Saturday, December 06, 2014

Elizabeth Hervey: The Mourtray Family (1800)


I only have Volume 3 (of 4); the original owner of my copy was a certain Lord Torrington (*see NOTE), but I picked it up in a charity shop.

Coincidentally, if you look up "The Mourtray Family" in Google Books you will also get Vol 3 only.

Volume 3 begins with the family discovering the horrendous mess that young Henry has got himself into; he has fought a duel (without seconds) over a gaming debt, and fled leaving his opponent at death's door. Mr Mourtray and his daughter Emma are gravely distressed; the comic Mrs Mourtray is also distressed but insensible to the moral gravity of the situation, she is only concerned for her son's welfare. If you're able to read the blurry scan above, you'll enjoy the irrepressible Chowles adding fuel to everyone's distress. In Hervey's book this is just funny: compare it with the scene in Mansfield Park when Sir Thomas Bertram discovers the theatricals, and when Yates keeps on talking to him about the theatre while everyone else is desperate to change the subject; the painful topic is a much less serious matter in itself, but Austen makes us feel the scene as excruciating, because we are so much more deeply aware of the betrayal and shame.


The rest of the third vol focusses on Emma and her love for Miramont; by the end of it they are married, but I'm not sure if this is the end of their story or if there are still further twists to come; the meeting with Miramont's rival Lord Clannarmon is disquieting, and we wonder if Miramont has the moral stature that Austen has taught us to expect from the hero. The most exciting scene is when Emma, staying up late, notices a flickering light from Miramont's bedroom (they are both guests at a country house). This light can only mean fire, and Emma rouses the household, saves the gentleman's life, and is rewarded by his declaration of love, though not as yet by a proposal of marriage.       

But these comparisons with Austen are a little unjust. What Hervey already turns to good account is the typically captious eye of a spirited young heroine, employed as a moral instrument that is trained on her mother and her mother's circle; or on the envy and snobbery of those friends who are more socially established than herself but less sexually attractive. It is a healthy structure on which later novelists can build. 

Elizabeth (1748-1820) was only a young child when her mother remarried. Her stepfather was the fabulously rich William Beckford Sr, who owned twenty plantations worked by slaves in Jamaica, and she must have grown up in the opulent surroundings of Fonthill Splendens in Wiltshire. William Beckford Jr, author of Vathek, was her half-brother. In 1774 she married Col. Thomas Hervey, who promptly gambled away their joint fortunes, perhaps supplying a financial motive for Mrs Hervey's subsequent composition of half a dozen anonymously-published novels. So when the author has Mr Mourtray say about Henry, "Gaming, too, is, of all vices, that which takes the deepest root in the heart", she was writing from bitter experience.





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NOTE

It would be pleasant to think that my "Lord Torrington" was the great diarist-traveller John Byng, but he held the title for only three weeks, between his elder brother George’s death in December 1812 and his own death in January 1813. More likely this book belonged to George. (John’s famous diaries were written 1781-1794.)

And since we're talking nobility here, Elizabeth Hervey the novelist has no connection with her splendid near-contemporary namesake Elizabeth "Bess" Cavendish, nee Hervey, Duchess of Devonshire (1759-1824) - a confusion currently propagated by Wikipedia.

(2010, 2012)   

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