Puckett Response

Elizabeth Inchbald A Simple Story (1791)

A Simple Necessity

> >

Many of the texts we've looked at this term are framed > with an editor's note or author's explanation: _Les Liaisons > began with the deviously divided Publisher's Note and Editor's > Preface; _Clarissa_ required a particularly involved editorial > presence to make sense of her posthumous collection; _Sidney > Bidulph_ and _The Italian_ both resorted to narrative frames to > explain the textual fact of their stories and to make ambiguous > the way in which readers should apprehend them. In each of > these cases, the author of the text invented an interested > compiler or occasion which demanded the unearthing of evidence > in order to situate the reader into a fictional context of > reception. In _A Simple Story_, however, Elizabeth Inchbald's > Preface creates, rather than reduces, anxiety. She narrates > (apparently erroneously) the primarily economic forces which > drove her again to enter into a business she had apparently > little taste for: >

> ...the writer frankly avows, that during the time she has been > writing it, she has suffered every quality and degree of > weariness and lassitude, into which no other employment could > have betrayed her. (1) >

> What is the effect of this unusual writing against the grain? > Is the reader implicated into an uncomfortable economy which > forces the author to continue with an occupation she so clearly > dislikes? If the other frames we've encountered this term > serve to provide support for the fictions they contain, does > this resigned Preface make acute the fictionality of what's to > come and throw the reader into crisis before the story even > begins? >

> >

A Natural Duplicity?


> When we read _Les Liaisons Dangereuses_ earlier this > year, Danny asked us to consider Cecile Volanges as a new > phenomenon because of her "natural duplicity." This category > seems important to _A Simple Story_. The characters we > encounter in this novel are certainly different from any we've > yet seen precisely because of a peculiar sense of psychological > ambivalence which permeates their behavior. In fact, duality > and uncertainty of motive seem to define the ways in which the > characters act and the ways in which we can understand them. > On pages 14-15 for instance, Miss Milner is described in terms > which don't deny her virtue, but situate her in a complex > context which allows for lesser virtue because of greater > temptation, and on page 33 we read that "Although Dorriforth > was that good man that has been described there was in his > nature shades of evil . . ." Every character appears conflicted > in ways similar to these; is Inchbald's moral universe > naturally duplicitous? Is it, in fact, that the characters are > all possessed of a complicated moral shape, or has the idea of > morality itself been complicated? That is, has "virtue" as an > ideal, and "honesty" as an ideal become complicated while our > characters remain, pardon the word, flat? >

> >

Indexical Sensibility


> In _A Simple Story_, there seems to be a great deal of > importance placed on outward displays of interior emotion. Like > Sterne, Inchbald seems extremely interested in the distance > between an internal sensation and its accompanying > signification, though unlike Sterne, there seems to me to be > room for misreading in Inchbald. In other words, an incidence > of feeling is presented not as a complete fact, but rather as a > Piercean Index: >

> I define an Index as a sign determined by its Dynamic object by > virtue of being in a real relation to it. (C. S. Pierce, > "Letters to Lady Welby") >

> The Inchbaldian physical display of sentiment (the blush, the > tear, the palsy) is an Index in the same way as the symptom of > disease: its connection to the object it may represent is > "real," though the relation between signifier and signified may > be misconstrued. Are we then looking at another instance of > the epistemological crisis we discussed last week? If you can't > trust your feelings (or the outward displays of other people's > feelings) who can you trust? >

> >

Lawnmower or Inclined Plane?


> Why is this book called _A Simple Story_? If we think > of simple in terms of the distinction between simple and > complex machines (a complex machine being one which is made up > of two or more simple machines), it becomes clear that what > we're dealing with is, in fact, an extremely "complex" story. > Inchbald uses the intersection of different genres, different > masks, and different tenses to produce a complicated, confusing > machine. >

The way the first and second part of the book hang > together seems to me extremely complex, with each of the two > parts informing the other and forcing the reader into a > shifting (and finally endless) cycle of re-evaluation. > Familial structures and moral designs are rewritten and placed > on top of each other like a messy biblical palimpsest. This > friction is intensified in the juxtaposition of the different > genres in the text; the sentimental and the gothic are forced > into the same frame with only the thinnest of membranes > separating them. The coexistence of the two forms creates a > temporal dissonance which ambiguates the apprehension of > either. >

Character development is treated in a similar way. > There is, undeniably, character development in this novel. If > we were to open the text at two different randomly selected > pages and analyze the character of Dorriforth or Miss Milner, > we would see different characters. Development isn't, however, > gradual or traceable in any real way. It seems to me the > masquerade becomes a useful way of understanding the way the > characters move throughout the story. Identity is described in > the novel as the successive acquisition of different whole > identities; the catholic priest becomes the English Lord; > Sandford the curmudgeon becomes Sandford the warm-hearted; Miss > Milner wears mask after mask, sometimes as part of a more or > less elaborated plan of action and other times as mysteriously > as the fluid gendering she participates in at the costume > party. In this way, we are presented with whole and distinct > characters at different points in the narrative and are invited > to imagine the space in between them. >

Another complex element is the shifting between past > and present which occurs at at least two points in the novel. > One is on page 64 and another on page 91. In both cases a > present tense paragraph is introduced into an otherwise past > tense context. These seem to me an awkward though effective > attempt to increase tension. They are awkward because they are > isolated and their purpose, I think, is obscure. They are > effective because they become a part of the novel's complex > interplay of parts. The intersection of differently formed > parts with distinct and, perhaps, unmixable natures seems to me > an important and recurring quality of this book. >

Is this again part of a break down in the way sentiment > is transmitted? Are the conflicting methods of Elizabeth > Inchbald similar to the mutliple feelings each physical > movement can represent? Again, are these characters naturally > and inherently duplicitous or rather composed of multiple and > distinct personalities? >