The more astute among my readers may have noticed something a bit funny going on in the past several posts—in writing about The History of Emily Montague, I have hardly mentioned Emily Montague. It’s not that I have anything against her; she’s a perfectly lovely heroine. Beautiful, intelligent, virtuous, sympathetic: everything Colonel Rivers could hope for in a wife. Yes, she’s a bit insipid and soppy, and hardly as much fun as her best friend Bell. But I don’t blame her for it. After all, it could be a lot worse.
You should know that my lack of posting about Emily does somewhat mirror her role in the novel though too. She’s the female half of the key romance, but she’s not the primary letter-writer (I even thought for a while that she might not write any of the letters, in some kind of funny twist), and she doesn’t drive much of the story, although by the end when she and Rivers are actually together she’s a bit more prominent. But this book is really more about him.
And Rivers is sort of an interesting guy. Last week I complained about his womanishness, but I really took a shine to him anyway. He’s not terribly original, but I enjoy my eighteenth-century Enlightened men, and this is definitely a Thing. And I also wanted to share a bit because a lot of the same ideas are going to come up in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.
First, we have Rivers’s funny modern ideas, about women voting and legislation without representation and suchlike. He also says, early in the novel, regarding the Native Americans:
If I thought it necessary to suppose they were not natives of the country, and that America was peopled later than the other quarters of the world, I should imagine them the descendants of Tartars; as nothing can be more easy than their passage from Asia, from which America is probably not divided; or, if it is, by a very narrow channel. But I leave this to those who are better informed, being a subject on which I honestly confess my ignorance.
When I read that, I was a bit shocked. And I had a hard time trying to get the internets to tell me when the idea of an Asian migration became current, because I sure hadn’t realized it was that old. Here I honestly confess my ignorance.
And then, we already know something of Rivers’s idea of the good life. He wants a nice wife he can talk to and relate to, and he’s fine with not having too much money because it’s much better to go be productive out in the country rather than flashy and superficial in town. He gets more and more into his politics toward the end, when he’s back in England and becoming a nice, upright citizen. He writes to Captain Fitzgerald, his fellow soldier and husband to Bell:
I, on my side, am selecting spots for plantations of trees; and mean, like a good citizen, to serve at once myself and the public, by raising oaks, which may hereafter bear the British thunder to distant lands.
I believe we country gentlemen, whilst we have spirit to keep ourselves independent, are the best citizens, as well as subjects, in the world.
Happy ourselves, we wish not to destroy the tranquillity of others; intent on cares equally useful and pleasing, with no views but to improve our fortunes by means equally profitable to ourselves and to our country, we form no schemes of dishonest ambition; and therefore disturb no government to serve our private designs.
The love of order, of moral harmony, so natural to virtuous minds, to minds at ease, is the strongest tie of rational obedience.
Convinced of the excellency of our constitution, in which liberty and prerogative are balanced with the steadiest hand, he will not endeavour to remove the boundaries which secure both: he will not endeavour to root it up, whilst he is pretending to give it nourishment: he will not strive to cut down the lovely and venerable tree under whose shade he enjoys security and peace.
In short, and I am sure you will here be of my opinion, the man who has competence, virtue, true liberty, and the woman he love, will chearfully obey the laws which secure him these blessings, and the prince under whose mild sway he enjoys them.
Yes, that’s the thing about Rivers, who I must conclude is the voice of Frances Brooke here. Very liberal when it comes to love and marriage, but it’s really all about ordered liberty. Any right-thinking man will plant oak trees to further the empire and obey his mild prince! It makes me sort of want to pat him on the head or something.
I make fun, but I really do like him. The conservatism is clearly there, but there is also good Enlightenment insight, mixed with an ultrapositive view of human nature. In another letter to Fitzgerald:
I agree with you, that mankind are born virtuous, and that it is education and example which make them otherwise.
The believing other men knaves is not only the way to make them so, but is also an infallible method of becoming such ourselves.
A false and ill-judged method of instruction, by which we imbibe prejudices instead of truths, makes us regard the human race as beasts of prey; not as brothers, united by one common bond, and promoting the general interest by pursuing our own particular one.
There is nothing of which I am more convinced than that, “True self-love and social are the same”:
That those passions which make the happiness of individuals, tend directly to the general good of the species.
The beneficent Author of nature has made public and private happiness the same; man has in vain endeavoured to divide them; but in the endeavour he has almost destroyed both.
‘Tis with pain I say, that the business of legislation in most countries seems to have been to counter-work this wise order of Providence, which has ordained, that we shall make others happy in being so ourselves.
Really a change after Pamela, eh? It’s funny, in one way the lessons are the same: virtue and happiness go together. But virtuous happiness looks awfully different to Frances Brooke, don’t you think?
The History of Emily Montague is set at a very particular time in Canadian history. Colonel Rivers’s opening letter is dated April 10, 1766, just three years after the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War and two years after the Quebec Act allowed Roman Catholics to again participate in the civil government of the province and restored the French civil law for private matters. Into this setting Rivers has come, along with his correspondents, to colonize the colony.
Rivers’s early letters especially provide much information on the two different colonized peoples: the Native Americans and the French Canadians. His understanding grows with the time he spends in the country, with him first telling his sister, Miss Rivers, back in England:
I have just had time to observe, that the Canadian ladies have the vivacity of the French, with a superior share of beauty: as to balls and assemblies, we have none at present, it being a kind of interregnum of government: if I chose to give you the political state of the country, I could fill volumes with the pours and the contres; but I am not one of those sagacious observers, who, by staying a week in a place, think themselves qualified to give, not only its natural, but its moral and political history, besides which, you and I are rather too young to be very profound politicians.
But soon he is able to express firm opinions on the problems of the colony. He disapproves of the seigneurs, the power and draw of the Catholic church, and the laziness of the farmers and soldiers.
He also spends quite a bit of time comparing Canadian women to French women; they have much in common, compared to English women at least. In this way the English prejudices against the French are brought relatively intact across the Atlantic: the French women are good-looking, flirtatious, capricious, unserious. They are good for, say, John Temple to fool around with on the continent, but not so much for marrying.
Rivers also gives excellent travel-narrative-type description of the scene, interspersed with his own liberal opinions, of course:
On approaching the coast of America, I felt a kind of religious veneration, on seeing rocks which almost touch’d the clouds, cover’d with tall groves of pines that seemed coeval with the world itself: to which veneration the solumn silence not a little contributed; from Cap Rosières, up the river St Lawrence, during a course of more than two hundred miles, there is not the least appearance of a human foot-step; no objects meet the eye but mountains, woods, and numerous rivers, which seem to roll their waters in vain.
It is impossible to behold a scene like this without lamenting the madness of mankind, who, more merciless than the fierce inhabitants of the howling wilderness, destroy millions of their own species in the wild contention for a little portion of that earth, the far greater part of which remains yet unpossest, and courts the hand of labour for cultivation.
The river itself is one of the noblest in the world; its breadth is ninety miles at its entrance, gradually, and almost imperceptibly, decreasing; interspers’d with islands which give it a variety infinitely pleasing, and navigable near five hundred miles from the sea.
Nothing can be more striking than the view of Quebec as you approach; it stands on the summit of a boldly-rising hill, at the confluence of two very beautiful rivers, the St Lawrence and St Charles….
Bell Fermor also gives lovely descriptions of the scenery, especially the waterfall at Montmorenci, a favorite beauty spot of the group. And they are all quick to write of the Quebec winter once it begins to set in. Just like today, the ladies wrap themselves in furs and hardly hesitate to go out even in the bitter cold—although in 1766–67 they had the amazing privilege of taking sledges out on the frozen St Lawrence, the fastest and safest way to travel during that season, even as far as between Quebec City and Montreal.
Unsurprisingly, another prejudice that’s crossed the Atlantic with the English colonists is an anti-Catholic one. At first, in fact, it seems like Frances Brooke is awfully hard on religion in general, speaking negatively through Rivers of “superstition” here and there. He has a real hatred of the convents so prevalent in Quebec, and “cannot help being fir’d with a degree of zeal against an institution equally incompatible with public good, and private happiness; an institution which cruelly devotes beauty and innocence to slavery, regret, and wretchedness; to a more irksome imprisonment than the severest laws inflict on the worst of criminals.” He asks his sister:
Could any thing but experience, my dear Lucy, make it be believ’d possible that there should be rational beings, who think they are serving the God of mercy by inflicting on themselves voluntary tortures, and cutting themselves off from that state of society in which he has plac’d them, and for which they were form’d?
Brooke is, however, a minister’s wife herself, so we shouldn’t expect too much of her. But she is a bit gratuitously self-serving in the voice of Bell Fermor, again writing to Miss Rivers:
I have been making the tour of the three religions this morning, and, as I am the most constant creature breathing; am come back only a thousand times more pleased with my own. I have been at mass, at church, and at the presbyterian meeting: an idea struck me at the last, in regard to the drapery of them all; that the Romish religion is like an over-dressed, tawdry, rich citizen’s wife; the presbyterian like a rude aukward country girl; the church of England like an elegant well-dressed woman of quality, “plain in her neatness” (to quote Horace, who is my favorite author). There is a noble, graceful simplicity both in the worship and the ceremonies of the church of England, which, even if I were a stranger to her doctrines, would prejudice me strongly in her favour.
Sure, Bell, I believe that.
What’s really new, though, about anti-Catholic bigotry in an English novel? In fact, I find it rather different here than usual, and couched largely in the medium of double-colonization. The French have been in Canada trying to make Catholics out of the natives (among other things), and the English, in a very Protestant work ethic sort of way, find Catholicism detrimental to the success of what is now their own colony.
The only letter-writer in The History of Emily Montague not of courting-and-marrying age is Bell Fermor’s father, William, who writes to an Earl back in England about the political and especially religious state of the colony with great interest. Fermor complains about the sloth and idleness of the Canadian peasantry, encouraged by the numerous religious festivals they celebrate, and also by the fact that monasteries and convents effectively steal people from the productive sector of the economy and, further, help prevent the productive sector’s multiplication through reproduction. He believes they will soon find enlightenment:
However religious prejudice may have been suffered to counter-work policy under a French government, it is scarce to be doubted that this cause of the poverty of Canada will by degrees be removed; that these people, slaves at present to ignorance and superstition, will in time be enlightened by a more liberal education, and gently led by reason to a religion which is not only preferable, as being that of the country to which they are now annexed, but which is so much more calculated to make them happy and prosperous as a people.
But in the meantime encourages tolerance as “equally just, humane, and wise.” However, Fermor vehemently believes that a single national religion will prove important to the cohesion of the colony, and that religions are in some way suited to particular types of civil government: “the Romish religion is best adapted to a despotic government, the presbyterian to a republican, and that of the church of England to a limited monarchy like ours.”
I don’t want to ascribe motives to Brooke that are purer than the certainly prejudiced ones she possessed, but when it comes to Rivers and Fermor and their thoughts about the Catholic peasantry kept down by the Church, I can’t help but think of the subsequent history of the province. The Church, which under the French had been subordinate to the state, actually gained power after that period so that by the nineteenth century the tithe was legally enforced and the Church completely controlled education in the province. The Church was important in the press, labor unions…virtually every aspect of social life in Quebec. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s would finally put an end to the general picture, and it would turn out that disunity of religion wasn’t the only thing threatening Canada. The rapid and profound secularization of the province might have assuaged some of William Fermor’s fears, but linguistic differences and nationalism hardly subsided.
Unsurprisingly for a novel concerned with courtship and marriage and structured as a series of notes among friends, the letters in The History of Emily Montague concern themselves largely with the nature of friendship and love and what makes an ideal matrimonial alliance. Both the men and women of the novel focus on these issues in their writing, and Frances Brooke has pretty successfully created a coterie of well-differentiated characters with their own personalities and priorities but who are, in the main, kindred spirits on these subjects.
One flaw in this, however, comes in the person of Colonel Edward Rivers, the love interest of Emily Montague and the focus of most of the action of the novel (Emily herself is comparably quiet). Where Samuel Richardson could be found guilty of creating, in Pamela, a female character ideally suited to the desires of a male author, Brooke has here outlined a rather womanish young man whose interest in romance is probably a little far-fetched. I don’t necessarily find his letters themselves overly feminine in their writing style, as he does take a pretty confident and direct approach and is usually the one writing the injunctive letters, but he’s extremely liberal (as are all the characters) and sentimental.
At the beginning of the novel, he exhorts his friend back in Europe, John Temple, to stop messing around with loose French women and think about settling down, because a good marriage is clearly the seat of ultimate bliss. Temple is more interested in having fun for a while longer, and thus begins one of the “back in England” storylines so hard to follow closely from Canada. Suffice it to say that Temple, who wants to get married least, ends up married first of all the group.
Much later in the novel, Rivers writes to his sister—now Mrs. Temple!—and gives her a very clear picture of his thoughts on marriage:
Equality is the soul of friendship: marriage, to give delight, must join two minds, not devote a slave to the will of an imperious lord; whatever conveys the idea of subjection necessarily destroys that of love, of which I am so convinced, that I have always wished the word OBEY expunged from the marriage ceremony.
Rivers gets regularly gushy about the importance of friendship, of equality, of women who are mature enough to actually talk to, and of how wrong it is for parents to choose matches for their children. He also speaks positively of the masculinity of the native women—and sometimes this gets astonishingly modern: on native women being able to “vote,” Rivers complains of how the English “so impolitely deprive you of the common rights of citizenship” and adds, “By the way, I don’t think you are obliged in conscience to obey laws you have had no share in making; your plea would certainly be at least as good as that of the Americans, about which we every day hear so much.” And immediately upon seeing Emily he falls utterly in love with her, fairly swooning over how wonderful she is in every imaginable way.
Bell Fermor fills an important role in the epistolary novel, that of confidante to Emily Montague. It is this role that gives her the most forceful personality in the book—she gets to be the sassy sidekick to the quiet and unassuming Emily. She’s smart and often smart-mouthed. Here she gives a disquisition on love and marriage in a letter to Mrs. Temple back in London:
Emily and I, however, differ in our ideas of love: it is the business of her life, the amusement of mine; ’tis the food of her hours, the seasoning of mine.
Or, in other words, she loves like a foolish woman, I like a sensible man: for men, you know, compared to women, love in about the proportion of one to twenty.
’Tis a mighty wrong thing, after all, Lucy, that parents will educate creatures so differently who are to live with and for each other.
Every possible means is used, even from infancy, to soften the minds of women, and to harden those of men; the contrary endeavour might be of use, for the men creatures are unfeeling enough by nature, and we are born too tremblingly alive to love, and indeed to every soft affection.
That last is reminiscent of Mr. B in Pamela, actually. She goes on to reveal that perhaps Brooke knew Rivers was a bit too feminine, in fact:
Your brother is almost the only one of his sex I know, who has the tenderness of woman with the spirit and firmness of man; a circumstance which strikes every woman who converses with him, and which contributes to make him the favourite he is amongst us.
A propos to women, the estimable part of us are divided into two classes only, the tender and the lively.
The former, at the head of which I place Emily, are infinitely more capable of happiness; but, to counterbalance this advantage, they are also capable of misery in the same degree. We of the other class, who feel less keenly, are perhaps upon the whole as happy, at least I would fain think so.
For example, if Emily and I marry our present lovers, she will certainly be more exquisitely happy than I shall; but if they should change their minds, or any accident prevent our coming together, I am inclined to fancy my situation would be much the most agreeable.
Bell, like Temple, affects not to care so much for the marriage business, and is a big flirt. But it turns out she can be just as much a “foolish woman” as Emily, and again, desiring marriage somewhat less, and with a courtship slower to start, she and her man tie the knot before Emily and Rivers. The several love stories in the novel open and close on a last-in, first-out basis, dragging the main romance on until the end.
Even Bell’s father is as liberal as the children in his ideas on marriage:
She is Bell Fermor still; but is addressed by a gentleman who is extremely agreeable to me, and I believe not less so to her; I however know too well the free spirit of woman, of which she has her full share, to let Bell know I approve her choice; I am even in doubt whether it would not be good policy to seem to dislike the match, in order to secure her consent: there is something very pleasing to a young girl, in opposing the will of her father.
Cute. The whole thing gives a bit of an impression of silly young people, running around making love to each other and writing excited and passionate letters, opining on the importance of independence and love matches. And of course, in the end things are very much happily ever after, in a largely gratuitous tying-up of plots. It’s sort of an overflowing of sensibility, and on the saccharine side. But while actually reading it I was swept up in the romance of these silly, charming people to a point that surprised me.
The History of Emily Montague is probably one of the less “serious” epistolary novels I’m reading, and I wasn’t expecting a lot from it. While those expectations were largely confirmed, the reading of it was extremely enjoyable and there were really an awful lot of things I liked.
Written in 1769, this is mostly a sentimental novel about several young people courting and getting married. The epistolary form is of the “many to many” variety—that is, each of several people writes to just about all the others at one time or another, with a couple less prominent characters shooting things off in a single direction as well. This is more complex than a one-to-one or one-to-many system of letters, and I found it especially well-suited for telling this type of story—young men and women gossiping to each other and trying to catch each other’s eye and get together one way or another.
Making things a bit more complex, or at least more interesting, Frances Brooke does not include every piece of relevant correspondence in the novel. We see replies without the originals, and counter-replies without the replies. In addition, since the main action of the novel takes place in Quebec, and some of the interlocutors remain in England, the chronology is complicated. Letters shoot back and forth between Quebec City and its environs in a matter of hours, between Quebec and Montreal in a few days, while between Quebec and England it takes months at the best of times, and even longer in the winter. This also means that while the romances of a few of the characters in Canada are foregrounded all winter, behind the scenes, as it were, in England, events equally worthy of gossip are happening without time for the sometimes frantic correspondence included in the novel itself.
I would say that in general the letters fall into three categories: narrative, descriptive, and injunctive. The narrative letters probably form the greatest part, relating the actual events concerning the romances and friendships of the characters. The descriptive ones are like travel writing, and in the case of The History of Emily Montague are especially interesting because of the unusual look they provide of Canada.* And the injunctive letters put me in mind of the seventeenth-century “letter writers” I’ve read about, which teach people how to chide wayward sons regarding proper morality and such.
With the relatively complex form out of the way, I’ll get on to discussing what these letters are actually about for the rest of the week and maybe part of next. As I go back through the passages I’ve marked, getting ready to write about them now several weeks after I first read the book, I feel more and more confirmed in my opinion that while this might not be a brilliant or terribly original work, it has things to recommend it and was a more absorbing illustration of the epistolary form than much else I’ve looked at so far.**
*I believe the history of Canada touched upon in this novel deserves a post of its own.
**Except, notably, Humphry Clinker.