Monday, October 13, 2008

Reading Journal: "Millenium Hall"

Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall. Originally published in 1762. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, 1986.

In 1762, Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia, Rousseau published The Social Contract, and Sarah Scott published her unusual novel Millenium Hall, about a utopian community of women. The novel, like many eighteenth-century English novels, serves a didactic purpose: to illustrate the rewards of feminine virtue, and to envision a society in which the precepts of Christianity—as understood by genteel English ladies—are diligently carried into practice.

The novel begins when a carriage carrying two gentlemen breaks down on the road, and the gentlemen are received at Millenium Hall—where the older gentleman's cousin, Mrs. Maynard, happens to be a resident. A description of Millenium Hall, including details of its many charitable projects in the surrounding area, forms a frame for the stories Mrs. Maynard tells about the women who inhabit the hall. The younger gentleman, who is amiable but of unsteady character, becomes the novel's ideal audience: a man who, through exposure to Millenium Hall, comes to take more seriously his duties as a Christian.

All of the inhabitants of Millenium Hall whose stories are told—Miss Mancel and Mrs. Morgan, Lady Mary Jones, Miss Selvyn, and Miss Trentham—are models of chastity and virtue, and have maintained their virtue through numerous trials and temptations. In significant ways, their stories are autobiographical. Miss Selvyn, for example, was raised by a kindly and scholarly old gentleman who filled the role of a parent—undoubtedly reflecting Sarah Scott's own childhood, when the place of her distant and disengaged parents was filled by her maternal grandfather, the classical scholar Conyers Middleton. Mrs. Morgan, like Sarah Scott, married unhappily, and both women eventually found happiness with a female companion—Mrs. Morgan with Miss Mancel, Sarah Scott with Lady Barbara Montagu. After Sarah Scott left her husband in 1752—after only a year of marriage—she and Lady Bab settled in Bath, and established various charities for poor women in the area—again like the women of Millenium Hall.

Another undoubted influence on the novel was Sarah Scott's sister, Elizabeth Montagu (no direct relation to Lady Bab), who in about 1750 began to host gatherings of what became known as the Blue Stocking Society, a women's literary salon that gathered members like Frances Burney and Sarah Fielding (and a few men like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson) for intellectual conversation. The ideals of the "bluestockings" are reflected in Sarah Scott's novel, which represents the superiority of polite intellectual conversation to card playing as a social pastime for women.

The women of Millenium Hall, though independent, are not liberated from eighteenth-century ideals of Christian womanhood. They are embodiments of the virtue of self-sacrifice, always placing their duty to God and society before their personal happiness and self-fulfillment. One character conceives a child out of wedlock; she (elliptically, in Scott's polite narration) sleeps with her fiancé shortly before their marriage, and then refuses to proceed with the marriage because she believes her lack of self-control has caused her to lose the full respect of her fiancé. Although he loves her and pleads with her, she persists in punishing herself for her moral lapse, and denies herself the happiness of marriage with a man she loves and the companionship of the daughter she gives to another couple to raise as their own.

The morality of these women is relentless. But in making character and conduct central to the novel's drama, Scott stands at the head of a female novelistic tradition that runs through Jane Austen and George Eliot and down through Kate O'Brien and other women novelists of the twentieth century. In Ruth Adam's I'm Not Complaining (1938), an unwed mother has an abortion—something that would have been unthinkable for the unwed mother in Millenium Hall. But the two women stand as part of a continuum—both of them attempting, within the constraints of their society, to take control of their own lives, their own bodies, and their own difficult moral choices.

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