Before I knew I had a heart

Dear Charlotte,

In Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle (published in four volumes in 1788), we have a Cinderella-like heroine surrounded by characters who are constantly burning their candles at both ends. You seem to have wanted to have it all: a romantic novel, satire, conduct book, social criticism, coming of age story. All in all, we have a somewhat overwrought melodrama – but one with something to say.

Sixteen-year-old Emmeline Mowbray is the eponymous Orphan of the Castle who, born out of wedlock, has been raised by her caregivers at a castle in Wales, since her parents’ death when she was a baby. As an illegitimate child, Emmeline has no claim to her father’s fortune, which ends up in the hands of an uncle she never met, Lord Montreville. At first, her uncle doesn’t show any interest for her wellbeing, and simply tolerates her living in Mowbray Castle, which is falling apart.

One day, however, Lord Montreville decides to claim the castle for the hunting season, and brings his son, Lord Delamere, who instantly falls head over heels for his cousin Emmeline. We already know that this is not meant to be: Lord Montreville has more ambitious plans for his son, and does not approve of such an unequal match with an illegitimate girl with no money and no claim to a family name.

However, accustomed to have all his wishes attended for, Delamere is adamant that Emmeline must be his at any cost. Our orphan, on the other hand, doesn’t return her cousin’s affections and is terrified of breaking her uncle’s trust in her. She then convinces Lord Montreville to send her to a place where Delamere would not be able to find her. Only too happy to do away with such an inconvenient young girl, Montreville agrees and they forge a plan for her to escape in secret.

Delamere, however, is not so easily dissuaded from his urge to have Emmeline. For the next 500 pages, we will follow the pattern of his obstinate pursuit of his cousin across England and beyond: as in a constant loop, Emmeline is sent into hiding, only to be found by Delamere, and then run away again to another hiding place.

In-between this hide-and-seek game, we meet a wide selection of mildly comic characters, a ‘fallen woman’ that doubles as madwoman in the attic, malicious gossips, dissolute and libertine men, vain society women, and many unscrupulous opportunists.

For 500 pages, the characters will be constantly sobbing, fainting, dying of heartbreak, getting into hysterical fits, misunderstanding each other, spreading rumours of infidelity, or being invited to mortal duels. There will be at least one death, one veiled allusion to sex, and one attempted rape. At one scene, Delamere, in a desperate fit of passion, will break into Emmeline’s room at Mowbray Castle, planning to violate her: fortunately for our heroine, however, she will manage to escape through labyrinthic corridors and winding staircases, leaving her cousin walking in circles, lost in the dark heart of the castle.

This may well have been a reference to a similar scene in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), and your book is alive with literary allusions like this one. Like the protagonist in Frances Burney’s Evelina: Or The History of A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), Emmeline will be constantly harassed by clueless male characters who cannot help but fall in love with her. Like in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747), Emmeline will be abducted by Delamere and forced into an elopement to Scotland, where her cousin hopes to convince her to marry him.

Unlike the female characters in any of those books, however, your Emmeline is more down-to-earth and more assertive about what she wants. Unlike Delamere, who is moved by wild passions, she has an innate good sense and a clever mind, and always prioritizes logic over passion; unlike Lord Montreville, who constantly bends his principles to his needs, she has a very strict sense of morality, so that she always remains true to her principles, even when she knows that this attitude is prejudicial for her. Unlike Burney’s Evelina, who never comes to really understand that good appearances are not equivalent to moral value, your Emmeline always cuts through people’s pretences, remains true to herself, and always trusts her own mind to find what is the right thing to do; unlike Richardson’s Clarissa, who passively falls victim of Robert Lovelace, your Emmeline is able, by her clever mind and power of argumentation, to convince Delamere to give up his wild plans of elopement.

Your Emmeline is clearly not a helpless naïve girl, but a woman trying to make the best of what she has. She actively makes her own decisions about life, even when they diverge from what other people think she should do; and she never accepts other people’s arguments mindlessly, but rather submits those arguments to her mind and to her inner moral compass, probing for any inconsistencies.

Burney’s novel derives most of its humour from the contrast between Evelina’s innocence and the utter depravity of the world around her. In a sense, Burney explores the stereotype of women as helpless naïve, so as to make fun of it and thereby criticize the society behind it. You, on the other hand, seem to have chosen not to criticize society by making fun of women, but rather to explore and criticize the stereotype itself. While Evelina’s forced naiveté drives her to confer an air of civility to all the abuses she suffers, so that she never understands them for what they are, your Emmeline is very outspoken about what she sees as wrong. While independence and self-awareness would be deeply dangerous traits for Burney’s Evelina, to your Emmeline they are the virtues that save her from downfall. While Evelina’s reputation lies in her perpetual state of innocence, Emmeline’s reputation lies in her loyalty to her core values. Unlike Burney’s Evelina, your heroine is not a girl who learns about life from a male mentor: Emmeline acts alone, and her sole advisor is a woman.

This particular choice of yours may have made for a less humorous novel, but it clearly expresses your underlying attempt to present women as logical human beings. While Burney, in a way, made her character an object of scorn for the reader for being exactly what society expected her to be, you created a character who earns people’s respect by never compromising her happiness nor her values (these two are, for her, instances of the same thing). While Evelina avoids the traps around her by simply not being able to see them as traps, Emmeline probes her mind for a way out.

Another topic you seem to be very passionate about in this novel is marriage. Contrary to the customs of her time, Emmeline makes it clear for everyone that she does not want to marry young, and that she prefers to fend for herself or to die a spinster rather than to get married with a bad husband. In a direct parallel to your own life, you try to show, in the characters of two of Emmeline’s friends, Mrs. Stafford and Adelina, the hardships faced by women who marry young to dissipated men.

In these two characters, you criticise the traditional 18th century marriage arrangements, in which women were left clueless and with little choice, even though it was plain to everyone that marriage was the most important business transaction of their lives.

The characters of Mrs. Stafford and Adelina also mirror each other in very interesting ways: you seem to be using them to instruct girls on how to act (and, conversely, how not to act), when faced with a bad husband. The doubling to these two characters also suggests that, even though they are classified by society, respectively, as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, they are more similar than this society is actually willing to admit.

An important instance of your criticism of 18th century marriage (and society’s treatment of women in general) is your treatment of the ‘fallen woman’ in this novel: you are clearly pointing out to the hypocrisy that leads an otherwise morally honourable woman to be regarded as less worthy than other women who are able to act in an immoral way while keeping a socially accepted appearance of honour. Furthermore, you retrace the downfall of your fallen woman to the social and legal features that led her to act as she did: in particular, the lack of proper education for women, the conflation of female innocence with ignorance, the normalisation of male harassment, and the lack of legal protection of women. You also point out to the way those conditions, combined with the high expectations regarding female behaviour, denote a form of madness.

Pressured by the fear of what the people around her (and, particularly, the men in her family) would think, and unable to see a way out of her problems, your fallen woman borders on self-annihilation and descends into madness. Unlike other women in her position in 18th-century fiction, however, your fallen woman not only does not die, but also is made almost like a secondary heroine – a double of your Emmeline.

The novel has its faults and low points, for sure. It’s overwrought, it’s too melodramatic, it’s too long. Emmeline lacks a family name, a title, money or even social connections, and her sense of honour is sometimes otherworldly, but everyone seem to fall under her spell at first sight. Furthermore, you try to put society into question by creating a protagonist who stands outside the social structure, but you end up only reinforcing this same structure in the end. Emmeline threads the middle line between sense and sensibility, between society’s standards and her own needs and feelings, but her narrative never suggests a real transgression from convention nor encourages any form of social change. All we are left with is the dream that a well-intentioned woman with good sense can overcome any form of structural injustice by her personal qualities alone.

The heart of your novel is social criticism. However, given the literary conventions of your time, a heart failure was bound to happen one way or another: you would have to implode either your framework, or your critique. You could not afford to dispose of the former, so you had to let go of the heart. All is fair in love and war, I suppose – and daring to be a woman novelist, poet, and freethinker in the 18th-century must have been an instance of both.

Yours truly,


Femme a la Rosé by Paul Delvaux, 1936

“‘For my own part, I saw his follies; but none that I did not equally perceive in the conduct of other young men. Tho’ I had no absolute partiality to him, I was totally indifferent to every other man. I married him, therefore; and gave away my person before I knew I had a heart.'” – Charlotte Smith, Emmeline

About the book

  • Broadview Press, 2003, 520 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1788
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • On her review of the novel for the Analytical Review, Mary Wollstonecraft praised the character of Mrs. Stafford, but lamented “that the false expectations these wild scenes excite, tend to debauch the mind, and throw an insipid kind of uniformity over the moderate and rational prospects of life, consequently adventures are sought for and created, when duties are neglected, and content despised.”
  • I read this book for The Classics Club & R.I.P. – R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril,  hosted by Andi and Heather

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