by M.M. Bennetts
During the last years of the 18th century and well into the early 19th century, as female literacy and affluence increased, there was a growing body of publications designed to meet this burgeoning demand for feminine entertainment.
This is an age of when great poetry not only sells, it sells well--Byron's Childe Harold doesn't just sell well, it's a runaway best-seller along the lines of the Da Vinci Code. Austen's Sense & Sensibility causes such a sensation, Lady Caroline Lamb's mother is writing about it, saying that everyone in the Spencer household is wholly taken up with it and talks of nothing else.
It is--make no doubt--a literate society and whilst the salons of English ladies may not reach the intellectual and political heights achieved by Frenchwomen of the period, that doesn't make them literary slouches.
The Lady's Monthly Museum or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction: Being an Assemblage of whatever can tend to please the Fancy, interest the Mind or exalt the Character of The British Fair. Written "By a Society of Ladies", was one of the immensely popular periodicals published during this period.
(I did not make up that title, I can assure you. I merely copied what is in the frontispiece of the volume at hand.)
It was published by Vernor and Hood in London, from 1798 until 1832 and provides a rather different window into the world of the early 19th century lady than one might imagine based on novels and histories about the age.
Volume five (being the one I possess) is a good example. The contents include an article about one Miss Linwood (who apparently is a painter of some note), and the following articles titled: Impostors, The Generous Host, Habit, a series of invented letters called The Old Woman, three chapters of a serialised romance by the title of The Castle De Warrenne, the Editor's Reply to Mrs. Saveall's Letter--with some useful hints upon the government of the Temper, On Celibacy and Marriage, A Character, The Poor Sailor Boy, On a Passage in Sterne...and last, but not least, Jane of Flanders; Or, the Siege of Hennebonne, Scene III of a Drama in Two Acts which is continued from Volume IV (perfect for home dramatics).
(Later issues contain a great deal of poetry, a Pattern for a Carpet in Needlework, articles on the Manners of Parisian Ladies and under School of Arts, "To destroy Bugs". And curiously enough, my copy does not have--with the exception of the needlework pattern--fashion plates or pictures of any kind.)
Equally, it's vital to bear in mind that each of these volumes had an enormous reach. Though initially received by one household, once read, the volume would have been lent about the neighbourhood, and each of the articles probably read or heard by well over 50 women.
My favourite offering from this particular volume is the Romance--The Castle De Warrenne, possibly because it's so silly, but just as much because it provides an insight into what they were reading, what books and ideas were popular, how they spoke and wrote, and how the early 19th century female perceived themselves, how they perceived heroism and romance.
This is the opening: "Slowly and heavily the bell of the great clock in the turret tolled out three: the gloomy mists of night were gradually dispersing, while a faint yellow, tinging the eastern atmosphere, already indicated the approach of day.
"Matilda started from her couch yet wet with tears, and which had that night afforded her but broken and imperfect slumbers. Fearing that she had exceeded the appointed time, she hastily arrayed herself in her simple habit, and, bending mournfully over the bed of the yet sleeping Raymond, bestowed innumerable kisses on his dimpled mouth.
"'Sweet babe!' cried she in an agony of tears: 'perhaps I for the last time view they lovely countenance!--no longer shall I receive pleasure from thy innocent endearments! Oh! Why does Virtue demand this painful sacrifice!--My dear Lady, too,----all---all lost!!'
"Again she pressed her lips to those of the child, who opened his eyes, and, fixing them on Matilda, smiled sweetly. The smile undid all her resolution; and, seating herself by his side, she soothed him with her accustomed tenderness, heedless of the passing time. The clock again reminded her of her tardiness, and with reluctance, she replaced the child; and, casting a mournful look round her little apartment, departed.
"With trembling steps and perturbed heart she descended the great staircase. All was yet profoundly still. At the appointed spot she met Jaques, who waited (faithful to the trust reposed in him) to open the gate for her."
(I shall skip ahead to the description of our heroine now, because you won't want to miss this.)
"Matilda, at this period, had just completed her fourteenth year. Her figure was elegantly formed, and though it had not yet attained its perfect stature, was nevertheless far from contemptible. Her complexion, exquisitely fair, was admirably contrasted with a profusion of chestnut-coloured hair, which fell in careless ringlets over her forehead and bosom. Her eyes were bright and piercing, and the contraction of the eyes at the temples gave an expression of archness highly fascinating.
"Her dress consisted of a gray camlet jacket and petticoat, neatly bound with black ribbon, which served to exhibit to advantage her fine shape. A net fillet confined the superfluous hair, over which was tied a little black chip hat; and a pair of blue silk mittens completed her dress, at once simple and becoming."
It's great stuff! She runs away to her parents' house, where she finds her father dying...plenty of opportunity to get lachrymose there...and on it goes.
And whilst we may laugh at the naivety of the writing and the overwrought sensibilities, this is exactly the sort of thing that Marianne Dashwood would have found appealing (and Willoughly too, no doubt) and which was being read (devoured) up and down the country by ladies of all ages.
No wonder Sense & Sensibility was such a hit!
M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century European history and the Napoleonic wars, and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, set during the period. A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2013.
For further information, please visit the website and blog at www.mmbennetts.com