Anti-Jacobin Review (1799)

Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine 2 (May 1799), 54-58. 


[These reviews appeared together and may have been written by Charles Lloyd. They appeared anonymously.]

 

Memoirs of Emma Courtney. By Mary Hays. 12mo. 2 vols. Price 6s. Robinsons, London. 1796.

The Victim of Prejudice. A Novel. By Mary Hays. 12mo. 2 vols. Price 6s. Johnson, London. 1799.

 

“Emma Courtney,” the first of these productions, appeared about three years ago. The Monthly Review of April, 1797, thus speaks of it: –

            “These memoirs rise beyond the class of vulgar novels, which aspire only to divert the unoccupied mind by occasional illusion from an irksome attention to the daily occurrences and trivial incidents of real life.”

            Meaning, as we suppose, to praise this attempt of the “fair writer” to find other employment for the female mind, than that which nature, situation, and sex, have designed it.

            “This author,” they proceed, “attempts the solution of a moral problem which is eminently important, viz.  Whether it be prudent [55] in minds of a superior mould, whether it will bring to them a greater balance of happiness, in the whole account, to exempt themselves from the common delicacies and hypocrisesof life, and, on all occasions, to give vent to their wildest feelings with conscientious sincerity, or patiently to submit to the incumbent mountains of circumstances, without one volcanic effort to shatter the oppressive load into ruin.” 

            Setting aside this slang of modern philosophy, the plain question is – Whether it is most for the advantage of society that women should be so brought up as to make them dutiful daughters, affectionate wives, tender mothers, and good Christians, or, by a corrupt and vicious system of education, fit them for revolutionary agents, for heroines, for Staels, for Talliens, for Stones, setting aside all the decencies, the softness, the gentleness, of the female character, and enjoying indiscriminately every envied privilege of man?

            The aim of this novel is to claim for the female sex the rights of the latter character. The heroine for such she is literally meant to be, is, even in early years, described –

            “ – as active, blythsome, bounding, sporting, romping, light, gay, alert, and full of glee; as offending all the pious ladies at church.”

            She is next pourtrayed in still stronger terms: –

            “My desires were impetuous, and brooked no delay; my affections were warm, and my temper irascible; opposition would always make me vehement, and coercion irritated me to violence . . . never but once do I recollect having received a blow, but the boiling rage, the cruel tempest, the deadly vengeance it excited in my mind, I now remember with shuddering.”

            An excellent beginning this, and fully calculated to produce the fruit intended. The next advance of her mind is effected by the perusal of Plutarch: –

            “I went down into the dining-room, my mind pervaded with republican ardour, my sentiments elevated by a high-toned philosophy, and my bosom glowing with the virtues of patriotism.”

            Does not this out-Helen even the wife or mistress of Stone? Not less alive does she appear to have been to the softer affections – let her speak for herself: –

            “In the course of my researches the Heloise of Rousseau fell into my hands – ah! with what transport, with what enthusiasm, did I peruse this dangerous, enchanting work! How shall I paint the sensations that were excited in my mind! The pleasure I experienced approached the limits of pain – it was tumult– all the ardour of my character was excited.”

            [56] That the mind here displayed should run into errors of no inferior enormity, was naturally to be expected, and, of course, we all along find her disdaining all those holy restraints which the wisdom and virtue of ages have esteemed necessary for the controul of human passions. But, lest we should be supposed prejudiced against her, we will quote her own sentiments on some important points: –

            “The wildest speculations are less mischievous than the torpid state of error. He who tamely resigns his understanding to the guidance of another, sinks, at once, from the dignity of a rational being, to a mechanical puppet, moved, at pleasure, on the wires of varied description of tyranny, whether civil or ecclesiastical, moral or mental; its baneful consequence is to degrade both him who is imposed on, and him who imposes – obedience is a word which ought never to have had existence,” &c. &c. 

            What stuff is here! – but a little more, and we have done with the filthy labour: –

            “To the profession my objections are still more serious; the study of the law is the study of chicanery – the church is the school of hypocrisy and usurpation! – you could only enter the Universities by a moral degradation, that must check the freedom and contaminate the purity of the mind, and, entangling it in an inexplicable maze of error and contradiction, poisoning virtue at its source,” &c. &c. 

            On the subject of female chastity she is consistent with herself, in her defence for offering her honour to a man who avoided her. “Individuality of affection,” she says, “constitutes chastity:” or, in other words, the mistress is, in all respects, as honourable as the wife, provided she hath but one lover. If such a sentiment does not strike at the root of every thing that is virtuous, that is praise-worthy, that is valuable, in the female character, we are at a loss to discover by what wickedness they are to fall.

            The tale of this novel is not at variance with the opinions we have extracted. That it is in all points reprehensible, in the highest degree, would be doubted by none, but the Monthly Reviewers, and their liberal fellow-labourers. Their concluding remark upon it is worthy of them: –

            “Many remarkable and several excellentreflections [precious guardians of a nation’s literature] are interspersed, and the whole displays great intellectual powers. There are also sentiments which are open to attack, [indeed!] and opinions which require serious discussion; but we leave every reader to form his or her own judgement.”

            [57] Had the tendency of this novel been favourable to virtue, honour, religion, morality, the liberality of these critics would have been less conspicuous. But we have already bestowed, perhaps, too much notice on this performance. We must now speak to this lady’s second production, namely, “The Victim of Prejudice” – of what prejudice? – the old story: A young lady, of at least equal ardour in the cause of liberty and of love as even Emma herself, is restrained by some few limits which the world has thought proper to fix to certain unruly passions. The heroine of the tale, “Mary,” (we are sick of Mary,) is educated according to the plan of Rousseau: no check, no controul; freedom of enquiry, and extravagance of hope, however dangerous, and however fallacious, are the prevailing features o this performance; the same indiscriminating and mischievous censure of every thing society has hitherto deemed sacred, and necessary to its existence, is here most lavishly displayed. – In the dishonour, as we old fashioned moralists should call it, of “Mary,” there is something like an imitation of Clarissa; but how unlike to the original! – In conformity to the general spirit of this authoress, and her party, (for that she is of the party her quotations from Godwin, Holcroft, Mary Wollstonecraft, Helvetius, Rousseau, &c. most clearly evince,) religion is utterly, and with zealous care, excluded from her writings. The pious addresses of Clarissa to her Creator, affect the heart of the reader with the most delightful and grateful sensations; while the furious declamation of “Mary” to the God of nature, and the God of reason, excite no sentiment but disgust.

            The event of this story is such as might be expected from its title: Mary, after a sturdy opposition to the best opinions and practices of the world, sinks in the u equal contest; and, while suffering under the effects of her extravagant desire, thus laments her fate: –

“Almighty nature, (is this like Clarissa?) mysterious are thy decrees – the vigorous promise of my youth has failed: the victim of a barbarous prejudice, (namely, that she was not allowed to marry the son of a man of high rank,) society has cast me out from its bosom.”

             Again, in conclusion: –

        “Ignorance and despotism, combating 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 basis, mocks the toil of the visionary projector.”

            To the very last she is true to her principles. – Our opinion of these two novels is now clearly known, and we have said more of them than their intrinsic merit could possibly entitle them to expect. We have noticed them merely to guard the female world against the mischievousness of their tendency, “lest the venom of the shaft should be mistaken for the vigour of the bow.” – As usefulness seems to be the watchword of this author and her friends, we will tell her how she may be much more useful than she can possibly make herself by devoting her time to literary labours – to your distaff, Mary, to your distaff. – One the style of her writings, it is needless to remark; who stays to admire the workmanship of a dagger wrenched from the hand of an assassin?