- Belmour: A Modern Edition
Belmour (1801) is the first and only novel by Anne Damer, better known as the foremost British female sculptor of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A socialite and amateur actress who has been discussed most frequently in recent Romantic scholarship for the possibilities of lesbianism, cross-dressing and queer identity her biography affords, Jonathan David Gross’s new edition of her novel recovers for Damer her status as interdisciplinary artist and demands that we re-assess her contribution to the period.
Belmour sees Damer working confidently within the genre of the novel of Sensibility. The narrative follows the thwarted love and eventual union of a hero and heroine who are remarkable among the pragmatic and worldly society in which they move for their abundance of feeling and their strong sense of morality. Both reproduce established proto-Romantic and Romantic traits, for example, love of Nature (Emily’s facility for creating flower gardens gains her the appellation of ‘Flora’) and appreciation of the picturesque in landscape and building design, while secrets in their past add a touch of sublime melancholy and mystery to the two protagonists. Indeed, the past plays a primary role in the progress of the narrative: the plot advances through a series of retrospective explanations of the textual present, the mysteries and confusions of which are gradually unpacked through the narrative’s drawn-out revelation of the characters’ back stories. The melancholy which forms the basis of the reader’s introduction to Lady Caroline Belmour and her brother, the titular Belmour, is revealed to be the result of their separate disappointed and misguided love for unworthy individuals; the explanation of the mystery behind Emily Melville, the beautiful, sensitive, artistic yet reticent young woman who at the outset of the novel takes up residence at the parsonage of the Belmours’ country estate in [End Page 189] mysterious circumstances, is the main subject of the narrative as it follows Belmour’s attempts to discover her story.
The plot is formulaic and predictable: Belmour falls in love with Emily who mysteriously and abruptly leaves the parsonage; he attempts to forget her by undertaking a tour of Europe but circumstance brings them within one another’s circle again; in true female Gothic manner (Gross traces the influence of Ann Radcliffe on Damer in his Introduction), Emily is revealed as the wronged daughter of an aristocratic family cast off from her true inheritance and subject to cruel compromises and indignities as a result; after a succession of obstacles created by misunderstanding and mischance, the two lovers are eventually united in a conclusion that works hard to reward and redeem the just and honest.
From this plot overview, it would seem Damer’s novel is a straightforward narrative of the victory of good over evil, of purity over vice. The detail of the narrative, however, does not quite bear out this reading of the plot’s broad strokes. What makes Damer’s contribution to the Sensibility genre interesting is the way in which Belmour confronts with unblinking honesty the moral complexities, compromises and failures in which its characters are involved. Despite the narrator’s insistence on the absolute purity of her protagonists, the text depicts moments when they do not quite live up to those strictures. In his liaison with Lady Roseberg, Belmour is engaged in an affair with a married woman carried on through his tacit manipulation of her husband’s faith in him as a friend. Emily and Belmour nearly reproduce that relationship when they meet at Edinburgh halfway through the novel. Mistaken in her belief that Belmour has married his father’s ward Lady Clementina, Emily had married a steady man of her guardian’s recommendation; their resumed acquaintance at Edinburgh grows to an immoral intimacy of declared feelings, which, though never translated into action, is recognised by both to have over-stepped the boundaries of propriety due to Emily’s position as a married woman.
In fact much the most interesting thing...