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  • Secretaries of the Interior:Narratorial Collaboration in Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall
  • William H. Wandless (bio)

At the end of Sarah Scott's A Description of Millenium Hall (1762), the anonymous narrator offers an apology to his unnamed friend in the publishing business, a correspondent to whom he has directed "a very circumstantial account" of the illuminating experiences that attended the breakdown of his chaise in Cornwall.1 Moved to prolixity by the enlightened society he encountered during his excursion, he expresses half-hearted regret that he "could not restrain [his] pen within moderate bounds" (249); inspired by the myriad merits of his subject, the force of his impressions overwhelmed his sense of epistolary propriety. This willingness to take liberties with the patience of his friend, however, stands opposed to the nice circumspection that the narrator observes in his decorous dealings with the women of the Hall: only an awareness voiced in the penultimate paragraph, that he and his travelling companion Lamont could not "with decency" extend their stay, prompted them finally to depart (249). This juxtaposition of countervailing tendencies-a volubility licensed by intimacy and a reserve inspired by seemliness-crystallizes the essential narrative challenge posed by the premise of the text.

Millenium Hall comprises an illuminating array of progressive cultural ideas, yet the revelatory access called for by the narrative [End Page 259] obliges Scott to circumvent the protective policies and practices vital to her Utopian enclosure in order for the novel to achieve its expansive effects. Although the text offers lessons applicable to both sexes, Jane Spencer notes that Scott's staging seems more pointed, that "Millenium Hall really aims to educate men," that the content is "primarily concerned with disabusing men of their errors about women."2 To realize her pedagogical objectives, Scott coordinates an elaborate pageant of virtues centred on the exemplary conduct of five female principals. Those very virtues, however, stand in the way of unguarded, unmediated narration. The unexceptionable character of these five women disqualifies them from telling their own tale or publicizing the measures that make their earthly paradise possible. As paragons of modesty, propriety, and prudence, they cannot decently perform the pageant of virtues for the men who most need to see it. Liberation from the necessity of such performance is among the crucial enabling conditions of the society that has grown up around them. To reach her intended audience and communicate the needful message, then, Scott tasks herself with the reconciliation of conflicting representational imperatives, subjecting her gentlewomen to a form of scrutiny that neither calls for the sort of ostentation that would impeach their respectability nor reproduces the kind of involuntary exhibitionism that spurred them to retire to the country in the first place.

Characterized by isolation and autonomy, the communal disposition of Millenium Hall interferes with both the transmission and reception of the desired broadcast. As Ana Acosta notes, Scott predicates her Utopian scheme on an idealized vision of self-sufficiency and self-regulation, yet the rural seclusion of the Hall reduces the heuristic value of its advantageous arrangements.3 "Twice separated from the fashionable world of contemporary England,"4 surrounded by natural and artificial [End Page 260] barriers, and exempted from most local obligations and dependencies, the community literally minds its own business by choice and by design. As a result, the five principals-Miss Mancel, Mrs Morgan, Lady Mary Jones, Miss Selvyn, and Miss Trentham-may determine for themselves how they engage with visitors who come their way, and because they feel the ordinary idea of "society" may be likened to Hobbes's "state of war," a competitive chaos of vanities, ambitions, and "irrational pursuits" (111), wider social intercourse holds little charm for them. Nevertheless, Scott's promotional premise calls for the introduction of a worldly admirer with protracted, privileged access into their midst, even if the unassuming, insular lives that her women lead would seem to render such an interloper unfit to tell their story. Scott's shrewdest and most underappreciated narrative negotiations find her at once exposing and exploiting the equivocal effects of this outsider: by complementing and conditioning his imperfect understanding of Hall society with an insider's discerning and artful partiality, she...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 259-281
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-08
Open Access
No
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