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nature and art

30 june 2023

Nature and Art (1796) parallels Elizabeth Inchbald's other novel, A Simple Story (1791), in examining the dynamic effects that one generation can have on the next. It is a simpler story than the relatively complicated Simple Story, and more schematic. Several characters in Nature and Art are stick-figurish at best, and many incidents in the novel are both melodramatic and don't really add up if you think about them. (Among them: a woman gives birth without ever being suspected of pregnancy, and then another woman, who hasn't been pregnant at all, is accused of giving birth to the child. I guess either event could happen, but both in quick succession is a bit dreamlike.)

But Nature and Art isn't even intended as the kind of plausibly realistic fiction that A Simple Story aspires to be. In Nature and Art, Inchbald used the framework of the lurid domestic novel to comment acidly on the pretensions of her society; and if it's cartoonish, in a Hogarthian sense, it's so much the more effective.

William and Henry are brothers, from lower middle-class origins. They go up to London at some point in the 18th century to make their fortune. William is studious, but that and threepence will get you a cup of coffee; Henry, however, becomes a successful violinist. His connections get William into university and then into a clerical living, and William begins to climb the ladder of Church preferment.

Then a series of missteps begin, across decades to come, as the brothers are driven apart, and their sons (also named William and Henry respectively) find love and unhappiness. What began as a placid story of social mobility becomes increasingly an incredible succession of unfortunate events, the better to hang some skit-like satirical repartee onto. Islands full of savages, mistaken parentage, hideous ironies … you keep reading all the same. It's not a long novel, and it's a very fast-paced one.

Inchbald clearly wrote Nature and Art to some extent in dialogue with Oliver Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield (1766). The same unusual surname (Primrose) is given in each novel to a major character. As Goldsmith does, Inchbald offers scenes of clerical life, pretension, and hypocrisy; seduction abounds; improbable reversals and discoveries are just part of the world. The Vicar of Wakefield is a famously sanguine book, though, and Nature and Art is not. There's a ruined-woman episode in Inchbald's novel that is a stock item in late-18th-century fictions like Hannah Webster Foster's Coquette (1797).

But one doesn't sense much of an edifying impulse in Nature and Art, though that doesn't necessarily make it less serious than the more solemn Simple Story. Inchbald in her second novel seems an ironic, mocking presence hovering above her stock situations. She skewers religious pretensions, class prejudice, double standards for the sexes, and other things that desperately need skewering even today, and does so with brio and directness.

Inchbald, Elizabeth. Nature and Art. 1796. iBooks edition.