British Fiction, 18001829

BARRETT, Eaton Stannard. Heroine, The (1813)

Contemporary Reviews

Critical Review, 4th ser. 4 (Dec 1813): 623–29.

This is a very spirited and laughable satire upon the various productions under the name of novels and romances which have appeared for the last eighteen or nineteen years. Mr. Barrett deserves the thanks of all sensible mothers and guardians who wish well to the rising generation for the pains which he has taken to expose the destructive nonsense, with which we have been inundated by this species of composition.

In the volumes before us, the author gives us the history of a young lady of the age of fifteen, the only daughter of a respectable farmer, who, having been committed to the care of a governess, is instructed in nothing but the study of novel and romance reading. The governess, however, is discharged in disgrace by the father of our heroine at the beginning of the work, and turned out of the house, owing to an amour with the butler. Our heroine, whose real name is Cherry Wilkinson, solaces herself for the loss of her companion and governess by writing to her, in the language of romance, in which she pours out her sorrows in a copious stream of eloquent absurdity. Poor Miss Cherry’s brains are so bewildered with the trash which she has been reading, that she is mad to be a heroine; and, though naturally a very amiable, sensible girl, she becomes a perfect maniac in search of adventures. She deplores her hard lot in being doomed to waste her bloom, beauty, and youth, in a series of uninterrupted prosperity. She declares to her beloved governess that her

‘ambition is to be a heroine, and how can I hope to succeed in my vocation unless I suffer privations and inconveniencies? Besides, have I not far greater merit in getting a husband by [623/624] sentiment, adventure and melancholy, than by dressing, gadding, dancing, and singing? For heroines are just as much on the alert to get husbands, as other young ladies; and to say the truth, I would never voluntarily subject myself to misfortunes were I not certain that matrimony would be the last of them. But even misery itself has its consolations and advantages. It makes one, at least, look interesting, and affords an opportunity for ornamental murmurs. Besides it is the mark of a refined mind. Only fools, children, and savages, are happy.’

From this specimen the reader may pretty well judge what kind of amusement Miss Cherry promises in her history. She discovers that from the beauty of her person, she is well qualified for a heroine; as her form is tall and aerial, her face Grecian, her tresses flaxen, her eyes blue and sleepy, with a remarkable mole just over her temple. So far, so well; but then, she is thrown into despair on account of her birth, for she exclaims, if ‘even my legitimacy was suspected, it would be some comfort; since, in that case, I should assuredly start forth, at one time or other the daughter of some plaintive nobleman, who lives retired and slaps his forehead.’ She is also perplexed about her name, which is by no means of the heroic kind. She therefore changes it to Cherubina; and ruminating upon her hard fate of being wealthy and pretty, she determines to think that she is not the real daughter of her father—but that she is some orphan of illustrious descent, reserved to encounter all manner of extraordinary adventures, equally delightful with those with which her beloved romances so fruitfully teem. She accordingly assails her father in the true romance style; her hands folded across her bosom, and her blue eyes raised to his face, she conjures him to tell her who are her parents; for she has discovered a mystery in her birth, and urges him to confess his crimes, and tell her where her dear distracted father is lingering out the remnant of his miserable days? The poor farmer is thunderstruck, and believes that her senses are lost past recovery.—All these scenes, which are made truly laughable, are related to her dear governess by letter, in the genuine dramatic style; and in so doing, she follows the example of all true heroines.

‘Indeed,’ she says, ‘I cannot enough admire the fortitude of these charming creatures, who, while they are in momentary expectation of losing their lives, or their honours, or both, sit down with the utmost unconcern, and indite the wittiest letters in the world. They have even sufficient presence of mind to copy the vulgar dialect, uncouth phraseology and bad gram-[624/625]mar, of the villains whom they dread; and all this in the neatest and liveliest style imaginable.’

Miss Cherry, or Cherubina, is, however, determined to quit her father’s house; and this determination is hastened by learning that a young man, a friend of her father’s, is coming upon a visit, and from a hint, which he throws out, that it is not unlikely, but that this gentleman may fall in love with her, she is thrown into despair. Threatened with a husband of decent birth, parentage, and education! horrid! most horrid! so very unlike a heroine!

‘Yes, I will roam,’ she exclaims, ‘through the wide world in search of my parents; I will ransack all the sliding pannels and tapestries in Italy; I will explore Il Castello di Udolpho, and will then enter the convent of Ursulines, or Carmelites, or Santa della Pieta, or the Abbey of La Trappe. Here I meet with nothing better than smiling faces, and honest hearts; or at best, with but sneaking villains. No precious scoundrels are here; no horrors, or atrocities worth mentioning. But abroad I shall encounter banditti, monks, daggers, racks. O ye celebrated terrors, when shall I taste you?’

Before she departs, she determines on a rummage in order to find some record or relic that may lead to what she calls her mysterious birth. Accordingly she steals into her father’s room, and finds in his scrutoire, an antique piece of tattered parchment, on which are written, amongst other names, De Willoughby, and lady Gwyn, of Gwyn castle. This is enough for our heroine: though the parchment is nothing more nor less than part of a lease of lives, it is however an irrefragable proof to her, that she is no less a person than the lady Cherubina de Willoughby. With this notable parchment, and an old picture, which she finds, of Nell Gwyn, she elopes from her father’s mansion, for London, that grand emporium of adventure for heroes and of heroines.

In the character of lady Cherubina de Willoughby, a heroine in search of her parents, she finds, to her utter astonishment, that she cannot do as the heroines do of whom she had read, and whom she contemplated so much. For after walking in the wet for some miles, she finds herself fatigued, cold, and stiff; whereas, all the lovely heroines whom she wished to imitate, were able to perform journies on foot, that would founder fifty horses. If she enters a cottage, to her astonishment, instead of beauties, she finds a family of frights, with flat noses, and thick lips. No Annette’s and Lubin’s, but plain Moll’s and Bet’s, Jack’s and Tom’s. To follow our heroine through all the mazes of her adventures, would be impossible; but we must re-[625/626]mark, that they are extremely well planned, and pourtrayed with much vivacity and drollery. Some of the scenes are truly ludicrous. The following is the account which Cherubina gives of her rencounter with a Mr. Abraham Grundy, who is one of the understrappers at the theatre.

‘At length, I reached an immense edifice, which appeared to me the castle of some brow-knitting baron; ponderous columns supported it, and statues stood in the niches, the portal lay open. I glided into the hall. As I looked anxiously around, I beheld a cavalier descending a flight of steps. He paused, muttered some words, laid his hand upon his heart, dropped it, shook his head, and proceeded. I felt instantly interested in his fate; and as he came nearer, perceived, that surely, never lighted on this orb, which he hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. His form was tall, his face oval, and his nose aquiline: seducing sweetness dwelled in his smile, and as he pleased, his expressive eyes could sparkle with rapture, or beam with sensibility. Once more he paused, frowned, and waving his arm, exclaimed, with an elegant energy of enunciation! “To watch the minutes of this night, that if again this apparition come, he may approve our eyes, and speak to it.” That moment a pang, poignant, but delicious, transfixed my bosom. Too well I felt, and confessed it the dart of love. * * * I rushed forward, and sank at the feet of the stranger. Pity and protect a destitute orphan! cried I, “Here, in this hospitable castle I may hope for repose and protection. Oh Signor, conduct me to your respected mother, the Baroness, and let me pour into her ear, my simple and pathetic tale.” “O ho! simple and pathetic!” cried he, “Come, my dear, let me hear it.” I seated myself on the steps, and told him my story. During the recital, the noble youth betrayed extreme sensibility; sometimes be turned his head aside to conceal his emotion; and sometimes stifled a hysterical laugh of agony. When I had ended, he begged to know whether I was quite certain that I had ten thousand pounds in my power. I replied, that as Wilkinson’s daughter, I certainly had; but that the property must devolve to some one else, as soon as I should be proved a nobleman’s daughter.” He then made still more accurate inquiries about it; and after having satisfied himself, “Beshrew my heart!” exclaimed he, “but I will avenge your injuries; and ere long, you shall be proclaimed and acknowledged the lady Cherubina de Willoughby. Meantime, as it will be prudent for you to lie concealed from the search of your enemies, hear the project which I have formed. I lodge at present in Drury lane, an obscure street; and as one apartment in the house is unoccupied, you can hire it, and remain there a beautiful recluse, till fortune, and my poor efforts, shall rescue from oppression, the most enchanting of her sex.” He [626/627] spoke, and seizing my hand, carried it to his lips. “What!” cried I, “do you not live in this castle, and are you not its noble heir?” “This is no castle,” said he, “but Covent Garden Theatre.” “And you?” asked I with anxiety, “am an actor,” answered he. “And your name?” “Is Abraham Grundy,” “Then Mr. Abraham Grundy,” said I, “allow me to have the satisfaction of wishing you a very good evening.” “Stay!” cried he, detaining me, and you shall know the whole truth. My birth is illustrious, and my real name, lord Altamont Mortimer Montmorenci. But like you, I am enveloped in a cloud of mysteries and compelled to the temporary resource of acting. Hereafter, I will acquaint you with the most secret particulars of my life; but at present, you must trust to my good faith, and accept of my protection.” Generous Montmorenci, exclaimed I, giving him my hand, which he pressed upon his heart. “Now,” said he, “you must pass at these lodgings as my near relation, or they will not admit you.” At first, I hesitated at deviating from veracity; but soon consented, on recollecting, that though heroines begin with praising truth, necessity makes them end with being the greatest story-tellers in the world. Nay, Clarissa Harlow, when she had a choice, often preferred falsehood to fact. * * *

‘* * * Thus, my friend, the plot of my history begins to take a more interesting shape, and a fairer order of misfortune smiles upon me. Trust me, there is a taste in distress, as well in millinery. Far be from me the loss of eyes or limbs, such publicity as the pillory affords, or the grossness of a jail fever. I would be sacrificed to the lawless, not to the laws: dungeoned in the holy inquisition, not clapped into Bridewell, recorded in a novel, not in the Newgate calendar. Were I inelegantly unhappy, I should be wretched indeed. Yes, my Biddy, sensations hitherto unknown now heave my white bosom, vary the carnation of my cheeks and irradiate my azure eyes. I sigh, gaze on vacancy, start from a reverie; now bite, now moisten my coral lips, and pace my chamber with unequal steps. For sure I am deeply, distractedly in love, and Altamont Mortimer Montmorenci is the first of men.’

Altamont Mortimer Montmorenci, alias Abraham Grundy, is a most entertaining and brilliant personage: and makes no slight impression on the heart, or rather the imagination, of the lady Cherubina de Willoughby.

‘This young nobleman,’ she exclaims in one of her letters to her friend and ex-governess, ‘increases my estimation every moment; never can you catch him out of a picturesque position. He would exhaust in one hour, all the attitudes of all the statues; when he talks tenderness, his eyes glow with a moist fire, and he always brings in his heart with peculiar happiness. Then too, his oaths are at once well conceived, and elegantly expressed.[627/628] Thunderbolts and the fixed stars are ever at his elbow, and no man can sink himself to perdition with so fine a grace.’

This fine picturesque fellow, finding that plain Cherry Wilkinson, the only child of a very rich farmer, will, independently of her father, have ten thousand pounds, humours the extravagant whims of the romantic dame, and makes fierce love to her in the character of Lord Altamont. This occasions a rich tissue of very absurd and laughable scenes.

Mr. Wilkinson follows his daughter to London; and an interview takes place, in which he implores her to return home to a safe shelter under his paternal roof; but our heroine astonishes and alarms her poor father by the following positive refusal:

‘ “Wilkinson,” said I, “this interview must be short, pointed, and decisive. As to calling yourself my father, that is a stale trick, and will not pass; and as to personating (what I perceive you aspire to) the grand villain of my plot, your corpulency, pardon me, puts that out of the question for ever. I should be just as happy to employ you as any other man I know; but excuse me, if I say, that you overrate your talents and qualifications. Have you the gaunt ferocity of famine in your countenance? Can you darken the midnight of a scowl? Have you the quivering lip and the Schedoniac contour? And while the lower part of your face is hidden in black drapery, can your eyes glare from under the edge of a cowl? In a word, are you a picturesque villain, full of plot, and horror, and magnificent wickedness? Ah, no, sir, you are only a sleek, good-humoured, chuckle-headed gentleman. Continue then what nature made you; return to your plough, mow, reap, fatten your pigs, and the parson; but never again attempt to get yourself thrust into the pages of a romance.” ’

Notwithstanding this romantic mania of the lady Cherubina, she is a girl of much good sense and great propriety of conduct and decorum of manners; for, when any thing occurs, which strikes her as improper, she is Cherry Wilkinson directly. In one of her love interviews with Lord Altamont Mortimer Montmorenci, his Lordship forgets his proper distance; and assuming more of the character of Abraham Grundy than became him, he catches the lady under the chin, and gives her a kiss on the lips. As Cherry Wilkinson, she feels her modesty wounded, and herself insulted: and, as the Lady Cherubina, she sets the gentleman right, and convinces him that she is not to be so vulgarly treated. She says,

‘I have no notion of submitting to any freedom that is not sanctioned by the precedent of those exalted models, whom I [628/629] have the honour to imitate. I fancy, my lord, you will find that as far as a kiss on the hand, or an arm round the waist, they have no particular objection. But a salute on the lip, is considered inaccurate.’

His lordship is open to reproof, and has little else to say for himself, but that it was a practice in his country. Cherry, however, congratulates herself on having repulsed his lordship in the following manner:

‘I think I was right about the kiss. I confess I am not one of those girls, who try to attract men through the medium of the touch; and who thus excite passion at the expence of respect. Lips are better employed in sentiment than in kissing. Indeed, had I not been fortified by the precedent of other heroines, I should have felt, and I fear, did actually feel, even the classical embrace of Montmorenci too great a freedom. But remember, I am still in my noviciate. After a little practice, I shall probably think it rather a pleasure to be strained, and pressed, and folded to the heart. Yet, of this I am certain, that I shall never attain sufficient hardihood to ravish a kiss from a man’s mouth, as the divine Heloise did, who once ran at St. Preux, and astonished him with the most balmy and remarkable kiss upon record. Poor fellow! he was never the same after it.’

We cannot trace our heroine through all the numerous adventures and laughable incidents, to which her delusion gives rise. She is, however, brought to her senses, by discovering the various tricks which are played upon her; and, through the care and interference of a friend, she escapes the snare which is laid to entrap her into a marriage with the lord Altamont, alias Grundy. She discends [sic] from her stilts, and recovers her sanity towards the close of the third volume.—On the whole, we have been very much entertained with this ingenious performance, and think, that Mr. Barrett deserves well of the public, for thus endeavouring, through the medium of good humoured ridicule, to expose the bombastic nonsense in the noxious farrago of modern novels, by which the judgment of our young women is perverted, and their taste for solid, and instructive reading is depraved. Many judicious remarks are dispersed through these volumes; and the simple story of William and Mary, is moreover very creditable to Mr. Barrett’s talents for the pathetic.

Notes: Format: 3 vols; price 18s. Publisher: Colburn.

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 73 (Mar 1814): 319–20.

The idea of this work is not new, since the pernicious effects of indiscriminate novel-reading have been already displayed by Mrs. Lenox [sic] in ‘The Female Quixote,’ and by Miss Charlton in the pleasing story of ‘Rosella:’ but the present tale is more extravagant than either of those works, and the heroine’s cruelty towards her father indisposes the reader for being interested in her subsequent [319/320] fate. Mr. Barrett may also be censured for not confining his ridicule to allowable subjects: ‘What should be great he turns to farce,’ both in his frequent sarcasms on the clergy and in his ludicrous parodies of scenes taken from our best novels: although it might be presumed that, if Cherubina’s reading had been limited to respectable works of fiction, or if these had made the chief impression on her mind and memory, she would not have fallen into the follies which she commits. Still, however, her adventures are written with great spirit and humour, and they afford many scenes at which

‘To be grave exceeds all power of face.’

Notes: Listed under ‘Monthly Catalogue: Novels’. Format: 3 vols 12mo; price 18s. Boards. Publisher: Colburn.

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