- Institutions of Friendship in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall
The Publisher of this Volume is under some Difficulties; not from any Apprehensions of losing by the Book; for great part of the Impression is bespoke; his Anxiety arises from the Author’s addressing the Volume to him, and making him a Compliment in the Beginning; which, as he is conscious he does not deserve, he hopes the Reader will impute to its proper Cause, namely, to the Warmth of Friendship, which is too apt to exalt the Object it esteems. The Gentleman who wrote this Volume is of too much Consequence to be obstinately contradicted; and as the Bookseller could not prevail on him to leave out the Compliment above-mentioned, he hopes his publishing of it will not be imputed to any other Motive, but that of his Readiness to obey.1—Sarah Scott, A Description of Millenium Hall
The amiable sentiments in the opening advertisement to Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) mark a point of transit in the plot’s circulation of friendship ideals. Likely written by Scott herself, the advertisement connects the publisher to the novel’s fictional narrator as a link in the chain of friendships that the novel recounts. Taking the form of an epistolary travelogue written by an anonymous gentleman, the novel relates the chance discovery of an exclusive female community. The business-weary male narrator and his youthful companion, Lamont, stumble upon its grounds after a carriage accident and take refuge to escape inclement weather. The women’s hospitality entices the gentlemen to extend their stay, during which they receive a tour of the diverse charity projects on the estate and engage in political and religious debates with the female proprietors. Among these women, the narrator discovers a relative, Mrs. Maynard, who discloses the backstories of various residents, beginning with the founders, Miss Mancel and Mrs. Morgan. Each story highlights the chance circumstances that brought these female friends together, as they overcame sexual predators, tyrannical spouses, and inconstant suitors. In the final story, Scott offers an image of a fragile heterosexual friendship [End Page 464] between one of the hall’s residents, Mrs. Trentham, and her cousin, Mr. Alworth. By the end of their tour, the two gentlemen experience a moral awakening by observing utopian projects, conversing philosophically, and sympathizing with episodic private histories. The roguish Lamont begins to understand the principles of Christianity and the narrator wishes to “imitate” the women’s industry on a “smaller scale” (249). In socioeconomic terms, the private virtue of Scott’s hermetic heroines appears to translate seamlessly into the reformed narrator’s public agency, allowing him to spread their lessons to a wider audience. The logic of friendship’s growing empire implies that the next link in this chain must be the novel’s reader.
In the place of an actual dedication or subscription plea, the publisher’s opening remark records the transfer of the heroines’ utopian amiability into the commercial negotiation, publication, and reception of the text itself. This move recalls the playful and ironic coordination of truth and invention in the parerga of earlier fictions. Similar to Daniel Defoe’s claim that Robinson Crusoe (1719) is “written by himself,” and Lemuel Gulliver’s prefaces to Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Scott’s advertisement employs an authenticating device of prose fiction that by this time would seem quite conventional. Yet, Scott is unlike her male predecessors, who nonetheless signed their work or posed as editors. Among the most prolific female authors of the century, she remained largely unknown to the public during her lifetime.2 As Betty Schellenberg observes, Scott’s preference for anonymity stemmed from the reputational hazards faced by female writers, especially those of higher social standing.3 In Schellenberg’s view, this preference has particular consequences for how one reads the framing apparatus of Millenium Hall. As she suggests, Scott’s anonymity undercuts the utopian gender politics of the novel by allowing readers to identify uncritically with the invented male narrator’s perspective and values.4
Evidence from Scott’s correspondence circle indicates that her anonymity was not so definitive. Eve Tavor Bannet demonstrates that by...