Simmons Report

Elizabeth Inchbald A Simple Story (1791)

Composition History of _A Simple Story_.

Most critics agree that Elizabeth Inchbald probably began work on _A Simple Story_ long before its eventual publication in 1791. Inchbald's first biographer, James Boaden, indicates that she drafted an outline of the novel in February 1777, around the same time she met the actor John Kemble. Although Inchbald was married at the time, she and Kemble developed an extremely close friendship and there were rumors that their relationship was a romantic one. Indeed, many critics suggest that the character of Dorriforth was modeled on Kemble, in part because Kemble studied at the Catholic seminary in Douai, though he eventually abandoned the priesthood for the theater. Whatever the merits of these biographical speculations, Kemble clearly knew that Inchbald was writing a novel and light-heartedly inquired about its progress in June 1778: "Now to your writings. Pray how far are you advanced in your novel? What new characters have you in it - what situations? How many distressed damsels and valorous knights? how many prudes, how many coquettes? what libertines, what sentimental rogues in black and empty cut-throats in red? I must know all this whenever you write to this quarter again, which I hope will be soon" (As cited in James Boaden's _Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald_, vol. I, pg. 93). Inchbald finished her novel - or a version of it - soon after her husband's death in June 1779 and sent a copy of it to Kemble in August. Kemble evidently approved of her work and in October she sent the manuscript off to a publisher named Stockdale who politely refused to accept a work by an unknown author.

During the next ten years, Inchbald put aside her manuscript and devoted her efforts to acting and playwriting, authoring ten plays between 1784 and 1789. She "retired" from the stage in 1789 with a modest income of 58 pounds per year and turned her attention back to her novel. Over the next two years, Inchbald revised and expanded her manuscript, allowing both William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft to read and critique her efforts. Because there is no extant manuscript of _A Simple Story_, it is difficult to speak with any certainty as to the nature or extent of Inchbald's revisions. It seems very likely, however, that Inchbald made very extensive changes to her original narrative and may well have added large chunks of new material. Indeed, many critics (Boaden, McKee, Tompkins, Manvell) believe that the "original" 1779 version of _A Simple Story_ contained only the narrative of Dorriforth and Miss Milner (essentially volumes I and II) and that Inchbald spent the whole of 1789-90 writing volumes three and four - the story of Matilda. Although Patricia Sigl recently challenged this theory, "arguing that the characterization of Miss Milner could not have been achieved before Inchbald's experience with comedy had taught her to develop the witty heroine, and that Sanford depends on a prototype in her [theatrical] comedy" (_A Simple Story_, Intro, pp. x-xi), her account does not necessarily contradict the dominant view that Inchbald composed the novel's two main parts at different times in her career.

Clearly, this conception of _A Simple Story's_ composition has definite interpretive ramifications for our reading of the novel. Again and again, critics of _A Simple Story_ have used details of the novel's composition history to interrogate its artistic unity and comment upon the relationship between the Miss Milner and Matilda narratives. In his _Elizabeth Inchbald and Her Circle_, S. R. Littlewood argues that _A Simple Story's_ great fault lies in its dualistic narrative structure: "There does not seem to be any exact reason for this double generation of heroines. The moral remains the same, and the character of the daughter, though it does not repeat that of the mother, hardly intensifies the point of view. In short, the whole of the second part is something of an anti-climax" (pg. 76). William McKee, though far more sympathetic to the novel's artistic merits, attacks what he calls the didactic elements of the novel (i.e. the "Proper Education" mentioned at the end) with a direct appeal to its split composition history. "If Mrs. Inchbald iterates any didactic element in the novel previous to its conclusion, that element is of minor importance, and was inserted shortly before the novel was published, at the instigation of either William Godwin or Thomas Holcroft.... To declare that _A Simple Story _ was intended by its author to be a treatise on education is to disregard that long history of its composition and rest one's case upon two paragraphs which strictly speaking have no part in the novel, since they were added after the work was completed" ( McKee, _Elizabeth Inchbald_, pg. 146.) Significantly, it is important to note that McKee offers no new or additional information about the novel's composition and that he bases his arguments about the supposed Holcroft/ Godwin insertions on pure conjecture. Though it is certain that Godwin and Holcroft saw the novel in manuscript form, no one really knows what sorts of criticisms and suggestions the two offered Inchbald. In fact, Gary Kelly directly counters McKee and reads _A Simple Story _ as a social commentary on education precisely by celebrating Holcroft's and Godwin's influence. For Kelly, the fact that Inchbald made substantial revisions and additions during the late 1780's, read various books and treatises on education, and received input from Godwin and Holcroft confirms what he sees as the novel's Jacobin sensibility and social didacticism.

I include these three disparate critical approaches to _A Simple Story's_ composition history in order to stimulate some discussion about the relationship between the two "halves" of the novel and the circumstances of its composition. Though it may seem old fashioned and dated to talk about artistic unity and coherence (and I should add that I'm very, very far from being a supporter of the notion of organic unity/wholeness), I want to suggest that virtually any interpretation of _A Simple Story_ needs to consider seriously the novel's dual narrative structure and the ways in which it functions. Indeed, all the major critics of this novel implicitly or explicitly make certain assumptions about the relations between the Milner and Matilda narratives, whether they read it as a didactic purpose novel, a narrative of sentimental passion, a radical social critique, or an exploration of masculine- feminine power relations. The fact that Inchbald composed the novel's two narrative strands at different times and under different circumstances does not necessarily imply artistic error as Littlewood myopically argues. Nor does it mean that _A Simple Story_ is a mere amalgam of two fundamentally unrelated narratives cobbled together for one reason or another. Instead, I think it might be helpful to use the composition history as a springboard to discuss certain problematic aspects of the novel such as the Gothic elements in volumes three and four or the issues of education and didacticism. I'll return to some issues surrounding the dualistic narrative structure a little later in this report.

Textual and Reception History of _A Simple Story_.

_A Simple Story_ was finally published in February 1791 in four volumes, almost fourteen years after Inchbald began writing it. The publisher, George Robinson, offered Inchbald a very respectable 200 pounds for the manuscript and subsequently sold the final product for 12 shillings a copy. Critical praise and acclaim for the novel was nearly universal and every major literary periodical featured glowing reviews. The _European Magazine_, which was usually "Accustomed, under the heading Novel, to encounter every kind of disgust which inanity can inspire", found itself "happy... to proclaim a more fortunate birth; a child of vigour, health, and energy" in _A Simple Story_. Similarly, _The Gentleman's Magazine_ praised Inchbald's work and celebrated the originality of her novel: "She has struck out a path entirely her own. She has disdained to follow the steps of her predecessors, and to [sic] construct a new novel, as is too commonly done, out of the scraps and fragments of earlier inventors". What impressed reviewers the most seemed to be Inchbald's talent for sketching dramatic narrative, her "truth of description," the "uniformity of character," and the narrative's "peculiar unity; superior to that of some even [sic] of our best novels" ( See _The Gentleman's Magazine_ and _The Critical Review_ although the other major reviews described the novel's technical merits in similar terms). Most reviewers also liked what they saw as _A Simple Story's_ didactic and moral purpose. Indeed, _The Analytical Review_ was uncomfortable with merely praising the moral aspect of the novel and actually offered suggestions as to how Inchbald could strengthen its impact and effects: "Mrs. I. had evidently a very useful moral in view, namely to show the advantage of a good education... It were to be wished, in fact, in order to insinuate a useful moral into thoughtless unprincipled minds, that the faults of the vain, giddy miss Milner had not been softened, or rather gracefully withdrawn from notice by the glare of such splendid, yet fallacious virtues, as flow from sensibility"[!]. The few criticisms leveled at the book were mainly grammatical and many reviewers complained that Inchbald had not properly proofread her work before sending it off to press. This may explain some of the corrections found in the second edition of March 1991 which eliminated many of the "provincialisms, colloquial ellipses, and irregular grammar" that characterized the first edition. Since our Tompkins-Spenser edition of _A Simple Story_ includes a rather complete account of Inchbald's textual emendations as well as a list of the various editions and translations of the novel (See a "Note on the Text" and the "Select Bibliography"), I will not repeat it here.

Power and Sensibility in _A Simple Story_.

I want to return to the issue of the double narrative in _A Simple Story_ and examine how the stories of Miss Milner and Matilda relate to each other. As I read this novel, I was struck by the way in which the various relationships, specifically male- female relationships, were explicitly framed as struggles for power and control. Again and again Miss Milner battles with Dorriforth and Sanford, sometimes for the rhetorical point, sometimes for more tangible liberties. Most importantly, these power struggles are fluid and shifting; at times, Dorriforth and Sanford are in control, while in other cases Miss Milner seizes power. Indeed, the very first time Miss Milner meets Dorriforth, "she burst into a flood of tears, knelt down to him for a moment, and promised ever to obey him as her father" (p. 13). Her oath of submission and filial piety does not last long, however, and the very next morning Miss Milner angers and offends Dorriforth, Miss Woodley, and Mrs. Horton with a sly jab at Catholic theology- "In some respects I am like you Roman Catholics; I don't believe from my own understanding, but from what other people tell me" (p.16)- then compounds the insult by laughing at their reactions. Similar moments appear throughout the first half of the novel as Miss Milner repeatedly tests the bounds of Sanford's temper and Dorriforth's patience. These power struggles become very explicit as Miss Milner and Dorriforth begin to recognize that they have romantic feelings for each other. Soon after Miss Woodley inadvertently reveals Miss Milner's secret love to Dorriforth (now Lord Elmwood), he comes home and finds Miss Milner at the supper table unable to eat her food. The passage is significant and worth quoting at length:

"With a feeling of humanity, and apparently no other sensation - but never did he feel philanthropy so forcibly- Lord Elmwood said, 'Let me beg of you, Miss Milner, to have something provided for you.' The earnestness and emphasis with which these few words were pronounced, were more flattering than the finest turned compliment had been; her gratitude was expressed by blushes, and by assuring his lordship she was now 'so well as to be able to sup on what was before her.' - She spoke, however, and had not made the trial; for the moment she carried a piece to her lips, she laid it on her plate again, and turned paler, from the vain endeavour to force her appetite. Lord Elmwood had ever been attentive to her, but now he watched her as he would a child; and when he saw by her struggles she could not eat, he took her plate from her; gave her something else; and all with a care and watchfulness in his looks, as if he had been a tender-hearted boy, and she his darling bird, the loss of which, would embitter all the joy of his holidays." (p. 134)

A tender and sentimental moment, to be sure, but something in the language of the passage is disturbing and unsettling; particularly since this is the scene in which Dorriforth realizes he is in love with Miss Milner. Indeed, the text is explicit: Dorriforth is the boy, Miss Milner the captive bird, "the loss of which, would embitter all the joy of his holidays". Dorriforth may be enjoying a sentimental moment, but it is one conceived in terms of power and subordination. In effect, Dorriforth has all the power in this situation and imagines Miss Milner as a helpless object of pity. If this is a love scene, what sort of love is Dorriforth offering? Certainly not a love based on equality.

Significantly, the roles reverse a few pages later after Dorriforth declares his love to Miss Milner and proposes marriage. In a remarkable interior monologue, Miss Milner imagines the power she has over Dorriforth as a result of his declaration of love: "' Are not my charms even more invincible than I ever believed them to be? Dorriforth, the grave, the sanctified, the anchorite Dorriforth, by their force is animated to all the ardour of the most impassioned lover - while the proud priest, the austere guardian, is humbled, if I but frown... Why did I not keep him longer in suspense? he could not have loved me more, I believe; but my power over him might have been greater still'"(p. 138). As Miss Milner realizes, courtship is a liminal period in the life of an eighteenth century woman. It is a period in which she has power, she has control. Before the courtship, her father or guardian controls her life while afterwards, the husband assumes that role: "As my guardian, I certainly did obey him; and I could obey him as a husband; but as a lover, I will not" (p. 154). Indeed, Miss Milner vows to make the most of her new found power and tests Dorriforth repeatedly, almost losing him over her disobedience with the masquerade. Even when all seems lost and Dorriforth renounces her after Lord Frederick appears at the house, Miss Milner exults in her power and tells Miss Woodley: "If you intend to say I have done wrong, still I am not sorry for it, while it has given me such convincing proofs of Lord Elmwood's love. - Did you see him/ I am afraid you did not see how he trembled? - and that manly, firm voice faltered, as mine does sometimes - his proud heart was humbled too; as mine is some times. - Oh! Miss Woodley,... we not only love, but we love equally." (p. 172).

In _Masquerade and Civilization_, Terry Castle argues that Inchbald's narrative- with all its power struggles- represents "an incorrigibly feminist plot". (Castle, p. 294). In fact "_A Simple Story_ offers an unfamiliar image of female plot. Here the heroine's desires repeatedly triumph over masculine prerogative; familial, religious, and psychic patterns of male domination collapse in the face of her persistent will to liberty". Although I am sympathetic with her argument, Castle's reading of Inchbald's novel as an extended "chain of violations" and series of feminine rebellions is, I think, somewhat optimistic. The second half of the novel, with the scandalous exile and death of Miss Milner, the tyrannical Lord Elmwood, and the oppressed Matilda seems to undercut Castle's depiction of this novel as a "restlessly anti-authoritarian, even avant- garde work" (Castle, p. 292). Whatever freedom and power Miss Milner gained during her courtship in the first two volumes disappears in the last two. As Patricia Spacks suggests, Matilda's story is "not a narrative of freedom and power, but one of necessary acceptance and limited reconciliation" (_Desire and Truth_, p. 199) which reaffirms conventional social patterns and reinscribes masculine prerogative and power in the figure of Lord Elmwood. Even in the closing moments of the second volume, Inchbald suggests that Matilda's struggle for power has been futile: "Miss Milner - (with all the fears, the tremors, the superstition of her sex) - felt an excruciating shock; when, looking on the ring Lord Elmwood had put upon her finger, in haste, when he married her, she perceived it was a -MOURNING RING." (p. 193). There are two possible ways to read "Mourning" in this line - either as mourning for the loss of Miss Milner's liberty and power once she marries Dorriforth or as a mourning for the eventual catastrophe of the marriage itself. Both ways of interpreting "mourning" are equally gloomy and mediate against an overly optimistic reading of this text. Although Inchbald gestures toward a new sort of power - a genuinely feminine power- she ultimately offers only the promise of that power, not its establishment.


I'll be honest and confess that this novel left me with far more questions than answers. As such , I think it's fitting that I end my report by posing some of them to the class.

1. To what extent is _A Simple Story_ the combination of two separate and distinct narratives? Does an understanding of the novel's composition history help at all with our interpretation of the relationship between the "two halves" of the novel? Do we even want to think of the text in those structural terms?

2. How does _A Simple Story_ fit within the tradition of novels of sensibility and/ or sentimentality? Are the first two volumes more "sensibilious" than the last two and if so, can we attribute that to the novel's unusual composition history?

3. Is this a didactic novel? That is, should we read this text as a commentary or critique of women's education during the period, or is Inchbald hinting toward something else when she contrasts the "pernicious effects of an improper education" with the beneficial ones of a "PROPER EDUCATION" by the school of prudence and adversity? Do we read this moral straight or skeptically?

4. A supplement to the above question. What sort of education do men receive and what effect does it have on them? Lord Elmwood' s seminary training certainly seems to have little effect mitigating his selfishness and cruelty toward Matilda in the second half of the book.

5. What do we make of the ending of the novel? "Whether the heart of Matilda, such as it has been described, could sentence him [Rushbrook] to misery, the reader is left to surmise- and if he supposes that it did not, he has every reason to suppose their wedded life was a life of happiness." (p. 337). Given the grim consequences of Lord and Lady Elmwood's marriage, can we really imagine that Rushbrook and Matilda will be happy? Why does Inchbald leave the novel's ending open and invite the reader to draw her own conclusions? Select Bibliography for _A Simple Story_.

Primary Texts:

Inchbald, Elizabeth. _A Simple Story_. 1791. ed. Jane Spenser and J.M.S.

Tompkins. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

Rev. of _A Simple Story_, by Elizabeth Inchbald. _The Analytical Review_ May 1791:101-103.

Rev. of _A Simple Story_, by Elizabeth Inchbald. _The Critical Review_ Feb. 1791: 207-13.

Rev. of _A Simple Story_ , 2nd edition, by Elizabeth Inchbald. _The Critical Review_ April 1791:435.

Rev. of _A Simple Story_, by Elizabeth Inchbald. _European Magazine_ March 1791:197.

Rev. of _A Simple Story_, by Elizabeth Inchbald. _The Gentleman's Magazine_ March 1791:255.

Rev. of _A Simple Story_, by Elizabeth Inchbald. _The Monthly Review_ ns. v4. 1791:434-38.

Secondary and Critical Works:

Boaden, James. _Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald_. 2 vols. London, 1833.

Castle, Terry. _ Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth- Century English Culture and Fiction_. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986.

Foster, James R. _History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England_. New York: MLA, 1966.

Kelly, Gary. _The English Jacobin Novel 1780 - 1805_. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

Littlewood, S.R. _Elizabeth Inchbald and Her Circle_. London: O'Connor, 1921.

Manvell, Roger. _Elizabeth Inchbald: A Biographical Study_. Lanham: UP of America, 1987.

McKee, William. _Elizabeth Inchbald: Novelist_. Diss. Catholic U. of America, 1935. Washington D.C.: Catholic U. of America, 1935.

Rogers, Katharine M. "Elizabeth Inchbald: Not Such a Simple Story." _Living By the Pen: Early British Women Writers_. Ed. Dale Spender. New York: Teacher's College P, 1992. 82-90.

Schofield, Mary Anne. _Masking and Unmasking the Female Mind_. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. _Desire and Truth_. Chicago; U of Chicago P, 1990.

Tompkins, J.M.S. _The Popular Novel in England 1770- 1800_. Lincoln; U of Nebraska P, 1961.

Ty, Eleanor. _Unsex'd Revolutionaries_. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.