Monday, February 18, 2013

Sir Charles Grandison: second thoughts

I've been steadily reading along in my 1500 pg. epistolary novel, Sir Charles Grandison. Since my first update, just 100 pages in, lots has happened... which tends to be the case when you read 900 pages... :)

Harriet Byron, our lovely heroine and intrepid letter writer, has had some major upsets in her anticipated trip to London. Recall Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, the angry and possessive suitor? Well, he decided that the best way to win Harriet was to kidnap her and force her to marry him. Harriet was abducted from a masquerade ball and taken to a location in the country in which Pollexfen intended her to marry him, but hasn't yet succeeded. As they leave that house en route to his yet more distant forest estate where he will force her hand, their carriage is delayed by another on the road at that late hour.

Thankfully for Harriet, it is Sir Charles Grandison, heading to his brother-in-law's country house, Colnebrook. He sees her distress, rescues her, deflects Pollexfen's sword and tosses him face first out of the carriage, damaging his fine appearance in the process. Harriet, swooning, is carried away by Grandison into the care of his sisters at Colnebrook.

At this point the story really gets started. Really! Harriet recovers slowly and becomes close friends with both of Grandison's sisters, Charlotte and Caroline. She writes excessively long letters to her cousin Lucy at home, regaling her with all the news of her experiences, as well as the family history of the Grandisons. It begins to dawn on everyone that Harriet is very, very grateful to Sir Charles for his rescue, and although he is  immensely kind he seems to distance himself from her somewhat. What is happening?

Ah, but then we find out that Sir Charles, despite his growing feelings for Harriet, has a previous claim on him from an Italian family. Their daughter Clementina is in the picture, and now Charles must return to Italy...

This book is a veritable soap opera. I love the different voices that come clear in the various letters. Harriet started out very pert and amusing but grew increasingly serious as she recovered from her trauma and then was stricken with an unrequited love. Sir Charles' sisters insist that she should be the next Lady Grandison, so keeping her secret from him is proving difficult. But honour must prevail. When Harriet finally goes back to her cousin Reeves in London, and then home to Selby House in Northamptonshire, her letters are exchanged primarily with Charlotte, now married and referred to as Lady G.

Charlotte is witty, intemperate, snarky and very funny, although often rebuked by Harriet and reminded to be "good" and "wifely". Charlotte, however, is a woman with her own notions, and she is the source of many discussions on the roles for women and men in their society (Richardson's argument essentially comes down to the old "different but equal") Charlotte insists that if women were given the same educational opportunities as men they would easily show their equality, but Sir Charles and other "good" men don't see that as a necessarily good thing. They believe that women should excel in their own domestic sphere and set a good example for their husbands and children. Still, considering the times, these families are pretty open both with discussion and with the roles of both women and men.

The variety of characters allows Richardson to touch on a large number of topical issues -- religion, Englishness vs. foreign habits, so-called male Honour, the double standard, class, noblesse oblige, gambling, travel, and indeed, even the practice of letter writing! For example, the ladies explain how it is that they've found the time and place to note down all this information.

But within all these rambling discussions, the story of Harriet and Charles, and the rewards of living a good life, carries us forward. After writing both Pamela and Clarissa, Richardson was challenged to write a book featuring a good man and this is what resulted. From time to time the language becomes heightened, with "thees" and "thous" popping up, usually when there is some religious fervour going on. But in the main, Sir Charles' honourable behaviour can be considered as such even by readers 265 years later! And sadly, some of the questions of women's self-agency are still current as well...

Some of the quotes I've enjoyed deal with the state of men and women and marriage at the time. In one letter of Harriet's to cousin Lucy, she says:
What can a woman do, who is addressed by a man of talents inferior to her own? Must she throw away her talents? Must she hide her light under a bushel, purely to do credit to the man? She can-not pick and choose, as men can. She has only her negative; and, if she is desirous to oblige her friends, not always that. Yet it is said, women must not encourage fops and fools. They must encourage men of sense only. And it is well said. But what can they do, if their lot be cast only among foplings? If the men of sense do not offer themselves? And pray, may I not ask, if the taste of the age, among the men, is not dress, equipage, and foppery? Is the cultivation of the mind any part of their study? The men, in short, are sunk, my dear: and the women but barely swim....
But let not those worthy young women, who may think themselves destined to a single life, repine over-much at their lot; since, possibly, if they have had no lovers, or having had one, two, or three, have not found a husband, they have had rather a miss than a loss, as men go.

I can't put this book down. I love reading all the different letters and getting to know each of the characters from their descriptions through different eyes. I can't wait to find out how the various strands are going to be tied up. And I can hardly wait for the romantic highlight that I am sure is on its way. Final thoughts on this book will be posted much earlier than I first thought they would -- this long book is compulsively readable.


  1. Wonderful review! I first heard of this book only this month... Catherine Morland says her mother is reading it in "Northanger Abbey." It sounds right up my alley! Thanks!

  2. This sounds like great fun! How many pages do you have left? And what is it with Richardson likely to kidnap his heroines?

  3. I visited yesterday but ran out of time to leave a comment. It certainly seems like a book I'd also relish. The quoted passages are fascinating to me, and so well-expressed. Very lovely, nuanced review!

  4. Lee Ann - I'm going to have to reread Northanger Abbey next!

    Stephanie - going through this one surprisingly quickly - just over 100 pgs left now

    Suko - there are some sharp observations early on. It is a fascinating read so far

  5. Sir Hargrave Pollexfen is a wonderfully suggestive name. "A pollox on your fen, sir." etc etc etc You just know he'll be a wrong 'un. :)

  6. Alex, yes, you are correct! That and when we first meet him he is laughing loudly all the time. Scoundrel!


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