1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Clara Reeve

Walter Scott, "Clara Reeve" 1824; Scott, Miscellaneous Prose Works (1829) 3:241-49.



CLARA REEVE, the ingenious authoress of The Old English Baron, was the daughter of the Reverend William Reeve, M.A., Rector of Freston, and of Kerton, in Suffolk, and perpetual Curate of Saint Nicholas. Her grandfather was the Reverend Thomas Reeve, Rector of Storeham Aspal, and afterwards of St. Mary Stoke, in Ipswich, where the family had been long resident, and enjoyed the rights of free burghers. Miss Reeve's mother's maiden name was Smithies, daughter of — Smithies, goldsmith and jeweller to King George I.

In a letter to a friend, Mrs. Reeve thus speaks of her father: — "My father was an old Whig; from him I have learned all that I know; he was my oracle; he used to make me read the Parliamentary debates, while he smoked his pipe after supper. I gaped and yawned over them at the time, but, unawares to myself, they fixed my principles once and forever. He made me read Rapin's History of England; the information it gave, made amends for its dryness. I read Cato's Letters, by Trenchard and Gordon; I read the Greek and Roman Histories, and Plutarch's Lives; — all these at an age when few people of either sex can read their names."

The Reverend Mr. Reeves, himself one of a family of eight children, had the same numerous succession; and it is therefore likely, that it was rather Clara's strong natural turn for study, than any degree of exclusive care which his partiality bestowed, which enabled her to acquire such a stock of early information. After his death, his widow resided in Colchester with three of their daughters; and it was here that Miss Clara Reeve first became an authoress, by translating from Latin Barclay's fine old romance, entitled Argenis, published in 1772, under the title of The Phoenix. It was in 1777, five years afterwards, that she produced her first and most distinguished work. It was published by Mr. Dilly of the Poultry (who gave ten pounds for the copyright) under the title of The Champion of Virtue, a Gothic Story. The work came to a second edition in the succeeding year, and was then first called The Old English Baron. The cause of the change we do not pretend to guess; for if Fitzowen be considered as the Old English Baron, we do not see wherefore a character, passive in himself from beginning to end, and only acted upon by others, should be selected to give a name to the story. We ought not to omit to mention, that this work is inscribed to Mrs. Brigden, the daughter of Richardson, who is stated to have lent her assistance to the revisal and correction of the work.

The success of The Old English Baron encouraged Miss Reeve to devote more of her leisure hours to literary composition, and she published in succession the following works: — The Two Mentors, a Modern Story; the Progress of Romance, through Times, Countries, and Manners; The Exile; or Memoirs of the Count de Cronstadt, the principal incidents of which are borrowed from a novel by M. D'Arnaud; The School for Widows, a Novel; Plans of Education, with Remarks on the System of other Writers, in a duodecimo volume; and The Memoirs of Sir Roger de Clarendon, a natural Son of Edward the Black Prince; with Anecdotes of many other eminent Persons of the fourteenth Century.

To these works we have to add another tale, of which the interest turned upon supernatural appearances. Miss Reeve informs the public, in a preface to a late edition of The Old English Baron, that in compliance with the suggestion of a friend, she had composed Castle Connor, an Irish Story, in which apparitions were introduced. The manuscript, being intrusted to some careless or unfaithful person, fell aside, and was never recovered.

The various novels of Clara Reeve are all marked by excellent good sense, pure morality, and a competent command of those qualities which constitute a good romance. They were, generally speaking, favourably received at the time, but none of them took the same strong possession of the public mind as The Old English Baron, upon which the fame of the author may be considered as now exclusively rested.

Miss Reeve, respected and beloved, led a retired life, admitting no materials for biography, until 3d December 1803, when she died at Ipswich, her native city, at the advanced age of seventy-eight years. She was buried in the church-yard of St. Stephens, according to her particular direction, near to the grave of her friend, the Reverend Mr. Derby. Her brother, the Reverend Thomas Reeve, still lives, as also her sister, Mrs. Sarah Reeve, both advanced in life. Another brother, bred to the navy, attained the rank of vice-admiral in that service.

Such are the only particulars which we have been able to collect concerning this accomplished and estimable woman, and, in their simplicity, the reader may remark that of her life and of her character. As critics, it is our duty to make some further observations, which shall be entirely confined to her most celebrated work, upon which her fame arose, and on which, without meaning disparagement to her other compositions, we conceive it entitled to rest.

The authoress has herself informed us that The Old English Baron is the "literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto;" and she has obliged us by pointing out the different and more limited view which she had adopted, of the supernatural machinery employed by Horace Walpole. She condemns the latter for the extravagance of several of his conceptions; for the gigantic size of his sword and helmet; and for the violent fictions of a walking picture, and a skeleton in a hermit's cowl. A ghost, she contends, to be admitted as an ingredient in romance, must behave himself like ghosts of sober demeanour, and subject himself to the common rules still preserved in grange and hall, as circumscribing beings of his description.

We must, however, notwithstanding her authority, enter our protest against fettering the realm of shadows by the opinions entertained of it in the world of realities. If we are to try ghosts by the ordinary rules of humanity, we bar them of their privileges entirely. For instance, why admit the existence of an aerial phantom, and deny it the terrible attribute of magnifying its stature? why admit an enchanted helmet, and not a gigantic one? why allow as an impressive incident the fall of a suit of armour thrown down, we must suppose, by no mortal hand, and at the same time deny the same supernatural influence the power of producing the illusion (for it is only represented as such) upon Manfred, which gives seeming motion and life to the portrait of his ancestor? It may be said, and it seems to be Miss Reeve's argument, that there is a verge of probability, which even the most violent figment must not transgress; but we reply by the cross question, that if we are once to subject our preternatural agents to the limits of human reason, where are we to stop? We might, under such a rule, demand of ghosts an account of the very circuitous manner in which they are pleased to open their communications with the living world. We might, for example, move a "quo warranto" against the spectre of the murdered Lord Lovel, for lurking about the eastern apartment, when it might have been reasonably expected, that if he did not at once impeach his murderers to the next magistrate, he might at least have put Fitzowen into the secret, and thus obtained the succession of his son more easily than by the dubious and circuitous route of a single combat. If there should be an appeal against this imputation, founded on the universal practice of ghosts in such circumstances, who always act with singular obliquity in disclosing the guilt of which they complain, the matter becomes a question of precedent; in which view of the case, we may vindicate Horace Walpole for the gigantic exaggeration of his phantom, by the similar expansion of the terrific vision of Fawdoun, in Blind Harry's Life of Wallace; and we could, were we so disposed, have paralleled his moving picture, by the example of one with which we ourselves had some acquaintance, which was said both to move and to utter groans, to the great alarm of a family of the highest respectability.

Where, then, may the reader ask, is the line to be drawn? or what are the limits to be placed to the reader's credulity, when those of common sense and ordinary nature are once exceeded? The question admits only one answer, namely, that the author himself, being in fact the magician, shall evoke no spirits whom he is not capable of endowing with manners and language corresponding to their supernatural character. Thus Shakspeare, drawing such characters as Caliban and Ariel, gave them reality, not by appealing to actual opinions which his audience might entertain respecting the possibility or impossibility of their existence, but by investing them with such attributes as all readers and spectators recognized as those which must-have corresponded to such extraordinary beings, had their existence been possible. If he had pleased to put into language the "squeaking and gibbering" of those disembodied phantoms which haunted the streets of Rome, no doubt his wonderful imagination could have filled up the sketch, which, marked by these two emphatic and singularly felicitous expressions, he has left as characteristic of the language of the dead.

In this point of view, our authoress has, with equal judgment and accuracy, confined her flight within those limits on which her pinions could support her; and though we are disposed to contest her general principle, we are willing to admit it as a wise and prudent one, so far as applied to regulate her own composition. In no part of The Old English Baron, or of any other of her works, does Miss Reeve show the possession of a rich or powerful imagination. Her dialogue is sensible, easy, and agreeable, but neither marked by high flights of fancy, nor strong bursts of passion. Her apparition is an ordinary fiction, of which popular superstition used to furnish a thousand instances, when nights were long, and a family, assembled round a Christmas log, had little better to do than to listen to such tales. Miss Reeve has been very felicitously cautious in showing us no more of Lord Lovel's ghost than she needs must — he is a silent apparition, palpable to the sight only, and never brought forward into such broad day-light as might have dissolved our reverence. And so far, we repeat, the authoress has used her own power to the utmost advantage, and gained her point by not attempting a step beyond it. But we cannot allow that the rule which, in her own case, has been well and wisely adopted, ought to circumscribe a bolder and a more imaginative writer.

In what may be called the costume, or keeping, of the chivalrous period in which the scene of both is laid, the language and style of Horace Walpole, together with his intimate acquaintance with the manners of the middle ages, form an incalculable difference betwixt The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron. Clara Reeve, probably, was better acquainted with Plutarch and Rapin, than with Froissart or Olivier de la Marche. This is no imputation on the taste of that ingenious lady. In her days, Macbeth was performed in a general's full uniform, and Lord Hastings was dressed like a modern high chamberlain going to court. Or, if she looked to romances for her authority, those of the French school were found introducing, under the reign of Cyrus or of Faramond, or in the early republic of Rome, the sentiments and manners of the court of Louis XIV. In the present day, more attention to costume is demanded, and authors, as well as players, are obliged to make attempts, however fantastic or grotesque, to imitate the manners, on the one hand, and the dress, on the other, of the times in which the scene is laid. Formerly, nothing of this kind was either required or expected; and it is not improbable that the manner in which Walpole circumscribes his dialogue (in most instances) within the stiff and stern precincts prescribed by a strict attention to the manners and language of the times, is the first instance of such restrictions. In The Old English Baron, on the contrary, all parties speak and act much in the fashion of the seventeenth century; employ the same phrases of courtesy; and adopt the same tone of conversation. Baron Fitzowen, and the principal characters, talk after the fashion of country squires of that period, and the lower personages like gaffers and gammers of the same era. And "were but the combat in lists left out," or converted into a modern duel, the whole train of incidents might, for any peculiarity to be traced in the dialect or narration, have taken place in the time of Charles II., or in either of the two succeeding reigns. As it is, the story reads as if it had been transcribed into the language, and remodelled according to the ideas, of this latter period. Yet we are uncertain whether, upon the whole, this does not rather add to, than diminish the interest of the work; — at least it gives an interest of a different kind, which, if it cannot compete with that which arises out of a highly exalted and poetical imagination, and a strict attention to the character and manners of the middle ages, has yet this advantage, that it reaches its point more surely, than had a higher, more difficult, and more ambitious line of composition been attempted.

To explain our meaning: — He that would please the modern world, yet present the exact impression of a tale of the middle ages, will repeatedly find that he will be obliged, in despite of his utmost exertions, to sacrifice the last to the first object, and eternally expose himself to the just censure of the rigid antiquary, because he must, to interest the readers of the present time, invest his characters with language and sentiments unknown to the period assigned to his story; and thus his utmost efforts only attain a sort of composition between the true and the fictitious, — just as the dress of Lear, as performed on the stage, is neither that of a modern sovereign, nor the cerulean painting and bear-hide with which the Britons, at the time when that monarch is supposed to have lived, tattooed their persons, and sheltered themselves from cold. All this inconsistency is avoided, by adopting the style of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, sufficiently antiquated to accord with the antiquated character of the narrative, yet copious enough to express all that is necessary to its interest, and to supply that deficiency of colouring which the more ancient times do not afford.

It is no doubt true, that The Old English Baron, written in the latter and less ambitious taste, is sometimes tame and tedious, not to say mean and tiresome. The total absence of peculiar character, (for every person introduced is rather described as one of a genus than as an original, discriminated, and individual person,) may have its effect in producing the taedium which loads the story in some places. This is a general defect in the novels of the period, and it was scarce to be expected that the amiable and accomplished authoress, in her secluded situation, and with acquaintance of events and characters derived from books alone, should have rivalled those authors who gathered their knowledge of the human heart from having, like Fielding and Smollett, become acquainted, by sad experience, with each turn of "many-coloured life." Nor was it to be thought that she should have emulated in this particular her prototype Walpole, who, as a statesman, a poet, and a man of the world, "who knew the world like a man," has given much individual character to his sketch of Manfred. What we here speak of is not the deficiency in the style and costume, but a certain creeping and low line of narrative and sentiment; which may be best illustrated by the grave and minute accounting into which Sir Philip Harclay and the Baron Fitzowen enter, — after an event so unpleasant as the judgment of Heaven upon a murderer, brought about by a judicial combat, and that combat occasioned by the awful and supernatural occurrences in the eastern chamber, — where we find the arrears of the estate gravely set off against the education of the heir, and his early maintenance in the Baron's family. Yet even these prolix, minute, and unnecessary details, are precisely such as would occur in a similar story told by a grandsire or grandame to a circle assembled round a winter's fire; and while they take from the dignity of the composition, and would therefore have been rejected by a writer of more exalted imagination, do certainly add in some degree to its reality, and bear in that respect a resemblance to the art with which De Foe impresses on his readers the truth of his fictions, by the insertion of many minute, and immaterial, or unnatural circumstances, which we are led to suppose could only be recorded because they are true. Perhaps, to be circumstantial and abundant in minute detail, and in one word, though an unauthorized one, to be somewhat prosy, is a secret mode of securing a certain necessary degree of credulity from the hearers of a ghost-story. It gives a sort of quaint antiquity to the whole, as belonging to the times of "superstitious elde," and those whom we have observed to excel in oral narratives of such a nature, usually study to secure the attention of their audience by employing this art. At least, whether owing to this mode of telling her tale, or to the interest of the story itself, and its appeal to the secret reserve of superstitious feeling which maintains its influence in most bosoms, The Old English Baron has always produced as strong an effect as any story of the kind, although liable to the objections which we have freely stated, without meaning to impeach the talents of the amiable authoress.

Dismissing this interesting subject for the present, we trust we may find some future opportunity to offer a few more general remarks, on the introduction of supernatural machinery into modern, works of fiction.