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    (Review / Leonora, by Maria Edgeworth)
  Annual Review /JAS, 1807
  vol. 5 (1806): 539-42.
Art. II. Leonora. By Miss Edgeworth. 2 vols. small 8vo.

This tale, or novel, whichever we ought to entitle it, reflects fresh honour on the talents of Miss Edgeworth. It is in letters, and proves the author to excel as much in the epistolary, as in the narrative style, her personages correspond, as much in character, as they converse. It is not in plot or incident, to which the epistolary form is rather unfavourable, that the merit of 'Leonora' chiefly consists; the tale is neither new nor strange, but is rendered interesting and instructive, by a clear and delicate delineation of character, great knowledge of the world, and abundance of wit and fine sense. Lady Olivia, a metaphysical sentimentalist of the French and German schools, returns from Paris to London, where, being separated from her husband, and having been suspected of a criminal attachment, she is avoided by [540] most of her female acquaintance. Lady Leonora L. however, a young married lady of the most unexceptionable character, and amiable disposition, is so far imposed upon, by Olivia's jargon of virtue and sensibility, and by her own candid mind and generous heart, as to consider her in the light of an injured woman, whom it is meritorious to countenance. Not so, the duchess her mother, a woman of lofty character, and excellent understanding, who sees through the vain pretender with a glance, and warns her daughter against keeping up so dangerous a connexion; in vain, for Leonora had already given Olivia an invitation to spend some time at L. castle. By slow degrees, the treacherous guest succeeds in supplanting Leonora in the affections of a hitherto fond and faithful husband; justifying her conduct all the time to herself, and her French correspondent, by the most seducing, but miserable sophistry. Her confidante Gabrielle de P. is an 'intrigante and elegante' most exquisitely drawn, a character which has seldom been attempted with any success, by English novelists. General B. the correspondent of Mr L. is quite a man of the world, but a man of great good sense, and excellent feelings, who addresses admirable letters of advice to his infatuated friend. The following passages of a letter from the duchess to her daughter, paint in the truest colours, without exaggeration or invective, that kind of disguised profligacy, which it is the object of this work, in common with so many inferior ones to unmask.

'Nothing would tempt you to associate with those who have avowed themselves regardless of right and wrong; but I must warn you against another, and a far more dangerous class, who professing the most refined delicacy of sentiment, and boasting of invulnerable virtue, exhibit themselves in the most improper and hazardous situations; and who, because they are without fear, expect to be deemed free from reproach. Either from miraculous good fortune, or from a singularity of temper, these adventurous heroines may possibly escape with what they call perfect innocence. - So much the worse for society. - Their example tempts others, who fall a sacrifice to their weakness and folly. I would punish the tempters in this case more than the victims, and for them the most effectual species of punishment is contempt. Neglect is death to these female lovers of notoriety. The moment they are out of fashion, their power to work mischief ceases.

'A taste for the elegant profligacy of French gallantry was, I remember, introduced into this country before the destruction of the French monarchy. Since that time, some sentimental writers and pretended philosophers of our own and foreign countries have endeavoured to confound all our ideas of morality. To every rule of right they have found exceptions, and on these they have fixed the public attention by adorning them with all the splendid decorations of eloquence; so that the rule is despised or forgotten, and the exception triumphantly established in its stead. These orators seem as if they had been feed [sic] by Satan to plead the cause of Vice; and is if possessed by the evil spirit, they speak with a vehemence which carries away their auditors, or with a subtlety which deludes their better judgment. They put extreme cases, in which virtue may become vice, or vice virtue: they exhibit criminal passions in constant connexion with the most exalted, the most amiable virtues; thus making use of the best feelings of human nature for the worst purposes, they engage pity or admiration perpetually on the side of guilt. Eternally talking of philosophy and philanthropy, they only borrow the terms to perplex the ignorant and seduce the imaginative. They have their systems and their theories, and in theory they pretend that the general good of society is their sole immutable rule of morality, and in practice they make the variable feelings of each individual the judges of this general good. Their systems disdain all the vulgar virtues, intent upon some beau [541] ideal of perfection or perfectibility. They set common sense and common honesty at defiance. No matter: - their doctrine, so convenient to the passions and soporific to the conscience, can never want partisans: especially by weak and enthusiastic women it is adopted and propagated with eagerness; then they become personages of importance, and zealots in support of their sublime opinions: - and they can read; and they can write; and they can talk; and they can effect a revolution in public opinion! I am afraid, indeed, that they can: for of late years we have heard more of sentiment than of principles; more of the rights of woman than of her duties. We have seen talents disgraced by the conduct of their possessors, and perverted in the vain attempt to defend what is unjustifiable.'

The lively letters of Gabrielle display French manners as much as they expose French principles.

Madame de P---- to Olivia.

'Je suis excedée! mon coeur. Alive, and but just alive, after such a day of fatigues! All morning from one minister to another! then home to my toilette! then a great dinner with a number of foreigners, each to be distinguished! then au Feydeau, where I was obliged to go to support poor S----'s play, which would be really insupportable, if it were not for the finest music in the world, which, after all the French music certainly is. There was a violent party against the piece; and we were so late, that it was just on the point of perishing. My ears have not yet recovered from the horrid noise. In the midst of the tumult I fortunately, by a masterstroke, turned the fortune of the night. I spied the shawl of an English woman hanging over the box. This, you know, like scarlet to the bull, is sufficient to enrage the Parisian pit. To the shawl I directed the fury of the mob of critics. Luckily for us, the Lady was attended only by an Englishman, who of course chose to assert his right not to understand the customs of any country, or submit to any will but his own. He would not permit the shawl to be stirred. A bas! à bas! resounded from below. The uproar was incon-ceivable. You would have thought that the house must have come down. In the mean time the piece went on, and the shawl covered all its defects. Admire my generalship. T--- tells me I was born for a general; yet I rather think my forte is negotiation.'

There cannot be a doubt, that the intention of this work is highly moral, and its general effect is to inspire a contempt and abhorrence of sophistical reasoning, and loose conduct. But the denouement is by no means satisfactory. In consequence of detecting her intrigue with Mr L. Leonora desires Olivia to quit her house, and Mr L. takes her publicly under his protection. After some time, Olivia, fearful of being deserted by her lover, whom she has wearied and disgusted, extorts from Mr L. by a threat of suicide, a promise of taking her with him on an embassy to Russia, which she has persuaded him to accept. Just as he is about to embark, remorse and uneasiness of mind throw him into a dangerous and infectious fever. His mistress, under pretext of her too great sensibility, declines the dangerous task of attending upon him. His wife, who had conducted herself with uniform prudence and gentleness during his desertion, flies to his sickbed, watches him with the keenest anxiety, and contributes to restore him to life. But in the midst of all the gratitude, compunction, love, and admiration, that her conduct excites in him, Mr L. oppressed by the idea that the promise made to his abandoned mistress, for whom he now feels nothing but contempt and aversion is still binding, and it is only by means of a packet of her letters, accidentally intercepted, from which he learns how little her boasted passion for him was either delicate or sincere, that he is at length brought to concede this false point of honour.

This is surely wrong, Leonora had steadily refused to call in to [542] her assistance in reconquering the heart of her husband, any means but such as virtue and discretion could supply; her triumph therefore, should have been obtained by these, and these alone. An old poet, addressing Fortune, says,

----Wisdom whose strong-built plots
Leave nought to hazard mocks thy futile power;

and the sentiment is just and noble; she need not trust so mean an agent. As those who weave the web of fictitious adventures, have events absolutely in their own power, they should also remember, that a narrative founded upon turns of fortune, may be entertaining, but cannot be instructive; that the goods thrown by chance may excite envy, but that the blessings earned by virtue can alone awaken emulation. [complete]

Provided by Julie A. Shaffer, January 2000