In submitting to the readers of La Belle Assemblee a brief Memoir of the ingenious author of that once popular production, "The Old English Baron," our labour will be little more than that of compressing, or rather curtailing, a sketch which has been contributed by the able pen of Sir Walter Scott.
Clara Reeve was the daughter of the Rev. William Reeve, M.A., rector of Freston, and of Kirton, in Suffolk, and perpetual curate of St. Nicholas, Ipswich. Her grandfather was the Rev. Thomas Reeve, rector of Stonham 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, Miss 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 for ever. He made me read Rapin's History of England; the information it gave made amends for its dryness. I read Cab'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 Rev. Mr. Reeve, himself one of a family of eight children, had the same number; 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, that enabled her to acquire a stock of early information. After his death, his widow resided in Colchester with three of their daughters; and it was there that Miss Reeve first became a writer, by translating from the Latin Barclay's fine old romance, entitled " Argenis," published in 1762, under the title of "The Phoenix." In 1767, five years afterwards, 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, from what motive we know not, was then first called "The Old English Baron." It was inscribed to Mrs. Brigden, the daughter of Richardson, who is stated to have lent her assistance in its revisal and correction.
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 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." She, also, in compliance with the suggestion of a friend, composed "Castle Connor, an Irish Story," in which apparitions were introduced. Unfortunately, however, the manuscript, having been intrusted with some careless or unfaithful person, was lost.
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 resting.
Miss Reeve, respected and beloved, led a retired life, affording no materials for biography, until the 3d of December, 1803, when she died at Ipswich, her native town, at the advanced age of seventy-eight years. She was buried in the church-yard of Saint Stephen's, according to her particular direction, near to the grave of her friend, the Rev. M. Darby. Her brother, the Rev. Thomas Reeve, rector of Brockley, and perpetual curate of Ilketshall St. Lawrence, both in the county of Suffolk, died at Ipswich, on the 3d of June, 1824, in the 80th year of his age. He was a truly respect. able and venerable old man. Another brother of Miss Reeve's, bred to the navy, attained the rank of vice-admiral in that service.
Such are the only authenticated particulars relating to this accomplished and estimable woman, and, in their simplicity, the reader may remark that of her life and of her character.
Miss Reeve has herself informed us, that "The Old English Baron is the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto;" and she has pointed out the different and more limited view which she had adopted, of the supernatural machinery employed by Horace Walpole. She condemns that writer, how justly it is not here necessary to inquire, 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 ghost 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.
Notwithstanding this lady's authority, we must agree with Sir Walter Scott, in the protest which he enters against fettering the realm of shadows by the opinions entertained of it in the world of realties. If we try ghosts by the ordinary rules of humanity, we debar them from their privileges entirely. Perhaps it may be more judicious, to act upon the principle, that the author himself, being in fact the magician, shall evoke no spirits which he is not capable of endowing with manners and language corresponding to their supernatural character.
The time is past for criticising "The Old English Baron:" we shall therefore close with the remark, that it has always produced as strong an effect, and excited as lively a pleasure, as any story of its kind.