Response to Report: _The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph_

Liz DeGaynor


_Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph_ as Christian text (!?!?!?)

The question has come up often in our class thus far and it has been asked about widely different novels (the term *Christian* being somewhat more problematic for _Sentimental Journey_ than for _Clarissa_). I bring the issue to the fore with this story because it is compelling on a variety of levels. First, that it deals with religious issues (esp. predestination) that were being heatedly debated at the time. Second, that it lends itself to an allegorical reading, with Sidney being an 18th C. parallel for Job. Third, that it displays a movement away from orthodoxy and toward a rational morality--beliefs that are not rooted in the Church per se, but in the personal, the psychological, and the historical.

I. Predestination

Danielle notes that the *London Magazine* reviewer disparaged *Memoirs* because it encouraged the doctrine of Predestination. For those of you not well-versed in Calvinistic theology, it can be roughly defined as, "that voluntary act of the divine will whereby God predetermines or foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, and in particular the destinies of the good and the evil" (225, _The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics_). This doctrine has been altered and adapted by many religious denominations, some of whom use the term only for the positive direction of God sending souls to eternal life while effacing/denying God's role in the negative direction (often called "foreordination" to separate the two). Taken more broadly, the issue of predestination deals with the hand of God in the affairs of humans, how much part he takes in quotidian events, especially those that bring prosperity/happiness or loss/sorrow.

It is in this area of interrogation of God that we find *Memoirs* deeply invested. This is also where the proponents of a more rational (and less *religious*) morality gain a foothold in expecting that virtues should be rewarded here on earth--a belief not supported by Christian orthodoxy (which I will address further in a moment).

II. "Why do Bad things happen to Good people?"

The answers to this oft-asked theological dilemma have ranged from:

"The good people may/must not be as good as they seem" (God is purging hidden evil)

to the more palatable (perhaps) and less judgmental stance "It is all part of God's plan . . . a plan that we can only know in part,

IF we can know it at all". Ours is not to question why (i.e. WHY ME???), but to look for the higher--albeit hidden--purpose (though there is no promise of an answer, at least not while on earth).

Another answer is rooted in the New Testament strain that believes suffering is a means of empathizing (not just sympathizing) with the suffering of Christ. It is viewed not only as a means of purification or testing but as a glimpse of what the Savior endured. This dynamic is shown in II Timothy 2:11-12b, "If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him." This view focuses on the temporality of suffering, that it occurs ONLY on the earth (an earth tainted by sin and imperfection). It is only a temporary state of affairs which can be endured in light of the eternal joy to follow. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning." Psalm 30:5b

III. Sidney as Job

If one wants to glean an orthodox lesson from the text, as an aged Cecilia posits can easily be done, it is that life is not placid, nor does it promise an earthly happy ending (as other novels might offer). Much to the contrary, in fact, is the reality of the world as humans experience it. It is this realistic picture which she hopes might "indeed afford a more prevalent example, to the generality of young people" (5). Since we rarely see the virtuous being rewarded, Cecilia notes that this novel, in its particular difference from others:

"should serve to confirm that great lesson which we are all taught . . . to use the good things of this life with that indifference, which things that are neither permanent in their own nature, nor of any estimation in the sight of God, deserve. On the other hand, to consider the evils which befal us, as equally temporary, and no more dispensed by the great ruler of all things for punishments, than the others are for rewards; and by thus estimating both, to look forward for an equal distribution of justice, to that place only, where (let our station be what it will) our lot is to be unchangeable. It is in this light that I was instructed in my early days to consider the various portions that fall to the share of manking; which very often, as far as we can see, appear extremely partial; and no doubt would really be so, were there not an invisible world where the distributions are just and equal . . . What then are to conclude, but that God does not estimate things as we do? It is ignorant as well as sinful to arraign his providence" (v.1.6-7).

"Many and bitter were the sufferings she [Sidney] had already endured, but she was, to use her own words, Set up as a mark; and the deep afflictions that still pursued her, and clouded even her latter days with misfortunes, may serve to shew that it is not here that true virtue is to look for its reward. I saw her at a time when this reflection, as it had been her chief, so it was her last and only consolation" (v.3.338)

Thus, the perserverence of Job (and his recognition that God is in control) becomes the center of a didactic lesson. For Sidney, as for Job, "her portion is affliction" but unlike Job, she is not rewarded with double portions of both the material and the personal prosperity (her material gain via Mr. Warner not being adequate compensation for her other pains). She pays for sins that she did not commit, as her mother notes, "you are a martry for the crimes of others." Her response, however, is not to shake her fist at her maker: "I have no remedy for it but patience" (v.2.305).

She goes so far as to be thankful for her suffering: "'tis good for me that I have been in trouble, it has so enlarged my charity, that I feel transports which prosperity is a stranger to, at the bare idea of having it in my power to succour the afflicted. Who would not suffer adversity to have the heart so improved?" (v.3.122) [Note also her prayer upon the re-acquisition of wealth (v.3.133)]

IV. Rational Morality

It seems that many of the characters in and readers of the novel would answer her question in a tone unbecoming of a good Christian . . . which leads to issues of REAL WORLD morality. These are the moralists, who, like Samuel Johnson say, "I know not, Madam, that you have a right, upon moral principles, to make your readers suffer so much." This is less an endictment on orthodox moral grounds than it is a plea for a warranted justice (the good *guy* should finish first, as it were).

The frame tale of *Memoirs* gives us the story of a story-telling, to which a visitor objected because, "the moral, which it inculcates is a discouraging lesson, especially to youth; for the blooming hero of the story, though adorned with the highest virtues of humanity, truth, modesty, gratitude, filial piety, nobleness of mind, and valour in the most eminent degree, is not only buried in obscurity, by a severe destiny, till he arrives at manhood, but when he emerges into light, is suddenly cut off by an untimely death, and that at a juncture too, when we might (morally speaking) say his virtues ought to have been rewarded" (v.1.5)

With a historical move toward a morality of immediacy, this story, like the story told in the beginning, becomes problematic because it is unfair. The characters, however, are shown to be capable of moral thought and thus moral complexity ensues in layers not recognized/supported by orthodoxy.

Once again, we are in the land of the Letter of the Law vs. the Spirit of the Law, but now we have a tendency to favor the RIGHT that should prevail in the world as we live it, not in the eternity to come. There are now two levels of Right:

1. Heavenly--how God should/does treat humans

2. Earthly--how humans should treat one another and how they should expect to be treated by God (the latter being a tad too assuming for conventional norms).

Christianity must contend with issues of pragmatism and this conflict is complicated by issues of gender in the text.

V. Masculine vs. Feminine Morals

These morals are specifically rooted in issues of sexuality in *Memoirs* as shown in the example of Orlando (e.g. the extent of his rakishness).

In Lady Bidulph, feminine morals become (proto-)feminist views: "Going against the current ordinary opinion at that time (so well represented by Sir George), she insists not only on the right of a delicate woman to the love of an uncorrupted man, but also, and most unusually, on the rights of the woman seduced, If all women combined in such solidarity, then the men would not be able to continue their career of rakishnes, would not be able to treat seduction as a light an laughable matter" (Doody, 331).

whereas, "The masculine views of women and sex do not make for sexual or emotional happiness for either men or women. The novel satirizes the crudity of masculine views, and of the world's views of family life, sexuality, and society's claims" (Doody, 344).

Although Sheridan seems to support a feminist stand against "restrictions and debasements," it too is limited by "human fallibility." Thus, when Sidney becomes moral judge and jury of Orlando, she does so without enough evidence and inevitably makes the wrong judgment. "Above all, it must be seen that all moral life is intensely fragile, that even the highest decisions are founded partly on guesswork and prejudice, and that 'worthy' acts have another side" (Doody, 344).

Morality, then, becomes more of a relative struggle than a religious absolute. It is interesting, also, to add the moral views of Lady Grimston ("she passes for a wonderful good woman, and a pattern of all those virtues of a religion which meekness and forgiveness characterise. She is mistaken, if she thinks that authority is necessary to christianity" v.1.163) and Orlando into the mix, as they seem to muddy the water of these gender lines.


1. Where do you, as reader, place your moral alliance and why? Is this sympathy rooted in gender and/or in philosophical world view? How does such a stance color your reading of this story (i.e. what does it do to your Sensibility?)

2. How can we copare/contrast issues of morality in *Memoirs* to those portrayed in *Clarissa*? How does Sheridan's more relativistic view work as a Puritan conduct book in teaching the *proper* response? Do we respond differently to Sidney and Clarissa (in terms of moral judgments and sympathy--that Clarissa may partly be at fault for having left her father's whereas Sidney is *blameless* of anything beyond "human fallibility")?