Next to nothing survives in the searchable internet about Catherine Gore’s magnificent 1834(?) novel, only one of SEVENTY books this magnificent writer produced in the early 19th century. She is our forgotten Austen, a master at highlighting the peccadilloes of the upper crust vis-Ã -vis marriage entanglements and machinations. (Forgive my use of French – it’s habit after 400+ pages of sprinklings of French witticisms throughout this novel.) How can you resist a book whose opening salvo is:
Lady Maria Willingham was a person who, with indifferent features, had always managed to be called pretty; with very moderate abilities, had maintained the reputation of being extremely clever; and with a narrow selfish heart, was continually cited as the most excellent woman in the world.
However, Lady Maria makes a love match, ensnaring Charles Willingham (first son, heir to Sir Claude), but they get financially snubbed by the father for such a declasse move, at least until Maria pops out a male heir, who later drowns to her unending consternation. Charles, too, dies, and leaves Maria alone with 3 daughters and a decidedly middle-class inheritance. The estate is handed over to Charles’ younger brother & his wife, who then care for Maria’s youngest (Maria, known as Millie to reduce confusion), while Maria takes the 2 older daughters to Europe to try and marry them off to rich men and secure her own future. Millie is raised with her cousins Mary and Charles while sisters Claudia and Eleanor delight society in France and Italy (much cheaper to live there!).
We learn of cousin Mary’s secret attachment to her brother’s friend before the novel’s author butts in:
I trust I have contrived to insinuate into the mind of the experienced reader – and what modern novelist is curst with any other? – some suspicion of an existing attachment on the part of the gentle Mary Willingham toward Frederick Lorimer. The attachments of young ladies in general should never be more than hinted until sanctioned by banns or a special license; and Mary’s was at present peculiarly entitled to this degree of delicate consideration; being unsolicited – uncertain of return – bestowed on a younger brother, the son of an avaricious and pompous sire – and presenting a tremendous promise of disappointment to the secret projects of her own parents.
The sisters return from the Continent and Claudia is set upon the Duke of Calmersfield, who strings her along shamefully until he marries someone else. Eleanor discovers that Claudia actually loved the Duke (!!) and decides to put it upon herself to marry well and escape the clutches of their mother. She resigns herself to thinking she’ll accept Sir Wyndham when he proposes, and as he arrives and long-windedly talks about his prospects and weath, furiously embroiders, waiting for the detested proposal. He bows to signify an alliance he wishes with the Willingham family, and Eleanor grows impatient: “Plague take the man!” thought the fair sempstress; “this noodle-and-doodle scene of compliments will endure till midnight; and mamma’s patience will never last out his prosing.” Later she discovers that Wyndham only means to have Eleanor intervene with her cousin Mary on his behalf. Another betrothal foiled.
They whirl about to parties and balls and dinners and engagements, and on the eve of departing to the Continent again for Claudia’s health at the Spa, Minnie is semi-presented to society. She falls into the lake, is rescued by Stapylford, an heir to tremendous estate who’s beseiged by debts of his own. Five years pass, gracefully annotated by the author:
It has been shrewdly said, that were any human being enabled by some magic chance to contemplate its own person after an insensible interlapse of ten years, the change would appear incredibly awful; and that we should, on such a revelation of our decadence, inevitably feel tempted to disown ourselves. The daily reflections of the looking-glass, indeed, are only varied by the gentle and imperceptible gradation of from night till morning – from morning until another evening; and we grow old in happy unconsciousness of the swollen features, the deepening wrinkles, the deadening glances, and the wasting limbs…
My readers are at this moment perhaps accusing my very self of the increasing garrulity of age; and maliciously insinuating that I am growing suspiciously prosy in this laboured digression. The truth is, that like a charlatan in the preparation of his tricks, I am attempting to divert the attention for a moment from the personages and subject of my story;… I am attempting to distract their notice by a flourish of idle trumpets, during the period intervening between “Wallenstein’s camp” and “Wallenstein’s death.” (LLL note – Schiller) Although I am fully aware that the literary syncope is an unpopular mode of composition, I have two powerful instances wherewith to back my apology – the last volume of the Old Morality of Scott, and the exquisite Simple Story of Mrs. Inchbald.
During this time, Minnie becomes a rich heiress, the sole heir of General de Vesci, her mother’s uncle who completely ignores Lady Maria in favor of her daughter. Now supported by their young sister/daughter, Claudia, Eleanor and Lady Maria return to England, where Minnie prefers to keep secluded by the social animals in her family pursue endless entertainments:
Under the protection of their friend Lady Robert, they had been enjoying the polished but inane elegance of Lady Cosmo Somerset’s boudoir circle; nothing had been done for their amusement; – no dancing – no music – no cards – had broken in upon the delicious do-nothingness of the little coterie; yet they had felt themselves fully entertained, and not one moment of ennui had endangered their spell of pleasure.
Minnie is pursed by a penniless French nobleman who sheds frank commentary on the marriage market:
The English nation is disgraced, in its female branches, by the manner in which matrimonial speculations are pursued in London. You have alluded to the conventional marriages of my own country – you call them interested and indelicate; – but what will you say in defence of a system which induces you to educate your daughters solely with a view to their future advancement?
Naturally everything ends happily ever after, with Minnie marrying cousin Charles, Mary marrying Lorimer, and Claudia and Eleanor married off after a huge sum was settled on them by Minnie. The last line is a harangue against the “plots and manoeuvres of fashionable mothers and daughters.”