The Obligations of Form: Social Practice in Charlotte Smith's Emmeline
Klekar, Cynthia, Philological Quarterly
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? Levine argues for a "strategic formalism" that attends to form's "shaping patterns, to identifiable interlacings of repetitions and differences, to dense networks of structuring principles and categories" while allowing for the ways that "historical texts, bodies, and institutions are organized." (4) Over the past decade, debates about formalism and cultural studies have either moved implicitly toward this understanding, or brought to our attention the stakes involved in not recognizing the ways in which "social forms and literary forms are always potentially embedded within one another." (5) Strategic formalism, while not rejecting completely totalities, potentially produces "an array of unexpected and unintended difference," specifically through the encounter of ostensibly competing methodologies. (6) In Smith's novel, the various narrative elements--sentimental fiction, the gothic, and social critique--do not resolve themselves into a coherent aesthetic whole, but instead call attention to the tensions between narrative form and novelistic content.
The conflict between Emmeline's anxiety-provoking obligations and promises to various men and to a larger patriarchal ideology and the gifts she receives is a product of what Pierre Bourdieu identifies as the "guaranteed misrecognition" of social practice. In his revisionist critique of structuralism, The Logic of Practice, Bourdieu identifies gift exchange as a social practice that mediates relations of domination through a collective process of "guaranteed misrecognition." Gifts are exchanged within an economy that requires a return gift, thus enacting an ongoing cycle of exchange, as each new gift demands a gesture of reciprocity. The potential burdens of this cycle of reciprocity on both the giver and the receiver require a denial during the very process of exchange. According to Bourdieu, in order for gift exchange to function as a disinterested gesture with the potential to mediate non-material values, such as love, sacrifice, and friendship, gifts must be exchanged under "a veil of enchanted relations"; the true nature of the obligation to reciprocate must go unrecognized to prevent the gifts from functioning as coercive and exploitative conduits of violence. Bourdieu views gift exchange as "one of the social games that cannot be played unless the players refuse to acknowledge the objective truth of the game." The "guaranteed misrecognition" of gift exchange as disinterested enforces a social practice of exchange that functions symbolically to negotiate issues of rank, honor, and prestige. This misrecognition is aimed at "transmuting the inevitable and inevitably interested relations imposed by kinship, neighbourhood or work, into elective relations of reciprocity, through the sincere fiction of a disinterested exchange, and more profoundly, at transforming arbitrary relations of exploitation (of woman by man, younger brother by elder brother, the young by the elders) into durable relations, grounded in nature." The fictions that Bourdieu describes allow the obligation inherent in gift exchange to be transmuted "by and into gratitude and reciprocal sincerity," and the natural laws of opposition and domination are ostensibly displaced by mutual affection and voluntary relations. (7)
Consequently, in Emmeline gifts are mistaken for filial benevolence and the heroine's promises for reciprocal feelings. Because the ongoing exchange of gifts and promises in the novel takes place against the backdrop of the heroine's presumed illegitimacy, Emmeline appears as if she can resist patriarchal control and gain an upper-class husband through her adherence to virtue. However, I want to claim that the ideology of obligation reveals both the fictions of reciprocal obligations between men and women and the ideological coerciveness of the novel's plot and narrative form: that the seemingly disinterested exchanges mask the impossibility that Emmeline can escape the asymmetrical cycle of exchange that subjects her to competing forms of male control.
The politics of obligation usher Emmeline into production, not only as a novel concerned with relations of obligation or as a commodity that will produce material rewards, but as a social object that promises to mediate familial and social relations by invoking a system of reciprocal exchange. Smith's dedication in the first edition of Emmeline--"To My Children"--is best understood as an affective, cultural, and formal site and articulation of obligation. (8) Although Smith's dedication revises the genre by emphasizing the lack of patronage rather than the hyperbole of financial and symbolic support typically acknowledged by authors in such prefatory material, her language appeals to concerns of debt, reciprocity, and obligation. Traditionally in the patronage system, the text is the return gift for the financial and symbolic support of the donor. (9) In her dedication of Camilla to Queen Charlotte, Frances Burney offers the novel as a "public manifestation of duty and regard" for her benevolence and patronage, both while the author served as second keeper of the robes and after she left the Queen's service. (10) Smith, however, has no donor to thank graciously. Instead, she fuses literary form and social practice to initiate the gift exchange that can command a return. The anticipation of material and symbolic returns drives the production of the novel, which is then cast as a gift to conceal the gap between the market value of her commodity and the rhetoric of obligation. Literary form, specifically the form of the sentimental novel, is both the precursor to and the product of a form of social practice that demands an ongoing and asymmetrical exchange.
While Smith's dedication is atypical for the period, the dynamic that she articulates is not. Writing in the midst of what would be a lifelong battle with lawyers and trustees for her children's inheritance, Smith envisions in the dedication a moment when her work will rescue her children from the station of near beggars. Exhausted from her consistent attention to financial details while simultaneously toiling at a sentimental narrative around the clock, Smith anticipates that the price she pays will benefit her children: "Maternal love, the fiend Despair withstand, / Still animate the heart and guide the hand. / May you, dear objects of my tender care! / Escape the evils, I was born to bear" (44). Although Smith views herself as destined to endure various and extreme hardships, her maternal compassion has the power to rescue her children from the same fate. Her unconditional love alone maintains her strength and thus her pen. Invoking an obligation to duty in the dedication, Smith demonstrates her awareness of the dynamics of symbolic exchange and of the right to expect return in the form of duty, honor, or prestige. In this respect, the dedication highlights obligation as a social practice already at work, embedded in the novel's production and in the material return that she expects from her writing: "By filial grief and fond remembrance prest, /You'll seek the spot where all my miseries rest / Recall my hapless days in sad review / The long calamities I bore for you" (44). Filial duty is the object of exchange, the equivalent return that she expects for her steadfast devotion to maintaining her children while on the verge of impoverishment. In exchange for her own sustained suffering and an "exhausted spirit," Smith hopes for, and indeed, comes close to demanding, virtuous and meritorious lives from them: "And, with an happier fate, resolve to prove / How well ye merited your mother's love!" (44). By inverting the pattern to position the novel not as a return to a generous donor but as a gift to her children, Smith demonstrates how an open-ended ideology of obligation underwrites the literary form of her dedicatory poem.
The dynamics of obligation implicit in the dedication are complex because they situate not just the children but also the reader as subject to an ethics that is both interpersonal and, in its own right, coercive. Engaging in an intimate conversation with her children about the suffering she has endured, Smith necessarily engages the reader in their misfortune and in the complexities of obligation. Because Smith's dedication functions as a cultural site of exchange when she invokes her poverty and struggle for the reader, she expands the field of obligation to include a cultural duty as well. Through her prefaces, she creates a space in which to highlight her suffering. Rather than adopting the elegiac practices that she foregrounds in her sonnets (first published in 1784), Smith draws on her readers' familiarity with her marital, financial, and legal battles to turn the dedicatory poem to the social problems of debt, obligation, and return that figure prominently in Emmeline itself. (11) She often relied on her status as an indigent mother to elicit the reader's sympathy. As Diane E. Boyd states, "her public relished her mother-writer author function to the point that rather than discuss her novels, they discussed her material circumstances." (12) Boyd notes that contemporary Elizabeth Carter hoped more for a significant profit for Smith from her first novel, Emmeline, than for the artistic or critical success of the work. Carter writes: "Smith had to purchase freedom from a vile husband, by giving tip part of her little fortune she had left; so that she was at present little more than a hundred a year to support herself and six or seven children." (13) Other contemporaries responded with ambivalence and discomfort to the apparent depictions of her personal struggle, specifically her explicit references to her husband's profligate spending and raiding of their children's inheritance. In an anonymous review in The Critical Review (1788), a writer follows a "cheerful tribute of praise" with concern: "We hope [Smith] has not looked at home, in the misfortunes of Mrs. Stafford. We have sometimes thought, that the work hung heavy on our hands." (14) Smith's allusions to her real-life desperate circumstances draw attention to the potential of sales to produce relief, a relief that implicitly depends partly on the reader's concern and generosity.
The dynamics of obligation complicate the form of the dedication. A short poem in couplets, the dedication offers two narratives, juxtaposing Smith's desires for her self and her children to the realities of life for eighteenth-century women not protected by financially secure male relatives. Almost every couplet reinforces what Smith is writing against, what the cycle of reciprocity should end and prevent: economic and legal inequities. As Paul Hunter states, couplets "employ things against each other--a word or term in the first half of the line against something different in the second half, or a second line to balance or contradict a first one, or a rhyme against another rhyme word, or a system of terms that oppose or contradict one another." (15) Rather than creating balance or opposition by playing each line of the couplet against the other, Smith's couplets create a contradiction between content and form. The rhyme compliments the crescendo in Smith's narrative to her children, from the despondent "O'er whelm'd with sorrow" in the first line of the first stanza to the optimistic "From evils past, not present sorrows, rise" in the last line of the stanza, building on a sense of the familiar and private through the similarity in sound. Drawing attention to sound, the rhyme simultaneously disrupts the poem's ostensible theme, emphasizing words that when paired by sound and placement reveal the more realistic impossibility of Smith's wishes.
Near the end of the first stanza, Smith concludes that despite her suffering she faithfully anticipates repose for herself and assuaged grief for her children:
May the soft rays of dawning hope impart Reviving patience to my tainting heart; And, when its sharp anxieties shall cease May I be conscious, in the realms of peace, That every tear which swells my children's eyes, From evil past, not present sorrows, rise.
Smith longs for an end to her financial and domestic worries, although she is aware that relief most likely will come only after she has died. Still, she entertains the hope of peace, an imagined afterlife in which she can look forward to her children no longer suffering from their current poverty but grieving for past memories. The couplets, however, offer an alternative narrative, one that most likely depicts more realistically the future for Smith's children and the conditions under which she writes.16 Her poverty and the extreme difficulties of obtaining legal recourse have forced her to "impart" her "heart," to sacrifice her own needs and desires to support her family. While Smith clearly enjoyed writing, she was compelled to adhere to the sentimental plots that masked the victimization of women in the period in order to ensure the commercial success of her novels. (17) Janet Todd writes that Smith "followed the pattern, but with little zeal, protesting against the insipidity of the contemporary heroine." (18) In the two lines above, Smith imagines an end to her suffering through death--not, significantly, through the legal channels she attempted to mobilize on her children's behalf.
The couplets continue to pose an opposing experience, implying that what has "ceased" is "peace," rather than the "sharp anxieties." Smith reminds readers that her expectation of transcending her circumstances always is haunted by her present reality. At the end of the stanza her children's eyes swell with tears in recollection of the anxieties that afflicted their mother's heart. Although their mother is gone, the children too will experience relief, crying in the present only for the loss of their mother rather than for the inequities that plagued their earlier lives. But these lines create simultaneously an image of the children as dependent and supplicant. The children's eyes "rise," looking up perhaps not to heaven but to charitable relief. At the time that Smith wrote the dedication, the situation confronting the children resembles that of the charity children popular in Christian manuals who call for assistance, looking upward to the state or private institutions for care and mercy. (19) The couplets remind readers that while there is a possibility that Smith's children may be free of affliction in the future, they suffer in the present.
Thus, the social practice of obligation that Bourdieu describes shapes Smith's concerns about production, reception, and domestic duty. The language and form of the dedication transmute and are transmuted by conceptions of gratitude, disguising the laws of domination that deny Smith the legal and financial justice that would alleviate her and her children's suffering. The couplet form, both congruent with and antagonistic to the content, draws attention to the moment of production, of Smith as debtor and recipient, and to the very social practices that she tries to negotiate in her novel.
Obligation in Emmeline emerges as an epistemological certainty, an innate social and interpersonal practice to which the heroine responds naturally. As with the dedication, the novel's introductory paragraphs formalize obligation, demonstrating how social practices legitimize and are legitimized by a narrative structure that defines the heroine's dilemma--and the reader's response to it--in terms of conflicting demands on her senses of duty and obligation. Throughout the narrative, the conventions of the sentimental novel enforce Emmeline's complicity in entering into the two contractual obligations that mark her status as a woman who becomes a function of a patriarchal ideology that demands an open-ended compliance. Yet, at the same time, the form of the novel allows for--even demands--the kinds of improbable twists and turns of the plot that free the heroine from these obligations: Delamere's death in a duel, her fortuitous meeting of Godolphin, who turns out to be a nobleman, and her encounter with a former servant of her father's in France who provides evidence of her legitimacy and allows her male protectors to sue Montreville to relinquish the money and property that is rightfully hers. In complex ways, the novel's form underscores Smith's recognition of how women can maneuver within but never escape from the sense of obligation to a patriarchal ideology that defines their social, and, to a great extent, their personal identities.
When the novel opens, Emmeline is a child, isolated, and almost completely forgotten by her guardian. The heroine first appears in the novel metaphorically, represented by her dilapidated residence, Mowbray Castle. "Remote" and "formerly of great strength," Mowbray Castle, like Emmeline, exists outside of the symbolic social order; it is cared for only grudgingly. Over the course of twelve years, the master "had only once visited the castle for a few days." The edifice of the castle remains intact, but the management of the estate is conducted by indifferent legal aides and servants: "the business that related to the property round it (which was very considerable) was conducted by a steward grown grey in the service of the family, and by an attorney from London, who came once a year to hold the courts" (45). The opening description emphasizes ruin, absence, and stagnation, establishing a landscape that reinforces, and is reinforced symbolically by, the condition of the castle's residents: an aged steward and a chronically ill housekeeper. More importantly, though, the castle's condition emphasizes the ways in which the obligations of upper class reciprocity fail Emmeline. Significantly, her narrative begins with concerns about the failure of the aristocracy to offer a return for the obligations entailed by those who work on the "very considerable" property around the castle. By the end of the novel, however, Emmeline effectively resurrects Mowbray Castle by embracing a benevolent moral economy congruent with her newly legitimized status, ensuring an ongoing cycle of reciprocal exchange between the heroine and the parish.
Only after the reader learns of the castle's state of disrepair is Emmeline herself introduced. The heroine appears as "a little girl," characterized solely in the context of her relation to others: "except for a little girl of whom the housekeeper had the care, and who was believed to be the natural daughter of that elder brother, by whose death Lord Montreville, the present possessor, became entitled to the estate." Emmeline's introduction privileges her relationship to Montreville over her individual identity. The narrative not only fails to name Emmeline in this first paragraph, but introduces her in the same sentence in which Montreville appears as the "present possessor" (45). Emmeline's identity takes the form first of ward and symbolic daughter, since she is presumed to be illegitimate, and object, a portion of the inherited estate. Montreville's care of Emmeline, therefore, initially is presented as a gift, a generous gesture in response to having "found" her in the castle he inherited, rather than as an appropriation of her fortune and a forced marginalization of her identify within a castle that, the reader learns several hundred pages into the novel, she legitimately owns as her father's heir.
Emmeline's history indicates the extent to which obligation shapes her identity. Following the death of her mother in childbirth, Emmeline is sent from France to England and put into the care of the housekeeper, Mrs. Carey, by Montreville: "Lord Montreville suffered her to remain in the situation in which he found her, and to go by the name of Mowbray: he allowed for the trifling charge of her board and necessary cloaths in the steward's account, the examination of which was for some years the only circumstance that reminded him of the existence of the unfortunate orphan" (46). Montreville's acceptance of Emmeline as his ward, the granting of his name, and the establishment of financial support leads, finally, to the naming of the heroine. This delay places narrative form and social practice at odds with Smith's aims to validate Emmeline's agency over her development and affairs. Naming Emmeline at this moment in the text invokes the concern with obligation that will complicate the narrative throughout. Already identified as a possession, Emmeline is named only after Montreville is described as allowing her to go by the name of Mowbray, thus connecting naming with the solidification of a guardian/ ward and therefore symbolic father/daughter relationship. While Smith may envision a narrative that ultimately rewards the heroine with legitimacy and financial security, the novel's form repeatedly privileges class and gender hierarchy because it is structured by and simultaneously endorses filial obligation and reciprocity. The fiction of disinterested and equally beneficial exchange disguises for both the reader and the author the unending cycle of gift and return that traps Emmeline.
When Mrs. Carey dies, leaving Emmeline alone to fend off the advances of the steward Maloney, the heroine immediately turns to Montreville. Her plea to her guardian extends partly from her orphaned status: she recognizes that she is a "being belonging to nobody" with "no right to claim" protection and "no power to procure" necessities. However, she simultaneously understands that in fleeing Mowbray Castle she may "forfeit all claims" to her guardian's protection. Knowing that she needs Montreville's financial support to survive and that her debt compels her to obey his commands, the dynamic of filial obligation and reciprocity becomes her only recourse. Although Emmeline always has been indebted to Montreville, Smith highlights the heroine's subordinate social position by having her react to the obligatory dynamic in her moment of need. The option available for the illegitimate and disinherited woman is participation in an ongoing cycle of exchange, in which she continually submits to her duty in exchange for protection. The narrative structure, too, identifies the significance of the relationship. The first chapter ends very much as it began: with Emmeline stripped of maternal care and dependent upon Montreville not only to recognize her but to respond to his obligation as guardian and symbolic father--an obligation that Emmeline knows will come only in response to her continued performance of duty. The chapter frames Emmeline's dependent position, demonstrating that her identity extends directly from her role as a woman indebted to patriarchal authority.
Emmeline's relationships with her suitors, no less than the indebtedness she feels she owes to her uncle, are structured by an ideology of feminine debt and obligation. Other characters, the narrator tells us, consider her refusal to marry Delamere as "the most heroic sacrifice of her love to her duty" (103). Delamere's sister, Augusta, responds to Emmeline's sacrifice with a heightened respect and esteem for the heroine. Shortly after their first meeting "a sisterly affection" develops between them, an affection driven by Augusta's "enthusiasm" for Emmeline's resignation of Delamere's affections. This "sisterly" relationship underscores Emmeline's innate worth, and identifies her recognition of her duty with her absorption into and complicity with an upper-class, familial ideology. By refusing Delamere, she sacrifices what seems to be a fairy-tale marriage into wealth, status, and social power. The narrative nevertheless underscores the belief that Emmeline should refuse a hero impetuous as Delamere is, although from a traditional point of view he seems an ideal match. Through her unwillingness, however, she complies with larger ideological imperatives that demand women's submission to the dictates of class strictures as well as gender. Significantly, her lack of consent is recast as a noble sacrifice to disguise the nature of her obligations.
While the language in the beginning of the novel describes Emmeline as obligated to and, in one respect, effectively owned by Montreville, she attempts to resist the limits imposed upon her by dependency. Throughout the novel, Emmeline offers various modes of opposition to Montreville and the duplicitous and cruel forms of masculinist privilege that he embodies. The dissonance between Smith's critique of the ideology of unending obligation and the plot devices of sentimental fiction define the novelist's (and her readers') always emerging understanding of women's need to resist social realities that repeatedly threaten their well-being--forced marriages at extremely young ages, abusive and profligate husbands, legal and economic inequities--while simultaneously obeying certain filial duties that offer security and protection. Whenever Emmeline resists the pressures to marry early or surrender her free will in coercive promises or contracts, she finds herself trapped by the fate that she must accept in return for not blindly obliging and obeying.
The repeated undermining of Emmeline's will by her awareness of her obligations structures much of the narrative. Even as Smith attempts to rewrite the conventions of the sentimental novel, she is faced with the dilemma of having to offer her readers a familiar heroine: Emmeline is suitably obedient, virtuous, generous, dutiful, and, to various degrees, passive. More specifically, as the ideological imperatives of Smith's prefatory poem suggest, Emmeline is in the position of all children who owe their parents unending submission. She clearly recognizes the implications of her obligation to Montreville as her surrogate father and benefactor, and to a patriarchal system that protects women who adhere to the rigid legal, economic, and social conventions of courtship and marriage. Despite her lack of affection for Delamere, Emmeline abides by her promise out of duty to Montreville; although she recognizes the impropriety of any woman breaking a promise to a man, she is acutely aware that breaking a promise to Montreville could lead to a withdrawal of his support and protection. Thus, Smith depicts Emmeline's understanding of the coerced acts that she must perform even as the heroine participates in the misrecognition of Montreville's gifts as paternal benevolence.
While Emmeline has no more than a sisterly love for Delamere, she contemplates acquiescing to marriage to make him happy. Only the risk of Delamere's losing his fortune for her sake and Montreville's adamant disapproval prevent her from giving in to a self-sacrificing impulse. However, she refuses two other potential husbands because of her adamant disapproval. The first of these refusals occurs early in the novel when she objects to the steward Maloney's proposal. Despite her situation--"Unhappy as I am; I can claim nothing, it is true" (66)--she rejects an arrangement that would sell an inconvenient orphan into marriage in exchange for the maintenance due to a wife. She responds to his proposal, made via Montreville, by positing a harsh alternative: she declares that she will "earn [her] bread by honest labour" rather than enter domestic servitude as a prostituted wife. The heroine's resistance challenges both social expectations and the conventions of sentimental form: rather than surrendering to a passive display of virtue, or falling into tears, she threatens to go to work. Montreville coerces Emmeline by reminding her of that which she owes to him: "You are (I am sorry to be obliged to repeat it) without any dependence, but on my favour. You will therefore do wisely to embrace a situation in which that favour may be most effectually exerted on your behalf' (66). Employing the language of generosity, Montreville masks his demands as kindness, while simultaneously implying that his kindness is contingent. His "favour" in fact is not given freely. Emmeline must comply with appropriate gender and class based expectations in order to deserve it. Furthermore, the extent of his generosity depends on the return Montreville anticipates--the removal of any possibility that Emmeline could become Delamere's wife. This scene appears to pit Emmeline's individualistic impulses against Montreville's paternal authority. However, literary form and the insistence that the types of rebellion displayed by Emmeline are subsumed by the narrative's concern with hierarchy, legitimate the social form of filial obligation. Montreville's coercion is cast as a "favour," allowing it to be misrecognized as a seemingly selfless gesture.
The formal structure of obligation, however, quickly contains Emmeline's attempts at self-assertion. Smith's adapting of the form of sentimental narrative means that while Emmeline may refuse Maloney, she does not refuse Montreville; in fact, the chapter ends by cinching the lines of dependence much tighter. Once she is released from the pressure to marry Maloney and realizes that she can no longer stay at Mowbray Castle while Delamere insists on pursuing her, she must turn to Montreville for advice and, more importantly, a new home. Taking her hand "with kindness," Montreville agrees to assist Emmeline, offering "an annual income equal to all her wants" in exchange for a promise to conceal the location of her new home from his son (67). The agreement thus works essentially to erase her refusal and her capacity for independent action. As the "mortifying scene" comes to a close, Emmeline also is contained within Mowbray Castle. Montreville secures Emmeline's seclusion from Delamere but also from the subsequent action. The innate structure of obligation and reciprocity at the beginning of the text comes into conflict with Smith's attempt to define her heroine within and against late eighteenth-century conceptions of female identity. What the text covers up and discloses, in its plot and in its formal narrative structure, is the fact that Emmeline has no good choice. She depends on Montreville for advice and protection because the very refusal of a suitor entails a reinscription of her dependence on a paternal figure, however uncongenial he may be.
The second attempt in the novel to marry the heroine to an unwanted suitor reenacts the cycle of dependence with which Emmeline is obligated to conform. Desperate to see Emmeline married to anyone but Delamere, Montreville insists that Emmeline marry Rochely, a wealthy but miserly banker who is "heavy and badly proportioned" and nearing fifty. Emmeline refuses: "I will not marry Rochely, tho' instead of the fortune you describe, he could offer me the world" (135). While she recognizes the debt she owes to Montreville for subsistence, Emmeline insists on her right to decide on the nature of her return. Knowing that Montreville may abandon her upon her refusal, she remains committed to retaining her honor--"he shall not make me wretched" (135). Emmeline's second refusal not only insists on her right to refuse, but critiques what men attempt to extort from women through familial and social obligations. As Emmeline predicts, Montreville threatens not only a loss of income, but withdrawal of the family name, the name to which she is entitled as her father's daughter:
If you absurdly refuse an offer so infinitely above your expectations, I shall consider myself as having more than done my duty in putting it in your way' and that your folly and imprudence dissolve all obligation on my part. Yon must no longer call yourself a Mowbray; and you must forget that you ever were allowed to be numbered among the relations of my family. Nor shall I think myself obliged in any manner to provide for a person, who in scorn of gratitude, prudence and reputation, throws from her the opportunity of providing for herself. (148)
Accusing Emmeline of ingratitude, Montreville articulates the very problematic inherent in seemingly benevolent gestures--they are "benevolent" only in their context of the cycle of gift and riposte. Refusing once again the "opportunity" given her, Emmeline has, in Montreville's mind at least, refused to enact a return for his generosity. This failure to return revises the language of Montreville and Emmeline's relationship. Montreville's "gifts" and paternal protection are now cast in the language of duty and obligation, not paternal benevolence. Having done his "duty" as male guardian to procure a marriage and settlement for his ward, he considers his obligations met and severs both monetary and familial ties. Significantly, this response does not disrupt the misrecognition of the gift, but invokes ingratitude. His response demonstrates the tenuous position of women in the eighteenth century. Dependent on patriarchal prerogative for legal and economic support, they must engage in reciprocal obligation, acknowledging their debt to masculine authority. Their duty, however, only transfers their dependence from one male to another, rather than establishing them as equals who can choose what they exchange.
Significantly, while Montreville can declare an end to his obligations to Emmeline, she finds herself quickly engaged in another similar exchange that reinscribes her position as indebted to patriarchal protection. In a moment of compassion for his niece, sparked by a glimpse of a drawing of his late brother, Montreville relinquishes his demands for her marriage as long as she assures him, once more, that she will not marry his son: "He told her that so long as she was single, and did nothing to disoblige him, he would pay her an hundred guineas a year in quarterly payments. He gave her a bank note of fifty pounds" (150). Although she is no longer threatened with either destitution or marriage to Rochely, the novel moves recursively to reassert the system of patriarchal control. This scene demonstrates Emmeline's seemingly innate understanding of social obligation and how, even in her refusal, her indebtedness shapes her choices. She can refuse to marry but she cannot refuse to participate in the larger dynamic of social reciprocity. Emmeline is aware that by denying Montreville's request that she marry Rochley she is withdrawing herself from the cycle of exchange, not only as a woman who must eventually be exchanged between men, but as a woman who owes a symbolic debt to the paternal order. Emmeline's rebellion is contained within Montreville's mercy and protection, a mercy and protection that strips her of the force of the agency she previously demonstrated.
Obligation in Emmeline not only traps the heroine in a cycle of exchange that repeatedly negates her individuality, it also begets further obligations. Perhaps the most important promise to which Emmeline commits is one that obligates her simultaneously to Montreville and Delamere and that demonstrates the limits of her agency in her affairs. Delamere pursues Emmeline for much of the novel, attempting to persuade her verbally, or to force her physically, into marriage. Like his father, Delamere believes that class and gender legitimize his "protection" of Emmeline. Ironically, however, Delamere's desire to protect Emmeline threatens her physical and emotional well-being, as he repeatedly begs her to break her promise to his father. Despite his hyperbolic professions of love and promises to free Emmeline from the restraints of class prejudice, Delamere must break down doors, threaten violence to his self and others, and even abduct Emmeline in attempts to gain her consent. Ultimately, however, Emmeline signs a contract promising to marry him in order to preserve her previous promise. She hopes not only to discourage Delamere's rash action, but to prevent him from forcing her to break the promise she made to his father. The contract indicates that Delamere has received his parent's reluctant and provisional approval of the marriage: "they allowed him to draw up a promise in these words--'At the end of the term prescribed by Lord Montreville, Emmeline Mowbray hereby promises to become the wife of Fredrick Delamere' ... Emmeline signed with a reluctant and trembling hand" (209). Emmeline signs, convinced that Montreville will withdraw his half-hearted consent before the contract expires and demand she adhere to her promise not to marry. Even so, she makes the second promise--one that could possibly force her to choose later between resolutions given--to placate a man who otherwise would insist on his right to manipulate continually her sense of female propriety, duty, and obligation.
Emmeline's commitment to a man she does not love and to an action she considers "not strictly right" derives from her sense of practical and symbolic obligation. Delamere's actions, specifically his inability to regulate his emotions ("He wept; he raved like a madman"), constantly undercut any sense that he is an ideal romantic hero; therefore, her contract to him is as equally self sacrificing. In response to her repeated objections, he accuses Emmeline of selfish, unfeeling, and deceptive motives, hoping to guilt her into an engagement: "It is absolutely impossible you could argue thus calmly, if you had any regard for me--Cold--cruel--insensible--unfeeling girl!" (187). While he does not threaten Emmeline with dispossession, his actions toward her are just as coercive as his father's. Delamere taps into Emmeline's ostensible obligation as a woman to feel, to display sensibility, and to react sympathetically to his distressed pleas. The compassion and pity Emmeline displays toward Delamere is constructed around an obligatory relationship to patriarchal authority. Women, as benefactors of male financial, legal, and social protection, are forced to adhere to behavior that both reifies their need for protection and authorizes masculine dominance. When Emmeline ultimately concedes to an agreement with Delamere, it is "grief and despair" that finally persuade her: "Emmeline made every objection she could to this request. But she only objected; for she saw him so hurt, that she had not the resolution to wound him anew by a positive refusal" (209).
Significantly, Emmeline does not break her promises. She is freed from her commitments to Montreville and his son through a fortuitous plot twist: Delamere dies in a duel. Smith, however, is unable to imagine a narrative conclusion in which self-assertion, a claim to individual rights, or reason can release the heroine from her obligations. More importantly, Emmeline is not released by fulfilling obligations. The coercion, threats, and violence that both father and son feel authorized to engage in expose the impossibility of female reciprocity ever to satisfy the demands of patriarchal authority. The promises Emmeline makes to Delamere and Montreville and their assurances of protection in return, however contingent they may be, should represent mutual agreement, a reciprocal pledge to honor the expectations of one another. In reality, Emmeline was always compelled to honor certain obligations by the very fact that she is a female living in the eighteenth century.
The formal resolution of Emmeline occurs when the heroine gains legitimacy and the orphan who always already belonged to the upper-classes assumes her rightful place at Mowbray Castle. As with other eighteenth-century sentimental novels, overt narrative tensions are assuaged by reestablishing an economic and social hierarchy. In this case, genre--the expectations of readers for ideological and socioeconomic closure--shapes as much as it is shaped by narrative form. But there are other formal qualities at work in the conclusion, ones that undermine the novel's "resolution," and that demonstrate how social forms always are embedded in narrative form. At the end of the novel, obligation remains firmly entrenched as a signifying social practice, both underwriting and complicating Emmeline's legitimacy. The final paragraphs demonstrate the ways in which the heroine remains dependent on and indebted to the imperatives of a patriarchal ideology.
The conclusion places the text squarely within the conventions of the sentimental novel: Emmeline is legitimized as the rightful heir to the Mowbray estate and reinstated into the paternal fold as a wife and the benefactress to the community. Upon her return, she is "surrounded by numberless tenants and dependants, who blessed the hour of its restoration to its benevolent and lovely mistress" (476). Greeted by the very parishioners who suffered from her earlier removal, Emmeline, it is implied, seamlessly restores a benevolent hierarchy. Emmeline is fit to serve as the mistress of Mowbray Castle because she recognizes intuitively the now different ways in which she must be both generous and willing to fulfill her obligations as the mistress of an upper-class family. Despite her role as benefactress, however, Emmeline continues to recognize her debt to the system of patriarchal authority that has allowed her, finally, to gain her deserved recognition and place in the socioeconomic order: "She saw an infinite deal for which to be grateful, and failed not to offer her humble acknowledgments to that Providence, which, from dependence and indigence, had raised her to the highest affluence" (476). Invoking providence as the force that rewards Emmeline, Smith participates in the very practice of which Bourdieu writes and which the novel's plot and structure strain against: the masking of interested and exploitative relations through "the sincere fiction" of disinterested exchange. Smith recognizes that Emmeline's legitimization must be cast in the language of virtue, reward, and gratitude in order to depict her exchange as a naturalized and symbolic bonding of relations rather than as a material exchange between men. While doing so undermines Smith's previous attempts to establish Emmeline's individuality, the dictates of narrative form demonstrate how the social practice of gift and obligation mnst always produce what Bourdieu calls a "guaranteed misrecognition."
Despite her affection for her new husband and her consent to the marriage, Emmeline repays a patriarchal society for male protection through the subsuming of her identity into that of her husband's. As Loraine Fletcher has noted, a reference to Frances Burney's Cecilia emerges at the novel's conclusion as Smith contrasts Cecilia's "cheerful resignation" as wife in a family who does not want her to Emmeline's marriage to someone other than the aristocratic hero who has pursued her throughout the novel. Fletcher claims that "Smith can more sharply distinguish between Burney's reluctant resignation to the hierarchies of class and gender and her own increasingly feminist and anti-aristocratic politics." (20) The conclusion to Emmeline, however, suggests something far different, at least on the level of form. The resolution of Emmeline's narrative reverts to her beginning, ironically by repositioning the heroine in, and in some way erasing her from, her own story and implicating her as an object or conduit for reciprocal exchange. After the heroine's marriage the narrator further subsumes Emmeline's identity into a system of symbolic exchange. It is "Providence" that has "given her to a man" (476) as a reward for "virtue and beneficence," the standards of irreproachable female propriety in a masculinist culture.
Smith's ending, while on the surface conforming to the genre of the eighteenth-century sentimental novel, is far from simplistic and reassuring. Disrupting the standard conclusion is the undeniable formal practice of obligation. The novel concludes with an affirmation of the cycles of obligation and reciprocity, of the ongoing debt that Emmeline must pay, and of the very structure that repeatedly impeded the heroine throughout the novel. In order for Smith to craft the formal ending of the sentimental novel, she must engage in the ideological practice of symbolic, affective exchange that disguises the inequities and violence that she wanted so much to expose and reconcile.
Western Michigan University
I would like to thank Robert Markley for reading drafts of this essay and providing invaluable comments and suggestions.
(1) Charlotte Smith, Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle, ed. Loraine Fletcher (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003), 135. Subsequent citations are to this edition and appear parenthetically.
(2) Cynthia Klekar, "'Her Gift was Compelled': Gender and the Failure of the 'Gift' in Cecilia," Eighteenth-Century Fiction 18 (2005): 107-26. For discussions of political, historical, erotic, and familial relations of obligation in the eighteenth century see The Culture of the Gift in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Linda Zionkowski and Cynthia Klekar (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
(3) Caroline Levine, "Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies," Victorian Studies 48 (2006): 625-57.
(4) Levine, "Strategic Formalism," 632.
(5) Levine, "Strategic Formalism," 651. For representative examples, see Marjorie Levinson, "What is New Formalism?" PMLA 122 (2007): 558-69; Mary Poovey, "The Model System of Contemporary Literary Criticism," Critical Inquiry 27 (2001): 408-38, Dorothy Hale, Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present (Stanford U. Press, 1998), Susan Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (Stanford U. Press, 1997), Jane Gallop, Anecdotal Theory (Duke U. Press, 2002), and Ellen Rooney, "Form and Contentment," MLQ 61 (2000): 17-40.
(6) Levine, "Strategic Formalism," 651.
(7) Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 112, 105, 112, 126.
(8) Diane Boyd, "'Professing Drudge': Charlotte Smith's Negotiation of a MotherWriter Author Function," South Atlantic Review 66 (2001): 146. Boyd states that the "prefaces to prose works are the sites where Smith most openly engages the cultural problems she faces as a woman writer"; however, she does not discuss Emmeline.
(9) For discussions of the significance of literary patronage and the dedication in Restoration and eighteenth-century England, see Dustin Griffin, Literary Patronage in England, 1650-1800 (Cambridge U. Press, 1996), Jody Greene, The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730 (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), Betty Rizzo, "The Patron as Poet Maker," Studies in Eighteenth-Century. Culture 20 (1990): 241-66, and Deborah C. Payne, "The Restoration Dramatic Dedication as Symbolic Capital," ,Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 20 (1990): 27-42.
(10) After leaving service, Burney received a life-long pension of 100 [pounds sterling] a year from the Queen and "brought away 'the skeleton' of Camilla." Camilla, ed. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (Oxford U. Press, 1999) ix-x.
(11) On Smith's Elegaic Sonnets, see Daniel Robinson, "Elegaic Sonnets: Charlotte Smith's Formal Paraoxy," Papers on Language and Literature 36 (2003): 185-220.
(12) Boyd, "'Professing Drudge,'" 150.
(13) Quoted in Boyd, "'Professing Drudge,'" 149-50.
(14) Quoted in Fletcher, Charlotte Smith, 478.
(15) J. Paul Hunter, "Sleeping Beauties: Are Historical Aesthetics Worth Recovering?" Eighteenth-Century Studies 34 (2000): 8.
(16) The lawsuit was settled in 1813, seven years after Smith died. By the time her children received their inheritance it had dwindled greatly, due both to their father's claims on the money and litigation fees. Smith's children never rose again to the gentile status into which they were born and which she worked so hard to recover. See Copeland, Women Writing About Money, 202-4.
(17) A more detailed discussion of the sentimental novel lies beyond the scope of this essay. For representative examples, see Patricia Meyers Spack, Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels (U. of Chicago Press, 1990), 114-46, Ann Jessie Van Sant, Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel (Cambridge U. Press, 1993), Barbara Benedict, Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in English Prose Fiction, 1745-1800 ( New York: AMS Press, 1994), Ellis Markman, The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (Cambridge U. Press, 1996), Lynn Festa, Sentimental Fictions of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2006), and Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London: Methuen, 1986).
(18) Janet Todd, Introduction, Charlotte Smith, Desmonde (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001), 13.
(19) For a discussion of Christian charity manuals and obligation, seeJad Smith, "Charity Education and the Spectacle of 'Christian Entertainment,'" Culture of the Gift, 37-54.
(20) Fletcher, Charlotte Smith, 16.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Obligations of Form: Social Practice in Charlotte Smith's Emmeline. Contributors: Klekar, Cynthia - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 86. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2007. Page number: 269+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.