise to encourage the birth of twenty. It might be doubted whether it were not better for [152] ten to live, and be well fed, than for twenty to be born, and to be half-starved.'

    'To encourage manufactures in my town of Glenthorn, I proposed putting a clause in my leases, compelling my tenants to buy stuffs and linens manufactured at Glenthorn, and no where else. Stubborn M'Leod, as usual, began with—

    'I doubt whether that will not encourage the manufacturers at Glenthorn to make bad stuffs and bad linen, since they are sure of a sale, and without danger of competition.'

    'At all events I thought my tenants would grow rich and independent if they made every thing at home that they wanted: yet Mr. 'M'Leod perplexed me by his

    'Doubt whether it would not be better for a man to buy shoes, if he could buy them cheaper than he could make them. He added something about the division of labour, and 'Smith's Wealth of Nations.' To which I could only answer, Smith's a Scotchman.

    'I cannot express how much I dreaded Mr. M'Leod's I doubt, and it may be doubted.'—Vol. I. p. 101-106.

  16. On the tales contained in the two last volumes we cannot bestow much praise. If it were required to make a choice between them, we should prefer 'The Dun,' which, in the example of a Colonel Pembroke, who by his thoughtless neglect to pay his tailor, brings a whole family into deplorable want and misery, gives a just and severe rebuke to hard-hearted fashionable debtors. The Colonel is reformed; and it may be useful to other gentlemen who labour under the same infirmity, to learn where a cure is to be had. He meets the daughter of his creditor in a brothel, and being shocked to find that she has been driven thither by his neglect to discharge his debts, becomes thenceforward, a very accurate paymaster. Miss Edgeworth's morality is of a reasonable kind, and does not require too much. We therefore do not find that the Colonel's reformation extended any farther.

  17. 'Almeria,' is a tale intended to exhibit the absurdity and danger of imitating the fashionable frivolities of our superiors in rank; and if it were not too dull to be read, it might do a great deal of good.

  18. The story of 'Madame de Fleury' is of a very unambitious kind. Its chief object, is to convey several minute practical lessons to charitable females of rank, who undertake to superintend the education of the children of the poor. It is also intended to shew that the rich and the great may in their turn be sometimes indebted to the objects of their benevolent care; a truth sufficiently obvious, but as a moral not very important. Few ladies of fashion have any reason to expect the vicissitudes [153] of fortune to which the French revolution exposed Madame de Fleury; and at all events 'it may be doubted,' whether a hope of recompence is a very exalted motive of charity.

  19. 'Manœuvring,' which occupies the whole of the last volume, is a detail of the machinations of Mrs. Beaumont, a lady who expends an immoderate quantity of Machiavelism and intrigue in projects of family connection; and also in securing to her family the fortune of an old gentleman who never had a thought of disposing of it otherwise. The mortifications and defeats, to which her circuitous policy perpetually exposes her, constitute the moral of the tale, which, though not ill conceived, as far as the character of Mrs. Beaumont extends, is on the whole, not extremely interesting.

  20. The old gentleman is one of the most fatiguing personages we ever remember to have encountered, even in a work of amusement. A splenetic, rough-mannered, good-humoured, benevolent oddity, is a character of such trite conception, that it is to be found in the dramatis personæ of almost every play or novel of the last century. We do not however, in the whole class, recollect to have seen a worse specimen than Mr. Palmer. He always thinks proper to swear by St. George. Reading in the newspapers an account of a naval victory, 'A most gallant action, by St. George'! exclaimed Mr. Palmer. 'These are the things that keep up the honour of the British navy, and the glory of Britain.

    'Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves,
    'Britons never will be slaves !'—Vol. III. p. 137.

    Had the manoeuvres of Mrs. Beaumont been concerted for the purpose of escaping from this old gentleman, instead of attracting him, they must have been allowed to be pardonable.

  21. We are not sorry to hear the determination announced in the preface of this work, to favour the public with more tales. We think that it is within the scope of Miss Edgeworth's talents, to be amusing and instructive in a very high degree. If, in the 'Tales of Fashionable Life,' she has not exactly attained this praise, the failure is to be imputed rather to a defect of judgment than of powers. [154]