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a simple story

4 january 2023

A Simple Story isn't particularly simple: the first of the ironies in this mordant 1791 novel by Elizabeth Inchbald. The book is medium-length for an 18th-century fiction – I tell ya, with these Kindle books these days, there's no telling how long anything is exactly – and the plot features two generations of heroines, whose stories span two decades and more of intrigue.

The premise of Inchbald's novel is somewhat contrived, but that artificiality is in the service of psychological subtlety, if that makes sense. The central character is Dorriforth, a Catholic priest "related to one of our first Catholic Peers" (8), by which the narrator means one of the most prominent English Catholic noblemen, not one of the first chronologically. Dorriforth turns out to be not just a relative but the eventual heir to Lord Elmwood; in the course of the story he goes from affluent to opulent.

Dorriforth never seems to have any pastoral duties. His best friend is an English Jesuit named Sandford who doesn't seem to do any religious work except to be a sort of chaplain to the Elmwoods. I am not sure how this worked in 18th-century England. Catholics had long been tolerated if they were well-born and wealthy, but they still lacked basic civil rights (especially in Ireland), and many Catholic institutions simply weren't present (seminarians had to go to France to study). Inchbald's narrator suggests that Rome was tolerant of such noble English Catholics from their own side, just to keep their hand in the affairs of the kingdom. Upon becoming Lord Elmwood, for instance, Dorriforth is released from holy orders: because a Catholic peer needs to marry and have an heir in order to keep the peerage in the family and in the religion.

And hence the complicated story. Dorriforth, while still a simple rich priest, acquires a beautiful young ward named Miss Milner. Even this development is a long story and entails the persistence of promises made by and to various people who die before page One. The first half of A Simple Story shows Miss Milner coming of age in the household she shares with Dorriforth and several other female dependents. One of those dependents reflects that

the sin of infidelity in the married state, is not a little softened to common understandings, by its frequency; whereas, of religious vows broken by a devotee she had never heard. (65)
Nobody imagines that, under the circumstances, Dorriforth and Miss Milner could catch feelings for each other. So of course they do.

This could be a rom-com; it could be Emma, where an older man half-grooms and half-mentors a headstrong young woman toward eventual marriage. But it's not; A Simple Story is melodramatic and at times lurid; at least two duels get fought, and later on there's a midnight abduction. There are a lot of misunderstandings, a heap of stubbornnesses, quite a bit of talking at cross purposes, and some amount of not being on the same wavelength. Some of this business is distantly humorous. But the overall tone is more fraught than amusing.

In particular, Miss Milner, though romantically head over heels for her clerical guardian, is a girl who wants to have fun. Fun comes in the form of a certain Lord Frederick, heir to a dukedom himself, who courts Miss Milner and finally seduces Lady Elmwood, after innocent romance has led to her marrying the former Dorriforth.

Inchbald intriguingly lets us see nothing of romantic bliss between couples, or of adulterous goings-on either, continually fast-forwarding to the aftermath of relationship breakdowns. Halfway through the novel, she jumps 17 years, giving the Elmwoods a daughter but exiling the former Miss Milner and that daughter from Elmwood House. After her mother's death, Lady Matilda is allowed to return home, under the Gothic proscription of completely avoiding her father's presence if he should ever enter the building, even unexpectedly. This is what one might call an unstable situation.

The sins of the mother repeat themselves in the second generation. Inchbald eventually declares this to be a problem of nurture, but it could as easily be one of innate, possibly heritable, personality. Lady Matilda too has a noble pursuer, Lord Margrave. And she has a sentimental wooer, Mr. Rushbrook – who happens to be Lord Elmwood's nephew, so the young couple stand to be disowned by Elmwood if they ever get together – indeed, if Rushbrook ever mentions Matilda's name in her father's presence.

The relative absence of action scenes or passionate encounters means that A Simple Story, for all its incident, focuses almost entirely on the psychology of a mighty dysfunctional family. It is a fascinating portrait, finely detailed. One of the most interesting characters is the Jesuit, Sandford. A prickly, sarcastic character, capable of inveterate quarreling, Sandford is also the most sympathetic of the whole Elmwood entourage. He is the only one who can speak freely to and helpfully befriend all of the others. Inchbald gives Sandford his character note:

The reprover, the enemy of the vain, the idle, and the wicked; but the friend and the comforter of the forlorn and miserable. (166)
That sounds more sentimental than it really is. Sandford is truly charitable, but he is also waspish and verbally cruel in his reproofs. He creates perhaps as many problems as he allays, and one gets the impression that he goads some characters – Miss Milner especially – into misconduct, just so that he can come round and hold their hands when their lives smash to pieces. In other words, not just the embodiment of some saintly ideal.

One stray detail in the novel caught my eye, being opera-related. Miss Milner, a social butterfly, is constrained at one point to pass

the evening at home. She read part of a new opera, played upon her guitar, mused, sighed … (109)
I've been intrigued over the years by how knowledge of classical musical got disseminated before radio. Sometimes people experienced such music in aristocratic households that maintained professional musicians; sometimes capital cities had a musical scene. Increasingly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, inexpensive pianos helped amateurs play arrangements of more elaborate scores. But a trained amateur could also simply read a published opera score, and probably get more out of it than I do from YouTube videos of the real thing.

Inchbald, Elizabeth. A Simple Story. 1791. Kindle Edition.