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Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821), A Simple Story

Elizabeth Inchbald (née Simpson) was an actress and playwright who ran away from her family home in Suffolk in April 1772, aged eighteen, to seek her fortune on the stage. As a young woman alone in London, she had to fend off the advances of several actors while trying to find a place in a theatre company, at one point throwing a bowl of hot water in the face of the theatre manager James Dodd.[1] She married the older actor Joseph Inchbald (1735-79) in June 1772, affording her a means of protection as she embarked on her acting career. The couple appeared together on stage for the first time three months later as father and daughter – Lear and Cordelia – in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Inchbald subsequently wrote or translated more than twenty plays, but is probably best known today for her hit Lovers’ Vows (1798), which is performed by the characters in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814).

Elizabeth-Inchbald
Elizabeth Inchbald by Wooding, published by John Sewell, after John Russell (1788), hand-coloured line engraving, NPG D16734, © National Portrait Gallery, London

A Simple Story was Inchbald’s first novel, published in February 1791, with all four volumes costing twelve shillings (around £66 today!). Due to Inchbald’s stellar reputation as a playwright, people had great expectations for her novel. As one newspaper wrote in 1790, ‘To whatever department she turns her literary exertions, there can be small doubt of her excelling’.[3] The novel was widely praised in periodicals and the popular press, with The Gentleman’s Magazine writing that:

She has struck out a path entirely her own. She has disdained to follow the steps of her predecessors, and to construct a new novel, as is too commonly done, out of the scraps and fragments of earlier inventors…We predict that Mrs. Inchbald, especially if she can be prevailed upon to persist in the path she has so honourably begun, will rank amongst the first classics of those who, through this enchanting vehicle, have communicated instruction and improvement to mankind.[4]

Some reviewers complained about the gap of seventeen years which separates Volumes 1–2 and 3–4. In fact, Inchbald had initially designed them as separate novels – after the first two volumes were rejected by a publisher in 1777, she added the next two over the following decade.[5] While for some it was a ‘blemish’, others believed that this was ‘a new and artful way of conducting a story’.[6] After reading A Simple Story three or four times, the celebrated novelist Maria Edgeworth wrote to Inchbald in 1810 praising how:

I never read any novel that affected me so strongly, or that so completely possessed me with the belief in the real existence of all the people it represents … I believed all to be real, and was affected as I should be by the real scenes as if they had passed before my eyes.[7]

A Simple Story was so popular that the new and improved second edition was already out two months later in April 1791, with a fourth published in 1799, followed by twelve more editions over the nineteenth century.[2]

We look forward to discussing A Simple Story with you over the coming month, and hope you enjoy reading it!

You can read more about the author here:

https://chawtonhouse.org/_www/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Elizabeth-Inchbald.pdf

And listen to a special episode of Woman’s Hour about Inchbald:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/03/2009_25_wed.shtml

[1] Annibel Jenkins, I’ll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald (Kentucky, 2003), p. 2.

[2] Ben P. Robertson, Elizabeth Inchbald’s Reputation: A Publishing and Reception History (Basingstoke, 2013).

[3] Diary or Woodfall’s Register, London, 22 July 1790, Issue 412.

[4] The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 61 (1791)

[5] https://chawtonhouse.org/_www/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Elizabeth-Inchbald.pdf

[6] Critical Review, 1791, A Simple Story second edition.

[7] S. R. Littlewood, Elizabeth Inchbald and her circle (London, 1921), p. 123.

 

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