The Obligations of Form: Social Practice in Charlotte Smith's Emmeline

Article excerpt

In Charlotte Smith's first novel, Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, the heroine finds herself caught between her obligations to competing forms of male "protection." Emmeline, seemingly illegitimate, has promised her uncle and guardian, Lord Montreville, that she will not marry his son Delamere without his and Lady Montreville's consent; however, she also has promised Delamere, despite her misgivings, that she will marry him in a year's time, if at the end of that year his affections have not waned. Both promises are coerced. Her promise to Montreville is part of an agreement that will allow Emmeline to refuse marriage from "pecuniary motives" to a man of her uncle's choosing. (1) Her promise to Delamere is an act of desperation: she fears, rightly, that if she does not consent the "violence of his nature" (185) will lead to Montreville's withdrawal of all financial security. Emmeline clearly understands her obligations to paternal authority, as well as her position as an object exchanged between men. She begs Delamere to relinquish his resolve to marry her so that her only honorable means of subsistence is not threatened: "give me back to the kindness and protection of your father" (187, my emphasis). However, she must constantly prove to Montreville that she is worthy of that "kindness and protection": "His Lordship therefore sent her ... a bank note of fifty pounds; with his thanks for the propriety of her conduct, and an assurance, that while she continued to merit his protection, he should consider her as his daughter, and take care to supply her with money, and every thing else she might wish for" (103). Montreville's symbolic and practical support always is contingent upon Emmeline's adherence to her duty. Thus, her promises to Montreville and Delamere cast the heroine's reliance on patriarchal authority in the language of the gift and obligation, depicting these relations as ostensibly based on filial affection, rather than on the coercive and violent qualities that motivate this authority throughout the novel.

The contract made before the novel begins--Montreville's acceptance of Emmeline as his ward and the agreement to send monthly payments of support--appears as a gesture of paternal benevolence. Thus, as Emmeline attempts to assert her will in situations that determine the course of her life, specifically who and when she will marry, she is compelled to balance her self-interest with the obligations she owes to Montreville for his generous guardianship. Significantly, Montreville's real motives for supporting Emmeline remain unknown for much of the novel; because the initial gifts are exchanged before the narrative begins, Emmeline's conception of duty appears to be a natural consequence of her position. Both narrative form and social practice disguise her return gifts of obedience as virtuous gestures inspired by filial loyalty. In this respect, the absence of the original exchange and the obfuscation of Montreville's intentions create a fiction of generosity that in turn disguises his lack of both legal authority over Mowbray Castle and paternal authority over Emmeline. In this sense, the novel displays the complex system of debt, obligation, and authority that, as I have argued elsewhere, informed eighteenth-century conceptions of gift exchange and obligation. (2) By framing Emmeline's obligations as gratitude, the novel makes clear that she has no real "choice" when it comes to determining her will. She must always defer to the dynamics of obligation owed for the name, money, and protection that allow an apparently illegitimate female orphan to escape the harsh realities of eighteenth-century life: starvation or prostitution.

In this essay, I argue that the complexities of gift exchange and obligation underwrite, reinforce, and strain against the literary form of the late eighteenth-century novel. Drawing on Caroline Levine's incisive rethinking of the methodologies of literary criticism, I examine the debts and obligations engendered by the asymmetrical logic of the gift in Emmeline, and the problems of ideology and form in Smith's novel? …