Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle (Book Review)

emmelinecover0002

The hardcover edition from the Oxford University Press English Novel series, long out of print.

Several years ago, I began collecting Oxford University’s series of classic English novels. But these aren’t the familiar paperback editions. They are a series of hardcover editions, printed from the mid 1960’s up until the early 1970’s, and comprise a wide array of authors spanning two centuries. In total they published something like seventy volumes, many of which are still available from Oxford University Press, but what makes this series interesting to me, apart from their handsome binding, is that the series focuses extensively on 18th century authors. One of these authors, Charlotte Smith, had not been seen in print for more than a century and has, for good reason, been rediscovered as an important and influential author of the late 18th century.

When I bought Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle I was under the misapprehension that it was a gothic novel but this could not be farther from the truth. In style and content, it is a courtship novel and has much more in common with Jane Austen than Ann Radcliffe. Initially, I was rather disappointed. I’m generally not interested in novels about courtship and marriage, unless it involves two guys or a ghost or social criticism, but Emmeline drew me in with its critique of gender inequality and realistic portrayal of depression. In the end, it was a worthwhile read and I would highly recommend it to those interested in early feminist authors, romanticism, and 18th century fiction.

Smith was known to use her own experiences as a source of inspiration for her writing. Portraits of both herself and her husband pop up throughout the novel. Her marriage was far from happy. Her husband was both reckless with money and physically abusive. After twenty years together and twelve children, she left him and took up writing, one of the few respectable profession a woman could have at the time. It comes then as no surprise why she chose to dramatize the struggles of women to determine their own lives and critique the social institutions that forced women into bad marriages in her novels.

Many of the women in Smith’s novel are used to illustrate the ways women are disadvantaged by marriage but the most striking of them is Adelina. Adelina’s husband gambles excessively, forcing both into poverty and debt, and eventually succumbs to alcoholism. Meanwhile, Adelina leaves her husband and bears a child with another man. Ashamed of her circumstances and fearful of her bothers, as well as society’s, condemnation, her mental and physical health begin to deteriorate.

Depressed spirits are a common feature of the novels of the time and often go hand-in-hand with physical health but Adelina character is described with an unusual amount of detail for the time. She ruminates on sad thoughts, writes self-pitying poetry, isolates herself, loses interest in activities she once enjoyed, and even contemplates committing suicide. Smith is clearly describing the condition we now acknowledge as clinical depression and I don’t doubt that she sourced these details from her own experience, as she did with others aspects of her novels. (In fact, some of Adelina’s poetry appear in Smith’s very popular Elegiac Sonnets.) Adelina’s depression is treated as real and attributes it to society’s unjust scrutiny over women’s virtue, rather than to any deficit in her character.

Curiously, Mary Wollstonecraft criticized Smith for the way she portrayed Adelina and her “excessive grief,” as Wollstonecraft called, but Smith’s portrayal of Adelina’s depression adds realism to her novel and enriches it as whole. For contemporary readers, Emmeline or, The Orphan of the Castle may still be too didactic for their tastes but it’s well worth reading for its realism and critique of gender inequality. I can only hope that more of her works will become available and that our appreciation for it may deservedly grow.

P.S.: If you are interested in finding a copy, I recommend the edition from Broadview Press. The Oxford University Press edition is long out-of-print but you can find some used copies online in a variety of places, such as Amazon and Abebooks.

Strange Encounters of the Absurd Kind (or, Die Entfremdung des Individuums in der Gesellschaft)

If a friend is, as I am led to believe, a person whose company
one longs for,
then it is perhaps fair to say that I have few …
few who ask if I have some time to spend with them,
few whose thoughts I’d like to know,
few whose absence from my life would bring discontent.
Many of the people I have met I have never missed,
those I long to know I rarely see,
and the few I have loved rarely, if ever, loved me.
A tragedy unfolds each time I dare to compare my life
to another whose company is so widely desired.
Often now it seems to me that others are more needed than I;
and this, as far as I can tell,
is evidenced by the number of people they call their “friends.”

Once it was a habit, all too common to my disposition,
to wait in hopeful anticipation of someone reaching out to me,
but so seldom do such invitations come
that I have become motivated to seek out the company I desire
of my own accord,
yet the messages I send rarely receive the reaction I require.

Some will respond only to confirm their indefinite unavailability
and some do not respond at all,
which leads me to feel like any solicitation is an importunity;
and when those who I like most, counted up, come only to a few,
the loss is even more devastating and sad.
When the life I live is centered only on introverted purpose,
involving little else than the fulfillment of my own needs,
I find myself lacking a great deal more.
When I cannot merge my life, my needs, with those of others
I feel truly alone.

At parties, or other social gatherings, where every other person
is well engaged in conversation with another
and I am left on the peripheries,
silently observing the spectacle,
the fullest extent of my participation is a simple sequence
of response,
of nodding, smiling, and laughing
only at the appropriate moment;
and if I remain thus employed for too long
I begin to feel less involved
and less enthused by what others experience directly.
My “self” demands explanation and quickly resolves
to find the reason for its problems
but the expostulations of fear are suppositious at best.

My mind shifts through various emotions as fluidly
as the dialogues I listen to.
I can enjoy being silent for a while but I want to actively engage
in other people’s lives.
I’m afraid that if I don’t I will quickly lose favor
among my friends,
to be forgotten and surpassed by others.

When their company consistently includes less of mine
I fear they are intentionally excluding me,
the thought of which fills me with dread.
When I cannot cut through the conversation and speak,
I feel disconnected from them
and truly alone.

The savage image of lacerated flesh flashes before my eyes
and I instantly recall the quick rush of warm blood
that once, but briefly, flowed freely from my left arm.
Instantaneously I fear making the same mistakes
I made before and the inevitable setback they entail.
I don’t want to lose my grasp on the world
and all that I hold dear …
to alienate those I love most with peculiar, minor defects
or frighten potential friends with embarrassing improprieties,
but with the faltering of my senses,
by the crippling force of insecurity,
I am thrust into a labyrinthine world of feeling
inhabited only by monstrous thoughts
and where the only sanctuary
from the frightening things outside is a dreadful oubliette.

Sitting alone in my room, leisurely attending to the same
solitary activities that occupy most of my time
I wonder why it is that I, unlike others,
receive so few solicitations while they entertain so often.
In the absence of company, I speak aloud
and pace about my room,
delivering to no one but myself lectures on topics
of any sort or kind and discussing them at length
until I tire my voice and mind.
Dusk brings delight, for at last the day is done,
and whatever thoughts that may be troubling me
are removed from consciousness … one by one.

What I fear most when I’m alone and longing
is not necessarily being wholly worthless
but the possibility that I will be disqualified by necessity,
regardless of any actual personal value,
and declared … superfluous.
When others make new friends easily while I struggle to feel
anything more than a minute interest in my peers,
I worry about my capacity to relate.
What does it take for me to make friends?!

The action of the drama rises yet again and the labyrinth
in which it is staged is growing even darker.
All passages take me in the same direction as before,
towards the wrongful vindication of my worst fears.
I do not trust my senses here;
what they tell me may well be a lie,
but even this (I know) cannot last.
Every journey to this void ends
with the serendipitous discovery of a subterranean river,
from which I drink the liquid of Lethe
and recover with renewed resolve,
feeling as though nothing has ever troubled me;
I am strangely optimistic about what paths
I may take to positively impact my future state
and confidant of the methods at my disposal.

Among the many relational possibilities come a variety of types,
each differing in form, function, and orientation;
but despite their shared effect of fulfilling
the fundamental need for love, each serves an individual role.
The designation of “friend” is a most misleading
vernacular trend
and if I fail to recall what I now know about the unique qualities
that determine the appropriate nature of any given relationship
I will once again be left to the mercy
of fearful misapprehensions.

There are those I like more than most and many
I could easily live without
but all in all I do not need too many people demanding my time
to feel that I am needed, appreciated, and loved.
In times of doubt I remind myself of the potential
my past never had
and how much I have grown;
I think of the moments when friends were glad to see me,
and the one man who, unique among all others,
fills my life with the greatest love I know.

The Counsel of Despair

It’s easy enough to be alive, for it takes little effort on my part
to pump the bellows full of air and keep Life’s fire alight,
but whatever purpose this process might ultimately serve
is, as far as I know, impossible to justify.
In moments of despair all the world does seem to shrink,
any power over my life feels
as though it has been robbed from me,
and I no longer feel the pull of meaningful pursuits.

The world beyond these walls does not interest me,
for I see nothing in it but an agonizing enterprise.
As I move towards the object of my interest
my movements become slow,
as though the air were as thick as water,
and the terrible monster,
whose voracious appetite compels it to pursue me,
comes ever nearer
yet neither succeeds nor abates.
It is impossible for me to stop and give up to the powers that be,
for there is nothing there but death and decay,
yet I am not entirely unaware that my path
has become stereotyped;
like all nightmares the fiercest monster
is merely monotony.

The dogma of doubt dictates uncertain regulations
while despair certifies the uselessness of action
and negates the significance of life.
In fits of rage I shrug off the outside world
and defy the promises it offers,
denying the notion of ever being well again.
It’s hard enough to move when both desire and necessity
fail to motivate me, yet for every reason I have to live
I have an equally compelling reason to die.
I stand before the altar of Life, prepared to revive my resolve
through its resources,
but just as I place my offering bowl on the counter top
my limbs cease to obey my will.
I stand like a statue with a death-like paralysis,
unable to perform even the most basic task of feeding myself.

The very mechanisms of my defense monopolize my actions,
culling conscious control in favor of fear and dread
of things that may or may not come to be.
In compulsive fretting I feel “It” constricting,
pulling me inward towards myself
and away from the dangerous world
but within me there are only self-inflicting wounds,
familiarly striped and applied with feverish vigor.

In life I fear that which I have often seen in my sleep—
the expedient decay of my body.
Teeth rot and fall out; baldness spreads swiftly and inextricably
across my scalp;
and, with terror and morbid curiosity,
I open up my abdominal cavity
as though the skin were as soft as clay,
and watch my vital organs slip out.
There must be more to this entity, my intuition says,
than mere organismic order and instinctual instruction—
but as in dreams, so too in life,
I fearfully find nothing but flesh and bone.

Without our sacred values we crumble to our knees:
Eating is reduced to a mere routine
to stave off the ache of hunger,
beauty becomes a vacant facade to hide the structures of decay,
and life itself, despite all the good it purportedly entails,
becomes a purposeless passing from one day to the next.