British Fiction, 18001829

?STAËL-HOLSTEIN, Anne Louise Germaine de. Margaret of Strafford (1803)

Contemporary Reviews

Critical Review, 3rd ser. 2 (May 1804): 115.

We have lately stated the object of the historic novel, and shortly noticed the conduct of the most successful writers. When we have occasion to return to the subject, and remark the unsuccessful authors—those who are either ignorant of history, of the characters and manners of the period, or despise such attention—we shall mention madame Stael. We know not that we have ever been more thoroughly disgusted than with the historic misrepresentation before us. If we were not satisfied with the conduct of Ernest de Woldemar for gaining the love of Amelia under a borrowed name because his own was hateful, how much less must we be pleased with lord Lovel for voluntarily and deliberately seducing the affections of lady Margaret, while his wife, the object of his own choice, was alive. We need only mention that Cromwell is represented as a gallant petit-maître, to convince the reader of madame Stael’s ignorance of history; or the trait just hinted at, to prove that her morality is as likely to injure as her ignorance is to mislead, the inexperienced reader. These are, however, not the only instances in which history is mistaken and libertinism inculcated by example: there is scarcely any page in which virtue is encouraged, and only in the faintest outline are history and the manners of the times preserved inviolate.

Notes: Listed under ‘Monthly Catalogue: Novels’. Format: 5 vols 12mo; price 15s. Boards. Publisher: Hughes.

Monthly Review, Appendix to 2nd ser. 41 (May–Aug 1803): 510–12.

The scene and the story of this work are English, and the author is French:—we need state no more to lead the reader to anticipate the tortures which names, places, and facts, undergo in these pages. Why the fair writer intitled her work an Historical Romance, we are wholly at a loss to conjecture; since, if we except the names, it bears no more relation to the event with which it professes to be connected, than it does to the expulsion of Tarquin, or the dethronement of the younger Dionysius. Had she taken a solemn oath, or made a sacred vow, in no particular to conform to the reality of facts, we believe that her five volumes would not furnish the shadow of a suspicion that she had violated her resolution. The Charles II. of this romance carries with him the heart of a man, and is distinguished by the virtues of a monarch; the Strafford of it is the purest of patriots; its Cromwell exhibits no feature but that of a ferocious tyrant; and its Albemarle is a generous hero, and an enlightened statesman. Could the truth of history, however, be prevented from beaming on the reader’s mind, he would acknowledge himself beholden to the fair novelist for an introduction to characters which call forth the noblest aspirations of the mind, and the finest feelings of the heart; he would be awed and charmed by the dignity and goodness which appear blended in the whole behaviour of a great and virtuous monarch, had not that monarch been designated by the name of Charles II.; he would shed tears over the great pillars of the church and the state falling under the axe of a bloody faction, if they were not called Strafford and Laud; and his veneration would be fixed on the person of the hero who extinguished the domination of mercenary empires, and who restored the throne to the lawful sovereign, did he not bear the name of Monk.

Not contented with subjecting history to this hard usage, the author shews as little respect to the character and manners of the people to whom her tale relates. The heroine of the piece, who is exhibited as a perfect model, admits to her intimate friendship, and lodges under her roof, the mistress of her father; she adopts the crowd of natural children by divers mothers which he leaves behind him; and, in good time, she marries them to persons of the first rank among the English nobility. This may suit continental readers, but must certainly shock the notions of the inhabitants of the British Islands. [510/511] Even general probability is a restraint which our incognita will not brook. This same heroine inspires with a most extravagant passion a married youth, who happens to be a very unsuitably yoked. The lover, too, is distinguished by every great and attractive quality, and is disingenuous only towards the mistress of his soul. He perceives that her affections are fixing themselves on him, and the violence of his passion forces him to conceal from her his marriage. This fact, however, is discovered; and the indignation of Margaret is equalled only by her surprise: but she is no longer mistress of herself; and her heart, in spite of all her efforts, is in her lover’s keeping. His subsequent seclusion from the world appeases her, and she resolves to reject every offer, since she cannot be united to her Lovewell. In the mean time, at the head of her vassals, she braves the arms of Cromwell, meets his veterans in the field, and achieves every thing but the conquest of the invincible warrior. She next falls into his hands; when her charms inspire his iron heart with the tender passion; and she beholds her subduer at her feet, who offers to share with her his power. The loyal heroine disdains his proposals; and he, mortified and enraged, obtains a decree for her death. By a sort of miracle, she escapes from his hands, and passes over to Holland; where she captivates the Prince of Orange, and inspires the young Duke of Gloucester with a hopeless passion, which finally brings him to the grave. She next visits Lisbon, where triumphs of the same sort, and equally splendid, await the fair exile; the Infant falls outrageously in love with her; and the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had come to that capital to request the hand of the Royal Infanta, is robbed of his peace of mind by Margaret’s superior charms. Her first lover, however is still possessed of her affections, and she is inexorable to all her suitors. Fortunately, the neglected wife of Lovewell dishonours his bed, and in a moment of compunction obligingly poniards herself; thus removing the sole obstacle to the union of the most ardent and perfect lovers whom the world ever saw.—So partial is the author to this sort of plot, that she introduces an under-one, of precisely the same structure.

In this novel, it is the infelicity of the incidents, and the oddness of the texture, which excite our objections. It is probability rather than morality that suffers; and we are confident that the fair writer never intended to injure the interests of the latter. If the reader can endure occasional extravagancies, and incongruities such as we have noticed, he will meet with parts possessing great merit; with pictures as moving, and with effusions of sentiment and feeling as delicate, as any that ever lent interest to tales of fiction.—The object of the work is to [511/512] animate and keep alive a spirit of loyalty, and to strengthen notions favourable to birth and rank. This design is manifested in so undisguised a manner, that we were greatly surprized on finding that a Paris press had sent forth such a production; and that the bookseller Perlet, whose former services to loyalty (if we mistake not) obtained for him a visit to Guiana, did not fear that a second trip to the same place might arise from being one of the publishers of this Romance.

Notes: Listed under ‘Foreign Literature’ as Marguerite de Strafford. Format: 5 vols 12mo; price 15s. Sewed. Published in Paris and imported by De Boffe (London).

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