While I very much enjoyed the recent BBC/PBS Sanditon series (except for its ending), I was sorry to see that the filmmakers didn’t make the villainous Sir Edward Denham a reader. In Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, he reads novels for their seduction advice.
Many in the 18th century were concerned about young people reading novels. In 1750, the Bishop of London blamed Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random for two earthquakes that hit the city. Samuel Johnson used one of his famous Rambler essays to attack novels for their pernicious moral effects.
In Sanditon, Charlotte Heywood encounters Sir Edward and Esther Denham emerging from a library, which in turn leads to a discussion of novels. Edward is fairly incoherent as he disparages “the mere trash of the common circulating library” but then goes on to praise those novels that “display human nature with grandeur,” “show her in the sublimities of intense feeling,” and “exhibit the progress of strong passion.” In other words, like gothic-reading Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey and romance-reading Captain Benwick in Persuasion, Sir Edward wants novels that engulf him in unbridled romanticism. First, here’s his attack:
… Sir Edward, approaching Charlotte, said, “You may perceive what has been our occupation. My sister wanted my counsel in the selection of some books. We have many leisure hours and read a great deal. I am no indiscriminate novel reader. The mere trash of the common circulating library I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences, from which no useful deductions can be drawn. In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; we distil nothing which can add to science. You understand me, I am sure?”
Sir Edward is saying nothing more complicated than that such compositiosn are shallow and don’t teach us anything of substance, but his convolutions confuse Charlotte. She then gets him to describe the novels he does like:
“I am not quite certain that I do [understand you]. But if you will describe the sort of novels which you do approve, I dare say it will give me a clearer idea.”
“Most willingly, fair questioner. The novels which I approve are such as display human nature with grandeur; such as show her in the sublimities of intense feeling; such as exhibit the progress of strong passion from the first germ of incipient susceptibility to the utmost energies of reason half-dethroned—where we see the strong spark of woman’s captivations elicit such fire in the soul of man as leads him—though at the risk of some aberration—from the strict line of primitive obligations to hazard all, dare all, achieve all to obtain her. Such are the works which I peruse with delight and, I hope I may say, with amelioration. They hold forth the most splendid portraitures of high conceptions, unbounded views, illimitable ardour, indomitable decision. And even when the event is mainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned machinations of the prime character, the potent, pervading hero of the story, it leaves us full of generous emotions for him; our hearts are paralyzed. T’were pseudo-philosophy to assert that we do not feel more enwrapped by the brilliancy of his career than by the tranquil and morbid virtues of any opposing character. Our approbation of the latter is but eleemosynary. These are the novels which enlarge the primitive capabilities of the heart; and which it cannot impugn the sense or be any dereliction of the character of the most anti-puerile man, to be conversant with.”
“If I understand you aright,” said Charlotte, “our taste in novels is not at all the same.”
At this point Austen weighs in to observe that Sir Edward is taking the wrong lessons from the novels of Samuel Richardson, who was Austen’s favorite novelist. (She particularly liked Sir Charles Grandison.) Unfortunately, in reading Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Sir Edward chooses to identify with Lord B___ and Lovelace, the two rakes who attempt to seduce the respective heroines:
The truth was that Sir Edward, whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot, had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him. His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s, and such authors as had since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every opposition of feeling and convenience was concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character. With a perversity of judgement which must be attributed to his not having by nature a very strong head, the graces, the spirit, the sagacity and the perseverance of the villain of the story outweighed all his absurdities and all his atrocities with Sir Edward. With him such conduct was genius, fire and feeling. It interested and inflamed him. And he was always more anxious for its success, and mourned over its discomfitures with more tenderness, than could ever have been contemplated by the authors.
In other words, blame the reader, not the author.
Although Richardson’s Lovelace is a rake who imprisons and rapes the angelic Clarissa, for Sir Edward this is a point in his favor:
Sir Edward’s great object in life was to be seductive. With such personal advantages as he knew himself to possess, and such talents as he did also give himself credit for, he regarded it as his duty. He felt that he was formed to be a dangerous man, quite in the line of the Lovelaces. The very name of Sir Edward, he thought, carried some degree of fascination with it. To be generally gallant and assiduous about the fair, to make fine speeches to every pretty girl, was but the inferior part of the character he had to play. Miss Heywood, or any other young woman with any pretensions to beauty, he was entitled (according to his own view of society) to approach with high compliment and rhapsody on the slightest acquaintance.
As in the television series, Sir Edward is out to seduce Clara, the poor relation that Lady Denham has taken in and who is therefore a potential rival for her inheritance. Sir Edward, however, has no more success with Clara than either of Richardson’s rakes have with their targets:
But it was Clara alone on whom he had serious designs; it was Clara whom he meant to seduce.
Her seduction was quite determined on. Her situation in every way called for it. She was his rival in Lady Denham’s favour; she was young, lovely and dependent. He had very early seen the necessity of the case, and had now been long trying with cautious assiduity to make an impression on her heart and to undermine her principles. Clara saw through him and had not the least intention of being seduced; but she bore with him patiently enough to confirm the sort of attachment which her personal charms had raised. A greater degree of discouragement indeed would not have affected Sir Edward. He was armed against the highest pitch of disdain or aversion. If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off. He knew his business. Already had he had many musings on the subject. If he were constrained so to act, he must naturally wish to strike out something new, to exceed those who had gone before him; and he felt a strong curiosity to ascertain whether the neighbourhood of Timbuctoo might not afford some solitary house adapted for Clara’s reception. But the expense, alas! of measures in that masterly style was ill-suited to his purse; and prudence obliged him to prefer the quietest sort of ruin and disgrace for the object of his affections to the more renowned.
In short, despite his inflated self image he’s both ineffective and pathetic.
If the series did not make him a reader, I suspect it’s because, to our modern eyes, this might have signaled some depth. Sometimes we give past audiences more cultural credit than is warranted because we forget that today’s high literature was yesterday’s popular entertainment. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the plays of Shakespeare, and the novels of the 18th century were essentially the soap operas of their day. To applaud Sir Edward for reading would be like praising someone today for playing video games.
In short, Sir Edward has the depth of a microchip and is a bad reader as a result.
Further thought: Although Austen defends Richardson against Sir Edward, fiction regularly gets us to identify with evil characters, regardless of authorial intentions. Once Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders launches into her tale, one can’t help but sympathize, even though she’s a prostitute, a thief, and a bigamist. That’s one reason why so many 18th century moralists were worried about young people reading novels at all.
Interestingly, while Johnson was one of these moralists, he didn’t have any problems with Clarissa, which he described as “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.” I wonder if Austen, although she admired Johnson, isn’t taking a slight dig at him in the way she has Sir Edward make use of the novel.