CW3 Home | Corvey Home
Author Index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T V W Y Z


Contribution Page

'Vivian'. In Tales of Fashionable Life
    (Synopsis / Tales of Fashionable Life, by Maria Edgeworth)
  J A Shaffer, Sept 1999
The preface to the first volume of Tales of Fashionable Life is written by Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Maria Edgeworth's father, at his daughterÂ’s request, and says that these volumes 'are intended to point out some of those errours to which the higher classes of society are disposed' (v). For the preface to volume IV (v-viii), the volume containing 'Vivian', the author's father explains that this tale was written ten years before it was published but that his daughter takes a longer time to revise 'than the severe ancients required for the highest species of moral fiction', the genre she too employs. This volume's purpose, he explains, is to expose the defect of being 'infirm of purpose' (vi). Also provided here is a list of all authorized works by Maria Edgeworth and her father, published by Johnson through 1812, when 'Vivian' was first published; Richard Lovell Edgeworth explains here that there are works attributed to his daughter that are neither by her nor up to her moral standards, and he requests that only those works published by Johnson should be taken as hers.

In 'Vivian' itself, Charles Vivian, not quite of age, is under the care of his tutor and close friend, Mr Russell, who is only a few years older than his pupil. Vivian has solid morals and a good understanding but, we are told, lacks the ability to persevere in what he recognises as right for a number of reasons: he hates to feel that he is being led, making him do the opposite of what he should when he feels he otherwise might lose his freedom of choice and action; he dislikes doing what is unpleasant or inconvenient for himself or others; and he tends to be drawn along with whoever speaks to him last, or most, even if not convinced by them.

Vivian meets and falls in love with Miss Selina Sidney. His mother feels that this is not the most advantageous match he could make, and the contrary Vivian therefore stubbornly insists on it. It is finally decided that the two can become engaged if he does not try to see her before he comes of age. Neither his mother nor Russell believe that this unsteady man will be able to persevere in his attachment, so he sets his mind to doing so. He succeeds, but other obstacles lead first to the postponement of the marriage and then to its cancellation entirely. First, Vivian decides to make his house resemble an old castle he sees; while Russell convinces him that doing so will ruin the comfort of Vivian's home, others - architects, for instance - convince him to make the changes against his better judgment. Then he runs as M.P. for the constituency and this absorbs his time and attention. After he wins, he has to go to London while Parliament is in session.

In London, he spends so much time with the Glistonbury family that, as Russell points out, it seems as though he has entered into an engagement with Lady Sarah Glistonbury, who seems like an automaton. Vivian is unwilling to give up time with this family because other guests there are stimulating, and despite his recognition that Russell's observations are correct and his advice is good, he would like to remain a constant guest there. Then, however, he is lured away into the circle of Mr. Wharton, a scheming and dissipated man who prides himself on rejecting the rules by which most people live, asserting that most people are as dissolute as he and are only hypocritical in living outwardly by the world's rules. Vivian becomes involved with Wharton's wife, partly out of the stubborn belief that his judgment is best: he believes he can remain in a platonic relationship with her, although his mother points out that relationships between single men and married women rarely remain platonic. Refusing to acknowledge that he could get sucked into something over which he lacks control, he finds himself flattered by the woman's regard for him and drawn into a relationship dangerously close to an affair with her. When he tries to break it off, she says she cannot live without him, so he finds himself eloping to the continent with her before he quite knows what has happened, and quite in opposition to his real ill and desires. Fortunately, it becomes known that Mr and Mrs Wharton dreamed up this scheme to force criminal conversation proceedings against him to gain the fortune he would then have to pay; because Vivian is revealed to be the victim rather than the seducer here, however, Wharton cannot prosecute. Vivian loses from this nonetheless: Selina leaves him, seeing the extent to which his weak will leaves him open to being led into criminality as bad as the most self-directed profligacy.

Russell lures Vivian back to England by telling him that he can redeem his reputation by dedicating himself to his parliamentary career. He does so, not only to bury his sorrow and to impress Russell, but also because Wharton tells others that the weak-willed Vivian will never do well in politics, and Vivian is ever driven by a desire to contradict others' doubts.

Then Glistonbury drags Vivian back to Glistonbury Castle, and Vivian's short period as a strong-minded man of integrity draws to an end. He falls in love with the younger daughter, Lady Julia. She turns him down, revealing that she is in love with Russell. When he exposes her secret against her desires and breaks jealously with Russell, Russell voluntarily leaves his post and Lady Julia is virtually disowned by her family, sent to live with distant relatives. When Vivian wants then to leave the family, he learns that the previously distant Lady Sarah is desperately in love with him; she is so upset that Vivian does not love her that her mother gets upset too and has a stroke.

Vivian returns to Castle Vivian to prepare for the upcoming election. Then the Glistonbury son and heir, Lord Lidhurst, dies. The nephew and heir-at-law, Marmaduke Lidhurst, decides he wants to run against Vivian for the county seat and he proposes to Lady Sarah, to assure both that the property will come to him and that Lord Glistonbury will support him in the election (he knows that if someone else marries Lady Sarah and she bears a son, the property will not come to him, and he knows that Lord Glistonbury would prefer to support Vivian for the county seat). When Lord Glistonbury tells Vivian about the situation, Vivian finds himself asking to wed Lady Sarah himself because this will solve Lord Glistonbury and Lady Sarah's problems and because it will help Vivian get elected. Vivian still does not love or even esteem Lady Sarah. She then dotes on him to such an extent that he flees into his work, therefore again performing well there, albeit for all the wrong reasons, and we are told that if he were to apply himself at home, he could change his wife from being doting, insipid, and narrow-minded into someone with improved understanding, more capable of pleasing him.

Lord Glistonbury can be made marquis if Vivian sells out his political integrity and agrees to vote with the government. Vivian at first holds out but then realizes that going along will bring financial rewards that will solve his money problems and help him escape a retired life with his overfond wife. He meets with the government representative but wants to renege; someone comes into the room, however, and Vivian cannot assert himself to say what he needs to say. When he later hears Wharton say that he, Vivian, has sold out, he knows the insult is well-founded. Emotionally over-wrought, and against advice and his own better judgment, he challenges Wharton to a duel. He is wounded and dies, and Lady Sarah prematurely bears a dead son, signalling the end of Lord Glistonbury's line. Lord Glistonbury acknowledges that he is at least partially responsible for Vivian's death and, as a result, that he is likewise to blame for his failure both to be made a marquis and to keep the family properties in his immediate line.

© 1999 J A Shaffer / Sheffield Hallam University