(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Like all eighteenth century periodical essayists, John Hawkesworth knew the value of fiction to hold an audience from issue to issue and to make moral instruction pleasing. Unlike most essayists, however, he used fictional devices almost exclusively (sixty of seventy Adventurer essays employ at least one type) and paid careful attention to the creation of emotional effects: “Those narratives are most pleasing which not only excite and gratify curiosity, but also engage the passions.” How to engage the passions and how to discover objects on which to fix their attention became the task of Hawkesworth’s Adventurer essays.

Periodical writers of the time always professed a moral purpose. It ranged from a commentary on proper notions of dress and behavior to the recommendation of certain virtues to the advocacy of religious doctrines. Hawkesworth gave some attention to popular topics such as the theater and conversation, but he felt a particular duty to advocate two positions. First, he wished to show that morality simply did not mean overt compliance with law; subtle evasions in thought or conduct could have the same dire consequences as outright violations. Second, he judged contemporary society too flippant in its approach to religious questions and too heedless of human dependency on the divine. Although Hawkesworth variously used fable, allegory, or character to discuss either topic, he usually treated the first by a story of contemporary manners and the second by an Oriental tale.

Hawkesworth wrote five narratives of modern manners to illustrate the “excellence and importance” of abstaining from even the appearance of evil. They are the story of Melissa (Nos. 7-8), who is thrice reduced to penury because others believe ill of her; the tale of Eugenio (Nos. 64-66, 70), whose silent devotion to obedience and honor is mistaken for cowardice; the story of Desdamona (Nos. 117-118), whose efforts to reform her philandering husband earn her the imputation of adultery; and the tale of Flavilla (Nos. 123-125), whose careless associations with unprincipled persons alienate her father-in-law and her husband. The best of the five, and the one most revealing about Hawkesworth’s efforts to engage the passions, is the story of Captain Freeman and Lady Forrest.

Captain Freeman courts Charlotte and wins her love, but her family rejects his proposal because of his low rank and small fortune. Soon after, Charlotte is wooed by Sir James Forrest, a wealthy baronet whose qualities charm the lady and persuade the family. Captain Freeman then proposes to Charlotte’s sister Maria and is accepted. As the two sisters remain close, Charlotte and Captain Freeman often delight in each other’s company, much to the suspicion of Maria and Sir James. After staying late one evening with her sister, Charlotte unwillingly accepts the captain’s offer to see her home. She knows that his companionship at dawn will seem suspicious, but she does not know how to explain her reservations without implying an affection for him. After a ride home and a morning walk in a nearby park, they separate. Later that morning, Dr. Tattle reports to Maria that he saw Charlotte and the captain near a bagnio that morning. Maria writes to Charlotte urging her to dissemble a little about the adventure lest Sir James be jealous, but Sir James hears a confused version of events from Charlotte, intercepts Maria’s note, and concludes the worst. The baronet challenges Captain Freeman, who, thinking to protect Charlotte, accepts the duel without offering an explanation. After the captain is mortally wounded, he confesses the innocent events of that morning. Horrified that he has killed a guiltless man, Sir James takes a boat for France and is lost at sea.

As the plot summary makes clear, the tale hinges on misunderstandings arising out of unspoken feelings and worries. Since the tale takes three Adventurer periodicals to tell, Hawkesworth has the space to develop the psychology of his characters and the tensions of each scene. He describes them with what the eighteenth century called “sensibility,” that is, with close attention to a range of emotional expression. Blushes, tears, anger, and fears by characters in almost every scene are the essence of sensibility. By detailing each emotion in turn, Hawkesworth sought to drive the moral lesson home by making...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)