or, The Unfortunate Attachment: A Sentimental Novel
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
by Jonathan David Gross.
University of New York Press, 2004. xiv + 322 pages.
B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $65.50. Paperback. $21.95.
by Patricia Meyer Spacks.
This Emma presents an eponymous heroine
with a controlling father and no living mother, as well as a naval
officer named Wentworth. Only such fragile links connect the 1773 work
with Austen’s novels. The duchess’ version of Emma, issuing from a literary
universe and a literary sensibility far different from Austen’s, in
fact exemplifies one kind of fiction Austen reacted against.
lovely daughter of a reputedly rich man, charms everyone by her
artlessness and her beauty. Although she attracts the highly eligible
William Walpole, she loves Augustus Sidney, who has been reared with
her after his father’s untimely death. Sidney depends financially on
his pay as a military officer. For this reason alone, Emma’s father
forbids the marriage and demands that she marry Walpole and avoid
telling him of her previous attachment, although she begs permission to
reader of 18th-Century fiction can predict the rest, especially given
the revealing subtitle, “A
Sentimental Novel.” Walpole, obsessed with female “delicacy,”
can’t tolerate the idea that any woman who interests him has ever felt
attracted to another man. Emma, an exemplary daughter, turns into a
conduct book wife, altogether compliant. When Sidney dies fighting in
Russia, however, leaving what little money he has to Emma, her husband,
scenting a previous attachment, abandons her and their infant daughter,
involving himself in amorous scandal and ruining himself financially
with drink and gambling. Emma, after making various sacrifices on his
behalf, pines away until doctors declare her about to die. Her husband
rushes to her side and orders her to live. Ever obedient, she complies.
A huge unexpected inheritance rescues the couple from financial
difficulties; Emma bears a son; everyone presumably lives happily ever
after. Around the edges of this fairly preposterous plot, Emma’s
friends pursue their own romantic careers, with all satisfactorily
paired off by the end.
does not resemble Emma Woodhouse. She is “handsome,” to be sure, but
neither clever (although asserted to possess many “accomplishments”)
nor, as it turns out, rich. She has much to vex her, and she seems to
thrive on the vexation that enables her to demonstrate her goodness.
Far exceeding Marianne Dashwood in sensibility, she, unlike Marianne,
inhabits a society that consistently understands sensibility as
praiseworthy. Emma’s father, rather perversely approving of the extreme
grief she manifests when deprived by him of all hope of marrying
Sidney, assures her that only feeling produces virtue, and her
subsequent career supports the point. Even the most spirited young
woman in the novel, Emma’s friend Kitty, clearly modeled on Anna Howe
(from Clarissa), manifests
extravagant sensibility when circumstance invites it.
juvenilia through Sanditon,
Austen consistently mocked the tradition that glorified extreme
emotional responsiveness. Her heroines may have emotional outbursts,
but even Marianne, the most self-indulgent of them, declares herself
finally committed to rationality. Austen, however, did not depend
solely on her heroines’ viewpoints for critical perspective. No Austen
novel after Lady Susan relied
in its final form on the epistolary mode, and Emma; or, The Unfortunate Attachment
hints why. When imaginary letters construct a fiction, only the voices
of characters can speak to the reader. The best epistolary novels—for
instance, Samuel Richardson’s three—represent characters whose
complexities and vacillations make them capable of unexpected,
complicated, illuminating responses. The 18th-Century Emma, imagining its characters in
relatively crude terms, provides few surprises. Its letters offer
simplistic moralistic judgments or sentimental reactions. The novel’s
characters are as predictable as its plot.
reliance on a judicious, witty, slightly acerbic narrator enables the
moral clarity missing from the “sentimental novel” version of Emma. The serious achievements of
sentimental fiction—celebration of the sympathetic ties among human
beings, acknowledgment of the pleasures of emotional
self-expression—seem thin in comparison to the subtle responses
solicited by Austen’s novels, although mildly appealing. Emma may soothe us like a tepid
bath—but leave us longing for a bracing shower.
Gross, the novel’s current editor, provides a long, careful
introduction. He accepts the attribution of authorship to the Duchess
of Devonshire, a glamorous society figure who would have been 16 at the
novel’s publication. Such attribution adds interest to the text,
suggesting, as Gross points out, that the novel’s portrayal of a
troubled marriage reflects premarital anxieties of a girl who would,
less than a year later, marry a duke. Gross claims Emma as an accomplished work of
fiction and offers a detailed biographical account of its putative
author. He records textual variants, provides copious explanatory
notes, and supplies an appendix with examples of the duchess’s poetry.
Scholars of the
period must applaud the re-publication of any 18th-Century novel. For
lovers of Jane Austen, though, this “new” Emma will supply little direct
information about Austen’s relation to her predecessors. It reminds us,
rather, of how dramatically her fiction transformed the conventions
established by novels written only a little earlier.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the
University of Virginia, is completing a new history of the 18th-Century
v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 18
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