Scene: Publisher’s Office.
Publisher: We want to reissue the fifty top British novels.
Editor: Top as in “best”, or top as in “most popular”?
Publisher: You’re the editor. You decide.
Editor (thinking): Dickens, Hardy, Trollope . . . Austen, Eliot, Thackeray . . . . You said five hundred, right?
Publisher: Who are these people? I’ve never heard of them. It’s 1810.
Editor: . . . You said five, right?
Publisher: Oh, stop complaining. I said fifty novels, but I misspoke. I meant fifty volumes. Why, Clarissa alone is eight.
And that’s how Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743–1825) came to edit The British Novelists in fifty duodecimo volumes, beginning with eight volumes of Clarissa and another seven of Sir Charles Grandison. She must not have cared for Pamela, though; it is conspicuous by its absence, while its parody, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, is one of the earliest selections. Also absent are Tristram Shandy and Moll Flanders, although The Vicar of Wakefield does get a look-in, sharing a volume with Pompey the Little. By the time we get to Volumes XXXVI and XXXVII we are definitely scraping the barrel.
The editor’s introduction gives a brief rundown of Charlotte Smith’s life and works. From this we learn, first, that her greatest strength was in poetry, especially sonnets, and, second, that her best novels were Emmeline and Celestina. You will notice that the present offering is, first, a novel, and, second, called The Old Manor House. I’m sure Mrs. Barbauld had her reasons. She also forgets to tell us that the author was born in 1749, and that The Old Manor House was published in 1793. Details. The novel must have been fairly successful in its time; it was even translated into German as Das Alte Schloss.
Pro tip: Skip lightly over the main plot. Orlando, our hero, gives only occasional evidence of having connected brain cells; one modern reviewer dismisses him as “lazy and self-pitying”. In fact the author herself seems to have no idea what to make of her hero. At various points in Volume I, he is described as everything from “uncommonly grave” to “fiery and impetuous”, depending on the exigencies of the moment. Does the author need to quote a poem? Orlando suddenly becomes “passionately fond of poetry”. Does he find himself among non-English-speakers? He reveals a hitherto-unsuspected “unusual aptness to learn languages”.
Monimia, his love interest, is even more troublesome. At first sight, she is simply a hopeless drip. But in the course of the first volume, she gives increasing signs of suffering from a severe, undiagnosed and untreated anxiety disorder, to the point where any unexpected occurrence leaves her paralyzed with terror.
The supporting characters are more interesting—and often have better sense:
I do not think a person’s age, replied Selina, a proper subject of ridicule.
No, answered Isabella—not if they do not make it so, by attempting to appear young; but how is it possible to help laughing at a man who fancies that, at sixty, he can pass for six-and-twenty.
If it is the General’s foible, said Mrs. Somerive gravely, it seems to be the only one; and it makes him happy, and hurts nobody.
If you’re really in a hurry, you can skip the first 15 or 20 chapters. Nothing much happens until Volume II (Volume III, in four-volume editions).
Scattered through the book are hints that Monimia is not really the housekeeper’s niece; in fact the housekeeper’s own behavior lends some credence to the suspicion. But it’s all a red herring. In the end she is not revealed to be the long-lost heiress to a vast fortune, and she does not end up outranking everyone who was ever mean to her. She’s just the generic downtrodden love interest . . . who happens to be named Monimia. Early on, the author explains that Mrs. Lennard, who named her, had a taste for dramatic literature. “Monimia” is thus the nomenclatural equivalent of those Gothic novels where everything ends up having a prosaic, mundane, natural explanation: you can give your heroine a ridiculous name while shifting the blame onto someone else.
The dramatic date of the novel is the late 1770s. Some readers will recall that there was a fairly significant war going on at the time. Our Hero eventually gets involved in it—but only after he finds someone who can buy him a commission. From 1683 until 1871, commissions and promotions in the British army were bought and sold. Literally; hence the term “sell out”. Anywhere else, this would have been evidence of the grossest corruption. In Britain it was a deliberate decision on the part of the Restoration government: if you make military rank expensive, the army will always be controlled by men with a vested interest in preserving the status quo. In 1683, it had not yet occurred to anyone that it was possible to get rich without belonging to the landed aristocracy. Fortunately, people who did get rich by other means had no particular interest in getting their sons into the Army; they were too busy getting richer.
Now, here’s a useful detail for writers of historical romances. If a minor wants to run off and get married, she doesn’t have to go all the way to Gretna Green. She can take a quick hop to the Channel Islands instead. This fact was apparently so little-known that even within the novel—set in “one of the most southern counties of England”—the hero gets as far as contemplating a dash for Scotland before remembering that there is a closer alternative.
Obligatory reminder: In 1793, the title “Mrs.” went to any adult woman, independent of marital status. In the Introduction, the author is Mrs. Charlotte Smith; in Chapter II, we learn that Mrs. Rayland and Mrs. Lennard are both spinsters. (Further reminder: The word “spinster” simply means “never married”, just like the word “single” on a modern-day marriage license. It has no other connotations, positive or negative.)
The family connections are laid out in the first chapter:
|Sir Orlando de Rayland (†)|
|— Sir Hildebrand Rayland (†)|
— Barbara (†)
— Grace (“Mrs. Rayland”)
|— Catharine (†)|
|— [sister] (†) m. Somerive (†)|
|— [son] (†) m. Raylands’ companion (†)|
|— Somerive m. Isabella Woodford|
Orlando Somerive is thus Mrs. Rayland’s first cousin, twice removed, with an appropriate age gap of about 50 years (two generations). But by the middle of Volume I, our author has forgotten all about the second Somerive—the one who married the Rayland sisters’ companion—with the result that everyone gets shifted up one generation.
Charlotte Smith is believed to be one of the earliest English novelists to show characters speaking “in dialect”. (Some sources even said she was the first, but this is surely an exaggeration.) You’ll see farmers and lower servants using forms and pronunciations from the extreme south of England.
The author had some peculiar ideas about initial “h”. Alongside normal-for-the-time usages like “an heroic”, “an historical” or “an humble”, the book is peppered with unexpected forms: “an heart”, “an house”, “an horse”, “an hundred”. Many words go both ways: here “a husband”, there “an husband”; here “a heavy”, there “an heavy”.
More linguistic quirks, in no particular order:
And, finally: I do not know why the author thinks “Study”—referring to Orlando’s room in Rayland Manor—needs to be capitalized, as it is throughout the second half of Volume I (most of Volume II in four-volume editions). The editor lower-cased a few of them, but didn’t change everything systematically.
The text used here is from The British Novelists, edited by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. I have renumbered the chapters continuously from I through LII instead of starting afresh with each volume. It could have been worse; the second edition (1793) has four sets of chapter numbers:
|1793 (2nd edition)||British Novelists||ebook|
|Vol. I||I-XII||Vol. I||I-XII||I-XII|
The two British Novelists volumes may be slightly mismatched, as they represent different editions: Volume I (Vol. XXXVI of the series) is from 1810, Volume II (XXXVII) from 1820. At a few points I checked the text against the 1793 second edition (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4). But differences between the two volumes are just as likely to be authorial as editorial. In particular, the second volume has footnotes. It looks as if Charlotte Smith was feeling increasingly rushed, and had to cram things into footnotes that she ought to have worked into the main text—or omitted altogether.
The two volumes also have minor differences in punctuation. I have left everything as I found it, with one exception. The printed book (both volumes) varied between long —— and short — dashes. I have unilaterally decided that the choice was based purely on the length of the typeset line, and have generally regularized them to simple — dashes. Late in the first volume, and continuing through much of the second, the main characters discover the joy of speaking in . . . ellipses . . . . . the longer, the better. There can’t possibly be any significance to the number or spacing of the dots, but I’ve kept them as printed, just in case.
To make up for the dots and dashes, Anna Laetitia Barbauld—the editor, not the author—seems not to have approved of quotation marks. Throughout the novel, she allows them to be used only when quoting written texts, such as letters or poetry.
Typographical errors are marked with and are listed again at the end of each chapter. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space.. Apparent errors were corrected if the 2nd edition had the expected form. (Query: Why didn’t I simply use this edition in the first place? Answer: Because there aren’t any good scans available. Besides, it’s got long esses.) Unambiguous errors, like “unusal” for “unusual”, were corrected regardless.
The printed book had no Table of Contents, no chapter summaries or even titles. We will have to make do with the opening line of each chapter:
|Introduction by Anna Laetitia Barbauld|
|I||In an old Manor House in one of the most southern counties of England|
|II||The confidential servant, or rather companion and femme de charge of Mrs. Rayland|
|III||However trifling the incident was|
|IV||Love rendered Orlando so politic|
|V||The clock in the servants’ hall struck twelve|
|VI||Another and another evening Orlando attended at the turret|
|VII||The day had been unusually warm; but towards evening a thunder-storm came on|
|VIII||Mr. Somerive determined to write to Mrs. Rayland|
|IX||Early on the following morning, Monimia prepared herself|
|X||The unfortunate rencontre which promised to produce so much uneasiness|
|XI||Orlando left Mrs. Rayland about twelve o’clock|
|XII||It was probable that Sir John Belgrave’s messenger would immediately return|
|XIII||On the following morning Orlando received an early summons from his father|
|XIV||Orlando found Betty waiting for him as she had promised|
|XV||Every one of the party who met at dinner were ready to worship the General|
|XVI||The family of Somerive was almost the only one who had not waited on Mr. Stockton|
|XVII||To reconcile Monimia to his departure|
|XVIII||The meeting of the evening promised to be undisturbed.|
|XIX||Orlando returned to Rayland Hall carrying with him the most polite answer from General Tracy|
|XX||Monimia, secure of the tenderest affection of her lover|
|XXI||At length Mrs. Rayland was seated|
|XXII||Selina was too much terrified at the risk Orlando ran|
|XXIII||Orlando found Monimia alarmed and dejected|
|XXIV||Instead of the reproaches Orlando expected to hear|
|XXV||The house of West Wolverton too had its politicians|
|XXVI||Orlando could not conceal the anguish of his heart|
|XXVII||Orlando, already repenting that he had told the game-keeper so much|
|XXVIII||Somerive received his son with tenderness; but his dejection was but too visible.|
|XXIX||Sufficiently punished by the alarm he had been in, Orlando no longer ventured|
|XXX||On their arrival Selina was agreeably surprised|
|XXXI||A moment’s reflection recalled the confused and dissipated thoughts of Orlando|
|XXXII||For Orlando, there could not be a more dangerous companion than Captain Warwick.|
|XXXIII||Three happy days now passed rapidly away.|
|XXXIV||Mr. Somerive exclaimed, Good God; what is to be done now?|
|XXXV||Torn by these distracting contests between love and duty|
|XXXVI||Exhausted by the fatigue of body and mind|
|XXXVII||By the medical skill of the surgeon of the regiment|
|XXXVIII||The increasing difficulties to which the British army were exposed|
|XXXIX||The small party dispatched on this hazardous adventure|
|XL||In a very few days after leaving this temporary settlement, Orlando arrived at Quebec.|
|XLI||An apprehension of the truth, vague as it was|
|XLII||After a pause, sufficiently expressive of the difficulty with which he thought|
|XLIII||The variety of uneasy emotions which passed through the mind of Orlando, as he journeyed towards London|
|XLIV||When you left us, my brother, said Selina|
|XLV||If Orlando had known Monimia was in safety|
|XLVI||The unfortunate brother of Orlando|
|XLVII||At Salisbury Orlando determined to make some slight alteration in his plan|
|XLVIII||Early on the following morning Orlando left Winchester|
|XLIX||In retiring to the room Mrs. Fleming had ordered to be prepared|
|L||Nearly six weeks more now passed|
|LI||On his return home, Orlando related to his wife|
|LII||The young man to whom Orlando now applied|