Critical Review, N.S. (1797)

Critical Review, N.S. 19 (1797), 109-11.


Memoirs of Emma Courtney. 2 vols. Robinsons, 1796.


         Emma Courtney is designed to represent a character, who, though loving virtue, is enslaved by passion, liable to the errors and weaknesses of our fragile nature. This passion, not love at first sight, but even before first sight (for Emma Courtney’s affection for Mrs. Harley is conveyed to her son Augustus Harley, even before she sees him), will perhaps, to some readers, appear to savour of extravagance; and in its consequences, after Emma Courtney’s acquaintance with Harley, to produce eccentricity of character and conduct; but her errors are represented as the offspring of extreme sensibility; and the result of an hazardous experiment, Miss Hays tells us, is made to operate as a warning, rather than as an example.

            The following is the character of Emma Courtney in early life -- 

‘Thus, in peace and gaiety, glided the days of my childhood. Caressed by my aunt, flattered by her husband, I grew vain and self-willed; my desires were impetuous, and brooked no delay; my affections were warm, and my temper irascible, but it was the glow of a moment, instantly subsiding on conviction, and when conscious of having committed injustice, I was ever eager to repair it, by a profusion of caresses and acknowledgements. Opposition would always make me vehement, and coercion irritated me to [110] violence; but a kind look, a gentle word, a cool expostulation – softened, melted, arrested me, in the full career of passion. 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.

            ‘Every day I became more attached to my books; yet, not less fond of active play; stories were still my passion, and I sighed for a romance that would never end. In m sports with my companions, I acted over what I had read: I was alternately the valiant knight – the gentle damsel – the adventurous mariner – the daring robber – the courteous lover – and the airy coquet. Ever inventive, my young friends took their tone from me. I hated the needle: – my aunt was indulgent, and not an hour passed unamused: – my resources were various, fantastic, and endless. Thus, for the first twelve years of my life, fleeted my days in joy and innocence. I ran like the hind, frisked like the kid, sang like the lark, was full of vivacity, health, and animation; and, excepting some momentary bursts of passion and impatience, awoke every day to new enjoyment, and retired to rest fatigued with pleasure.’ Vol. i. p. 17.

             The early part of this history is pleasing: in the subsequent periods, the principles and the characters must be examined with candour. In Emma’s father we behold a man negligent of parental duties; and Emma Courtney consequently regulates her filial regards by a persuasion that the ties of blood are weak, unless sanctioned by reason and cemented by affectionate intercourse. On her acquaintance with Mrs. Harley, all the passion of Rousseau is raised in her breast. Augustus Harley becomes the St. Preux, the Emilius, of her sleeping and waking dreams. At the commencement of their acquaintance, Augustus Harley calls himself her new brother. Emma’s affection soon passes into love; and throwing off the restraints of custom, she endeavours to awaken sympathy, and expresses her desire of being loved again. But Harley becomes cold and distant: a circumstance that excites in Emma’s breast a more eager curiosity, and a more vehement passion. She throws down the rules established by usage; and while her ‘cheeks blush with modesty,’ she demands answers to her questions, reasons, explications. The more mysterious the conduct of Harley appears, the more severe are the expostulations, and the more explicit the declarations of Emma. When at length it is found that Harley is married, the love of Emma is not to be conquered; her passion takes the character of an ardent friendship; and at the death of the father she adopts the son.

             It may be proper to observe that this work is a course of letters addressed to Augustus Harley, the son of Mr. Harley, the idol of Emma Courtney’s passion.

            We conclude by observing that we do not hold up Emma Courtney as a character for general imitation, any more than, we presume, the authoress herself would. Whenever great passions [111] break out, or a strong bias inclines, there reason should direct its more immediate attention; and our conduct must, in a great measure, be regulated by the welfare and good order of society. Strong sensibilities require more than ordinary management: the passions, the source of personal enjoyment and of public utility, may easily become our own tormentors, and the spring of injustice to others.