ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                   Spring 2009



April 13   Charlotte Smith, Desmond, Introduction and Vols. I-II


Recommended:  Diana Bowstead, “Charlotte Smith’s Desmond:  The Epistolary Novel as Ideological Argument” in Fetter’d or Free: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, eds. Mary Anne Schoffield and Cecilia Macheski (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986) in Blackboard course docs





This week we continue our discussion of Charlotte Smith and the French Revolution in her most radical political novel, Desmond.  We have two classes on this novel, and so we will restrict our discussion this week to volumes I and II, but I ask you to review the introduction and, if possible, the article listed above, because I will be drawing on these for my notes and discussion questions.  If you feel as though these would prove too much of a plot-spoiler, then you will have to make due with my notes below and have the essays read for next class.




Todd and Blank’s informative introduction to Desmond provides interesting background on Smith’s life as well as essential contextual information on the French Revolution and the controversy it inspired in England.  Her section on Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France, pages 19-27, (also excerpted in the back of the book) is particularly good.


Diana Bowstead’s article in Fetter’d or Free (1986) is an early treatment of Smith’s novel that raises many important thematic and formal questions that I would like to pursue in discussion.


On Smith’s adaptation of the sentimental formula:  Todd and Blank:

“Her formal discontent regularly surfaces in her writings.  At times she heightens the sentimental ingredients to parodic extremes.  At other times her objectionable radical politics are voiced through her male characters.  Occasionally she inserts narratives of female desire, where ‘fallen’ women somehow avoid their conventional punishment; and frequently she includes tales of female discontent and male despotism which deconstruct the redemptive values of the foregrounded romance and question the legitimacy of male authority in public and domestic life” (13).

What is “sentimental fiction” and to what extent does Smith adopt its conventions in this novel?


On Smith’s reputation and work as a poet:


Bowstead: “Smith’s reputation in her own time rested to a considerable degree on her original and unique capacity to draw on a poetically realized landscape for the mood of an emotionally charged scene” (251)  To what extent does this capacity evince itself in the novel?  To what effect?


Todd and Blank see Smith’s long poem The Emigrants as one of the literary works that related a theme of reactionary propaganda – “the Jacobin government’s savage persecution of its own citizens” – “to those whom legal oppression and corruption in England had reduced to a similar existence, that of exiles in their native country” (18). What is the relationship between Desmond and The Emigrants? 


See also Paula Backscheider’s comment:  “Reading Desmond and The Emigrants together suggests Smith’s sophisticated understanding and use of genre differences as she develops her own political and social critiques and agendas.  While the poem strives for detachment and even transcendence, the novels portray immersion in immediate reality, as the depiction of the roots and personal consequences of events in France do in Desmond” (362).


On the revolution and political readings of the novel:

Todd and Blank make an excellent case for the intertextual relationship between Desmond and Burke’s Reflections.  To what extent is Smith’s novel a contribution to the Revolution Controversy?  In what ways does it answer Burke?  To what extent is Smith successful?


In various ways, critics have commented on the juxtaposition of political and domestic themes in this novel that lead directly to a political analysis of the British institution of marriage.  Bowstead writes, for example, “Throughout the novel, the political debates and observations that fill many letters tie injustice in the government of nations to injustice in the government of families.  Quite overtly, by way of the ‘sentiments’ – that is, the ideas and opinions – expressed by each of the correspondents, the domestic tyranny of which Geraldine Verney, the putative heroine, is an acquiescent victim is treated as analogous to political tyranny in France prior to the Revolution.  More insidiously, the striking juxtaposition of a sentimental narrative and lengthy discussions among the correspondents of evils implicit in autocracy induces a reflective reader to notice that the conventions of popular romantic fiction are themselves informed by questionable tenets about the exercise of power:  that is, a notion of the eroticism characterized by contemptuous dominion, on the one hand, and obeisant delicacy, on the other” (237).

In what ways are the political and the domestic situations analogous?  How does the formal representation of these issues reflect on the enormously popular sentimental novel and, perhaps, the culture that produced/consumed it?


On epistolary fiction:

James Raven writes: “The epistolary novel in English enjoyed a distinguished history from the early models of Richardson to the translation of Grafigny, Le Prince de Beaumont, and Riccobini.  Its renown was in part a consequence of these eminent archetypes, although it has also been suggested that first-person prose writing within the apparently verifiable document was the product of moral doubt.  More certainly, the novel-in-letters was an easy form to adopt for the inexperienced or unimaginative writer.  Potentially, it was the most serviceable for domestic and credible settings.  As a result, its popularity was assured….  As shown by Table 2, at least 30 per cent of all novels published between 1770 and 1790 were in letters….  The average for both the 1770s and 1780s was remarkably consistent.  Just over 40 per cent of all novels from those decades were published in letter form.  The turning point seems to have been in 1791 when only 15 (or about a fifth) of the 74 novels published that year were in letters, and this proportion remained about the same until a further decline to some 10 per cent of the total for each of the three years 1797-1799.  By the final years of the century, the epistolary form had lost its popularity, swamped, it seems by the diversity and directness of new historical and Gothic narratives that were not well-suited to relation by imaginary letters” (30-31).  James Raven, “Historical Introduction: The Novel Comes of Age,” The English Novel 1770-1829:  A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, Volume 1: 1770-1799, James Raven, Antonia Forster (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000).


Given that Desmond is published in 1792, what does Smith’s choice of letter-form for this novel mean?  Recall that this is the singular instance of epistolary narrative among Smith’s 10 (or more) novels.  Also, as Allene Gregory (quoted in Bowstead) observed: “letters devoted to the actual narrative would scarcely fill more than one of the three volumes.  The rest is devoted to conversation and arguments about the [French] Revolution” (238). Why use the form at this point in history?  What purpose does it serve?


Bowstead offers two ideas:


“First, because so much of the substance of this novel is, of necessity, delivered as monologue or quoted dialogue rather than as narrative, the choice of a form in which every element is implicitly or explicitly a rehearsal or exchange of ideas is singularly apt.  Second, in epistolary fiction particular opinions are never conveyed in the author’s voice, but are always a function of character.  Hence, Smith shrewdly offers what seems to be a compendium of distinctive views expressed by a variety of individuals so that the novel presents itself rather as disquisition than as tract” (238).


Discuss the timeline of the novel and distribution of matter into the three (or for this class two) volumes:

Letters date from June 9, 1790 to Feb. 6, 1792 (“roughly from the time when hereditary titles were abolished to the time when Louis XVI agreed to a constitutional monarchy”) (Bowstead 240).


Volume One – letters primarily between Lionel Desmond and Erasmus Bethel (Edmund Burke???) relating Desmond’s interactions and discussions with characters from various walks of life regarding the French Revolution and primarily the dissolution of the feudal titles in France.


Volume Two – letters between Geraldine Verney and her sister Fanny Waverly as well as continued correspondence between Desmond and Bethel, regarding the financial problems and domestic tyranny Geraldine faces at the hands of a dissolute and depraved husband.


Bowstead identifies “the disposition of property” as the central issue in the politics of the period and the central concern of the novel.  To what extent do you agree with her claim?


Note the representation of eating – of who should eat, what and how they should eat, how such fare is acquired, who is responsible for food and for whom?  Note, too, the connection between gourmandizing and lechery.  What does Smith suggest by this characteristic link?  Why is food important politically?  What does a person’s attitude toward food represent in moral and political terms?


Montfleuri – through Desmond – offers a mini-history of France leading to the revolution in Volume I, Letter IX, pp. 99-108.  What does this section teach the reader?  What function does it serve in the novel?  How would you evaluate it as history?


Comment on the structural form of the romantic triangle Smith offers in the novel.  How does the love among Geraldine –Desmond- Julie compare with other novels we have read this semester?  What is the relationship between the two female characters?  What does Smith achieve by the characterization?


New Man:  how does Desmond compare with the other male figures in novels by women?  In what ways is Smith’s representation different?  What role does sensibility play?  In what respect does she challenge traditional gender scripts in her depiction of Desmond?


The second volume is almost entirely devoted to Geraldine’s story: what kind of character is Geraldine?  In what ways is this like – or not like – a sentimental narrative?  How does the representation of Geraldine’s marriage challenge the conventional representation of marriage as a “happy ending”?  In what respects does Geraldine play the “Griselda” (or long suffering wife) role?  In what ways does this realistic depiction parallel that in the second half of Betsy Thoughtless?  Some of these questions will be better answered after we have finished the novel, but we can begin to analyze the issues.