British Fiction, 18001829

OWENSON, Sydney [afterwards MORGAN, Lady Sydney]. St Clair; or, the Heiress of Desmond (1803)

Contemporary Reviews

Flowers of Literature (1804): 463.

This is a very attractive little volume, full of the finest sentiments of friendship and sensibility, though liable to the charge of inconsistency.

Notes: Format: 12mo. pp. 248; price 4s. Publisher: Highley. This title is also mentioned in an introductory section on ‘Novelists’ in Flowers of Literature for 1804: ‘The unknown author of “St. Clair; or, the Heiress of Desmond,” whom we take to be a female, is likewise a writer of no common stamp: her work is replete with passages of the purest taste and most refined sensibility; and, though the rigid moralists might consider its plot to be of a dangerous tendency, yet it too plainly exposes the consequence of allowing sentiment to gain the ascendency [sic] over reason, even in vulgar or untutored minds’ (p. xlvii).

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 43 (Mar 1804): 266–68.

The hero and heroine of this attractive little volume unite to the culture of taste and intellect the finest sensibilities of the human frame. Accident brings them together; congenial sentiments create friendship; and friendship gives birth to warmer emotions:—but Olivia is the betrothed bride of Col. L—, whose cool virtue had gained her esteem rather than her love. After many and painful struggles, she consents to a parting interview with St. Clair, the owner of her affections; when, secretly apprized of the appointment, the Colonel invades their privacy, and St. Clair falls by the hands of the man whose happiness he had thus for ever destroyed. Olivia recovers form the shock, only to die of a broken heart: but, in a letter addressed to her father, she feelingly avows her errors and misfortunes, and traces them to those circumstances of education and character which she hopes may extenuate, though they cannot justify her conduct.

Such is the faint outline of this simple story. To dwell on its details, or to select its most striking passages, would carry us beyond the bounds which the plan of our undertaking assigns to such publications: but we shall give a short exmplification of its composition by transcribing the following paragraphs, which we select from a regard to brevity rather than to superior merit:

‘I have always observed, in the course of my little reading, that those women who governed the hearts and understandings of men with the most unbounded sway, owed their power less to the witchery of beauty, than to strength of mind and cultivation of talents.[266/267] Aspasia [1] was no longer young, when Socrates became her disciple, and imbibed the principles of the philosophia amatoria at her feet, and when Athens was governed by her decrees through the medium of Pericles. Corinna, of whose talents we read so much, and of whose beauty we know so little, presided over the studies, as well as the heart of Pindar. The abilities of Catharine raised her from a cottage to a throne. Maintenon, in the decline of life, had more power over the heart and councils of Louis Fourteenth, than La Valliere in all the attractions of youth, or Montespan in all the splendour of beauty; and, if we are to credit the assertions of Dio, the only gallantry the voice of scandal could lay to the charge of Cicero, was his attachment and literary correspondence with Cæsellia, a female wit, and a philosopher of seventy: and this, I believe, is bringing as strong an argument in favour of my position as could be derived. A woman merely beautiful may attract; a woman merely accomplished may amuse, and both united may produce a transient fascination; but it is sense and virtue only that fasten on the mind: if to these precious qualities are added a certain refinement and elegance of taste, and a certain delicacy and elevation of sentiment united to animation of temper and softness of manners, the power of their possessor becomes altogether irresistible; it is acknowledged by the heart, it is ratified by the understanding, and it exalts every delight the senses can bestow. I always thought this, but I can now aver it from a sweet, but, I fear, a fatal experience.’—

‘When my feelings had encountered any little trial, when the independence of my spirit shrunk beneath the attack of oppression, and my warm heart chilled to the freezing blast of unkindness or neglect, my harassed thoughts had still one sweet refuge to fly to, and found the idea of Olivia. At night when I sought my comfortless pillow, when memory threw her shadows on my mind, and reflection wearied me by her cogitations, I invoked the spirit of repose, and it descended on my soul in the form of Olivia; and when I awoke with the first beam of the morning, I said, “Perhaps in a few hours I shall see her—I shall hear her.” My spirits renovated in the delightful conviction, and my mind was armed against all the contingent evils of the day: but now I must. I ought to learn to forget her. “Should you ever forget me, St. Clair,” said she to me the other day, “it will be a heresy against the omnipotent power of sympathy.”—

‘Gracious Heaven! is it for man, weak man, trembling in the consciousness of his own imbecility, to bear down upon the tottering steps of his weaker brother? and should not every generous sluice of pity and toleration be opened in his bosom, for the fallibility of that creature whose nature he wears, in whose frailties he participates, and to whose errors he is liable? atoms that we are in the boundless space of the creation, surrounded by mystery, involved in uncertainty; knowing not from whence we came, or whither we shall go; beings of an instant; with all our powers, all our energies hastening to de-[267/268]cay!—is it for us, my dear friend, to assume the right of umpire, and refuse that mercy to each other, which we all look for in common to Him who is himself perfection?’

In a performance which recalls the talents and the style of Goethe and Rousseau, we are not willing to remark on trifling defects. It cannot, however, escape the discerning, that the composition of this affecting tale sometimes betrays symptoms of haste or negligence; that the frequency of classical and learned allusions is scarcely consistent with the language of passion; and that the charm of animated and glowing diction is occasionally broken by verses not worthy of publication.

We would ask the lovers of consistency, why does the pure Olivia so soon forget her first act of dissimulation in the sound of her harp? Why does the generous and resolute St. Clair not manfully resist the approaches of a baneful and unlawful passion? Why did he not tear himself from the precincts of Desmond Abbey, before he converted that chearful mansion, in which he was ever a favoured guest, into a scene of wretchedness? Why did he not ramble among the mountains of his beloved Swisserland, till dangerous impressions had resumed the character and the serenity of friendship? When she yielded to his infatuated importunities, did not his Olivia emphatically predict her own destruction? Had the barbarian the heart to accelerate her doom?—These are question which critics may propose, but which lovers must resolve.

The strict moralist will probably deprecate the dangerous effects of such productions as that which we have been considering: but its character is of too refined a cast to allure the vulgar; and it exposes the danger of allowing sentiment to gain the ascendancy over reason. The children of unsophisticated virtue will doubtless close the eventful recital, with confirmed resolutions of guarding against the seducing influence of romantic sensibility, while they drop a tear over its ruined but amiable victims.

[1] The Samian war was undertaken by Pericles at the instigation of Aspasia.

Notes: Format: 12mo. pp. 248; price 4s. Boards. Publisher: Highley.

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