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‘A Simple Story’: Our Readers’ Verdicts

“All I know of her, is merely, that she’s a young, idle, indiscreet, giddy girl, with half a dozen lovers in her suite; some coxcombs, some men of gallantry, some single, and some married”.

Elizabeth Inchbald’s first novel A Simple Story sees the spirited heroine Miss Milner fall in love with and marry her guardian Dorriforth, a former Catholic priest. In two further volumes, she commits adultery while he is away in the West Indies, and is seen to lose her virtue. Much like Samuel Richardson’s heroine Clarissa, she then dies a slow and anguished death, but hopes that Dorriforth (now Lord Elmwood) will care for their child Matilda.

Our readers met to discuss the novel at Mycenae House on Friday 18 May. They liked Miss Milner as a character, as while she is feisty, capricious, and contrary, she is also reflective about her own behaviour. While other characters in the novel may not understand her, readers do. When she attends a masquerade after Dorriforth has forbidden her from doing so, she feels ‘remorse at having transgressed his injunctions for so trivial an entertainment.’ This weighs heavily upon her spirits. Readers felt that she is unfairly treated by her husband, having to wait almost three years for him to return home from the West Indies while she is left caring for their young child Matilda.

In contrast, our readers found Dorriforth to be selfish and implacable. He is so judgmental as a character that his love (whether for his nephew Harry Rushbrook, his wife Miss Milner or daughter Matilda) is always conditional. This is very different to how the novel was read by contemporaries, with The Gentleman’s Magazine presenting him as the ‘hero’ of the tale, who encounters ‘a series of surprizing and well-contrasted adventures’, and the Monthly Review concluding that the novel was essentially about how Dorriforth navigated the ‘trying circumstances’ he faced, particularly regarding ‘his wife, who had dishonoured him’.[1]

Readers noted that much of the story was told through unspoken emotional cues such as gazes, blushes, and sighs, which are read and misread as part of the plot:

When he entered – the sight of him seemed to be too much for her, and after the first glance she turned her head away – the sound of his voice encouraged her, however, to look once more – and now she riveted her eyes upon him.

“It is impossible, my dear Miss Milner,” he gently whispered, “to say, the joy I feel that your disorder has subsided”.

But though it was impossible to say, it was possible to look what he felt, and his looks expressed his feelings.

Whole aspects of the story are told using the language of emotions, with Dorriforth and Miss Milner’s growing love betrayed by their longing gazes. In the second half of the novel, Dorriforth’s love for his daughter Matilda is only awakened when she faints and falls senseless into his arms, and the physical sensation forces him into action, unleashing his pent-up feelings and ‘long-restrained tears’. The novelist Maria Edgeworth made a similar comment when the novel was first published, writing to Inchbald that ‘it is by leaving more than most other writers to the imagination, that you succeed so eminently in affecting it. By the force that it necessary to repress feeling, we judge of the intensity of the feeling; and you always contrive to give us by intelligible but simple signs the measure of this force’.[2]

Readers disagreed about what happens at the end of the novel, and whether or not Matilda marries her cousin Rushbrook, after receiving a proposal from him. Inchbald writes, ‘Whether the heart of Matilda, such as it has been described, could sentence him to misery, the reader is left to surmise’. Some concluded that she did not marry him, as she has already told Rushbrook that she loves him ‘as her friend, her cousin, her softer brother, but not as a lover’. However, others argued that the soft and sympathetic temperament of Matilda meant that she could not possibly have ‘sentenced him to misery’, and the pair would have married. This is certainly how the novel was read at the time, with the dutiful Matilda behaving – unlike her mother – as a ‘submissive and properly feminine father’s daughter’.[3]

We hope that you enjoyed reading the last of our eighteenth century novels, and discovering the languages of sensibility and the sublime, and exploring changing attitudes to love, marriage, and power. We are now moving into the nineteenth century, and in June will be reading and discussing George Sand’s Indiana.

[1] The Gentleman’s Magazine 61 (1791), 255; Monthly Review (January-April 1791), 436.

[2] Maria Edgeworth to Elizabeth Inchbald, 14 January 1810, cited in Introduction to A Simply Story by Jane Spencer (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. xvi.

[3] Ibid., p. xx.

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