Analytical Review (1799)

Analytical Review, N.S. I (January-June 1799), 326-29. 

 

Art. XXXVIII. The Victim of Prejudice. In two vols. By Mary Hays, Author of Emma Courtney. 8vo. Price 6s. Johnson. 

 

There is scarcely any class of books, to which the question cui bono? is more applicable, than that of novels; for, whatever [327] inference we may be inclined to deduce from it, nothing is more certain than that there is no species of composition which attaches to itself a more general influence, or is productive of a stronger impression:– and our present author evidently courts, rather than evades, the inquiry, in the work before us. The preface, after complaining of the abusive misrepresentation which her former novel (Emma Courtney) had suffered, thus states the object which has actuated her in writing the present one: 

 

‘Lest dullness and malignity should again wrest my purpose, it may be necessary to premise that, in delineating, in the following pages, the mischiefs which have ensued from the too-great stress laid on the reputation for chastity in women, no disrespect is intended to this most important branch of temperance; the cement, the  support and the bond of social virtue: it is the means only, which are used to ensure it, that I presume to call in question.’

 

     For the exhibition of these means, we are presented with the simple history of a female orphan, who, educated under the parental eye of a prudent and affectionate guardian, and attached, by the links of a tender and reciprocal passion, to a youth of impetuous, but amiable dispositions, is, at an early period of life, severed from both these connexions by the death of the former, and the separation and temporary neglect of the latter – and cast forth upon the world, poor, unfriended, and unknown. In this situation she is betrayed into the power, and afterwards exposed to the violation, of a man of fortune and title, who had long persecuted her with his odious addresses. In indignation and anguish she flees from his house, and in this state of distraction meets, accidentally, with her former lover. An explanation takes place, in which he discovers himself to be married to another, in which, notwithstanding her confession of what she had suffered, all his passion for her revives, – and in which she betrays great and interesting heroism in rejecting his supplications for her encouragement of it. Tearing herself from his society, and immerging into voluntary obscurity, she finds herself successively baffled by the blind and malignant prejudices of society, in all her repeated attempts to acquire, by honest means, an independent subsistence. From this depth of distress, “abandoned to all the accumulated evils of indigence and infamy,” she is raised, for a time, by the grateful benevolence of an old domestic. The death of this friend leaves her again the victim of persecution. Rendered desperate by the horrors of a dungeon, she is on the point of putting a period to her own existence, when her agony once more experiences a short respite in the recovery of two long-lost friends. This circumstance affords but a momentary interruption to her misery: they die; and she is again plunged into a dark and interminable despair.

 

p. 230. – My days curtailed in their prime, I perceive, without terror or regret, while the current of my blood freezes, the approach of dissolution. 

    ‘Almighty Nature, mysterious are thy decrees! – The vigorous promise of my youth has failed. The victim of a barbarous prejudice, society has cast me out from its bosom. The sensibilities of my heart have been turned to bitterness, the powers of my mind wasted, my projects rendered abortive, my virtues and my sufferings alike unrewarded. I have lived in vain; unless the story of my sorrows should kindle in the heart of man, in behalf of my oppressed sex, the sacred claims of humanity and justice. From the fate of my wretched mother, (in which, alas! my own has been involved,) let him learn that, while, the slave of sensuality, inconsistent as assuming, he pours, bye his conduct, contempt upon chastity, in vain will he compose on woman barbarous penalties, or seek to multiply restrictions; his seductions and example, yet more powerful, will defeat his precepts, of which hypocrisy, not virtue, is the genuine fruit. Ignorance and despotism, combatting frailty with cruelty, may go on to propose partial reform in one invariable, melancholy round; reason derides the weak effort; while the fabric of superstition and crime, extending its broad base, mocks the toil of the visionary projector.”

 

     Such are the outlines of this story, which is certainly pathetic and instructive; but which is, nevertheless, on several accounts, obvious to censure. The leading merits which we look for in a story whose construction is thus simple, are accurate delineation of character, and consistency and uniformity of design. In both these respects, and particularly in the latter, we think the work before us defective; and the author, by rejecting that stale artifice, by which the want of them is usually attempted to be concealed – intricacy of plot, has given a prominency to these defects, which forcibly attracts our notice of them.

     Mary, introduced to us as possessing ‘a robust constitution, and a vigorous intellect’ as ‘early inured to habits of hardiness, to the endurance of fatigue and occasional labour, to the exercise of her ingenuity, the extension of her faculties, and arrangement of her thoughts,’ is certainly wanting in that presence and energy of feeling, which this description gives us reason to anticipate, when – not in a defenceless solitude, but in a house filled with visitors, – not in a moment of surprise, but in the very height of anxiety to make her escape from this house, – almost the first menace of disappointment strikes her with powerless consternation, and she falls a feeble prey to the violence of her persecutor. There is an imperfection, also, in the character of this persecutor. We see little other reason for supposing him vile and odious, than the circumstance of her calling him so. If unable to control his passions, he at least shews every willingness to repair the injurious consequences of their indulgence: his attachment to her appears certainly to arise from something more than the mere impulse of sensual lust; and contemplating him, either in a moral or in a dramatic point of view, in comparison with his rival, we see no strong ground of preference between the character of the one, whose unsuccessful love has, in a phrenzy of impatience and the heat of intoxication, recourse to violence for a momentary gratification, and that of the [329] other, whose passions, with equal impetuosity, have less energy, and whose love, though fostered by success, and encouraged by every assurance of return, had yet so weak a foundation, as to be superseded by the first charms of dissipation, and to be finally sacrificed at the shrine of pecuniary convenience. 

     Besides these grounds of complaint, which affect principally the dramatic character of the work before us, we have yet to object to our author, that she has not kept properly in view the object which she proposed to herself in the outset. If we have understood her rightly, this was, to exhibit the impropriety of the means used to ensure female chastity, and to expose the inconsistency of man, in expecting from women a virtue which he so grossly neglects himself. The connection between the moral or the story before us, and the enforcement of this doctrine, we confess we do not clearly perceive; and many of the incidents, so far from being at all illustrative of the doctrine, thus professed to be the great purport of the story, have scarcely any connexion with each other. Instances of this we see in the artificial and insulated manner in which the death of the old servant, and afterwards of Mr. and Mrs. Neville, are introduced, events which, whilst they neither arise from any natural connexion, with, nor tend to any moral illustration of, the narrative, are yet made to produce, by their consequences, some of the most important revolutions in it. Nothwithstanding these defects, the volumes before us are, by no means, without merit; and so far are we from having been actuated, in the remarks which we have offered, by any disrespect for the talents of the author, that it is rather by an opposite motive, that we have been induced to extend our remarks to such a length. We descry, amidst even the imperfections of the present work, a mind apt at moral description, fertile in sentiment, and considerably skilled in the science of the feelings. Our chief objection to it is its want of that philosophical harmony of design, which we were encouraged to expect, and of that dramatic propriety of character and incident, which, as it constitutes one of the principal leading-strings of the passions, is, of course, one of the principle requisites to a perfect novel. the style is generally happy, and the language pure and correct. One or two inaccuracies, however, occurred to us, of which we select the following sentence as an example; though it is but just to observe, that it is the most faulty of any we have noticed:

 

To my application, in various shops and warehouses, for embroidery, child-bed linen, useful or fancy work, I was required to bring sureties for my character, or to leave the value of the goods entrusted to me; either of which were, in my circumstances, alike impracticable.’