"A Consolation under Every Affliction": Marriage, Duty, and Sentiment in Sarah Scott's the Test of Filial Duty

By Thomason, Laura E. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

"A Consolation under Every Affliction": Marriage, Duty, and Sentiment in Sarah Scott's the Test of Filial Duty


Thomason, Laura E., Papers on Language & Literature


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. …

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