Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Young Philosopher by Charlotte Smith

18th Century literature, why do I love you despite all the faintings, the tremblings, the flutterings, the fits, the constant incessant weeping, the brain fevers, the dying of shock, the going mad from just about anything, the silly unbelievable coincidences, the moralizing, the clingy spineless meek women? It's everything I should hate, but yet it's like my own brand of heroin.  And then there's the kidnapping of pretty women. I mean, the United Kingdom was clearly suffering from a serious epidemic of kidnapping during this period; and apparently every other man would lay in wait to carry off an innocent woman and lock her up in a castle somewhere till he could ravish her to his heart's content and then throw her away when he was done. If it had still been going on during the Victorian period, they wouldn't have stood for it, what with their endless charitable societies with interminable names. They'd have developed The Society to Prevent the Ravishment of Innocent Young Ladies and for Allowing Them to Wander Free and Unmolested, obviously known as TSTPTROIYLAFATTWFAU for short. And clearly said villains would tremble at the name and desist.

So the story of this particular novel is, like most of it's contemporaries, fairly convoluted. The "young philosopher" is a man named George Delmont, who scorns fashion and society and money and enjoys reading and independent thought, so has a reputation as a philosopher. But the story isn't so much his, as it is the story of the woman he falls in love with, Medora Glenmorris, and her mother.  The two women are staying in the cottage of a gentleman friend of Delmont's, a certain Mr Armitage (no relation to the dude from the North and South miniseries). Mr Glenmorris, the husband/father is off fighting in the American Revolutionary War (on the side of the Americans). But because Mr Armitage is a bachelor, and because the women arrived after Mr Glenmorris had left the country; it's rumored that Mrs Glenmorris is actually Mr Armitage's mistress, and Medora is his illegitimate daughter. Rumored by who? Delmont's aunt...who inexplicably has developed a frothing seething hatred for Mr Armitage because he's JACOBIN! ATHEIST! DEIST! PHILOSOPHER! and who knows what other horrors (there's a delightful scene where Armitage points out to her that he can't be a deist and an atheist at the same time, but to no avail). No really, any time the aunt talks or thinks about Mr Armitage, she begins literally frothing at the mouth she's so enraged, her eyes become flames of red, she'll scream and rant and rave herself into a frenzy. Why? No good reason really, except I guess to give the plot one (of many) villains. So then by extension the aunt hates the other two women and is determined to ruin them and so passes around all sorts of scandals about them.

But then the plot is also about Mr & Mrs Glenmorris' previous escapades, see Mrs Glenmorris eloped with the Mr, and absconded to his castle in Scotland. Then they're attacked in said castle by American pirates (was there really a scourge of American pirates pillaging their way along the UK coast at this time? If so, why didn't we learn about this in school? I'm saddened by this neglected area of my education.), and Mr Glenmorris is kidnapped and wounded, although not necessarily in that order. Mrs Glenmorris is then kidnapped by Mr Glenmorris' aunt because she claims Mr Glenmorris is certainly dead and the aunt wants their castle and money. Mrs Glenmorris is pregnant and this aunt wants the baby and mother to die so she can inherit without hindrance. The baby dies, Mrs Glenmorris escapes, falls in with a kindly gentleman who brings her to his home, his sister hates Mrs Glenmorris (of course), there's something about the gentleman getting shot (to be honest I wasn't really paying attention and couldn't be bothered to re-read what happened), Mrs Glenmorris is kidnapped again by the evil aunt aided by the gentleman's evil sister, escapes again and winds up hiding for weeks in some abandoned cottage. Mr Glenmorris miraculously wanders by her cottage one day, having escaped from the pirates, suffered various misfortunes and fevers, and they're happily reunited.

So then back to the daughter, born later in their wanderings. There's all sorts of other plottings, Mrs Glenmorris is the heiress to her family's fortune, but her mother hates Mrs Glenmorris (of course) and wants it to go to her other daughter's heirs. After Mr Glenmorris goes off to war, there's some legal wrangling about wills and money and other stuff. And then several various people decide to kidnap Medora (of course). Their lawyer tries to kidnap her because he loves her and wants to seduce her; she escapes, meets up with who she thinks is Delmont--but it's actually his brother who looks like him, he tries to seduce her, she escapes; winds up working in disguise as a maid in an earl's house, he tries to seduce Medora; she escapes again, and miraculously finds her father who's come back home. The one good thing I can say about Medora is that, unlike her mother, she's got a little more spunk and strength in her. Whereas Mrs Glenmorris did escape a few times, she was generally immediately captured, taken ill, so nervous she becomes paralyzed (literally), weeps and wails the whole way, and/or faints at the most inopportune times. Meanwhile when Medora first goes missing, Delmont's frantically looking, mother goes literally insane, there's a whole plot against Mrs Glenmorris by Delmont's frothing aunt, Mrs Glenmorris' mother, and various and sundry other folks and she's put in an insane asylum and not allowed to send letters to anyone for help in her more lucid moments. Father and daughter eventually find out where mother is, only Mrs Glenmorris has escaped again, and is now down at the seaside ready to commit suicide. Their appearance makes her miraculously sane and it all ends happily ever after, sort of, with the Glenmorrises and the newly married Delmont and Medora deciding to head to America. Whew!

The plot is definitely far too convoluted, with inexplicable and unexplained motives, too many unbelievable coincidences, and of course, the weeping, fainting, trembling, brain fevers and madness. What it does have going for it, is some interesting observations on how reputation and prestige should be based on one's self, and not on ancestry and upbringing; how the American society wasn't perfect, but it was the imperfections and unfairness of UK society that often drove British patriots to have to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and at least the American society allowed them to try or succeed; and despite many of the usual stereotypes present in novel, the belief that women should be self-reliant and educated. 

Charlotte Smith is somewhat forgotten today, but she was rather successful as a poet and novelist in the latter part of the 1700s. There is some autobiographical elements in her works, she had married young and had 12 children with an abusive compulsive spender. She began writing to alleviate her family's poverty, and eventually separated completely from her husband, although he apparently always made it clear that she would never fully be rid of him. Smith was rather progressive in her views, especially on women (although generally not as overtly feminist in her work as some of her other contemporaries, like Mary Wollstonecraft). Sadly, she died destitute, her brief popularity largely gone, and having spent the last years of her life almost paralyzed by rheumatoid arthritis.

The book, two stars out of five.

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