While young Jane Austen was composing Catharine, or the Bower in the summer of 1792, she definitely had popular poet and novelist Charlotte Smith on her mind. Not only does she refer to the novels of “Mrs Smith” in this fragment, but her marginal jottings in the Austen family’s copy of Goldsmith’s History of England made around this time include comic references to two of Smith’s fictional characters (Juvenilia 333–34). One of the last of Austen’s juvenilia, Catharine, or the Bower was also Austen’s first attempt at writing a realist courtship novel rather than a burlesque. In this transitional work she reimagines the novels of Charlotte Smith not by comically exaggerating the features of Smith’s characters, settings, and incidents, as in her burlesques, but by reducing those elements into a more realistic, although still satiric, scale, thus discovering the approach to fiction that she would bring to her mature novels.1
As Austen’s title suggests, Catharine’s bower is key to understanding this reimagining. The title Catharine, or the Bower is a departure from Austen’s own earlier practice. The effusions of fancy in Volume the First are mostly named for their protagonists, with a few of them descriptive of the plot or theme: Frederic and Elfrida, Jack and Alice, Edgar and Emma, Henry and Eliza, The adventures of Mr Harley, Sir William Mountague, Memoirs of Mr Clifford, The beautifull Cassandra, Amelia Webster, The Visit, The Mystery, The Three Sisters, The Generous Curate. The titles in Volume the Second tend to be thematic as well as descriptive: Love and Freindship, The History of England, A Collection of Letters, A Tour through Wales. None of the items in Volume the First and only one of the items in Volume the Second—Lesley Castle—is named for a place rather than a protagonist. Austen’s final collection of juvenilia, Volume the Third, contains just two titles, each with the name of its protagonist: Evelyn and Catharine, or the Bower. But the latter’s syntactic construction is unique in Austen’s writings: it is her only work with a compound title or subtitle.
The title begins, like most of those in Volume the First, with the main character’s name, “Catharine,” then adds the name of a fictional location, “the Bower.” “The Bower” doesn’t appear to be an appositive—that is, it doesn’t rename or identify the proper noun “Catharine.”2 Rather, following a coordinating conjunction, it stands grammatically as a counterweight, equal in balance to and sharing billing with “Catharine,” suggesting that this story will be more than a tale about a girl named “Catharine.” It will also be a story about a bower. This compound title, so common a construction in the novels of the period but so uncharacteristic of Austen, signals that the word “bower” is charged with significance.
And so it is. Samuel Johnson defined “bower” as “an arbour; a sheltered place covered with green trees, twined and bent,” but the term carries literary freight beyond its lexical definition. Scholars have long identified “bower narratives,” “bower conventions,” and “bower poetry,” interpreting them in symbolic and metonymic terms: thus the leafy, enclosed bower is commonly associated with female sexuality, and the bower narrative is recognized as a sexually charged tale in which a masculine figure invades a female garden for good or for ill.3 Young Jane Austen would have encountered some of these bower narratives while reading her way through her father’s library, and, like all of her reading, they inform her writing as she tests conventions against her own commonsense standards of probability.
In some cases, notably Spenser’s “Bower of Bliss” episode from Book II of The Faerie Queene, the bower is a site to which men are lured, sexually enchanted, and destroyed by a female witch. Spenser’s late-sixteenth-century poem features the questing knight Guyon who finds and destroys the witch Acrasia’s dangerous bower: “But all those pleasant bowres and palace brave, / Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse; / . . . But that their blisse he turn’d to balefulnesse” (2.7.83). Spenser also imagined an ideal, virtuous bower in Book VI of The Faerie Queene: a vision of Parnassus as “the sacred noursery / Of vertue, . . . / Where it in silver bowre does hidden lye / From view of men, and wicked worlds disdaine” (6.1.3; see also Crawford 270 n36). In the next century, Milton’s Paradise Lost refigures the corrupting “Bower of Bliss” into the innocent “blissful bower” of Eden (4.690) created by God for Adam and Eve’s marital love, a pastoral scene “where the unpierc’t shade / Imbround the noontide Bowrs: This was this place, / A happy rural seat of various view” (4.245–47). Into this “room of bliss” (4.359) envious Satan intrudes to corrupt Eve. In these epic works, bowers are sites for enacting moral struggles.
So too is the bower in Hannah More’s ballad “Sir Eldred of the Bower: A Legendary Tale,” a work published in the year of Austen’s birth (1775) featuring “a young, and valiant Knight” (7), whose only fault, his quick, violent temper, will have tragic consequences in a bower. Wandering through Scotland, Sir Eldred comes to a bower wherein he meets and instantly falls in love with the beautiful, pious Birtha. Like Austen’s later Catharine Percival, she’s a virtuous bower-builder:
She rear’d a fair and fragrant bower
Of wild and rustic taste,
And there she screen’d each fav’rite flower
From every ruder blast.
. . .
And here the Virgin lov’d to lead
Her inoffensive day,
And here she oft retir’d to read,
And oft retir’d to pray.
Embower’d she grac’d the woodland shades,
From courts and cities far,
The pride of Caledonian maids,
The peerless northern star. (11–12)
Birtha’s bower is a woodland retreat from towns and courts, a private pastoral space within which she can read and pray: a virtuous sanctuary more like Milton’s “blissful bower” than Spenser’s “Bower of Bliss.” Happily for Sir Eldred and Birtha, their fathers were best friends, so their union is blessed. After their wedding, however,
To recollect her scatter’d thought,
And shun the noon-tide hour,
The lovely bride in secret sought
The coolness of her Bower. (21)
Sir Eldred, hastening to his bride, finds her embracing a stranger whom, naturally, he slays, only to learn that he has killed Birtha’s brother Edwy, thought to be dead but in fact just returning from the wars. Birtha and her father expire in grief. Cue the moral: “Joy is the portion of the skies, Beneath them, all is care” (24).
This is not exactly the plot of Austen’s bower narrative, at least as far as we can tell,4 but in Austen’s bower narrative, Catharine, like Birtha, has built her bower with her own hands, and her shady garden bower is for her, as for Birtha, an innocent sanctuary: a pastoral refuge to which she retreats for privacy, reading, and reflection, and into which a masculine threat will intrude. Kitty Peterson (as Austen had originally called her heroine), although orphaned “when she was very young,” has had very little else to distress or vex her except the restrictions placed upon her innocent pleasures by her loving, overly protective “Maiden Aunt,” Mrs. Peterson/Percival, a sort of proto-Mr. Woodhouse. The narrator reassures us that Kitty’s “Spirits were naturally good, and not easily depressed, and she possessed such a fund of vivacity and good humour as could only be damped by some very serious vexation” (242). Her naturally buoyant spirits are supported by her bower: “Besides these antidotes against every disappointment, and consolations under them, she had another, which afforded her constant releif in all her misfortunes, and that was a fine shady Bower, the work of her own infantine Labours assisted by those of two young Companions who had resided in the same village—” (242). At the opening of the story, at least, Catharine’s bower is as innocent as Birtha’s or Eve’s.
Clara Tuite reads Catharine’s bower as a closet in both the earliest and the newest senses of that word—that is, both as a small private room such as Richardson’s Pamela retreats to in order to write her lengthy letters, and as a place of, or metaphor for, sexual disguise and repression. Tuite concludes, “The bower is a prepubescent female matrix from which the sexually ambiguous heroine emerges into heterosexuality,” arguing that Catharine, or the Bower is a comic parody of Spenser’s “Bower of Bliss,” with Catharine as a sexually adventuring Acrasia and Mrs. Percival as the avenging knight Guyon who threatens to destroy her bower (38; see also Leffel 139–46). Alternately, we may read Catharine in Miltonian terms as an innocent but curious and potentially transgressive Eve, with Edward Stanley cast as the insinuating serpent and Mrs. Percival as the punitive God who will banish Catharine from her bower. Whether Jane Austen intended some or all of this baggage to pack her bower, we can only speculate.
Certainly Catharine’s bower seems to have more in common with the bower in Hannah More’s “Sir Eldred” than with Spenser’s “Bower of Bliss” or with Milton’s “blissful bower.” It appears to be a benign space, a female retreat to which, like Birtha in “Sir Eldred of the Bower,” Catharine “oft retir’d to read, / And oft retir’d to pray.” Catherine’s “fine shady bower,” in fact, functions for her very much as Fanny Price’s East room, the former schoolroom at Mansfield Park, does in Austen’s later novel,5 as a private enclosure to which the heroine can retreat in times of psychological distress, a refuge from parental control and censure, a contemplative site for reading and reflection:
To this Bower, which terminated a very pleasant and retired walk in her Aunt’s Garden, she always wandered whenever anything disturbed her, and it possessed such a charm over her senses, as constantly to tranquillize her mind and quiet her spirits—Solitude and reflection might perhaps have had the same effect in her Bed Chamber, yet Habit had so strengthened the idea which Fancy had first suggested, that such a thought never occurred to Kitty who was firmly persuaded that her Bower alone could restore her to herself. (242–43)
Kitty views her bower as a secular chapel, a sacred space that “alone could restore her to herself.” She “is firmly persuaded” that only while sequestered in her bower can she “tranquillize her mind and quiet her spirits.”
The narrator of Catharine, or the Bower, however, questions this belief, suggesting that “Solitude and reflection might perhaps have had the same effect in her Bed Chamber.” Austen may therefore have been intending her heroine to test and revise her belief in the bower’s unique properties either by having Aunt Percival destroy the bower or by sending Catharine from home, in either case causing her to discover new sites for reflection and composure in which she would be challenged to “restore her to herself” without the influence of her bower. Alternately, that narrator’s remark may not be significant, and Austen may indeed have constructed Catharine’s bower as a “blissful bower” equivalent to a chapel.
In Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram rebukes Mary Crawford for suggesting that morning prayers would be more efficacious in a private bedchamber than in a chapel filled with distracting fellow worshippers. Edmund argues, “‘The mind which does not struggle against itself under one circumstance, would find objects to distract it in the other,’” adding, “‘the influence of the place and of example may often rouse better feelings than are begun with’” (102–03). Edmund believes that prayer in a public sacred space is more effective than prayer in one’s bedchamber or closet. If young Austen already believed what she later has Edmund say, she may have intended to show Catharine maturing by weaning herself from her private bower, learning how to compose herself in the world beyond her aunt’s garden.
Certainly, a young women’s “unregulated privacy” was a serious bugaboo of eighteenth-century moralists, novelists, and conduct-writers, those authors of the “good books” that Mrs. Percival believes in and expects Kitty to read: “‘All I wished for,’” Mrs. Percival cries to Kitty near the end of the fragment, “‘was to breed you up virtuously; I never wanted you to play upon the Harpsichord, or draw better than any one else; but I had hoped to see you respectable and good’” (287). As evidence of her good intentions, apparently wasted on Kitty, Mrs. Percival laments, “‘I bought you Blair’s Sermons, and Coelebs in Search of a Wife, I gave you the key to my own Library, and borrowed a great many good books of my Neighbours for you, all to this purpose’” (287).
Writers like Hugh Blair, Hannah More (who wrote Coelebs in Search of a Wife as well as “Sir Eldred of the Bower”), and their fellow moralists shared a “cultural anxiety” about the sort of “privacy, imaginative freedom, and solitary reading—particularly of novels” that Catharine enjoys in her bower (Leffel 136). They feared lest unregulated privacy lead to “self-abuse” and other forbidden sexual explorations, which in turn would undermine the moral fiber of the community and lead to the decay of the social order, for upon women’s private virtue rests the peace and security of the nation, no less (Leffel 136–38). So Catharine’s bower, which “restores her to herself,” is, in the view of her evangelical aunt, a dangerous place not only because it is damp but because it is potentially where the seeds of the destruction of the nation are sown: “‘all order will soon be at an end throughout the Kingdom,’” Mrs. Percival laments (287). This bower is morally ambivalent, a contested site. The “or” in the title may imply a forced choice for readers. From Catharine’s point of view, the bower in the subtitle really does act grammatically as an appositive, a restatement of her name, the place that restores her to herself, that allows her to be her best self, but to Mrs. Percival, the subtitle that follows the conjunction “or” presents a threatening alternative to Catharine’s virtuous identity and must therefore be resisted or destroyed.
Which brings us back to the title. Catharine, or the Bower: proper noun, comma, conjunction, definite article, noun. This common late-eighteenth-century construction for titles is used by Austen only on this occasion. Charlotte Smith, however, used variations of it in her hugely successful first two novels mentioned in Catharine, or the Bower: Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788) and Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1789). Smith’s subtitle in Emmeline really is an appositive. It explains who Emmeline is: “the orphan of the castle.” She is introduced as a child raised in gothic obscurity and ignorance in a crumbling Welsh castle amid sublime scenes of mountains and sea. Assumed to be an illegitimate orphan, she enters society under the protection of a corrupt aristocratic relative, experiencing the London ton, fighting off inappropriate suitors, and resisting rape and abduction. Repeatedly insulted because of her marginal status, she journeys to more sublime scenery on the Isle of Wight, in France, and on the shores of Lake Geneva before discovering her true identity as an aristocratic heiress, whereupon she marries the worthy man she loves. Ethelinde, in contrast, may or may not be “the recluse of the lake”—there are several candidates for that subtitle—but she is attracted to those who are reclusive, and eventually she shares their sanctuary. Brought up in the fashionable world, she becomes a penniless orphan when her impecunious father dies. She shuns dissipation and resists a succession of inappropriate suitors, turning instead to the rustic virtue and picturesque simplicity of a cottage on Grasmere and to the noble, impoverished hero associated with that cottage.
These two novels are mentioned in Catharine, or the Bower when Catharine’s fashionable, shallow cousin Camilla Stanley comes to visit. Camilla, who looks forward to Isabella Thorpe but also backward to Ethelinde’s silly, vulgar cousin Clarinthia Ludford, is presented satirically. Catharine, “well read in Modern history herself,” politely choses “rather to speak first of Books of a lighter kind, of Books universally read and Admired. ‘You have read Mrs Smith’s Novels, I suppose?’ said she to her Companion” (249). Camilla’s answer reveals that she has not read them very thoughtfully. She has nothing to say about them except that “‘[t]hey are the sweetest things in the world’” and that she prefers Emmeline to Ethelinde because “‘Ethelinde is so long’” (249).
Smith published two more novels before Jane Austen sat down to compose Catharine, or the Bower in the summer of 1792, and while they do not have subtitles, Celestina (1791) and Desmond (1792) do have plenty of romantic gothic intrigue with picturesque and sublime scenery, biting social satire, revolutionary ideas, and complicated courtship plots. Just as Austen endowed Catharine with her own pro-Stuart, anti-Tudor political views, even giving some unpleasant minor or offstage characters in Catharine, or the Bower names associated with Queen Elizabeth,6 so too Catharine’s enthusiasm for the novels of Mrs. Smith was Austen’s own.
Charlotte Smith did not write the kind of novels that Austen went on to write. Her beautiful, accomplished, virtuous heroines are beset by predatory suitors and threatened by unreliable or wicked protectors. The wealthy or aristocratic women in whose households they must sometime reside are selfish, vulgar, and jealous. Smith’s heroines retreat from the fashionable world to ruined castles, remote abbeys, rugged mountain villages, and humble cottages, where they wander sympathetically and responsively through picturesque, pastoral, or sublime landscapes. They fall in love with idealized and idealistic heroes, men who more often than not have been denied their patrimony because of their family’s Jacobite loyalties or because of their love for the heroine. These heroes, frustrated by family, finances, and society, travel abroad to revolutionary France and America, with whose politics they are, at least for a time, in sympathy. Smith’s novels are replete with both romanticism and revolution.
But they are also packed with reason. Smith was an outspoken public intellectual. In her novels and in other forums she wrote vicious satires of vacuous, corrupt fashionable society. She bitterly attacked the unfair laws that bound women to men. She praised the egalitarian ideals of the American and French revolutions. She wrote large. Her courtship stories unfold in the contexts of momentous events. They are set in both the world of high society and in wild, remote sublime landscapes like the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Skye, Lake Geneva, or the Pyrenees. No little bits of ivory for her.
Smith was even more famous as a poet than a novelist. Her Elegiac Sonnets and other poems contain lyric descriptions of scenery, mostly of the South Downs: scenes that sympathetically echo the intense losses that her poems explore. (Not for nothing does she call her sonnets “Elegiac.”) Smith was known for precise, evocative descriptions of nature. When Catharine Percival tries to discuss Smith’s Ethelinde with Camilla Stanley, she asks, “‘And the Descriptions of Grasmere, are not they Beautiful?’” (249), but Camilla had skipped over them to get to the end of the story, thus missing Smith’s beautiful descriptions.
Smith’s poems do occasionally mention bowers, but her poetic bowers are imagined sites of ideal happiness found only in fancy, memory, or dreams, unattainable in the real world of reason. Take Sonnet 38, for example, which first appears in Emmeline, where it is supposedly written by the hero Godolphin, whom Emmeline eventually marries:
When welcome slumber sets my spirit free,
Forth to fictitious happiness it flies,
And where Elysian bowers of bliss arise,
I seem, my Emmeline—to meet with thee!
. . .
Alas! these joys are mine in dreams alone,
When cruel Reason abdicates her throne! (1–4, 10–11)
Or Sonnet 48, which invokes “the bowers of Fancy” (1–4, 9–14), those happy resorts of imagination and fiction that no longer have power to assuage her pain, perhaps echoing Spenser’s Parnassus hidden in a “silver bowre.” Or Sonnet 50, supposedly written by the orphaned Celestina when she pays a brief visit to the park at Alveston, the South Downs estate of her beloved Willoughby, with whom she has been raised as a foster sister:
FAREWEL, ye lawns!—by fond remembrance blest,
As witnesses of gay unclouded hours;
Where, to maternal Friendship’s bosom prest,
My happy childhood past among your bowers. (1–4)
These poetic bowers are not domesticated garden bowers like Catharine’s. They are natural, wild green retreats.
The “bower” in Celestina is not a garden feature but an “improved” natural space, a stream widened into a waterfall, reminiscent of Milton’s blissful bower as Smith describes it with the sort of natural detail that we almost never find in Austen:
On the sides of this fall, which had been formerly part of the common, grew some old oaks and beech, and among these the mountain ash and weeping birch had been planted and now spread their various foliage and half concealed the water that dashed from rock to rock between them. These steep banks had ever been the various seats of Willoughby. . . . This place was the daily resort of Celestina during the week she remained at Alvestone, and thither she usually carried some of those books from the library that she remembered Willoughby had read to her. (78)
Those books, mostly poetry, provoke Celestina’s memories and stir her emotions. This wooded waterfall is rendered bower-like by her memories and feelings. All of Smith’s novels feature similar places in woods and mountains, or by the sea, or beside falling streams, where the heroines go to be alone or to meet with their forbidden lovers. Her characters prefer sublime natural landscapes to gardens as physical retreats in which to process their emotions and to strive for reflection and repose. In such unregulated spaces, they are free to imagine other, ideal bowers.
Catharine’s garden bower, however, is an artifact in her aunt’s garden, formed by her childish hands bending the boughs into place. It is “a liminal space precariously hovering between interior and exterior” (Leffel 133), but it is real, not ideal, and also practical, essential to her emotional composure and moral balance. After a frustrating conversation with Camilla about her dearest friends the Wynnes—to Catharine’s outrage, Camilla persists in calling them fortunate to have received the cold charity of Lord and Lady Halifax—we are told that Catharine “left the room, and running out of the House was soon in her dear Bower where she could indulge in peace all her affectionate Anger against the relations of the Wynnes” (258). When “the Bower began to have its usual influence over her Spirits, she contributed towards settling them, by taking out a book” and reading for an hour, until she is disturbed by Camilla bringing news of the Dudleys’ ball (258). Within her bower, with a book, she calms down and comes to herself—her best self.
In Catharine, or the Bower, Jane Austen domesticates Charlotte Smith’s novels, reducing them to three or four families in a country village in the midland counties of England, drawn with a finer brush than Smith’s. Smith’s heroines and heroes wander in picturesque or sublime landscapes, deeply responsive to the scenery through which they move. Her heroines reject corrupt fashionable society for more rustic pastoral retreats. I imagine young Jane Austen thinking, “Hmm, Emmeline has her gothic castle; Ethelinde has her romantic cottage on the lake. My heroine shall have . . . a bower in her aunt’s garden! And I’m not going to give her a romantic name like ‘Emmeline’ or ‘Ethelinde’ or ‘Celestina.’ I’ll call her plain ‘Kitty Peterson.’” Kathryn Sutherland and Freya Johnston speculate, based on the manuscript, that it was Austen’s nephew who upgraded Kitty to the fancier “Catharine Percival” (xxii). And Kitty lives in neither a castle nor a cottage but an ordinary middle-class house in an ordinary village. Instead of a morally flawed aristocratic relation for a dubious protector, Kitty has her well-meaning, strict evangelical aunt. She may be an orphan, but she’s neither illegitimate nor dispossessed.
Rather, it is her dear friends the Wynnes, also penniless orphans, who seem to suffer the romantic predicaments of so many of Smith’s more sympathetic characters: the elder Miss Wynne is married off for money to an uncongenial husband, like Mrs. Stafford and Lady Adelina in Emmeline or Geraldine Verney in Desmond, or indeed Smith herself. She may even be destined, like Adelina and other sympathetic female characters in Smith’s novels, to become involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage. The younger Miss Wynne, Mary, must endure life as a socially inferior “dependent companion” to her fashionable rich cousins, the daughters of Lord and Lady Halifax, much like Emmeline, Ethelinde, and Celestine in their eponymous novels, and, as Juliet McMaster reminds, very like Austen’s own later creation, Jane Fairfax. And their brother Charles Wynne, disinherited like so many Smith heroes (he ought to have been given that living promised by the Bishop!) has been sent to sea even though he would have preferred to be a parson.
We can only guess whether Kitty would join the Stanleys on their tour to the Lakes, a good Smithian destination, perhaps meeting up there with the Halifaxes and her dear friend Mary Wynne, perhaps following a modest version of the romantic and revolutionary pathways of Smith’s plots, or whether she would remain at Chetwynde, dealing with Dudleys while practicing composure and self-control in her bower. Perhaps the bower would indeed be torn down by Mrs. Percival’s gardener, or perhaps further scenes of threat or redemption would occur there. Austen has put the elements in place, but we do not know what she would have done with them. I doubt, however, that Austen was intending to write anything as romantic or revolutionary as Charlotte Smith did. Catharine may chafe under her aunt’s restrictions, but she is not, like so many Smith heroines, threatened with a nasty forced marriage. She has a comfortable home as well as her dear bower, assuming it escapes destruction. She may yearn for wider experience of the world, but she is not likely to be stripped of family and fortune and forced from her secure, nurturing home into that world.
Her comfort and innocence, however, are clearly imperiled by the arrival of the louche Mr. Stanley, as disruptive as John Thorpe although not as stupid, who in just twenty-four hours manages to entice Kitty into shockingly rude behavior at the Dudleys’ ball, to make a sizeable hole in her heart, and to wrong-foot her in the eyes of her aunt when, alone with her in her bower and seeing Mrs. Percival approaching, he seizes Kitty’s hand and presses it passionately to his lips.
Edward Stanley is no Sir Guyon, but neither does he appear to be a satanic villain or confirmed rake. His transgressive behavior at the ball and in the bower is very different from the idealistic revolutionary enthusiasm of Smith’s noble heroes like Emmeline’s Godolphin, who defies convention to help his “fallen” sister and to marry the supposedly illegitimate Emmeline; or Charles Montgomery, Ethelinde’s impecunious Wentworth-like hero who sails to India to make his fortune but rejects colonial enterprise as too rapacious to be morally acceptable; or Willoughby in Celestina, defying the worldly ambitions of his family and sympathizing with the French Revolution; or the eponymous Desmond, an eloquent defender of the Rights of Man who risks his life in revolutionary France. Stanley’s ability to argue both sides of a question when he discusses history suggests rather that he is neither a man of passionate ideals like Smith’s heroes nor one of firm principles like Austen’s heroes. He is more a George Wickham, Frank Churchill, or Henry Crawford than a Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley: a man of more parts than principles who, while not thoroughly wicked, does not deserve the heroine. He has more in common with Smith’s weak or self-indulgent men, characters like Emmeline’s serial seducer Fitz-Edward, who eventually marries his victim, and Lord Delamere, who develops from a predatory seducer into a tragic figure when he succumbs to doomed love for his cousin Emmeline; or like well-intentioned but irresolute Willoughby, the hero of Celestina. Even as an anti-hero or a false suitor, Stanley appears much less Machiavellian than the Lovelace-like Lord Danesforth or the rake Davenant in Ethelinde. Nevertheless, in Catharine’s bower he threatens serious alloy to her happiness.
Catharine’s own transgressions under the influence of Edward Stanley are more like the naïve ballroom etiquette violations of Frances Burney’s Evelina, or the impetuous, generous errors of Burney’s Camilla,7 the mistakes of a girl inexperienced in social conventions, rather than anything truly vicious deserving her aunt’s epithets of “Profligate” and “impudent.” Smith understood moral nuance—her “fallen” women, secondary characters, are often sympathetic and redeemable—but her exemplary heroines invariably behave with principle and prudence as well as courage. Unlike Smith’s virtuous heroines—Emmeline, Ethelinde, Celestina, and even Geraldine, the Griselda-like heroine of Desmond, who is, like Smith, married to a profligate, unfaithful, abusive husband yet steadfastly resists Desmond’s love for her—Catharine Percival is not always prudent nor properly respectful of her aunt. Clearly she requires more experience of the world, and some chastening and reflection. Perhaps her bower will come in handy for that purpose, again restoring her to her better self, or perhaps Catharine will learn how to achieve that restoration beyond the boundary of her bower. Given its prominence in the title, I think that bower was meant to do more for Catharine.
Much of Catharine, or the Bower reads like an early draft for the novel that Jane Austen would call, first, Susan, and later Miss Catherine, and that we call Northanger Abbey, but the character of Kitty seems more like Marianne Dashwood than Catherine Morland. So here’s hoping that whatever her adventures, Kitty returns to her bower to find a worthy Colonel Brandon, or (as Juliet McMaster suggests) the dashing Lieutenant Charles Wynne waiting there for her.
3See Rachel Crawford’s study of “bower conventions” or “bower poetry” as a trope for male sexual and female poetic potency in the long eighteenth century. Crawford discusses the romance tradition in which “[t]he bower’s enclosed yet accessible green space was identified with female sexuality and the questing subject who entered the garden with masculinity” (255). Leffel catalogues “the lengthy tradition of literary and visual representations of the bower specifically, and similar garden spaces more generally, as sites for sexual expression and emancipation, and as metonymic substitutes for the female body,” citing Shakespeare, Spenser, and many eighteenth-century novelists and poets as well as the “eroticized botanical descriptions in the works of eighteenth-century writers” (133, 135). Although Leffel mentions Erasmus Darwin only in a note (148 n. 6), it’s worth remembering that Darwin’s “Loves of the Plants” (1789, but reprinted as part of The Botanic Garden in 1791), a sexualized poetic personification of Linnaean botany, was a sensational (in every sense) new book when Austen was composing Catharine, or the Bower.
6Apart from Mrs. Percival’s vociferous defense of Elizabeth, presumably meant to be further evidence of her well-meaning silliness (251), the fragment includes the unpleasant family of Dudleys “productive only of vexation and trouble” (245) and Camilla’s acquaintance “Sir Henry Devereux” about whom we learn nothing except that Camilla finds his company “pleasant” (250). Perhaps he was intended to be like the wicked Lord Danesforth in Ethelinde, who attracts Ethelinde’s silly Camilla-Stanley-like cousin Clarinthia Ludford.