British Fiction, 18001829

LEE, Harriet. Canterbury Tales. Volume the Fourth (1801)

Contemporary Reviews

Critical Review, 2nd ser. 33 (Oct 1801): 207–15.

When we took our leave of the misses Lee, at the conclusion (as we then deemed it) of this very interesting performance [1], we expressed our regret that all the travellers had finished their tales, and that all further hope of amusement to us and the public had vanished, so early as at the conclusion of a third volume. It was, therefore, matter of peculiar, because unexpected, pleasure to us when we saw a fourth volume announced; and we perused it with readiness. It contains two stories, ‘the German’s Tale’ and ‘the Scotsman’s Tale,’ both by miss Harriet Lee, who very sensibly remarks to her readers, ‘that if they be good-naturedly disposed, they will not inquire minutely where the travellers were picked up, but will continue to ramble on with her through the regions of imagination, without much anxiety as to the object of the journey, provided the road prove but pleasant.’ From this address we shall indulge ourselves with the expectation of a farther continuance of the work, although the parties are no longer at Canterbury.

The German’s Tale commences with the arrival of a stranger, his wife, and infant son, at a little town in Silesia. Here a fever attacks the husband, which, together with a heavy fall of snow, (for the winter proves peculiarly severe) prevents all further advance towards Bohemia. The poor man’s malady becomes dangerous; the family has the prospect of indigence; and the resources of benevolence to be drawn from a miserable frontier town afford a hope extremely scanty and circumscribed.

‘The town, though in itself extremely insignificant, had been raised to temporary consideration some years before by the residence of the Prince, who had chosen to pass on that spot the period of a political disgrace; and his departure had again reduced it to its original obscurity. The inhabitants of M— might with great justice be divided exactly into two classes—the poor who were proud, and the poor who were not. The former dwelt in a small number of ill-built houses, confusedly huddled together, and dignified with the title of a Bourg; where, under the claims of a sort of antiquated and worn-out nobility, they indulged in arrogance and sloth. The latter, who were distributed over a long, straggling, and half-ruined suburb, were mere bourgeois, with wants and ideas equally contracted to their situation: nor had the two classes any thing in common but that selfishness and inertness which is the general result of ignorance.’ P. 4.

In this place Kruitzner and his family are detained, from the circumstances already related, till their little stock of money is quite exhausted. The landlord, who before had made up his [207/208] mind that so poor a man should not die in his house, begins to think it high time that they were now all out of it. Meanwhile the prince’s intendant had discovered something in the looks of Josephine which determined him to afford shelter to herself, her husband, and child, in the hope that he should be paid in the way which he most desired, namely, by the death of Kruitzner and the possession of his wife. He therefore removes them to a house adjacent to the deserted palace; where, contrary to the expectation of both himself and the inn-keeper, the stranger continues to improve daily. A lawyer of the name of Idenstein, and Mr. Weilburg the post-master, are the only two persons of consequence in the town except the intendant. This worthy trio fancy they discover something of dignity about the unhappy family, and, accordingly, put in practice all their little arts to discover who they really are. The stern manners of Kruitzner and the caution of Josephine, however, disappoint this curiosity, but miss Lee is more kind to that of her readers.

‘He who had announced himself at M___ simply as Frederick Kruitzner was by birth a Bohemian, and of the first class of nobility. Under the obscure name he now bore, he had buried that transmitted to him through a long line of illustrious ancestors, and which his father had hoped to see descend untarnished in the person of his son. Those hopes had long since vanished: and, before the period at which Kruitzner arrived at M—, Count Siegendorf had ceased to know whether or not he had a son in existence.

‘The Count himself, though his character was in the end not wholly free from a certain degree of austerity grafted upon it by afflicting circumstances, was naturally noble, generous, and humane. He was not without the pride of rank; but it acted only in a certain sphere. His moderation rendered him dear to his inferiors, in an age when subordination was vassalage, and every lord a petty despot. He was not young when he became a father, and he looked with the peculiar fondness of one who had hardly hoped to be such, on the son whom a dying wife trebly endeared to him. In the education of the young man nothing was neglected that was either honourable or useful; nor were his talents such as to disgrace his preceptors. His boyish days, if they gave not the promise of any eminent vigour of mind, were yet marked by quickness of apprehension and feeling; and, in his rapid progress towards manhood, his father believed he saw the promise of an honourable life. The person of the young Count was early formed: the hardy exercises to which he was habituated rendered it vigorous and manly. His features were fine; his voice was commanding; his eye then sparkled with that flame which now burnt so dimly in the socket; and he had a loftiness of demeanour which seemed the expression of a noble soul.

‘To this character of person, that of his mind, however, did not correspond. He had rather pride than dignity; and, unhappily, that very failing, which, when it springs from the consciousness of noble descent, sometimes becomes the source of noble actions, had on him a very opposite effect; for he was proud, not of his ancestors, but of him-[208/209]self. His mind had not vigour enough to trace causes in their effects. The splendor, therefore, which the united efforts of education, fortune, rank, and the merits of his progenitors, threw around him, was early mistaken for a personal gift—a sort of emanation proceeding from the lustre of his own endowments; and for which, as he believed he was indebted to nature, he resolved not to be accountable to man. By feelings like these, the grand principles of filial duty and affection could not be early undermined; and, reasoning progressively, upon this system, every new distinction which advancing life necessarily brought with it to a young man introduced under auspices so favourable, nourished the secret fault of his nature. He never stopt to inquire what he could have made himself, had he been born anything but he was. He was distinguished!—he saw it—he felt it—he was persuaded he should ever be so; and while yet a youth in the house of his father—dependent on his paternal affection, and entitled to demand credit of the world merely for what he was to be—he secretly looked down upon that world as made only for him.’ P. 57.

The reader will easily believe any thing that may be said of so headstrong a character as this. After wounding his father’s heart by repeated acts of obstinacy and folly, he is so unjust as to be angry with him for resenting it. He quits Bohemia, and travels into Saxony with two servants alone. His father endeavours to recall him, but he is obstinate still. After a course of dissipation he reaches Hamburg, with his health impaired and his money nearly spent. Here he contracts an acquaintance with Michelli, an Italian. This good old man was born poor but noble. He had devoted himself to mechanics, and gained a living at Hamburg by making mathematical instruments. Michelli felt himself interested by the situation and character of his new acquaintance, of whose rank in life, however, he had not the smallest suspicion: and the young count, humbled in some measure by sickness and adversity, was a frequent visitor of the Florentine and his daughter.

‘By a singular transition, the son of Count Siegendorf was now become a familiar guest at the frugal board and fire-side of Michelli; and never did days pass to him so delightfully. His understanding there daily improved; his temper harmonised; the vigour of his person returned;—his passions, acting for the first time under the impulse of reason and virtue, gave just energy enough to his manners to mark the features of his mind; and, finally—in the contemplation of all—the heart of Josphine became irrecoverably lost.

‘During the state of convalescence [2] and langour that had preceded this period, love was a passion that had rather stolen by degrees into the bosom of the Count than imperiously asserted a claim there; but its influence was not the less powerful,—it now reigned despotically [209/210] and unrivalled. In proportion as the inquietudes of passion began to seize upon him, he adverted however with more acute anxiety to his own real condition in life. Could he even have resolved to trample on the most sacred laws of hospitality or gratitude for the indulgence of his inclination, he felt that nothing short of systematical and consummate hypocrisy could afford him the remotest probability of success. The love of Josephine was a generous, tender, and genuine feeling, that looked out in her eyes, and spoke in her voice; but “no thought infirm altered her cheek,”—it was a feeling that would have gone through the world with a deserving object, and encountered without shrinking every sorrow that world could inflict; but it would have withered before the breath of disgrace. The Count, without being exactly able to calculate its force, yet felt its nature and was deeply sensible that such a woman must be at once resigned, or honourably secured. Yet that his father should consent to such an ill-assorted union was an idea so extravagant that he dared not for a moment indulge it: and hers, though he might be tempted by the moderation of his wishes to bestow his daughter on an obscure and deserving young man, would most unquestionably withhold her from the libertine son of Count Siegendorf,—one whose character, when known, would inspire no confidence, and whose age and rank would easily enable him to break through any tie not sanctioned by his family.

‘A temporary gloom again clouded the features and mind of the Count. The question had been, indeed, decided in his own bosom, from the moment it became such;—or it had never yet made a part of his character to contend with any passion; much less did it now, when to yield seemed a virtue:—but the manner in which he should present himself to Michelli; and, ah! the point still more difficult to decide, that in which he should address his daughter, became the constant subject of his meditations, and once more banished repose from his pillow. He now watched Josephine with those impassioned eyes which taught her soul timidly to shrink into itself, and present to his anxious imagination and quick feelings an exterior of coldness that almost drove him to distraction. With a perturbed heart, he at length ventured to sound the opinion of Michelli. The philosopher paused upon it—like a philosopher—or, as the Count rather thought, like the executioner who holds his ace suspended over the neck of the criminal. He answered at length, however, with his accustomed simplicity and plainness:—He had conceived highly of the talents of the young man; he had no reason to doubt his conduct; of his family he was but little solicitous to inquire; for the story of misfortune and emigration presented to him at the first period of their acquaintance, when, as it seemed no interested purpose could possibly be served by it, he never suspected could be other than true: but he was a philosopher of the later ages; and though he lived chiefly among the stars, he was aware that a little terrestrial provision was necessary towards the support of a household, however simple its plan. To this objection the young man was already prepared with an answer. Previous to his explanation with Michelli, he had had the precaution to convert many valuable jewels into money, which he lodged safely in respectable hands; and though, as the son of [210/211] Count Siegendorf, poverty had long stared him in the face, he was not indigent when considered only as the future son-in-law of Michelli. For the first time in his life, too, he now ventured to hint that he had talents—education; and was rendered modest enough by love to be surprised when he found the plea admitted. Michelli referred him finally to his daughter—and, in so doing, seemed, to the overwrought mind of the Count, to sign his death-warrant. He did not long, however, continue thus diffident: the passion that animated him soon found or made its opportunity; and Josephine was too much overwhelmed with the consciousness of her own feelings to be able to conceal from him that he was beloved beyond his most sanguine expectations.—Michelli soon after bestowed the hand of his daughter on the heir of Count Siegendorf, without knowing that he was raising her to a rank the proudest in the city would have envied,—that he was consigning her to a fate the humblest might pity.’ P. 84.

Some time after his marriage he confides the secret of his high birth to her and her father, and writes to count Siegendorf, expressing contrition and amendment. He advances to Cassel, to wait for his father’s answer; but there, unfortunately, meets with some of his old companions, who tempt him to his former excesses. His father discards him in consequence, but offers to take his son. Siegendorf returns to Hamburg, finds Michelli dead, and sends little Conrad, then eight years old, into Bohemia to his grandfather, who agrees to allow the young count a moderate maintenance.

The baron Stralenheim was next of kin to the count Siegendorf, and, before the adoption of Conrad by him, expected to inherit his estates. The young count, after the departure of his child, lived many years at Hamburg, during which time Josephine had another boy, who was now advanced to the age of seven years. By accident Siegendorf hears of his father’s death, and of Stralenheim’s intention to prove Conrad a bastard. He departs for Bohemia to counteract his scheme, almost destitute of money: and in this journey it is that he is taken sick in Silesia, with which circumstance the story commences.

Stralenheim was not acquainted with the person of Siegendorf, but he had spies to watch his motions: he was soon informed of his having quitted Hamburg, and in a few days he himself set off also for Bohemia. It was his design to quarrel with him on the road, if possible, near some fortress in Brandenburg; for, as he travelled with his own name, and Siegendorf in disguise, he hoped to get him imprisoned, if not for life, yet long enough at least to take possession of his estates. But Stralenheim was not able to trace the route he had taken; and, in attempting to cross a stream, whose bridge had been carried away by the rain, he would have lost his life but for the assistance of two travellers.

‘The Baron, however, in escaping the stream, had not escaped all [211/212] the consequences of his plunge there. Violent feverish symptoms announced the probability of future suffering. The house to which he had been dragged afforded no accommodation or comfort to alleviate it. He recollected, precisely at this juncture, that he was within the estates, and not far from the palace, of the Prince de T—, under whom he had served; nor did he hesitate to profit by the occasion. His name, though not his person, was known to the Intendant M—; the rank he announced secured his reception; and thus, at length, without any previous plan or knowledge on his own part, was the Baron set down within three hundred yards of the man he had travelled so many leagues in search of. Thus, too, were the misfortunes of the unhappy Count brought to a climax, when the name of all others most hateful to him dropped from the lips of the innocent Marcellin, and when the report of Idenstein confirmed the alarming intelligence that “the stranger arrived in the Prince’s coach at the palace” was no other than Baron Stralenheim.’ P. 153.

The baron naturally suspects Kruitzner to be the person he is in search of; and the intendant, Weilburg, and Idenstein, confirm him in his suspicions. At this juncture Conrad makes his appearance: he is now grown a fine young man, and proves to be one of the strangers who saved the baron from the river. He recognises his father and mother, but keeps it secret from Stralenheim. Idenstien, the lawyer, is bribed by a jewel to assist Siegendorf with a chaise by night, on which night, however, the baron is murdered, and, as it proves afterwards, though far, very far from what we expected, Conrad is the murderer.

In our remarks upon the first volume of this work [3] we observed that the stories wanted the characteristic excellence of those of Chaucer; but, in the tale which we have just read, that objection by no means holds good. It is exactly such a tale as a German would have told, and it is related with the same gloom with which a German would have related it. The incidents are always impressive and striking, and the misfortunes the consequence of vice or folly: but, alas! the innocent are implicated with the guilty. Such is the lot of our nature, that the tender Josephine must be punished together with the imprudent Siegendorf. We cannot help expressing again our surprise that Conrad should have been made a murderer; nor can we think that miss Lee meant it when she so highly commended him at his first interview with his father. The Hungarian was a character already prepared for the purpose; or if he were to be kept clear from a crime, to which indeed he had no temptation, why cause Stralenheim to be murdered at all? To this question we confess the reply is obvious. Without the murder, the German characteristic were nearly lost. True;—but either Conrad should have been superior to the crime, or he should not have been raised so high in the reader’s estimation when he first appeared in Silesia. [212/213]

The Scotsman’s Tale is altogether a different one from that of the German. The narrative is artless and simple in the extreme; and, from its simplicity, the reader, without any sort of difficulty or any violence to his judgement, could readily believe every tittle of it to be true. A young North Briton is sent by his father to St. Petersburg on business; he rambles into Sweden, is overturned on the road, and finds himself, when he recovers his senses, in the house of a Lutheran priest. He there falls in love with a young émigréé, who returns his affection; but her brother, who is a count, refuses his consent to her marrying a merchant. The young Scot is compelled to return to London on account of his father’s bankruptcy, and of course despairs, in these disastrous circumstances, of obtaining his Claudina. His father dies: he enters into a ’compting-house, contracts an intimacy with a young Frenchman, and soon after becomes a prey to jealousy, on seeing his fair one’s picture round his friend’s neck. The Frenchman borrows some money of him, and then disappears. After a fortnight or three weeks, however, he returns to town; and the following is the conversation at their first meeting:

‘ “I come,” said he, stepping towards me, “to demand your congratulations, and to announce a piece of good fortune in which you will sympathize with me.”

‘ “Spare yourself the relation,” said I sullenly—“I know the good fortune that has befallen you without its being told. You are married—or on the point of being so.—And, to show you that I am better informed of your affairs than you suppose, I can even name the faithless woman who has bestowed herself upon you.”

‘ “When I do marry,” said Vaudreuil, laughing, “I hope it will not be a faithless woman at least.—You are, in truth, a most ingenious guesser; and after you have pointed out the fair one who means to do me the favour of bestowing herself upon me, I shall know what portion of gratitude is due to both you and to her. In the interim, however, assure yourself that it is not matrimony, but that which has of late engrossed a much greater share of the thoughts of mankind—politics—which is in question with me. I have received undoubted information that the new government in France will allow me to recover at least a considerable portion of my family claims and property there. I have never borne arms against my country; and, should I prove successful in my application, I shall be enabled to serve a brother who is less fortunately circumstanced, and a sister inexpressibly dear to me.”

‘ “You have a sister!” exclaimed I.

‘ “Undoubtedly I have,” returned Vaudreuil, smiling archly.

‘ “And you wear her picture”—

‘—“At my bosom!” and he drew it from thence.

‘ “Ah, it is Claudina!—my Claudina—my own Claudina!” cried I, snatching and kissing it rapturously a thousand times. Vaudreuil could not forbear smiling at an étourderie so foreign to all he had yet seen of my character. [213/214]

‘ “I am ignorant how soon she is to be your Claudina,” said he at length, gently disengaging the portrait; “but I know she is at present mine; and I am not quite assured that she will permit me to authorise such violent caresses.—Let us be seated, my kind friend,” he added, recovering his usual interesting gravity of tone and manner; “and if you can command these transports of yours, so little in unison with our ideas of English phlegm, I will tell you what I am sure you will have real pleasure in hearing—I will tell you that your generous interposition rescued Claudina and both her brothers from a state of half-despondency; that your pecuniary kindness supplied with necessaries and comforts the proud spirit and suffering frame of St. Victoire;—finally, that it has afforded Claudina herself the means of coming up to London, and of thanking you in person. These, believe me, are not dreams,” said he, perceiving me stare with astonishment: “it is but very lately that I have known the history of my own family: such as it is I will relate it to you. __ I need not tell you that I am much younger than St. Victoire—there is, in fact, only the difference of two years between Claudina and myself: but I look older—for I have suffered,”—he added, sighing. “From the time I had any use of reason, it unfortunately happened that mine did not accord with that of my family—I was, therefore, an early outcast from it, and remained in France when my relations quitted it, without their deigning to take the smallest interest in my after-fate. My name was prohibited to Claudina’s lips, as attaching disgrace to her own and it was the constant habit of suppressing it that probably prevented its reaching your ears. I was not much more fortunate, however, in my political career than my father and my brother had been. The fickle and too enthusiastic nation of which I was an individual became sanguinary, and disgraced the noblest aim of humanity. I was nearly a victim to the guillotine; but a friendly banker at Paris concealed me, and, by his assistance, I passed in safety to Rouen. I was not without abilities, and am among those of my countrymen who think it no disgrace to use them. I applied myself under a borrowed name to business: but I did not find that I was wholly safe from persecution, and was, therefore, advised to quit France. My heart fondly turned towards St. Petersburg, where I believed I should find my mother, my brother, and my sister. As I was now rather more unfortunate than themselves, I conceived that my offences would be expiated in their eyes; and I accordingly embarked. I soon found that I had had the misfortune to lose one of the three, without being happy enough to recover the other two; for my reception from St. Victoire was neither brotherly nor generous. It was indeed such as determined me to meet him no more; for I was not without some share of the family pride, when it was roused. I saw Claudina accidentally for a quarter of an hour, but he would not permit me to converse with her freely. I wrote to her, however; and I requested from her my mother’s picture, as a memorial of my family. She did not possess it; but she sent me her own, together with an earnest intreaty to see me again. No doubt she thought me very unkind; for I was so circumstanced that I could not enter the lists with St. Victoire on that subject, and he eluded my address when I attempted to send her another letter. I therefore quitted St. Petersburg without having [214/215] an opportunity of vindicating my sentiments to her, and came over to England, where, by the continued assistance of my worthy friends at Rouen, I obtained the employment in the course of which I was fortunate enough to meet with you.—Ah! your generous heart, my dear friend,” said he, pressing my hand, “has sympathised with mine during this narration!—May it be thus that good actions ever come home to the bosom of him who performs them!—You respected the innocent tenderness of Claudina; and that tenderness will, I hope, henceforward be unremittingly exercised to reward you!—You extended your philanthropy and good offices to a foreigner whom your countrymen did not always treat with the indulgence due to the unfortunate:—you have gained by it a friend, who will, to the latest hour of his life, be the friend of Englishmen, and the protector of those of any country to whom protection is necessary.” ’ P. 458.

After this generous speech on the part of Vaudreuil, they repair to the lodgings of the elder brother, St. Victoire; and as, in the Frenchman’s absence, an uncle had left the Caledonian a competent property, he soon becomes blessed by the possession of Claudina.

We have again to notice the same defect in miss Lee’s language which we pointed out before—the continual omission of the relative pronoun. It is no extenuation of this fault that it is become common; for it is a most outrageous transgression against the rules of grammar, and is perhaps the cause of more perplexity and confusion than any other inaccuracy whatever.

But we are far from meaning by this remark to depreciate the performance. That it is a great fault, we must again pronounce; but the merits of the Canterbury Tales will over-balance many such errors as this; and we have no doubt of finding our time pleasantly employed in the perusal of another volume, whenever the authors may be disposed to entertain us.

[1] See Crit. Rev. Vol. XXVI. New Arr. P. 193.
[2] From this passage, and from another (p. 373 of the Scotsman’s Tale), it appears to us that miss Lee has mistaken the meaning of the word convalescence. Rev.
[3] Crit. Rev. New Arr. Vol. XXII. P. 171.

Notes: Format: 8vo; price 8s. Boards. Publisher: Robinsons.

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 38 (July 1802): 331–32.

Under this title, a string of romances and novels may be spun out ad libitum. We know not when this lady and her sister propose to stop, nor to what extent their imagination will supply them with materials. Of the general merit of the Canterbury Tales, we have spoken on former occasions; and nothing more remains for us at present, than to notice the contents of the volume before us. It includes only two narratives; the German’s Tale, and the Scotsman’s Tale. The former, which occupies almost the whole volume, is constructed on ideas which the modern German writers have so abundantly supplied. Though not destitute of merit, it exhibits little else than a gloomy, horrid, and unnatural picture; and in some parts the story drags on with as much heaviness as a German stage waggon in a bad road. It would have produced more effect, had it been less dilated.—The Scotsman’s Tale is more pleasant and congenial to common feelings; and it uniformly sustains the interest which it excites. The history of two lovers, from the first moment of mutual attachment to their union in the vulgar bands of wedlock, is rapidly sketched, with some of those difficulties and perturbations which often intervene between hope and fruition. We are not, however, kept long in suspense; and, before the curtain drops, the Scotsman and his Claudina are rendered affluent and happy.

Miss Lee’s reflections are in general judicious and amiable. Of the latter kind, is the remark which is made on the return of Claudina’s brother, who was a French émigré, to his native country: ‘How sincerely did we all lament that the tide of human affairs should separate beings united by every principle of affection or intellect!—Surely it is for the liberal-minded and humane of every nation to encounter the destructive influence of general prejudice, by extending and strengthening, in their private habits, those social feelings which bid man acknowledge his fellow-creature in every quarter of the globe.’

To the style of this work we cannot uniformly extend our approbation. Provincialisms and colloquialisms appear; such as ‘motion-[331/332]ing his father from him,’ and ‘spiritless and exhausted of an evening:’ but the defect, against which we most wish Miss Lee in future to guard, is the termination of her periods with adverbs and prepositions.

Notes: Listed under ‘Monthly Catalogue: Miscellaneous’. Format: 8vo. pp. 500; price 8s. Boards. Publisher: Robinsons.

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