- The Citizen by Ann Gomersall
The Chawton House Library series has brought out its fifteenth rare novel: The Citizen (1790), the second by Ann Gomersall of Leeds (1750–1835). Expertly edited by Margaret S. Yoon, The Citizen, like Gomersall’s first novel Eleonora: A Novel, In a Series of Letters (1789), demonstrates the enduring role of epistolary fiction as an important subgenre of the novel going into the end of the eighteenth century, constructing private interiority for its mostly middle-class readership.
In her introduction, Yoon describes The Citizen as centering on “the hero rather than the heroine, and on the role of the mentor in the role of moral guide, and in particular . . . the industrious activity of the merchant with a Christian practice of benevolence” (xi). The novel shares similarities in this regard with Hannah More’s later and only novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) and Charlotte Smith’s Desmond (1792), domestic fictions that focus as much on the constructions of modern gentlemanliness as they do on concerns of courtship, marriage, and household management. Further, Gomersall’s novel prefigures many of the debates over the inadequacies of male education for the contemporary world that would find expression in Sir Walter Scott’s fiction.
The narrative is composed primarily of two sets of correspondence, one between two gentlewomen and the other between two gentlemen, much as Samuel Richardson devised in Clarissa (1748). The central character of the narrative, Charles Montgomery, though brought up a gentleman, has discovered that his legitimacy is in question. Furthermore, his father has placed Charles’s care in the hands of a merchant (the most likely “citizen” of the title), Philip Bertills.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the novel is the character of Sir Edward Melworth, who operates as an incisive depiction of contemporary understandings [End Page 131] of depression and depressive personality disorder—in this case, brought on by the unexpected and early death of his beloved wife—as well as the role writing can play as a kind of therapy. In a letter to her best friend, his sister tells of Melworth’s “ill health and depressed spirits,” which have made him almost an invalid. She adds that “his physician says medicine is useless . . . Sir Edward’s disease being seated in the mind” (39). The novel examines several possible “cures” for Edward’s illness, including (paralleling Smollet’s Squire Bramble in Humphry Clinker ) going to the spa; as Miss Melworth opines, she is “determined on persuading him to try the effect of some of the watering places. It is very possible that a change of air, and a variety of company and amusements may prove beneficial” (39). Further suggestions include Sir Edward’s becoming industrious to get his mind away from his sadness; most notably, Bertills posits that he “heartily wish[es] I had him in my counting-house, for a few months,” to “find him business sufficient to employ all his time, and leave him none to give to grief” (68).
Bertills’s comments are an example of the way in which the novel explores the nebulous area between the middle and the upper classes in the latter eighteenth century. As we know, the bankrupting of many of the landed estates at the time led to attempted alliances with merchants through marriage. Bertills’s role as the executor and inheritor of the intestate estate of Charles Montgomery’s father, and his sister’s as boon companion and dear friend to Miss Melworth, show how the connection between the two classes is becoming more pronounced.
Gomersall adeptly handles the epistolary genre, providing insight into characters’ presuppositions and their changes in thinking. Charles Montgomery, raised as a gentleman, confesses his stereotyping of merchant Philip Bertills when he tells his friend: “Truth compels me to declare, that the idea I had so very rashly formed of Mr. Bertills was not only injurious but unjust . . . From his intense application to trade, I drew the very ridiculous inference, that he must, necessarily, be of mercenary disposition” (99).