- Reviewed by
New York: Routledge, 2015.
400pp. US$120. ISBN 978-1-84893-460-3.
Written by the successful French novelist Sophie Cottin and published in Paris in 1801, Malvina was translated in 1803 by the prolific British translator and novelist Elizabeth Gunning, a niece of the celebrated Gunning sisters. Edited by Marijn S. Kaplan, Malvina is a welcome addition to the ongoing Chawton House Library Series: Women’s Novels. As Kaplan argues in her introduction, this modern edition provides scholars with an opportunity to consider “issues of globalization in the Enlightenment literary marketplace, women’s contributions to it, female networks within it and the role played by gender in both its process and product” (xi). Kaplan does an excellent job in the introduction and footnotes of reading Gunning’s translation as a conversation between the writer and translator about delicacy’s social role, the status of the woman writer, and the perils of motherhood. The editorial framework contributes to the identification of a transnational network of women writers and intellectuals. This edition will also interest those scholars working on eighteenth-century Scottish literature. Malvina, which borrows the titular character’s name and many themes and settings from James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, serves as an early example of fan fiction and evidence of the transnational reach of Ossianic poetry.
The novel begins with Malvina de Sorcy, a twenty-five-year-old widow, mourning the loss of her dearest friend Clara Sheridan, whose five-year-old daughter, Frances, she has been entrusted to educate. Having moved from France to England to be with Clara, Malvina finds herself a single mother to Fanny—alone, without friends, family, or nation. She writes to ask for protection from Mrs Burton, a wealthy relation, who lives in Scotland. Malvina moves with Fanny to Mrs Burton’s Highland estate. Once there, she becomes acquainted with her protector’s avariciousness and cruelty, but she also meets Mr Prior, a Roman Catholic priest, and Sir Edmond, Mrs Burton’s handsome heir, both of whom promptly fall in love with the mysterious widow. Mr Prior and Malvina share a love of Ossianic poetry, and he begins to tutor her in Erse, so they can collect more “gallic poetry” from the “descendants of Morven” (19). Although she shares intellectual interests with Mr Prior, she falls in love with the libertine Sir Edmond, who returns her passion, but cannot control his baser desires. Despite his veneration of Malvina, he finds himself accepting private visits from the charming Miss Melmor. Even after a duel with Mr Prior and a clandestine marriage to Malvina, Sir Edmond finds himself in the [End Page 534] arms of the licentious Mrs Fenwick. Eventually, Sir Edmond’s infidelities drive Malvina to insanity and then death. She spends the final section of the novel as an Ossianic shade, roaming through woods and graveyards, returning to reality only in the last few pages to forgive the finally reformed Sir Edmond.
As Kaplan points out in the introduction, one of the more interesting aspects of the novel is its conflicted representation of the woman writer. Halfway through the novel, Malvina meets Mrs St. Clare. Before Mrs Burton introduces her, she tells Malvina that Mrs St. Clare is an “authoress.” When Mrs Burton suggests that, because of her literary proclivities, Mrs St. Clare must be either a “pedant or belle esprit,” Malvina agrees, adding that the female writer “leaves her children to the care of mercenaries and while she is writing a dissertation on the importance of fulfilling her duties, it is another who must perform them for her” (90). When questioned by Malvina, Mrs St. Clare blushes and expresses reservations about her own writing, but her actions undermine these stereotypes of the woman writer. After Mrs Burton discovers Sir Edmond’s passion for Malvina and drives her from her home, Mrs St. Clare protects Malvina and her child. The reader later learns that she has also saved her sister, who fell prey to Sir Edmond’s appetites years before. One of the only admirable characters in the novel, Mrs St. Clare shelters (at great personal cost...