- Complicating A Simple Story: Inchbald’s Two Versions of Female Power
Females have been insulated, as it were; and while they have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, they have been decked with artificial graces that enable them to exercise a short-lived tyranny. Love, in their bosoms, taking place of every nobler passion, their sole ambition is to be fair, to raise emotion instead of inspiring respect; and this ignoble desire, like the servility in absolute monarchies, destroys all strength of character. Liberty is the mother of virtue, and if women be, by their very constitution, slaves, and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws in nature.Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Girls should be led to distrust their own judgment; they should learn not to murmur at expostulation; but should be accustomed to expect and to endure opposition. It is a lesson with which the world will not fail to furnish them; and they will not practice it the worse for having learnt it the sooner. It is of the last importance to their happiness that they should early acquire a submissive temper and a forbearing spirit. They must even endure to be thought wrong sometimes, when they cannot but feel they are right.Hannah More, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) 1 [End Page 255]
If we evaluate Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 novel A Simple Story according to the traditional aesthetic of the novel, we may find it wanting—an opinion that perhaps accounts for the way in which the best-selling, influential text has until recently been relegated to a footnote in the novel’s rise. The text divides neatly in half, each half providing a seemingly self-contained story. The first two volumes tell of the off-again, on-again courtship and eventual marriage of the high-spirited heiress Miss Milner and her guardian Dorriforth, a Catholic priest who is released from his vows to assume the title of Lord Elmwood. Volume three opens seventeen years later, as Lady Elmwood (the former Miss Milner) lies dying, self-exiled from her husband because of an adulterous liaison many years before. Lord Elmwood has forced their daughter Matilda to share in her mother’s banishment, but after Lady Elmwood’s death, he agrees that Matilda can live on one of his estates, with the provisions that she never come into his sight and that her name never be mentioned in his hearing. Part two of the novel thus focuses upon the estrangement and eventual reconciliation of father and daughter.
Each of the two parts of A Simple Story is fairly unified in itself. Put together, however, they violate our notions of textual closure. Between the end of volume two and the beginning of volume three, characters undergo a sea change, acting in unfamiliar ways that require an uncharacteristic amount of authorial excuse-making. Lady Elmwood’s death seems not so much a conclusion to her own story as an inauguration of her daughter’s. In comparison to the story of Miss Milner and Dorriforth, the story of Matilda and Lord Elmwood appears anemic and formulaic. Unlike Wuthering Heights, a text that similarly recounts the story of two generations and the effects of the first upon the second, A Simple Story lacks a central unifying action—such as Heathcliff’s plot to wreak revenge—that would provide the two parts with an organic link. 2 When we have finished A Simple Story, we may well feel as if we have read two separate novellas, linked by little more than a common binding.
In effect, the graft of the two parts seems mechanical, the result of external rather than internal exigencies, and the usual critical response has been to deplore the addition of the second half of the novel. In her 1967 edition of the novel, J. M. S. Tompkins points out that, in composing the text, Inchbald actually joined together two distinct narratives, “grafting the tale of Lady Matilda and her father on to that of Miss Milner and Dorriforth...