[The following discussion of Caroline Norton's fiction comes from an 1897 book, Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations, in which women writers discussed their predecessors. To the text, which comes from Project Gutenberg (see bibliography), I have added subtitles, changed the quotation marks around book titles to italics, and removed the breaks between several paragraphs. — George P. Landow.]
Stuart of Dunleath
It is curious to observe the depth and width of the gulf which yawns between the novel of 1851 and the novel of to-day. The latter opens with some brief sentence spoken by one of the characters, or a short dialogue between two or three of them, followed by a rapid sketch of their position or an equally brief picture of the scene in which the action of the piece is laid. The reader is plunged at once into the drama, and left to guess the parts allotted by the author to his puppets. Forty-five years ago, when Mrs. Norton wrote Stuart of Dunleath (1851), the reader had to pass through a wide porch and many long passages before he reached the inner chambers of the story. An account of the hero and heroine's families, even to the third and fourth generation, was indispensable, and the minutest particulars of their respective abodes and surroundings were carefully detailed. The tale travelled by easy stages, with many a pause where byways brought additional wayfarers to join the throng of those already travelling through the pages; while each and all, regardless of proportion, were described with equal fulness whatever their degree of importance.
These are the characteristics of Mrs. Norton's novels, which stretch in a leisurely fashion to something like two hundred thousand words. Nevertheless, Stuart of Dunleath shows great ability and knowledge of the world. It is evidently written by a well-read, cultivated, and refined woman, with warm feelings and strong religious convictions. The descriptions are excellent, the language is easy and graceful.
The scene of the story lies chiefly in Scotland, and the Scotch characters are very well drawn, save one, Lady Macfarren, who is inhumanly hard. This, too, is one of the peculiarities of the forty or forty-five year old novel; its people are terribly consistent in good or evil. The dignity, the high-mindedness, the angelic purity of the heroine is insupportable, and the stainless honour, the stern resistance to temptation, the defiance of tyrannical wrongdoers, makes the hero quite as bad.
In Stuart of Dunleath, however, the hero is decidedly weak. He is the guardian of Eleanor Raymond, the heroine, and, seeing a probability of making a large profit by a speculative loan, risks her money, hoping to obtain the means to buy back his estate without diminishing her fortune. The speculation fails. Eleanor is reduced to poverty, and Stuart is supposed to drown himself. Then the impoverished heroine, who is desperately in love with her guardian, is compelled to marry a wealthy baronet, Sir Stephen Penrhyn. This is the beginning of troubles, and very bad troubles they are, continuing steadily through two-thirds of the book.
Sir Stephen is a brutally bad husband, is shamelessly unfaithful, personally violent, breaks his wife's arm, and makes her life a burden. Her little twin sons are drowned in a boating accident, and then Stuart returns from the grave, having been stopped in his attempt to drown himself by a picturesque old clergyman, and started off to America, where he manages to recover the lost fortune.
By his advice, Eleanor leaves her tyrant and takes steps to obtain a divorce, but before the case is ready for hearing is seized with scruples and gives up the attempt, chiefly because she fears she is influenced by an unholy love for Stuart. Finally she gets leave of absence from her amiable spouse, and dies of a broken heart before it expires, Stuart having married her dearest friend, the brilliant Lady Margaret Fordyce, thinking that Eleanor had no real affection for him. The scruples are much to her credit, of course, but she might have tried to save the remainder of her life from the degradation which must have been the result of a reunion with her husband, yet kept aloof from Stuart without offending God or breaking any sacred law.
Eighteen very distinct characters figure in these pages, and three or four children. Of these the best drawn are those most lightly sketched. The author's favourites are too much described, their merits, their peculiarities, their faults (if allowed to have any) are detailed as the writer sees them. But they do not act and live and develop themselves to the reader, and, therefore, become abstractions, not living entities.
Lost and Saved
Lost and Saved, written some dozen of years afterward, has much the same qualities as Stuart of Dunleath. The subsidiary characters are more convincing than the leading ladies and gentlemen. The hero, if such a man could be so termed, with his extreme selfishness, his surface amiability, his infirmity of purpose and utter faithlessness, is well drawn. There is a respectable hero also, but we do not see much of him, which is not to be regretted, as he is an intolerable prig.
In this romance the heroine elopes with Treherne, the villainous hero. (Of course, there are the usual family objections to their wedding.) They intend to go to Trieste, but in the confusion of a night march they get on board the wrong steamer, and find themselves at Alexandria. Here Treherne is confronted with his aunt, the magnificent Marchioness of Updown. He is therefore obliged to suppress Beatrice (the heroine) until the Marchioness "moves on."
They consequently set off on a voyage up the Nile, apparently in search of a clergyman to marry them. It seems, by the way, a curious sort of hunting-ground in which to track an English parson. Then Beatrice falls dangerously ill, and nothing will save her save a parson and the marriage service. A benevolent and sympathetic young doctor is good enough to simulate a British chaplain, and the knot is tied to the complete satisfaction of Beatrice. Much misery ensues.
It must be added that the magnificent Marchioness of Updown is an extraordinary picture. Besides being a peeress by marriage, she is the daughter of an earl, an aristocrat born and bred. Yet her vulgarity is amazing. Her stupid ill-nature, her ignorance, her speech and manner, suggest the idea of a small shopkeeper in a shabby street.
In this novel Mrs. Norton portrays the whited-sepulchre sort of woman very clearly in Milly, Lady Nesdale, who is admired and petted by Society, always smiling, well tempered, well dressed, careful to observe les bienséances, making herself pleasant even to her husband; while, screened by this fair seeming, she tastes of a variety of forbidden fruit, one mouthful of which would be enough to consign a less astute woman to social death. This class of character figures largely in present day novels, but few equal, none surpass, Mrs. Norton's masterly touch.
Old Sir Douglas
Old Sir Douglas, her last novel, was published in Macmillan's Magazine, 1867. It is planned on the same lines as her previous works of fiction—the plot rather complicated, the characters extremely numerous; among these is an almost abnormally wicked woman who works endless mischief.
Last modified 11 July 2014