Pelfrey Response

Elizabeth Inchbald A Simple Story (1791)

I do hope everyone found *A Simple Story* as pleasureable a read as I did (not least because it felt to me like coming home to one of those many nineteenth-century novels I eagerly consumed in more youthful days); Miss Milner seemed a particular revelation, especially after the near-characterlessness of some of our recent excursions.

Most especially the novel reminded me of *Wuthering Heights* and *Mansfield Park* (in which, you may recall, Inchbald's play *Lovers' Vows* figures centrally), with their impacted, quasi-incestuous family structures. Indeed, the two-story, two-generation structure common to *WH* and *SS* is oft-remarked in the secondary literature (to which I would add a reminder of the similar pattern at work in the *Conclusion to the Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph*). Less discussed is the novel's rhetoric of incest; I'd like for us to linger a moment on *SS*' fathers and daughters, and to try to draw some connections between the novel's metaphorics of incest and its assessments of gender and power.

In *Desire and Truth*, Ms. Spacks comments that "symbolic father-daughter incest permeates early Gothic fiction" (149); in novels such as *The Monk* and *The Castle of Otranto*, we see all manner of phallic aggression and sexualized violation carried out on daughters and daughter-figures by fathers and father-figures. In *SS*, however, the driving force of both stories is not so much paternal violation as filial desire (the dream of erotic union with the guardian/priest, the dream of reunion with the father). These desires for the father can of course be read Freudianly as our heroines' aspirations to power; the fates of our heroines, however, dramatize the degree to which this desire inevitably redounds to the detriment of the daughter.

As Terry Castle suggests in *Masquerade and Civilization*, patriarchal prohibitions in this novel consistently give way in the face of female desire. Miss Milner memorably desires her guardian "with all the passion of a mistress, and with all the tenderness of a wife" (72) at the same time that she more than once looks on him "as if she...beheld a parent" (62). (And remember that Miss Woodley suggestively asserts that, had Miss Milner been educated properly [as a Catholic or in the sacredness of the RC vocation], she would have come to love Dorriforth with no more thought to erotic attachment than exists between a sister and brother; Miss Woodley figures the particular transgressiveness of Miss Milner's desire for Dorriforth as incestuous.) The attraction to the father-figure constitutes the rebellion against patriarchal authority (in the form of the Church). But the course of events legitimates her covert desire as Dorriforth is freed from his "Fatherhood," and the typical nonsexual paternity of the guardian's relationship to his ward seems to evaporate unproblematically. Then, though Dorriforth/Lord Elmwood's injunction against attending the masquerade precipitates an apparently permanent break, Miss Milner's desire is nonetheless achieved.

In this first half of the novel, erotic desire is consistently represented in terms of power; while participating in this discourse, Miss Milner's desire seems to look forward to a power equality in its consummation: "'we not only love, but we love equally'" (172). Her defenses of her "coquettish" behavior during the engagement consistently appeal to symmetries of gendered power -- "'If he will not submit to be my lover, I will not submit to be his wife'" (154) -- that are in force for her even before her desire is revealed: "'To me a common rake is as odious, as a common prostitute is to a man of the nicest feelings'" (120) she says to Miss Woodley against Lord Frederick. The daughter-figure longs for a relationship with the good father-figure in which she will accede to a position of equal power. The conclusion of the first half of the novel -- in which, as Castle notes, Miss Milner doesn't even have to beg for forgiveness or vow future subservience for the union to occur (Castle 318) -- seems to endorse this possibility (at least until...the "MOURNING RING"!!!).

Of course, this possibility is not borne out. Not twenty pages into the second half of the novel, our vivid and beloved Miss Milner/Lady Elmwood is reduced to a sort of passive-aggressiveness in order to achieve the will that she must disavow -- and that by appealing (from beyond the grave) to Lord Elmwood, not as his wife or as the mother of their child, but as "Miss Milner your ward" (211), as Dorriforth/Elmwood's surrogate daughter, as Mr. Milner's daughter. In supplication to Elmwood on behalf of their daughter (as "Mr. Milner's grand-daughter" [210]), she re-subordinates herself as permanent daughter (to both men!), establishing that the only way to have any power as a daughter is indeed the passive, circumspect way in which Matilda will be "rewarded" with a reconciliation with her father and marriage to his surrogate, his heir, her cousin-brother, Rushbrook.

It is true, as Castle suggests, that the second half of the novel follows the "pattern of proscription/transgression/reward" (323) that characterizes Miss Milner's relation to masculine prohibitions/the Father's Law in the first half of the novel. But it does powerfully matter (as Castle does not seem to think that it does) that Matilda accidentally transgresses, whereas her mother intentionally does so. Matilda's "passive transgression" of her father's law earns her (finally) recognition, but as a permanent daughter, whereas Miss Milner's active transgression of patriarchal law and surrogate-paternal injunction in the first half of the novel promised to earn her an equal place. And, even more creepily, Matilda is, as Miss Woodley's "imagination" suggests, her mother "risen from the grave in her former youth, health, and exquisite beauty" (221); Matilda is so much her mother that her passive, daughterly desire (so much not her mother) erases the happy possibility of female accession to power that her mother's desire embodied. Thus when Elmwood murmurs "'Miss Milner--Dear Miss Milner'" and clasps Matilda to his bosom when he meets her on the steps (274), his conflation of mother and daughter (signal gesture of a number of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century father-daughter incest plots, according to Susan Allen Ford) emphasizes the disciplinary moral of the daughter's plot (which is why I seem only to be able to read the novel's final "moral" -- "A PROPER EDUCATION" -- as bitterly ironic). To revise Castle's thesis, fathers' laws do fall in the face of daughters' desires, but to no permanent gain of power for the daughters; patriarchy shows itself as constructed, and flimsily at that, but its opposition of the sexes is too pervasive, too irreconcileable (legality and economic dependency are both key here).

Near the conclusion of "A Name More Dear," Ford queries: "Why at this particular time is there a conjunction of novels exploring father-daughter incest as the destructive force [of the patriarchal family]?" (68). For this novel, one answer seems to be: because the daughter's desire for the father signifies the desire to be like the father, the desire for recognition, equality, power -- all of which is bound to be disruptive to the patriarchal order. At the same time, however, *SS* dramatizes the absolute futility of this desire: the way in which, as Ms. Spacks writes of the father-daughter bond in Radcliffe, "the dangerous, ambivalent love of daughters for fathers...also emphasizes women's exclusion from male power" (160).

I need to stop, though I feel I've barely scratched the surface. I'll leave you with a couple of additional questions, mainly based on the affiliation I see between *SS* and *Wuthering Heights* and *Mansfield Park*:

One of the significant differences between the two-generation plot in *WH* and *SS* is that, in *SS*, the object of desire in the second generation is not just the double of the object of desire in the first generation, but the self-same person, changed from symbolic father to biological father. How does this alter the "world(s) of children without parents" that *WH* portrays?

The cousin-marriage at the end of *SS* certainly anticipates that in *Mansfield Park*, in which romantic passion and family bonds are brought into the nearest (non-monstrous) of relations by the marriage of Fanny and Edmund, permitting an ideal of family autonomy. Family/lineal autonomy is certainly preserved in *SS*, but, with Inchbald's mightily ambiguous narration of their future life, to what result here?


Castle, Terry. *Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century Culture and Fiction*. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Ford, Susan Allen. "A Name More Dear: Daughters, Fathers, and Desire in *A Simple Story*, *The False Friend*, and *Mathilda*." In *Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers 1776-1837*. Ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. *Desire and Truth*. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.