In her final novel, The Test of Filial Duty (1769), Sarah Scott (1721-95) uses the language of sentiment and sensibility to dramatize the emotional toll that parentally arranged courtships could take on young upper-class women. The novel's two heroines, Emilia Leonard and Charlotte Arlington, struggle to marry the men they've chosen without violating the tenets of obedience to which both women adhere. Like Scott's other novels, The Test of Filial Duty suggests a need for social reform, but its emphasis differs from that of A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) and The History of Sir George Ellison (1766). Those novels depict what Gary Kelly calls a "feminized economy," in which women largely freed from social constraints become positive moral forces. The Test of Filial Duty instead uses the formulas of sentimental fiction to criticize parental suppression of young women's individuality (Millenium 24).
Scott demonstrates that filial duty requires women to replace honest emotional expression with cheerful malleability and emotional fulfillment with satisfaction at having made a sacrifice. Although the dutiful ultimately are rewarded and the rebellious punished, that outcome is not assured: the characters suffer isolation, confusion, and heartbreak as they try--and fail--to reconcile themselves to their duty. The novel's epistolary form allows Emilia and Charlotte to express the emotions that they must otherwise hide, assured of a sympathetic audience in each other and in a readership gently beguiled by the novel's romantic and fairy-tale elements. The Test of Filial Duty acknowledges that emotions must be regulated, but it criticizes devotion to duty as synonymous with repression and painful self-denial, two states Scott consistently rejected during her life as a professional writer and female intellectual.
Scott was known in her own time as a well-regarded but minor author and an energetic, virtuous reformer who carried out versions of the humanitarian projects that she describes in Millenium Hall. Betty Rizzo explains that she "lived the life that validated the work and pruned the work to validate the piety" (xxx). This description might suggest a conventional thinker who lived a conventional life free of controversy. Rather, Scott was a sharp social observer and critic. Her circumstances made her both a careful steward of her own image and an ideal commentator on women's issues. As a younger sister in a family of twelve, Scott (born Sarah Robinson) saw her marriage prospects curtailed by the need to provide for her brothers and her older sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth Robinson would marry Edward Montagu, grandson to the first Earl of Sandwich, and become the "Queen of the Bluestockings." Through her, Scott was connected to the Bluestocking circle, but she never followed her sister into high society. Elizabeth Montagu recognized the social and economic necessity of marriage for a genteel woman, writing to the Duchess of Portland that "Gold is the chief ingredient in the composition of earthly happiness; living in a cottage on love is certainly the worst diet and the worst habitation one can find out" (qtd. in Hill 4). Montagu was far from alone in her view. Her friend Anne Donnellan said in a letter to Montagu that marriage was "the settlement in the world we should aim at, and the only way we females have of making ourselves of use to Society and raising ourselves in this world" (qtd. in Hill 6). Elizabeth's marriage to a well-off and indulgent older man seems to confirm Donnellan's assertion: his money, social position, and willingness to keep his distance allowed her to become prominent as a Bluestocking.
Sarah Robinson, who like her sister received a marriage portion of only [pounds sterling]1000 or [pounds sterling]1500 (Hill 5), married George Lewis Scott, a family friend, in 1751 (Kelly, "Sarah Scott" 5: xiii). However, the couple became estranged for reasons that remain unclear, and nine months after her marriage, Sarah Scott's father and brothers removed her from her husband's home. George Scott returned half of his wife's marriage settlement and agreed to a separate maintenance for her of [pounds sterling]100 per year (Rizzo xv). The couple stayed married but never lived together again.
Elizabeth Montagu's example demonstrates the utility of marriage in an era in which women could not independently own property, and genteel women did not work for a living. However, Scott's life was more typical for a woman in the Bluestocking circle. Kelly notes that "most Bluestocking ladies were unmarried, widowed, separated from their husbands, or living independently while married" (Millenium 17). Similarly, Rizzo points out that women writers such as Scott and Sarah Fielding recognized "a great advantage to being unmarried ... because only unmarried women were free to work toward their own ends" (xvi). Scott commented to Elizabeth Carter in 1767 that "the name old Maid had never any terrors for me, & the thing I like best in my situation is that I am one in effect" (qtd. in Kelly, "Sarah Scott" 5: xiv). In separating from her husband and living as "neither maid, wife, nor widow," Scott gained the freedom from social scrutiny that a female intellectual often needed and subsequently began the practice--which would last the rest of her life--of living and collaborating with other women (Rizzo xvi). Her earlier novels A Description of Millenium Hall and The History of Sir George Ellison recall this phase of her life, depicting the good works and virtuous lives of a society of moral, charitable, independent-minded women.
The Test of Filial Duty, on the other hand, accepts the necessity of marriage. It examines how a moral, charitable, independent-minded woman can marry without compromising her principles or losing what autonomy she has. The novel criticizes the ways in which courtship, marriage, and especially parents restrict young women's emotional freedom. As Kelly notes in his introduction to The Test of Filial Duty, Scott adapts the "Richardsonian epistolary form to Bluestocking feminism" (6: xii). Scott uses the novel to show that genteel society holds women to a nearly impossible standard of self-control. This standard causes young women to deceive themselves and others about their feelings and encourages them to ignore their own preferences in favor of others' choices. The heroines' letters to each other make strict adherence to duty possible by encouraging the self-knowledge that duty denies them.
Emilia and Charlotte demonstrate that as part of the practice of filial duty, young women must deny or sublimate their feelings or else remove themselves from public view. Discussing "feelings" or "emotions" without qualifiers may seem anachronistic or overly broad, but the choice of words is purposeful. All feelings must be regulated and suppressed because, the novel suggests, a young woman properly has only one emotion: the sense of filial duty. The characters assume that strong emotions inevitably lead to improper actions; thus, a dutiful girl polices not just her behavior but every emotion she feels. Because Emilia and Charlotte are so accustomed to others' scrutiny of their behavior, they routinely scrutinize themselves. They then censure themselves in accordance with duty's strict standards. When she is upset, a dutiful daughter must isolate herself until she can restore her equanimity. In her isolation, she chooses "rational entertainments" in the form of typical feminine "accomplishments" to help her avoid inappropriate emotional excess and reconcile herself to what her parents expect of her. Although this type of self-policing usefully promotes the Enlightenment virtues of reason and moderation, it creates painful guilt at the mere presence of any forceful emotion.
Emilia's and Charlotte's sense of filial duty creates a panopticon in which each young woman lives, continuing to strive for perfect behavior even when unobserved. Jeremy Bentham originally described the panopticon as a physical structure that creates a sense of permanent visibility; Michel Foucault adapts the term to describe a state of mind. The characters' strict belief in filial duty allows the operation of what Foucault calls "the major effect of the panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (201). (1) Scott's heroines are not prisoners, of course; nevertheless, filial duty confines them within a narrow compass of socially acceptable expression, and their sense of that duty requires them likewise to confine their feelings.
The Test of Filial Duty suggests that Emilia and Charlotte require relief from their impossibly high standards of self-control. Their letters to each other provide that relief. In that medium the characters can express freely the anxieties and desires that they must hide elsewhere. Simultaneously, the epistolary form communicates to its audience the need for such expression. In doing so, it endorses sentimentality and subjectivity by presenting Emilia and Charlotte as realistic individuals with feelings worthy of readers' attention. Their status as models of dutiful daughterhood gives them an additional claim to that attention, so that readers admire them as moral exemplars. By writing to one other, Emilia and Charlotte can reclaim, communicate, and reflect on the feelings that filial duty requires them to repress. This function of Emilia and Charlotte's correspondence provides evidence for the view that emotion and action are almost synonymous. It does so, however, in order to demonstrate Emilia's and Charlotte's individual worth, showing that their emotions, in and of themselves, are valid and not harmful. Kelly remarks that "the epistolary novel was a preferred genre for representing the modern meritorious subject" (Test 6: xiv). Scott uses her heroines to point out the particular merits of young women's subjectivity and the persistent quashing of that subjectivity by traditional social norms.
Scholars disagree about the social implications of The Test of Filial Duty: Caroline Gonda calls the novel Scott's "most conservative" (109) while Kelly refers to it as "modernizing." Both critics focus on Scott's handling of marital choice as the focus of filial duty. Scott wrote The Test of Filial Duty after decades of literature on the subject: moral and legal authorities as well as novelists (most famously Samuel Richardson) were producing widely read works examining filial duty. These works typically forbade children, particularly daughters, to marry without parental approval, condemning them as undutiful if they did so. (2) Richard Allestree's The Whole Duty of Man (1658), well-known and frequently reprinted throughout the eighteenth century, explains that
Children are so much the goods, the possessions of the Parent, that they cannot without a kind of theft give away themselves without the allowance of those, that have the right in them, and therefore we see under the Law, the Maid that had made any vow, was not suffered to perform it, without the consent of the Parent. (291)
The references to "goods" and "possessions" are telling, as this conservative model of marriage ensured the transmission of family assets to parentally approved husbands. Scott questions this model through her heroine Charlotte Arlington, who initially rejects a man she likes because she believes that he is interested only in her estate, and through Emilia Leonard's father, whose focus on seeing his daughters married well, rather than happily, creates many of the novel's complications.
By the time Scott wrote The Test of Filial Duty, Allestree's view of marital choice had been codified into law as Lord Hardwicke's Act for the Prevention of Clandestine Marriages (1753). The measure imposed age minimums, restricted marriage ceremonies to churches, and required advance public notice of a marriage by calling of banns or purchase of a license. Eliminating "irregular" marriages that required only the free consent of both parties gave protesting parents a better chance of stopping an unapproved union. The law was widely considered to be an endorsement of parentally approved marriages. (3) Richardson, for example, congratulated himself on having contributed to the law's passage through the popularity of Clarissa, which takes up themes similar to those of The Test of Filial Duty (Keymer 103). Sir William Blackstone calls parental consent to marriage "another means, which the law has put into the parent's hands, in order the better to discharge his duty; first of protecting his children from the snares of artful and designing persons; and, next, of settling them properly in life, by preventing the ill consequences of too early and precipitate marriages" (647). While these commentators argue for parentally approved marriage as an instrument of social and economic stability, Scott uses the epistolary structure and the language of sentiment to emphasize the emotional cost of such marriages to the women who must accept them.
However, Scott is not advocating total independence for daughters. In her preface to The Test of Filial Duty, she begins from a conservative premise, explaining that she wrote the novel to discourage clandestine marriages. She, like Allestree and Richardson, describes such marriages as the ultimate betrayal of filial duty:
I have long observed, and many others must have made the same observation, that no duty is so little regarded as filial obedience, more particularly in the article of matrimony. Few young persons consider a clandestine marriage as in any respect criminal; and were it not for pecuniary considerations, we should, I fear, seldom see any regard paid to the consent of parents.
She adds, however, a limited endorsement of marital choice: "I am no less an enemy to the tyranny of parents, than to the disobedience of children," arguing that each has "a just title to a negative voice" in the marriage decision (6: 5-6). The novel's comic ending suggests endorsement of strict principles of duty in choosing a spouse: Emilia's and Charlotte's scrupulous obedience is rewarded when each is allowed to marry the man of her choice, while Emilia's half-sister Sophia's willfulness is punished when her clandestine marriage goes sour. Nevertheless, as is often the case with prefaces in the period, the novel offers a much broader critique than that which its preface promises. It argues for emotional freedom for young women and criticizes parents who are too controlling with their daughters. Although Scott professes to argue for daughters' adherence to duty in marriage, her characters show that when duty goes beyond behavioral control to emotional control, it is limiting and even damaging.
Though the debate over marital choice remained tied to the notion of "filial duty," those words implied more than a parentally approved marriage. They suggested a more general malleability--a willingness to allow one's "friends" not only to choose one's husband, but to dictate one's conduct. Allestree requires of children "all kindness of behavior ... avoiding whatever may grieve and afflict" a parent, and suggests that women should have "a great reverence of their Parents judgments, and distrust of their own" (15). A daughter must accept the judgment of even a bad parent or a bad decision made by a good parent; she should disregard her own conclusions and accept those drawn by her parents. Again, the need for strict adherence to duty assumes that no gap exists between feelings or ideas and actions.
Allestree suggests that a daughter should neither act nor think independently but accept what others think for her. A young woman who expressed strong feelings or made independent decisions was both undutiful and potentially sinful. Her duty was to remain unattached and tractable.
This broad view of duty, like the conservative view of parentally approved marriage, had become legally recognized: Blackstone explains that "the law does not hold the tie of nature to be dissolved by any misbehavior of the parent; and therefore a child is equally justifiable in defending the person, or maintaining the cause or suit, of a bad parent, as a good one" (649). A daughter should always prefer her parents' judgment to her own and repress strong emotions in deference to their desires. Prefiguring Scott, Mary Astell explained the proper extent of a young woman's feelings in 1694: "Modesty requiring that a Woman should not love before marriage, but only make choice of one whom she can love hereafter: She who has none but innocent affections, being easily able to fix them where Duty requires" (102). These commentators suggest that a sense of duty to her parents is the only forceful emotion appropriate to a marriageable daughter. In his Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, Samuel Richardson presents a model letter in which a young woman tells her father that a suitor has approached her. The young woman reassures her father, "I have given him no Encouragement; and [I] told him, that I had no Thoughts of changing my Condition, yet a while; and should never think of it but in obedience to my parents" (28). Likewise, an ideal suitor also endorses filial duty. The young woman's suitor concurs with her view, writing to the father, "I should think myself intirely unworthy of her favour, and of your Approbation, if I could have a Thought of influencing her Resolution but in Obedience to your Pleasure" (31). Richardson most clearly articulates the assumption that strong feelings lead directly to dangerous actions: lack of duty in a daughter, he implies, suggests that the daughter will not be faithful when she becomes a wife. Richardson again ties duty to virtue--that is, to chastity--in his commentary on Clarissa when he suggests that "[if] in look, if in speech, a girl give way to undue levity, depend upon it ... the devil has already got one of his cloven feet into her heart" (A Collection 92). A young woman who avoids all expressions of strong emotion shows that she is trustworthy and appropriately malleable.
The presence of this definition of duty in fiction, conduct literature, religion, and law suggests that Scott is placing her characters in circumstances that were commonplace for young women in their social position; their experiences are neither unique nor remarkable. Scott and her heroines follow the moralizing strain set forth by Richardson in suggesting that an undutiful young woman is also a morally corrupt one. The novel opens with Emilia and Charlotte's discussion of Emilia's half-sister Sophia, a foolish and headstrong coquette. Emilia's father asked her mother before they married to "promise him that she would never contradict, or controul in any thing his little Sophia" (6: 8). Sophia has thus grown up undisciplined and untrained. She falls in love with Emilia's uncle, a military officer and "a very unsuitable match for a girl of so large a fortune," and suggests to him a clandestine marriage--the ultimate betrayal of filial duty (6: 16). Her family foils the plan, but Sophia is cemented in the reader's mind, as well as in Emilia's and Charlotte's minds, as a cautionary tale. Charlotte in particular articulates the novel's mission as identified in its preface when she condemns Sophia's actions. In Letter XI, she criticizes women who agree to clandestine marriages on the grounds that such women are simultaneously undutiful and immoral: "How little right has a woman to expect her husband's esteem and confidence when, to become his wife, she has violated the strongest ties of duty, broke the restraints of modesty, and laid aside all regard to decency and decorum!" (6: 52) Charlotte echoes the author's position as expressed in the preface; but her words also depict marital choice--or, in this case, the absence of it--as part of a larger set of restrictions on a daughter's emotional freedom and behavior, restrictions which are always uppermost in her mind.
Throughout The Test of Filial Duty, Charlotte serves as the more vocal social critic while Emilia provides an example of perfect devotion to duty--in fact, Emilia is nearly perfect in all respects: well bred, kind, intelligent, and beautiful. When Charlotte points out to Emilia that "Your person alone would be found irresistible by most men," Emilia insists that her mother explained to her the dangers of her beauty (6: 33). Emilia learned to show that her "mind was too steady in prudence and virtue, ever to be seduced by [her beauty] into levity or folly" (6: 37). Charlotte admires her friend's dutiful nature and its reinforcement through Sophia's negative example, but she criticizes the extremity of Emilia's self-control:
What girl is there whose spirit would not have been subdued by the joint persecutions of an ill-tempered sister, and a remonstrating mother? for I fear I should have included her admonitions among my persecutions, at least till my reason had come to it's full growth; then indeed I must have seen them in the light you do; but if you are honest, I dare say you will acknowledge you often thought her cruel in shewing so little compassion for what you suffered. You can do no less than love Sophia; she has been the school-mistress to your virtues. [Her methods] to be sure were somewhat severe, but the harshest masters are often said to form the best scholars; and pain, we are told, leaves stronger impressions on the mind than pleasure; therefore let us not accuse a practice so justified by the success (6: 12)
Charlotte suggests that Emilia, having internalized all the strict discipline her mother taught her and all the self-control her sister lacked, may simply have no emotional energy remaining: "[Your] passions are reduced into such nice order," she says, "that they never rebel; and a weak man may govern the elephant when made a passive beast" (6: 12). Even as she advocates rationality over emotional excess, Scott hints through Charlotte that over-rationality is dangerous. Emilia, a paragon of virtue, should not be reduced to a "passive beast" entirely without feelings. The novel thus uses sentimentality to lead readers into questioning the commonplace values of dutiful self-denial and self-sacrifice.
Emilia's experiences with her cousin Mr. Leonard make explicit the danger of such a reduction to passivity. When Mr. Leonard is introduced into the family as a suitor for Sophia, Emilia writes flatteringly of his appearance, education, and manners, stating--and seeming sincerely to believe--that she admires him only as a future brother-in-law. Charlotte correctly identifies a different motive for Emilia's compliments. "If you would deceive ME," she replies, "you must be less warm and less circumstantial in your praises, however easy you may find self-deception. These, from you too, who I never heard observe that a man had eyes, features, shape or air" (6: 25). As a proper young lady, Emilia has learned to control her emotions so thoroughly that she no longer recognizes them herself. The self-deception that Charlotte recognizes hurts both Emilia and Mr. Leonard when he declares his love for Emilia: "Must I now learn that your friendly, your affectionate behaviour, arose only, from considering me as a brother!" (6: 57) Emilia then realizes her reciprocal affection for him, but too late. Too accustomed to keeping her feelings in order, she becomes overwhelmed and confused:
My mind was all confusion; but tears again came to my relief, and I wept for near an hour, without being able to assign a cause: This, however at length relieved me, and my spirits grew more composed; but whether I received greater pleasure from perceiving myself to be so tenderly beloved by one so dear to me, or pain from considering to how little purpose I was so, I could not possibly determine. (6: 58)
Motivated by filial duty's stringent standards, Emilia has acted with perfect propriety, but her actions have left her heartbroken rather than satisfied. She receives no reward for her scrupulous emotional control. Moreover, although understanding one's feelings would seem a necessary prerequisite to controlling them, Emilia's self-policing is so thorough that she stifies emotions before she identifies them, leading to painful confusion.
Observing her friend's struggles with duty and Sophia's selfish actions, Charlotte advocates a more liberal emotionality for daughters even as she condemns clandestine marriages. Through her, Scott makes a sympathetic case for a daughter's right to refuse an unwanted marriage whose goal is to unite estates and fortunes rather than people. As Charlotte characterizes it, marriage is an inevitable diminution of a woman's energy and activity. She explains that "to marry one towards whom I feel a total indifference, appears to me very dreadful" and suggests that no intelligent woman would agree to marriage "in this mercantile way": "Our reason I think should be hood-winked before we can enter into matrimony with courage. It is impossible, without one is influenced by the delirium of passion, to give up one's happiness into the power of another, with any tolerable composure of mind" (6: 19-20). A husband's control over a wife is such, Charlotte suggests, that only a sincere and reciprocal emotional attachment could make it tolerable. She reminds Emilia of the advantages of being a beloved and wealthy daughter, echoing Scott's assertion to Elizabeth Carter: "Some of the happiest, as well as most useful persons that I know are old maids" (6: 20). Emilia responds guardedly to her friend: "What you say of a single life, appears to me very just; but whenever I hint any thing of that kind, my mamma soberly answers, 'Such notions are selfish, marriage is a duty'" (6: 21). Through Charlotte's criticisms of clandestine marriage the novel does what Scott says it will do. But Charlotte's courtship also connects the novel's specific concerns about marital choice to its larger criticism of duty as emotionally stifiing.
In her depiction of that courtship, Scott shows that a strict adherence to duty requires a young woman to show reticence even toward a man whom her parents have chosen and whom she herself likes. Charlotte's parents arrange for the son of Sir Edward Edmondbury to pay his addresses to her. Although she receives Mr. Edmondbury skeptically at first, believing him interested only in her estate, they develop a genuine mutual attraction. Nevertheless, Charlotte restrains herself from showing that attraction, albeit while complaining to Emilia about the preeminence of duty among feminine motivations. She notes that "We [women] follow the dictates of our inclinations with some dignity, when we can pretend that our compliance arises from an effort of duty" (6: 54). She properly demonstrates reluctance, waiting for Mr. Edmondbury to confess his feelings first. This dutiful reticence leads to disaster: Sir Edward interferes and arranges his son's engagement to a wealthier woman, Lady Mary Belmour. Lady Mary, notably, has broken with correct behavior by communicating her affection for Mr. Edmondbury through a relative. Although Mr. Edmondbury "pleaded prior engagements," Charlotte tells Emilia, "I leave you to guess whether they are likely long to hold out against paternal authority, the suggestions of interest, and the persuasives of vanity; which must be gratified, not only with Lady Mary's rank, but with so evident a proof of her strong attachment to him; small signs of which he imagines he sees in me" (6: 98-99). While his father insists on his marriage to Lady Mary, Mr. Edmondbury persists in his preference for Charlotte.
That preference is little comfort to a dutiful daughter who is doubly handicapped by her sense of duty: she will not marry without her father's approval, nor can she confide in her wouldbe suitor. She outlines to Emilia the double standard she experiences: "it is [Mr. Edmondbury's] part, you know, to shew, at least, all the uneasiness he feels; female decorum obliges me as much as possible to conceal mine" (6: 106). A sense of duty, then, is the only emotion a young woman can acceptably demonstrate, regardless of circumstances. Charlotte's description of this standard and its consequences constitutes one of the novel's clearest critiques of filial duty as emotionally stifling. Duty is an ever-present and nearly impossible standard, forcing the scrupulous young woman to pretend a reluctance she does not feel, even when presented with a man her parents want her to like.
Duty becomes a self-perpetuating force in these young women's lives, but the denial of subjectivity that it entails begins at home. According to "the strictest notions of filial duty" (Clarissa 37), which Richardson assigns to Clarissa and Scott's heroines claim for themselves, a young woman must express only the emotions that her parents approve. Scott shows that parents are a daughter's ever-present emotional arbiters and decision-makers, shaping her actions and ultimately endeavoring to dictate her feelings. They teach her to practice the constant self-censorship that will make duty self-reinforcing. A well-trained daughter learns that if she is dutiful, she will have the best marriage prospects because of her impeccable reputation. Her parents, in turn, know that she will be more inclined to accept a parentally arranged marriage precisely because she is dutiful. Parents also encourage a daughter to accept dutifulness as its own reward for the sacrifice of individuality. Early in the novel, Emilia's mother cautions her against anger at Emilia's spoiled half-sister Sophia by reminding her that "[pity] should excite affection, and induce you to endeavour by gentleness and compliance to alleviate her vexations." If Emilia cannot comfort Sophia, she will at least have tried, and "the consciousness of having done [her] duty will be a great reward" (6: 10).
Whenever a woman is asked to stifie or forcibly change her reaction to a more acceptable one she is reminded that she can find satisfaction in having done her duty. Yet these reminders come so frequently that one cannot help wondering how satisfying duty really is. In order to hold themselves to such a strict standard, Charlotte and especially Emilia censure themselves for expressing any emotion strong enough to make those around them uncomfortable; in turn, they are praised for those efforts. Emilia's mother compliments her by saying she has "learned to repress every undue emotion in [her] heart" (6: 9). Even when a young woman is not showing Richardson's "undue levity," she transgresses duty if she shows her feelings to others. An ideal woman, Emilia's mother's remark suggests, goes further: controlling the feelings themselves so that there is no danger of their ever being expressed.
But perfect equanimity is impossible even for Scott's dutiful heroines. Emilia shows that when a young woman cannot remain calm, she routinely removes herself from public view. In keeping with the panoptical nature of duty, the "public" includes even her own family. When Emilia's parents learn of her half-sister Sophia's planned elopement with a married man, Captain Ireson, Emilia discovers her parents' distress without immediately knowing its cause and momentarily appears upset in front of them. "I should have retired," she writes to Charlotte, "but amazement and concern ... rivetted me for a considerable time to the floor. ... As soon as I a little recovered myself, I withdrew to my chamber, filled with anxiety and grief, which I believe was the more acute for my ignorance of the cause" (6: 47). Although her actions, and the feelings that caused them, stem from sympathy with her beloved parents, Emilia must hide her "anxiety and grief" as soon as she recovers the presence of mind to do so. Even after her mother has told her what happened, she cannot express herself openly. She fears that if her father sees her upset, he may think she is taking advantage of him: "I am sure [my heart] is deeply wounded at the sight of what he suffers; yet I dare not shew it, lest he should think I am endeavouring to take advantage of [Sophia's] fault, by displaying my tenderness for him" (6: 50). Despite Emilia's reputation both within and outside her family for excellent behavior and purity of motive, she has internalized the idea that her emotions could be a burden to others or could be misinterpreted. Her habitual self-repression leads her to shortchange herself.
Emilia's normal self-scrutiny succeeds in that it keeps her extreme reaction from others, but it does not bring her self-awareness until she can reflect on the incident within the safe confines of a letter to her friend. Scott thus suggests that young women receive little or no personal benefit from the expectation that they constantly examine their emotions: they do not achieve better understanding of themselves but only learn better to comply with society's expectations. As Kelly explains in his introduction to the novel, The Test of Filial Duty depicts "the exercise of autonomous subjectivity against 'artificial' social distinctions and material interests" (6: xii). This subjectivity of the individual, as the novel suggests, was gaining importance as part of what has been called a "culture of sensibility." Emilia's experience shows young women potentially being left out of this cultural shift because they have learned to valorize the sense of duty over all other feelings.
Later in the novel, Emilia's father receives a letter from Lord Wilton, an earl who wishes to "pay his addresses" to his daughter (6: 67). Her father is delighted at the prospect, but Emilia is horrified, and not only leaves the room but seems almost to leave her own self-awareness: "Abashed, confused, frightened, I could make no answer, but, more dead than alive, retired to my chamber, where for some time I remained like one thunder struck; my heart scarcely beat, my blood seemed stagnated, my senses suspended" (6: 68). So accustomed to controlling herself, Emilia has no readily available emotional vocabulary with which to respond to what she views as her father's sudden and lightly taken decision to marry her to an earl who is little more than an acquaintance. The episode suggests that perfect dutifulness is not rewarded even with self-satisfaction. In this crisis, Emilia's consciousness of having been dutiful disappears, while her father exploits, rather than rewards, her excellent behavior. Readers are reminded that although daughters practice duty, parents inculcate it and thus must bear responsibility for their children's eventual contentment or misery. Scott presents both positive and negative examples of the parental role: Charlotte's parents are principally interested in her happiness and thus provide positive reinforcement for her decisions. (4) In contrast, Emilia's parents--her father especially--take advantage of her dutiful nature, relying on her passive acceptance of their choices for her.
Emilia will be expected to marry Lord Wilton because her father knows that she is tractable enough to accept the arrangement, while the man she admires, Mr. Leonard, is matched with Sophia: "Mr. Leonard's virtue, prudence, and excellent understanding, rendered him of all men the most proper to regulate the conduct of a young woman, who eminently required such a director and guide" (6: 66). Meanwhile, Emilia's father believes, as her mother tells her, that he is "weaning you from an attachment which even his consent could not render successful; and establishing your fortune beyond the most ambitious wish of your partial friends, by uniting you with a man, who, we have no reason to believe unworthy of your heart, and whose affection and generosity he thinks cannot fail of making an impression on it" (6: 68-69). As in the case of Charlotte, Mr. Edmondbury, and Lady Mary, Scott suggests that the most dutiful woman may not receive the best rewards; instead, the best husbands go to women who break the rules, and the dutiful are left with the slim consolation of having been so. These repeated scenarios hint that in the hands of an overly controlling parent, even one with good intentions, the insistence on obedience can become emotional cruelty.
Through Emilia's mother, Mrs. Leonard, Scott demonstrates that young women are not the only ones to struggle to conform to their duty. At other moments a source of conservative reminders about correct behavior, Mrs. Leonard endorses her daughter's reaction to Lord Wilton's offer and tries to help Emilia dissuade her father from insisting on the match. Mrs. Leonard receives an extraordinary reproof from her husband: "He told her, 'this was the first time he ever had reason to complain of her behaviour; but he took it extremely amiss, that she should thus thwart his strongest inclination'" (6: 75). This exchange suggests that Mrs. Leonard has, at least in her husband's memory, been perfectly and consistently dutiful to him throughout their entire marriage, yet her previous behavior has no effect on his expectations. A headstrong father thus hurts two generations of women by requiring their silent compliance. For a married woman, her husband--rather than her parents--becomes the arbiter who expects her to repress her feelings and opinions. Marriage is not a relaxation of standards; it is only a change of leadership.
Emilia and Charlotte recognize and accept this reality when they discuss the prospect of marriage. Both recognize the obvious truth that a woman enjoys individuality only during the brief time that a man is courting her. Marriage brings diminution of that individuality, Emilia explains: "[The] character of goddess cannot be kept up for life, you must descend, for sooner or later your parents will expect you to dwindle into a wife" (6: 21). This process of "dwindling" will mean, as Charlotte describes, a return to the tight emotional control dictated by duty, now directed by a woman's husband rather than her parents: "[No] longer will innocence be a sufficient regulator of my conduct; I must watch his eyes ... for the rule of my actions; and yet, if they are not very intelligible, may ignorantly commit a thousand offences, for which my peace may be the sacrifice. I must smile when he smiles; but alas! must not frown when he frowns ..." (6: 20). Charlotte qualifies that such treatment would come from a husband chosen by her parents, presumably not from a husband freely chosen, but her worries are for her subjective emotional freedom, not for the quality of the marital relationship (6: 20). Emilia's and Charlotte's observations, as well as Mrs. Leonard's encounter with her husband, demonstrate that like parents, husbands become part of the public before which women must sacrifice their own reactions and behave with cheerful compliance.
After her parents' argument over Lord Wilton, Emilia once again removes herself from the view of others, filled with guilt and confusion at having been the cause of her mother and father's disagreement: "Shocked at having been the cause of my excellent mother's incurring [my father's] anger, and deprived of every hope of moving his compassion, I withdrew to my chamber, to lament, to reproach myself for an attachment which renders me so averse to my father's will" (6: 75). She is upset at her father's decision, but especially at the effect of her feelings on others: expressing only the feelings that her parents approve is part of her filial duty, in which she has now failed. She berates herself not only for acting on her "attachment" but also for feeling an attachment in the first place. In addition, she faces a moral conflict: marrying Lord Wilton would be dutiful, but dishonest. Emilia explains that "by uniting myself in such sacred bands with Lord Wilton, when my heart is so averse, I should repay his generosity and love by an irreparable injury" (6: 75). This conflict leaves a daughter with no morally correct actions available to her. (5) Were a woman to marry a man she did not care for, she would wound her own conscience, shortchange her duty to her husband, and repay her parents' generosity by allowing them to see that she is miserable. Once again, the tenets of filial duty fall short; they do not suffice to dictate correct actions in such cases.
Emilia's only remaining recourse, as in any crisis, is to disappear, having received permission from her parents to refuse Lord Wilton and install herself in a remote location where Mr. Leonard cannot locate her. With assistance from an uncle, she flees into Wales, armed with books, sketch pad, and harpsichord. Only by absenting herself entirely from the public--including her friends and family--can Emilia succeed in her duty of showing only the emotions of which her family and friends approve. To do otherwise would be "ingratitude to [her] father's indulgence" (6: 82). If a young woman cannot control her feelings, she must banish them by banishing herself until she gains control and can acquiesce in the wishes of her parents.
But Charlotte, the advocate for emotional freedom, questions the wisdom of this plan: "To whom can your oppressed heart unburthen itself? or to whom can your intelligent mind apply for rational converse? Can your spirits be in a proper state for such a solitude? To how dreadful a degree may not melancholy steal upon you! I tremble for the consequence. In a secluded state every care, every grief, becomes ten times doubled" (6: 83). While in general the control of young women's emotions is a means of controlling their actions, Charlotte's concerns focus on the emotions themselves. Strong emotions experienced in solitude cannot hurt others, but they can hurt one's self. Emilia accepts the traditional value of filial duty as a means to perfect tranquility despite her own experiences to the contrary. She interprets Charlotte's worries as reasons for the strict emotional self-control imposed on young women, and she begins to look for people and activities to help her keep her feelings in check.
Emilia finds evidence for her view when, on arrival in Wales, she hears through her uncle about the ap Griffiths, a family that is virtuously occupied at all times. Sir Owen ap Griffith, the patriarch of the family, regularly welcomes visitors and keeps everyone engaged in self-improving activities. Emilia explains that "it is usual with them to have about a dozen at a time of different sexes and ages [in their home]," where they and their visitors spend time reading, studying, exercising, talking together, and engaging in charitable work in their neighborhood. Emilia admires this way of life:
Their pleasures are justified by reason, and sanctified by religion; they enjoy amusements without coquetry or scandal; exercise without fatigue; repose without stupidity; and with them improvements may be gained without being exposed to the seductions of vice. Can there be an happier lot? I confess my imagination can represent none to me so eligible. (6: 91)
The novel as a whole endorses subjectivity and individuality, but in this case Emilia admires an older ideal of happiness as moderation, guided by a parent devoted to that ideal rather than to the single-minded and strict enforcement of duty. Whereas Emilia has been sheltered at home, the ap Griffiths have plenty of company around to ensure that one stays on the middle path of virtue. (6) She realizes that she must emulate their example by keeping herself occupied while she is in Wales. The solitude of Emilia's room at home is mediated--her parents are always at hand--and thus Emilia can give vent to her feelings knowing she must soon regain control. In Wales, her unmediated solitude requires that she regulate her own emotions and conduct.
To ward off the dangers of strong emotions while she is alone, she plans her days carefully and allows herself no leisure for contemplation. She acknowledges that "Were I disposed to act the part of a despairing love-sick girl, I am placed in the most favorable spot imaginable," but she fights that tendency by climbing a mountain or walking to a waterfall "whose roaring confounds all one's senses" (6: 102). She explains to Charlotte that she spends her days reading--taking notes while she reads as "the best method of fixing [her] attention and preventing [her] thoughts from straying to a less proper subject"--sketching, playing the Welsh harp, and learning the Welsh language. "My chief view in [learning Welsh]," she tells her friend, "was to keep my mind busy. No fine gentleman or lady ever took more pains to exclude thought" (6: 103). Emilia's example confirms that adherence to duty goes beyond appearances and behavior to self-policing. A young woman should avoid examining and understanding her feelings; instead, she should force them into the "safe" channels provided by "rational entertainments" such as those that Emilia has brought with her to Wales. "The powers of the mind are great," she tells Charlotte. "[The] weakness we often charge on them is in the will; they appear weak because we do not force them to exert their strength, but deem unconquerable what we have never tried to conquer" (6: 100). As a truly dutiful young woman, Emilia feels compelled to do more than perform dutiful actions; she must alter her own thoughts to make them conform to duty's standards.
This self-policing includes conditioning herself inwardly to accept the disappointments of her life with the same cheerful equilibrium she is trained to show to the world at all times--to accept the reward, earlier offered by her mother, of satisfaction at having been dutiful. She writes to Charlotte that although she cannot forget Mr. Leonard, his memory will not make her unhappy, because simply experiencing that sense of unhappiness would violate her duty. She compares her parents to Providence and the loss of Mr. Leonard to the loss of one of her senses:
had it pleased Providence to deprive me of sight or hearing, would it have been wise, or even justifiable, to spend my days in lamenting the misfortune, instead of endeavouring to alleviate it? My parents are a kind of subordinate Providence to me;--it is my duty to submit to their will; and it shall be my endeavour to perform my part the most to their satisfaction, and my own ease. (6: 101)
She notes that "every other means of rational happiness is within [her] power" (6: 101), and in a later letter she locates her sense of contentment in "a perfect submission to [her] fate" (6: 111). Emilia elevates filial duty almost to the status of a deity, echoing the language in which a devout worshipper would describe her commitment to God's will, where unquestioning submission, rather than understanding or agreement, is the key.
In both cases a sense of constant supervision reinforces the subject's commitment: God watches the devotee; Emilia's friends and family watch her--or, when alone, she watches herself, regulating her actions but also consciously suppressing her emotions so that "rational enjoyment" replaces lovesick pining. Emilia can take herself out of the public sphere, but she can't take the public sphere out of herself: she is so accustomed to surveillance that when alone she reflexively monitors and disciplines herself.
Emilia's self-imposed panopticon is the key to the novel's broad critique of filial duty as emotionally stifling and unjust to the women asked to practice it. While Charlotte's criticisms are openly stated in her arguments for freedom of expression, Emilia's reported experiences serve as another form of criticism. Charlotte describes that seeing Emilia "gay without levity, beautiful without the impertinences of vanity, ... accomplished without affectation, mild, modest, and gentle, appeared to me something supernatural" (6: 11). Emilia clearly is too good to be true, yet her sense of duty drives her to persist in trying to be better. Those attempts succeed only in making her unhappy and forcing her separation from her family. No heroine can be as good as Emilia must be to accept her situation with the cheerful good grace duty requires--ultimately, not even Emilia herself. When Mr. Leonard appears unexpectedly at her lodging in Wales, her equanimity is so disturbed that she faints: "Surprised out of all command over myself, I started up, overset the table, threw down my harp, and immediately the sudden agitation of my spirits overcoming my senses, fell upon this heap of ruins" (6: 125). An evening spent in conversation with Mr. Leonard (chaperoned, of course) produces similar results; Emilia cannot sleep. Her reflections lead her from "delightful recollection of every word Mr. Leonard had uttered, and the still more enchanting things his eyes had spoken" to "reflexion on the sacrifice I must the next day make to duty. ... This cruel transition cost me floods of tears," she writes to Charlotte, describing her feelings as "violent and various agitations" (6: 127). A few hours' sleep restores her usual self-discipline and the next day, she arises feeling "tolerably prepared" to "prefer duty to inclination" (6: 127). But she is noticeably pale and, "the cause being too evident, I was extremely disconcerted at giving such a proof of my weakness" (6: 129). Though trained from birth to sublimate her feelings, and recognized by her friends and family as a paragon of feminine virtue, ultimately her extreme self-discipline fails. When it does, her friends' reactions direct the novel's audience to sympathize with her rather than condemn her. Scott's handling of the story, embedding social critique in fairy-tale romantic sweetness, moves the audience to turn its critical eye on Emilia's circumstances, not on the heroine herself.
Emilia and Charlotte's correspondence both provides an outlet for and validates the dissatisfaction, sadness, and disappointment that they cannot express elsewhere. Emilia attests to her letters' function when she confirms to Charlotte that "my griefs seem lightened by pouring them forth to you; sensible that you will share the burden, the load that oppresses me grows less heavy by communication" (6: 70). Charlotte, likewise, tells Emilia, "You cannot prevent my heart from sharing every thing that befalls you" (6: 83). That friendship multiplies joys and divides sorrows is proverbial; nonetheless, the epistolary nature of this friendship is as important to the novel as the friendship itself. After Emilia's departure for Wales, she writes to Charlotte, "To the invention of posts alone it will be owing that I shall still feel myself an inhabitant of this world; without it I should not be a more forlorn stranger were I transported to the moon" (6: 88). The performance of duty is necessarily isolating; by writing to each other, the two young women can commiserate, compare notes, and examine emotions they must otherwise repress.
Shari Benstock identifies the importance of letters in women's lives; although her analysis focuses on love letters from women to men, it applies equally well to the "intensely gynocentric" (7) fictional correspondence between Emilia and Charlotte:
Separated from male enterprise and worldly activity, women established links with others through correspondence; they represented themselves through the written word and substituted the act of writing for the action of living, finding in the blank page the occasion to create an ideal version of themselves. ... Letters constituted an attempt to create an image of self--they were the effect of such an effort. (260)
By channeling her heroines' strongest feelings into their letters, Scott gives them, in Benstock's words, "freedom from the claims of reality" (260). Emilia's and Charlotte's descriptions of their lives remind the reader why such freedom is necessary by describing the repression under which these women live in the name of filial duty. The ideal selves that they create in their letters are selves allowed to express their emotions and examine otherwise taboo ideas.
While Benstock suggests that "[in] the act of reading the reader invades a private world, violates a sacred trust" (266), The Test of Filial Duty implies a different relationship. Rather than an invader, the reader becomes a collaborator. Charlotte's pithy comments and Emilia's pathetic descriptions invite the reader to become emotionally invested in their plights. James How suggests that personal letters inhabit an "epistolary space": "'public' spaces within which supposedly 'private' writings travel--at once imaginary and real: imaginary, because you can't really inhabit them ... real, because they were policed by a government ever more keen to monitor the letters that passed along the national postal routes" (5). How suggests that after the creation of the Post Office, letter writers were acutely aware of the possibility that officials might open and read their letters. That possibility would extend society's panoptical scrutiny of conduct into the written realm. In an epistolary novel, however, a sympathetic audience takes the place of a censorious government. Thus the two heroines expose their most private feelings in a most public medium. (8)
But only when writing to Charlotte--and, by extension, to the novel's audience--does Emilia find relief from the relentless scrutiny to which she is otherwise subjected. Ironically, she escapes the panopticon of duty precisely when she is most scrutinized--that is, when the novel's audience is reading. Foucault explains that in Bentham's panopticon, the subject is observed by the authorities but invisible to his fellow subjects (200). Emilia's daily life finds her isolated under this constant, centralized observation either by her parents or by her own conscience. But the epistolary structure of the novel places its audience in the position of fellow subjects who can "see" Emilia and Charlotte and the authorities who observe them, thereby placing that audience in a position of empathy. How identifies a similar phenomenon at the end of Clarissa, when "Clarissa has reached a position from which she has a certain control over her readership--enough sympathetic readers to be able almost to ignore those readers who are not sympathetic" (178). Thus the letters become an alternate, more permissive medium in which young women can express themselves freely, as they can do nowhere else--despite the presence of a much larger "public."
As Kelly notes in his introduction to The Test of Filial Duty, "much of Scott's fiction had been concerned with the perils of and obstacles to female desire, for women themselves" (6: xx). In The Test of Filial Duty, women desire marital choice, but more importantly, they desire the freedom to express their emotions without violating social norms. At a time when questions about marital roles and individual subjectivity had reached into the law and religion as well as literature, Scott accepts marriage as a necessity--as it was for her and her sister--but condemns the overly strict practice of filial duty that accompanies the traditional marital relationship and the parents who demand such a high standard. The dutiful characters in the novel ultimately receive ample rewards; nevertheless, even the nearly perfect Emilia admits that self-sacrifices "are apt to be painful, and we seldom voluntarily seek to acquire them" (6: 13). Scott shows, through her heroines' letters to each other, that filial duty means sacrificing not only marital choice but also freedom of expression. Thus the novel criticizes the strictures of filial duty and argues for women's participation in the cultural movement toward individuality and subjectivity.
(1) Many critics have applied Foucault's theory of the panopticon to literature; John Bender develops that application in Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987). Bender argues that the realist novel and the penitentiary developed in parallel, motivated by a common philosophical understanding of the self and of narrative.
(2) Although critics have shown that Pamela and Clarissa present highly ambiguous pictures of filial duty, Richardson himself insisted on more conservative readings, as his published commentaries on his novels demonstrate.
(3) Leah Leneman reviews the state of marriage law in England and Scotland before 1753 and describes the specific case that gave rise to the Hardwicke Act in "The Scottish Case that Led to Hardwicke's Marriage Act" (Law and History Review 17.1 [Spring 1999]. 20 May 2009
(4) See Letter VIII, in which Charlotte asks, "What will you say if I tell you, that I should make a bad return to the tenderness my parents have always shewn me, should I marry a man that would not make me happy? Their sole view is my happiness; and were that not to be the consequence, they would be cruelly disappointed" (Scott, The Test 6: 34).
(5) See Letter XX, in which Emilia explains, "It is very true that I do suffer extremely, when I give pain to those who are rendered sensible of it only by their partiality to me; to grieve those who wish to please me, seems an ungrateful and unnatural return; but to sacrifice my happiness would not be the means of confirming theirs" (Scott, The Test 6: 81).
(6) Charlotte criticizes Emilia's sheltered upbringing in Letter XI: "I have often thought (being like most rash people, apt to judge of an action by it's success) that Mrs. Leonard was judicious in not suffering you to keep company with any girls near your own age (except where relationship, as in my case, rendered it unavoidable, for I am prudence itself, you know) nor to read, that now universal study, novels; but I find the consequence of this caution is, keeping a girl mightily in the dark" (Scott, The Test 6: 52).
(7) Kelly, introduction to The Test of Filial Duty xii.
(8) Habermas describes this paradoxical relation between a private writer and a public reader: "Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience. The opposite of the intimateness whose vehicle was the written word was indiscretion and not publicity as such" (49). Emilia and Charlotte need not fear the indiscretion of their readers; thus, The Test of Filial Duty can promote female subjectivity to a sympathetic audience.
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LAURA E. THOMASON is an assistant professor of English at Macon State College in Macon, Georgia. Her research focuses on issues of gender and sexuality in eighteenth-century British literature. Her current project examines women's rhetorical self-fashioning in the process of courtship and marriage, as seen through personal letters and fiction from the Interregnum through the mid-1700s.…