L. M. Grow (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Sarah Scott: A Reconsideration," in Coranto, 1973, pp. 9–15.
[In the following essay, the critic contrasts Scott's writing style in her letters with that found in her novels, maintaining that the qualities of eloquence and wit displayed in her voluminous correspondence are missing from her fiction.]
The twentieth-century reader who happens upon the eighteenth-century novel A Description of Millenium Hall (1762) is apt to be put off quickly by its unremitting tendentiousness.1 Without compensating artistic beauties, such as strong characterization or eloquent style, the book is easy to lay aside long before one reaches the end. In large part this must be attributed to the inability of the author to transcend the common-place, to invoke the artistic imagination necessary for first-rate work. As Walter Crittenden has said:
It is as a gentlewoman, alert to the intellectual and social tendencies of the day, yet guided by a native dignity and strict religious zeal which gave a moral tone to all her writings and made her assiduously avoid all notoriety, that Mrs. Scott must be looked upon as a representative author. She is, indeed, a typical product of the century's sentimental and didactic ideals.2
Still, to some extent she was representative rather than original by conscious choice. As Professor Crittenden further observes,
Had the materials which were not only at hand but which she utilized in her correspondence, been used in her novels, Fannie Burney would not have been counted by Macaulay as the first of the female novelists in England.3
As it is, Sarah (Robinson) Scott remains an obscure though not insignificant figure in the development of the English novel. She was one of the first women to publish a novel in modern form, leading the way for numerous other female writers in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Like her sister, the "bluestocking" Lady Elizabeth Montagu, she maintained a firm belief in the importance of education for young women; and this interest led Sarah, along with her closest friend, Lady Barbara Montagu (no direct relation to her sister's husband, Edward Montagu), to establish a partly charitable, partly educational, project for poor girls.4 It is this effort, idealized and otherwise somewhat altered, which forms the basis for Millenium Hall.
Although her philanthropic, educational, and literary interests found an important voice in her novels, she expressed them in other ways as well. She wrote three historical works of some merit.5 She also produced a considerable correspondence, full of serious reflections as well as the typically trivial news of personal communication. Most of her extant letters were written to her sister, Lady Montagu, and are now part of the Elizabeth Montagu Collection in the Huntington Library, with whose kind permission the following portions are transcribed.
These letters include passages of incisive comment on people and events and at times the style in which she describes them is masterful. Here she employs devices conspicuously absent from her fiction: humor, figurative language, and the beginnings of satire.
The P of W has been at Sr Harry Featherstones, he staid three days, during which they had races of all sorts,—fine horses—Poneys—Cart horses,—Women—& Men in sacks, with various other Divertimenti fit for children of six foot high. I hear he was much delighted, & said that New market races were dull in comparison. They were within three or four miles of us, but no one except Servants went from hence, nor do I find that any Ladies of fashion in the Country were at them. Poor Lady Featherstone, Sr Harrys Mother, fled from the Riot to Mr Iremongers. These pretty sports attracted a very great Mob who were charm'd with a P so familiarly affable to them all. [A]t Brighthemston he did not give quite so much satisfaction, to see him come drunk to the Balls, walk arm in arm with Weltjie, & sit in the Gallery at the Play with a Woman of the Town gave no great delight to the Spectators. It is however allowed that when he is so drunk he can scarcely stand he dances better, bating a fall now & then, than any other Man, even when sober. [August 23, 1784]6
Political and military occurrences were among the topics in which Mrs. Scott was interested. She seldom betrayed party bias, choosing rather to focus upon individuals affected by political events:
People seem now to think Lord Shelburne will not get into the Ministry, it was talked of, & that Coll. Barré was to succeed Lord Barrington, but now it is supposed the person will be Lord Beauchamp. Lord Barringtons vacating his seat was assigned to his being [forced] to quit his place, but I can not see how those two matters were connected; except he is seized with so very strong a desire for retirement & quiet that as his interests no longer require his being in the House, he is determin'd to free himself even from the trouble of attendance. Some intimate that the Parliament was prorogued somewhat sooner than it wou'd otherwise have been because Burgoyne & Fitzpatrick were likely to render it a more troublesome scene of action than ever, & that the arrival of Gen'l Howe, daily expected, wou'd still increase the flame. However the Season of the year made a recess desirable, & the Parliament was not likely to be of much use to the state of public affairs. Determinations are more quietly made in the Cabinet, & shou'd the sanction of Parl[iamen]t be wanted it will be easily assembled. Besides Militia duty wou'd carry off great part of the Members, more Particularly of such as are most agreable to the M[inistr]y. 7
While political and military affairs were of course often closely allied, Mrs. Scott demonstrated a lively interest in the tactical side, as well as the broader strategic implications, of the engagements of her day.
[A] poor simple Woman at Land must fight a Sea battle judiciously, but I shou'd think as the nights are now very light their motions might have been discern'd, & considerable damage done them by our pursuing them when their order must be disorder'd by their round about course. But perhaps the state of our Ships might be an impediment to any Such measure if there was no other good reason against it. Our Fleet is returning to Plymouth to be repair'd. An Engagement wou'd sooner have happen'd if the French had not had the wind of Kepple, which they were not inclined to use in attacking us. Once the Two Fleets were very near & the wind in our Favor, but it was then Four in the afternoon, & Kepple being desirous I suppose to make a good day's work of it, & not suspecting the wind of so shameless an inconstancy as to change before morning, nor apprehending that the polite French would take advantage of the same wind that he design'd should carry him to them, to get away from him delay'd engaging till he had more time before him; but so perversely did things turn out that in the morning the wind was changed, & the French fleet gone. [August 3, 1778]8
Clearly, Sarah Scott had both the wide scope and the penetrating focus of observation to qualify her for more distinguished work.
The letters which Mrs. Scott wrote to her sister Elizabeth also contain artistic devices unfortunately absent from her novels. Perhaps the most surprising, considering the grimly serious nature of her books, is an occasional touch of humor:
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