The publication of Ann Yearsley’s only novel, The Royal Captives in 1795 is an important moment for our current understanding of what it was possible to publish during the political chaos of the 1790s.Yearsley’s later career has been largely ignored by critics; her biographer makes only a brief mention of the novel’s existence, and few others have engaged with it at all. Yet in 1795, Yearsley burst into novel writing, earning an astonishing £200 from the Robinsons for what would be her only novel. Cheryl Turner has noted that this sum is significant in itself; it was rare for such a sum to paid, particularly for a novel, and few women ever earned this much. It was nearly as much as Frances Burney earned for Cecelia, and was more than Elizabeth Inchbald received for Nature and Art. The first aim of this paper will therefore be to give Yearsley’s novel the fullest treatment it has yet received. It will also consider more generally Yearsley’s later career, in particular the performance, then publication of her only play Earl Goodwin early in the decade, before placing The Royal Captives in the context of the wider British reaction to events in France. By making use of Yearsley’s letters to her friends and patrons in Yorkshire, Eliza Dawson and Wilmer Gossip, in which she relates her thoughts about novel-reading. this paper will seek to create a sense of Yearsley’s project as a novelist, and how this engages with national debates. The novel itself will be considered alongside contemporary reviews and more recent critical responses which will provide the context for a reading which aims to demonstrate the fundamental radicalism of The Royal Captives. The paper will then conclude with an assessment of the wider implications of Yearsley’s move into novel writing, where it is suggested that a reconsideration of mid-1790s print culture is needed.
Corps de l’article
As the French Revolution moved from crisis to crisis during 1793-4, descending finally into dictatorship with Napoleon’s rise to power, political sympathies in Britain also realigned themselves; the shockwaves generated by the scale of the Terror in France echoed around Europe. The political turmoil now engulfing France, and the consequences for print culture in Britain, represented perhaps the most serious test for professional women writers, faced with the challenge of exploring the changes to British political consciousness. As Betty Schellenberg has noted, professional authorship was understood ‘as working for financial gain, seeing the publication of a novel or the production of a play as a means of economic support and, ideally, independence’ (351). Whether the independent-mindedness necessary of the professional writer was possible alongside the representation of political opinion during this turbulent period is a question central to this paper, which seeks to place the later literary career of Ann Yearsley, specifically the publication of her only novel, within the context of the increasingly loyalist climate in Britain.
Even in the early stages of the Revolution, which had been greeted with warmth by liberal Britain, there is evidence of a sensitivity towards the language of the Revolution. Yearsley, who wrote her first, and only, play in 1789, had remarks celebrating the change of order in France, and the play’s Epilogue, removed by the Lord Chamberlain (Pearson, 137). Despite this, Earl Goodwin enjoyed a modestly successful run of seven nights in Bristol (Waldron, 188), reflected perhaps by the waspish exchange of letters between Hannah More and Horace Walpole:
They that think her “Earl Goodwin” will outgo Shakespeare, might be in the right if they specified in what way – I believe she may write worse than he sometimes did, though that is not easy; but to excellence – Oh! I have not words adequate to my contempt for those who can suppose such a possibility.Horace Walpole to Hannah More, 4 November 1789; ed. Lewis 31: 331
More’s own response to the play was no more charitable:
As to the tragedy you enquire about, I hear it is a very poor performance, without plot, character, or interest. There are, I dare say, some pretty passages in it, but all seems to bring it in guilty of the crime of dulness [sic], which I take to be the greatest fault in dramatic composition.Hannah More to Horace Walpole, Sunday 8 November 1789; ed. Lewis 31: 335
The success of the drama, despite More’s remarks, seems to have been due to its ability to capture the political mood of the audience. Mary Waldron has proposed that “[it] would be a mistake to imagine that there was anything revolutionary or even eccentric about Yearsley’s [political] attitude at this time” (173). Most people, Waldron argues, were happy in 1789 that the French were “about to set [their] house in order along English lines” (173). Lines such as “the poor Frenchman, long our nation’s jest, / Feels a new passion throbbing in his breast; /[…] Crushes the convent and the dread Bastile [sic]” (Yearsley, Earl Goodwin 90), may have been subject to the censor, but appear to have been completely in keeping with the audience’s own sympathies. Although clearly aware of the mood of that audience, questions about Yearsley’s own political orientation are raised by Waldron’s statement that she “had to write what would sell” (188). To suppose that Yearsley was capable only of servicing the views of others would be to ignore an important element both of this play, and her 1795 novel, The Royal Captives. In both, Yearsley demonstrates an acute awareness of the psychology of her audience and makes use of this knowledge to create a highly self-aware authorial persona, and The Royal Captives is full of narrative interventions which complicate any attempts to locate Yearsley’s politics.
Earl Goodwin, Ann Yearsley’s tale of an eleventh-century England preparing to tear itself apart because of the brutality of a king led astray by conniving ministers was relatively popular with theatre-goers in Bristol; popular enough for Yearsley to publish the text of the play two years later. The early 1790s would seem to have still favoured the Revolution enough for Yearsley to find a market for the text, and for the politics of the text not to have aroused anger, as Charlotte Smith was to do only a year later with the publication of her pro-French novel Desmond. As Jeffrey N. Cox, a commentator on the anti-Jacobin plays of this period, has pointed out, “[t]he earliest of [those] plays was written in 1792” (86). Yearsley’s timing of the play, and in particular its publication, was just right: before the backlash which was to come. Although to a modern reader, and to her contemporary audience also, the political parallels between the situation created by the misrule of Edward and the events in France are clear, a version of the play was actually written over a year before the French Revolution took place. In November 1788, Yearsley’s patron, the Earl of Bristol, was using all his influence to bring the play to a London stage, including having his daughter negotiate with Richard Sheridan for its production in the Drury Lane theatre. Despite all the efforts of Bristol and his daughter as well as his considerable praise for the play’s merits, these efforts seem to have been unsuccessful. This was not necessarily a problem, though. Copied in a letter sent from Clifton on November 17th, 1788 between Yearsley and Wilmer Gossip, is the correspondence received by Yearsley from her patron about the progress of Earl Goodwin. The letter indicates that a successful run on the London stage was not the only way to gain acclaim for the play:
[…] I cannot express my impatience to see Goodwin Earl of Kent, for the Drama seems to be your great Fort, and is my favourite composition, it exhibits all the Powers of the Author’s Mind, and Calls forth every feeling of the heart! God grant that Lady Elizabeth Foster, or her Friend the Duchess of Devonshire, may bring fortunately and lucratively, into the World, what you have so happily Conceived, but if they do not, I hope you will Confidently publish what I will venture to say is the ablest of your Able performances, Lord Goodwin, to my house in St James’s Square, where he will be well received, and safely forwarded to Me at Rome, whither I am again attracted.The Earl of Bristol to Ann Yearsley, enclosed within Ann Yearsley to Wilmer Gossip, 17th November 1788; Felsenstein 29-31
Yearsley seems to have held onto the hope of Earl Goodwin being accepted for a run in London, rather than rushing to print, as suggested by the Earl of Bristol. Her confidence in the play’s success is apparent in a letter to her eighteen-year-old friend and quasi-patron, Eliza Dawson, the following month. Yearsley states that “I think it the best piece I have ever written and believe it to be the last I shall ever write” (Ann Yearsley to Eliza Dawson, December 29th 1788, Felsenstein 35), a statement which pronounces her belief in both its artistic merits, and its commercial value. This confidence in the play was to prove unwarranted in London, and with the failure of her attempts to secure a run in the capital Yearsley also lost the opportunity for London earnings. Indeed, the play was far from the last piece written by Yearsley, indicating the scale of the financial cost she bore. However, Yearsley was successful in bringing it to the stage in Bristol, and with the Epilogue’s references to the storming of the Bastille, the play was altered specifically to connect its events with those in France. This may have been at the cost of her relationship with the Earl of Bristol, who had so earnestly recommended the publication, and not necessarily the performance, of the play. Where it had been the subject of the Earl’s endeavours in 1788, the play’s Prologue suggests a rather sudden change in their relationship by the time of its performance the following year:
Yearsley, Earl Goodwin: Prologue, ll. 1-4. Emphasis Yearsley’s
This night, from nature’s wildest scene, appears
A Muse abash’d, and trembling with her fears:
No pow’r she brings to break your critic laws,
No witless patron thunders in her cause.
If this is indeed a barb for the Earl of Bristol, it suggests Yearsley’s determination to act for her own best interests, regardless of the advice of her patron. That Yearsley felt strongly enough about her own work’s merit (and perhaps its commercial potential) that she was prepared to suffer a break with her patron is indicative of a boldness demonstrated also by her decision to make her play engage directly with the French Revolution. Yearsley seems deeply unwilling to sacrifice her own view of her work, either for patron or for reward, despite Mary Waldron’s comments. As Jacqueline Pearson has noted, the “French Revolution, with its opportunities for class restructuring and a new social justice, attracted and interested her” (132). For all the Earl of Bristol’s famous liberalism, this may have been too much even for him, a member of the class most threatened by the events of France.
As has been suggested, this boldness on the part of Yearsley did not come without a financial cost. Where she had written to Eliza Dawson in 1788 and implied that, with the play, she would have no need to write further, 1795 found her publishing a four-volume novel. The irony of this could not be greater. In the same letter proclaiming the triumph of Earl Goodwin, Yearsley writes:
You have kindly enquired what Books I read – I never read Novels – if I may form an opinion from your style, You do. Soar above them my dear Girl! move not in the hackneyd trammels of the present female taste; it is light, trifling, despicable, and void of noble energy of thought. Playing [Word missing?] with the passions, enervate the soul, and our natur[al?] Composition is by far too soft to secure our repose, at least I find it so. – examples of the roughest and strongest fortitude inspire: we adore the beauty of self-denial tho we seldom possess it without pain; for examples of this kind, if we explore the past, and not only in this point but all others, if we do not Compare the past, with the present, we seldom form a proper estimate of Life. There is a poverty of thought in Novels: which is conceal’d under glossy diction, and their admirers must accept Sound for sterling Wisdom.Ann Yearsley to Eliza Dawson, dated 29th December 1788; Felsenstein 36
The way in which Yearsley discusses novels with her young patron here helps to illuminate both the process of writing and publishing The Royal Captives, and how to read it as a cultural document. Clearly, Yearsley’s thoughts on the novel are strong; “despicable” seems a clear-cut assessment of the genre’s value. But the picture is far more complicated than this one word suggests. Firstly, that Yearsley was publishing again in 1795 indicates that Earl Goodwin, though evidently successful in many ways, was not the outright success hoped for by Yearsley. Without a formal patron to protect her from financial distress, Yearsley may have found herself drawn to the novel. With a rate of around £50 paid per volume, the novel’s very size, at four volumes, indicates that Yearsley’s foray into novel writing was at least in part for financial reasons. An income of £200 was substantial, giving, as Edward Copeland has noted, “a grudging admission among some authors that such a competence might just achieve gentility” (28). Yet in context, this sum achieves a greater significance. Yearsley was a first-time writer, and £200 indicates a great deal of bravery on the part of her publishers, given the level of the novel’s political engagement, coupled with Yearsley’s inexperience as a novel writer. Indeed, Cheryl Turner states that “such sums were paid only rarely for copyright, particularly for novel manuscripts” (114). Frances Burney earnt only £50 more for her second novel, Cecelia, and Elizabeth Inchbald £50 less for Nature and Art the following year (Turner, 114). Not only were Yearsley’s earnings for this novel on the same level with some of the most established novelists writing during this period, but her level of market awareness in the promotion of her commodity was also remarkable. Judith Dorn comments, “[w]here Yearsley’s books of poetry had been printed by subscription, The Royal Captives was distributed by several booksellers at once in Ireland, England and America” (164). Ambitious and determined for her novel to sell well, Yearsley was “designing this prose commodity for a wider reading public” (Dorn, 164), presumably confident that a historical novel set in France would be commercially viable in 1795. The opportunity to earn a substantial amount of money may have helped Yearsley overcome her dislike of novels in general, but it was not the only factor.
Although Mary Waldron quite rightly notes that “[i]n deciding on the subject of her novel, Yearsley again typically consulted the market and tried to meet its demands from among the things she could do best” (217), she fails to appreciate that novel-writing, in Yearsley’s view, should alleviate the “Poverty of thought” within the genre, not further it. In her letter to Dawson, Yearsley writes that “if we do not Compare the past, with the present, we seldom form a proper estimate of Life,” and this is one reading that is invited by the subject matter of The Royal Captives. Set in late seventeenth-century France, Yearsley’s novel is a version of the story of “The Man in the Iron Mask”, a popular legend which emerged after the fall of the Bastille. According to this legend, papers were found in the ruins of the prison which referred to a mysterious “Man in the Iron Mask”, supposedly the identical, and elder, twin brother of Louis XIV incarcerated behind an iron mask to conceal his identity. Yearsley’s novel makes use of the main features of this story, including the inference that the French monarchy after Louis XIV were usurpers. Her version, told from the point of view of the nephew of Louis XIV, son of the wronged twin brother of the king, is a tale which takes every opportunity to examine the consequences of abused power. By removing her story one hundred years into the past, Yearsley actively urges the reader to “Compare the past, with the present,” and in so doing incorporates into her text something which she claims in her correspondence was lacking in the modern novel. Judith Dorn provides a similar argument in her essay, concluding that “Yearsley’s choice of this legend as material for a book written during the Terror implies a view of history that explains the present as a result of forces that had been set in motion during Louis XIV’s time, forces unknown before their effects became public knowledge” (164). By asking the reader to see the present through this constructed past, Yearsley’s view of what constitutes “a proper estimate of Life” becomes deeply political. Mary Waldron may label Yearsley’s political message as “mild, non-violent reformism and common sense” (236), but the text’s often radical presentation of a faceless monarchy is anything but “mild”: a monarchy frequently employing force, and no stranger to the grossest violations of human nature.
Despite the political relevance of the text, what finally enables Yearsley to publish a novel and maintain her contempt for the form is the title she gives to her work. The subtitle reads, “a fragment of secret history copied from an old manuscript, by Ann Yearsley”. The conceit is that Yearsley is not writing a novel at all, but is merely transcribing a much older record of (supposedly) true events. Judith Dorn picks up the importance of the words “secret history”, and usefully postulates that a “‘secret history’ argues for a more explicitly political voice in public than a novel or romance” (178). Yearsley simultaneously justifies to herself her decision to publish this text, and makes a bold claim for a greater degree of engagement with her work than even she would necessarily accord an ordinary novel. Unfortunately for Yearsley, this claim was not always paid notice. Although clearly a supporter of Yearsley, the reviewer of her work in The Monthly Review is unsparing in his criticism of the novel’s flaws:
The almost continued inflation of the style, and the writer’s frequent power of expression; the crude and disjointed manner in which she has planned and pursued her story […] The fastidious critic will presently throw down the book, in disgust; while he, who is more intimately acquainted with the powers of mind, will wish that he had been present with her, while she was planning and writing it, to have aided her with his advice.16: 113
The paternalistic tone of the critic’s assessment of Yearsley’s errors is in evidence even when the critic expresses admiration for Yearsley herself. A case is made for her admission into the higher literary classes, but not necessarily because of any inherent talent. Readers are urged to purchase the novel despite the reviewer’s conclusion that it is not very good, in order to support Yearsley because “those who love to encourage an enterprizing and, however abashed and subdued, no vulgar spirit, will not think their money ill bestowed” (16: 114). Ultimately, it seems, it is her inherent weaknesses as a writer that provide, for this reviewer at least, her pass into the upper salons of literature: Yearsley requires further instruction. The reviewer reads into the novel a rather moderated political content, and damns it by faint praise. It “will be acceptable to such as weep over the calamities to which royalty is subject. Those who buy books will much more frequently buy worse than better” (16: 114).
To elicit the kind of quasi-charitable support proposed by The Monthly Review is not the aim of Yearsley’s writing, and her claim for a more serious reception for her work is furthered by all the elements of the title page. She maintains the illusion that she has not written the text by placing her name in the subtitle, and not separately following the title in the more conventional fashion. The Preface to the novel is written in the same vein. Yearsley talks about the text’s narrator, “Henry Capet”, as a real person who, she states, “if the following sheets find approbation, I may give, in future, the best answer I am capable of” (The Royal Captives 1: i). The complexity of the façade Yearsley is attempting to present is demonstrated by the first of many authorial interjections, the voice of which is markedly different from that given to the character/narrator/author Henry Capet:
I love Fame, though I have only heard her whispers; am sensible she incites towards the wonderful, the great and good; and that Authors, who affect to despise her, are cowards, insincere, and guilty of profanation […] I confess myself not deaf to, nor independent of the voice of the world, except in those enraptured moments when bewitching Fancy renders me insensible to the real dependencies of life. In poetry I am her slave; in prose I wish her to be mine. In private sorrow, she has, through a gloomy passage of twenty years, proved my enchanting friend. None may condemn me; Nature herself drew delusion in the desart where I was beloved by Fancy, and tasted more delight than I have since found in the midst of proud society, where favour falls heavily on the heart from the hand of Arrogance.The Royal Captives 1: ii
At times, the voice here is removed completely from the tone of the novel and, instead, is the tone of the wronged Ann Yearsley, still embittered by her treatment at the hands of the literary “greats” who rejected her because of her class when she broke from the patronage of Hannah More in 1786. Yearsley proudly announces that “None may condemn me”. Combined with her labelling of authors who feign dislike of fame as “cowards”, the Preface to the text issues a dynamic challenge to her critics. But the strength of tone here belies a more considered approach which is a hallmark of the text’s construction throughout. In her Preface, Yearsley manoeuvres her reader as surely as more experienced novelists could, and claims that her reason for publishing this work is because her life is coming to an end:
One of my motives for publishing the work unfinished, is, that the world may speak of me as I am, whilst I have power to hear. The clouds that hang over my fortunes intervene between me and the Public. I incessantly struggle to dissipate them, feel those struggles vain, and shall drop in the effort – This consolation I shall, however, bear with me to the verge of life, that to those who have guided me by the sacred and lambent flame of friendship, my memory will be dear, and that whilst Malice feebly breathes, Truth will boldly pronounce,The Royal Captives 1: iii-iv
The language of the conclusion to Yearsley’s Preface bears more than a passing resemblance to the famously melancholic prefaces of Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets. Just as with Smith, Yearsley is also playing with the reader’s perception of the author by signing her name at the end. Judith Dorn has noted that “Yearsley’s act of signing her name in The Royal Captives […] invites comparison to the potentially revolutionary identity of her protagonist in the first-person narrative that follows” (171). In this text, both the identity of the author and the origin of narrative authority (which are not always the same thing) are directly connected to a radical political agenda. At the end of the Preface, Yearsley’s name both reinforces the illusion of Henry Capet’s having written what is to follow, and makes it clear that Yearsley is writing as Capet in order to write radically. The fluidity of narrative authority enables Yearsley to speak from the text directly to the reader, adding a radical structure to a radical content.
As with her Preface, the novel opens in a powerful style. The early lines are full of violence, the speaker being “Torn” from his previous life and “plunged into this dreary abode” (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 1:1), which the reader does not immediately learn is a prison. Indeed, the disjointed style of the beginning of the text mirrors the confusion of the protagonist, and cleverly brings the reader into the prison with the novel’s characters. Yearsley maintains the reader’s sympathy with Henry’s situation by not immediately revealing the charges which have led to his imprisonment. When they are made known, the weakness of those charges begins Yearsley’s campaign against the corruptness of the French monarchy in 1685, and inevitably its modern counterpart. Henry is accused “of conspiring against monarchy, of associating with the enemies of the King, and of concealing memorials which immediately concern the state” (The Royal Captives 1:9). If the reader was in any doubt about the nature of this novel, this last charge removes any possibility that the state is acting justly, even though Henry’s history is still a mystery to the reader. Such is the corruption of the state Yearsley seeks to criticise that even the jailors find themselves supporting the prisoners:
“Deeply do I violate my feelings as a man; but should I refuse this execrable office, I must expire on the rack, nor would my death avail your friend; all here, who are supposed to be on the part of the state, are, from necessity, executioners.”The Royal Captives 1:16-7
The message is plain: loyalty to the state is equated with murder, and no good man is willingly loyal to that state. As Judith Dorn notes, Yearsley’s text “poses in public as primary documentary evidence of the existence of a man whose historicity remains a question that makes the legitimacy of the Bourbon dynasty hinge on scanty traces in private memoirs” (175). The political potential of this is immense, and when connected to the name of Yearsley’s character becomes overtly revolutionary. The use of the name Capet for the family carries a definite irony, it being the citizen name given to Louis XVI after his confinement, and the surname of the common man who established the dynasty of which Louis was part. Through this naming of her characters, Yearsley demonstrates her own knowledge of history, and lends her novel historical authority.
Yet this anti-monarchical tone is gradually complicated as the text progresses. Although there continue to be moments of stinging criticism of the institution, there are other times where Yearsley seems to be less sure about what it is that she is targeting. She declares that “royalty is the trapping of fools, given by adulation and worn in vain by mortal beings” (The Royal Captives 1:124), but also offers a more moderate view of monarchy and, it seems, the French Revolution as Henry’s history is finally related:
[my guardian] disapproved much of the constitution of this country, but he was brave, and firm to attachments he once had formed […] as an individual [he] had no power of revoking the statutes, nor had he the wish of assassinating his King merely because he was thrown as an hereditary and guiltless emblem of order into the lap of pre-eminence. Law is the cement of society. Law forms degrees of power, and by necessary gradation power sinks to the cottage from the throne. Nor must power be suffered to sport wantonly on that dangerous summit; while she sits soberly, her influence is nourishing, and millions bask in her well-regulated favours. Without law, order, so beloved, so cherished by mankind, cannot exist; and a King, that thing so hated, so feared, so reverenced and so loved, is but by accident as a common watchman; and whether society be awakened to its duties by many watchmen, or by one, is not worthy the discussion of the wise.The Royal Captives 1:104-6
So far removed is this passage from her earlier condemnation of monarchy that it seems even to argue against democracy. Although Henry is relating the opinions of his guardian, Yearsley has already established the character of the Count de Marfans as noble-minded, honourable and just towards rich and poor alike. These views cannot be dismissed because they have been spoken by a character the reader is expected to dislike, but must instead be allowed to form part of the complicated representation of monarchy that develops throughout the novel. Indeed, the end of the first volume concludes with the elder brother of Henry XIV, chosen for suffering instead of kingship because he was born blind, rejecting the crown and renouncing ambition: ‘“I seek not the diadem of France; my heart is not so heated by ambition, as by civil commotion, to shed the blood of thousands”’ (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 1:236). Yet even this seemingly clear renunciation of the monarchy is not without complication. The implication is that, although the rule of Louis is far from ideal, to allow the monarchy to continue as it is would be better than a revolution; or perhaps Revolution.
The directly political is not the only element of the text the reader is to absorb. Examples abound in the text of stronger relationships being created along informal lines, rather than in the models endorsed by the state. From the king downwards, blood, except in the case of Henry Capet and his father, is no guarantee of familial cohesion, and neither are marriage vows. Even where more traditional relationships do develop within this text, the characters involved plead for a more fundamental connection than that offered by the ceremony of marriage. Indeed, in some ways it is how Yearsley presents the relationships between her characters that lends this text much of its radicalism. On discovering that the marriage ceremony she thought was genuine was actually conducted by her partner’s brother disguised as a priest in order to entrap her, Anna, the now pregnant and noble daughter of a shepherd, is remarkably (and potentially radically) unconcerned about her situation: ‘“True, I insisted on marriage as a duty to the world, but my dearer claims in you are those of disinterested love, too sublime to be enlarged, or lessened by human ties; consequently superior to the clamours of slander”’ (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 2:90-1). Earlier in the text, Emily, daughter of the Count de Marfans, rejects marriage as a step taken only by those unsure of each other. It is certainly not her life’s ambition to find a husband: ‘“Marriage is the only chain for two unsuspecting souls, mutually in fear of each other; invested with prerogative they are watchful and suspicious; apparently polite, they are in private coolly envenomed, and hourly becoming practised in deliberate deceit”’ (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 2:20-1). To leave the reader in no doubt of the text’s view of the current state of marriage, the narrator interjects, that “Oppression hangs on woman. Custom and law respecting her, are through the world unjust” (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 2:103). This gendered project of re-examining how women might speak of marriage were they able to do so freely is, of course, complicated by the sex of the voice used. The narrator of the text is, nominally at least, male, but Yearsley herself has blurred the boundaries of authorship and narratorship. The reader seems to be listening to the voice of a woman speaking as a man in order to lend weight to this proto-feminist argument. For Madeleine Kahn, though, this is not possible. In Narrative Transvestism, Kahn asks “what does a woman author have to gain from using a man’s voice?”, and answers that, in contrast to when a man takes a female voice, “[w]omen are borrowing the voice of authority” (2). Yet Kahn concludes that this does not happen; that “there is no such thing as a female transvestite. Women may dress as men, but they don’t seem to do so as part of a cycle of reaffirming their feminine identity” (2). This, I would argue, is exactly what Yearsley is doing in the guise of Henry Capet. Her title page requires her reader to accept her “dressed” as a man, and therefore accept her vocalisations in the same way. Yearsley, I argue, both “reaffirms her feminine identity” and, through the broader content of the novel, politicises that identity.
This politicisation of Yearsley’s identity renders the eventual state of the previously-radical Emily even more unusual. Although when Henry initially falls in love with Emily he finds his romantic ideas in need of some feminist readjustment, he later asks ‘“where will you find domestic bliss, if not with a woman of beauty and virtue?”’ (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 2:206). The reader finds that it is still traditional female virtue which is most highly prized. Emily undergoes the rather stereotypical questioning of her innocence by Henry, before the standard happy ending where Henry’s accusations are found to be groundless and Emily’s virtue is proven to be spotless. Though Yearsley takes the opportunity to laugh at Henry for his conduct towards his beloved, and has Emily hesitate before consenting to marriage, the conclusion of the love plot still has the feel of convention in what seems to be an act of withdrawal from her initially radical stance on the position of women in society.
The end of the novel provides the reader with no firmer impression of the message they are supposed to take away, ending as it does with a happy nuclear family. Emily has become “my Emily” (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 4:312), tied firmly by the bonds she so strenuously renounces earlier in the novel, but the initial note of political radicalism seems to have returned. With all the plots of the king and his supporters thwarted, and some of the supporters themselves dead or imprisoned, Yearsley has a lower-class family inherit the land left behind. The monarchy is by no means improved following the events related in this text, as Henry pronounces Louis’ behaviour to be typical of “THE BRUTALITY OF A KING”(Yearsley, The Royal Captives 4:311). However, the image Yearsley creates of the monarch “rocked in the chair of state” on “a dangerous summit” and never knowing “chearfulness and content”, is double-edged; the monarchy is to be both pitied and rejected. The Capet family are certainly represented as being better off without the burden of the crown, but the reader is also presented with a king doing a thankless task with no obvious reward other than exclusion from ordinary human pleasures (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 4:311). Still, the reader witnesses a small-scale revolution: one where the impoverished and disenfranchised find their way to comfort without the bloodshed of civil conflict. Again, though, the radicalism of this is open to question. Although the poor family have acquired the land of two traitors, there is no formal system whereby others in a similar position may be able to improve themselves. Indeed, the two noble brothers whose land has passed to the poor family serve more as a message for the upper classes than the lower: that if they do not behave properly towards others, they risk losing their land. The implication is that as long as the nobility conduct themselves fairly, there is no need for them to lose their land, and no way for the poor to gain a higher class status.
Although the attitudes towards France may not be as extreme as the novel’s opening suggested, Yearsley includes in her conclusion several powerful attacks on the English, attacks lent even greater strength because they are spoken by someone external to English society. The character of Henry Capet, as a Frenchman in exile in England is a kind of émigré, a figure filled with cultural resonance for Yearsley’s audience. That resonance was most often conservative and used for nationalist purposes as Adriana Craciun has noted; Hannah More claims that to shelter an emigrant offers greater glory than “all the boasted conquests of our Edwards and our Henrys over the French nation” (19). More seems to equate the émigré crisis with another victory for Britain over France: this time a moral victory which confirms the superiority of the British way of life. However, Yearsley seeks to question this elevation of British society by placing herself as the émigré of the text, and I would argue that the outsider articulating her thoughts on society at this point is Yearsley herself:
We admire the national character of the English, who appear to think much; to execute slowly; to be wrapped in such general reserve, that they intimidate each other, whilst thousands, I believe, steal to the grave without tasting the charm of Friendship.The Royal Captives 4:311-2
This reference to “the charm of Friendship” suggests the intervention of an external voice. The image of a society incapable of decisive action or original thought or, more importantly, of forging human connections, seems to come from a woman still resentful at the treatment meted out to her almost a decade previously because of rigid views of class status. What Yearsley chooses to follow this paragraph and to conclude the novel with is a rather curious phrase, which seems to be loaded with an element of threat:
This people will grow wiser. – Since our arrival, two sons and a daughter have blessed the bosom of my Emily; from them we have concluded to keep the secret of their descent; and I hope, should those papers, hastily filled up, be ever found, my children will obey my last command; which is, never to acknowledge themselves as the offspring ofYearsley, The Royal Captives 4:312
For English society to become wiser as far as Yearsley is concerned, it seems necessary that it develop the ability, like the Capets, to be flexible about what constitutes a relationship, and to ignore boundaries of class, gender and family. The element of threat comes from the way this first statement, that “This people will grow wiser” is followed by a dash before Henry’s description of the family he is raising in England; a family, it is implied, who will make the “people grow wiser”. Freed from the burden of their identities and armed with their family’s ability to form unusual relationships, these children, English by birth but with a potentially revolutionary French heritage, are the vehicles by which social change can be wrought.
In other areas of the text, Yearsley seems to encourage a potentially radical dual reading of her words. She opens the second volume of the novel with Henry lamenting the fate of his family, and inviting the possibility of both a conservative and a revolutionary reading. Henry’s ardent wish is for himself and his father to be able to enjoy “the privileges of sharing, at least, the common freedom of mankind. Must we for ever behold the sword of Death held over us, merely because we are the relatives of a King! May we not breathe with liberty? Execrable state!” (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 2:2-3). Crucial to interpreting this passage is whether the reader feels inclined to capitalise the last word. Is Yearsley merely referring to this kind of existence as “execrable”, or the State itself as “execrable” because it has forced this life upon this family? Yearsley may not have capitalised the word herself, but seems to be asking her reader to do so. Indeed, the relationship between Yearsley and her reader is revealing of the confidence Yearsley felt in publishing what is, even if only sporadically, an overtly radical text in 1795. Having already asked the reader to suspend their disbelief and accept the conceit that she has merely copied the words of Henry Capet, Yearsley plays with her reader, and the process of reading itself:
[I] arose with the sun, turned to my books, and lingered out the moments in perusing the following manuscript, which I found by chance.
My Reader may skip it over if he pleases, it having no connection with the story of my life.The Royal Captives 1:170-1
The reader is then confronted with several pages of a poem entitled “An Original: or the Elegy of Laura, tuned to the Harp of Apollo”, and the temptation is indeed there to make use of the permission granted by the narrator to “skip it over”. If the reader accepts that permission, the illusion of authorship is complete, and Ann Yearsley as the writer of a fictional story has disappeared from the text. If the permission is refused, the reader must accept that the text is not genuine and then read the poem they have been invited to ignore. Only at the end of the whole, rather long poem, is it revealed that it has nothing to do with the story of Henry Capet; an authorial in-joke at the expense of the reader who refuses to accept the central conceit of the text.
For Yearsley to risk infuriating the reader suggests a confident and accomplished author, demonstrating that though, as a professional writer, she is forced to grant some power to her reader, she is the one with control of the reading experience. To reinforce her power over the text and its reception, Yearsley has one more joke at their expense. Mid-way through the second volume, she mentions very much in passing the reader “(drowsy as he must be in reading my story)” (Yearsley, The Royal Captives 2:122). Her audience suffers a double blow, first surprised by the prescience of the narrator/author (as the comment could refer either to the “story” voiced either by “Henry Capet” or Ann Yearsley), and then made to feel rather ashamed, because the section is not the most exciting of the text, and the reader has been caught admitting as much. Indeed, they have been thoroughly outsmarted by an author who understands exactly how her text will be read. With this in mind, it becomes easier to understand why Yearsley’s politics in this novel are so difficult to pin down.
As with her power as an author, Yearsley compromises on her politics. The novel’s conclusion allows that traditional morals still have considerable value, but Yearsley forces the serious consideration of her alternative vision. Views are represented which contravene every social boundary, and they are the views of the virtuous, not the wicked:
“Feeble custom of mankind! […] marriage can bind, but where honour is not known, could I marry to delude the man I contemned? Would he brutally dare to seize my hand whilst conscious he was the object of disgust? There may be such a man, Sir, but with such a man I should deserve and taste dishonourable misery. The tie of marriage too often secures the dull and unimpassioned frame, but how many tender, noble and nameless blessings invisibly hang over two kindred souls unconfined by human institution? That refined and generous affection is not born of law. Heaven alone directs its inherent and increasing force, till death, for death alone dissolves it. – Speak to me of honour; let it stand unsupported by, and superior to your laws.”Yearsley, The Royal Captives 2:224-5
Similarly, Yearsley is able to imagine a situation where the poor are able to better themselves, though she refrains from making the circumstances which have allowed this to be at all typical. The time when a reader or an audience may have been prepared to wholeheartedly accept a pro-Revolutionary text may have gone, but Yearsley, through a process of shrewd compromise and authorial intervention, is still able to issue a robust challenge to society. Yearsley repeatedly demonstrates the uncertain origins of the monarch’s authority; as well as connecting Louis XVI with his common ancestor, the intervening generations have based their authority on stealing the status supposedly bestowed by God. Henry Capet is the son of the elder brother of Louis XIV, passed over for rule because of temporary blindness as a baby. Far from being the province of God, the selection of France’s monarchs is determined by human hand, making them therefore fallible and very much open to the questioning not possible of a monarch selected through divine intervention.
The level of Yearsley’s radicalism is in contrast with M.O. Grenby’s assessment of the political milieu facing writers in the mid-1790s:
The “Revolution debate” and the “war of ideas”, withered away, not because every champion of radical doctrine had been utterly converted by the logic of the conservatives, but because few of them, with just one or two exceptions, could be found who wished to defy a near unanimous and highly militant anti-Jacobinism to put forward what had suddenly become dangerously unorthodox opinions.5
Grenby’s remarks demonstrate the importance of Yearsley’s ability to manipulate her authorial identity, and her skill at doing so. That her novel needed to be complex is clear, and it is this level of complexity which may have led The Monthly Review to conclude that the compromises within it indicated a weak text, and the authorial interventions a poor plot. As well as ensuring that she would be able to negotiate the increasing dangers of radical writing, these complex elements of her novel allow Yearsley to address the “poverty of thought in Novels” and to present, instead of “glossy diction”, a truly challenging text which forces its reader to engage both with politics, and the process of reading itself.
Playfully and confidently engaging with the reader, Yearsley’s mixture of fictional narrators is daring in its politics and challenging in its narrative structure. It is a work which is still far from being an outright radical attack on the treatment of women by society and the corruption of monarchy, but which features women who are far removed from “the hackneyd trammels of the present female taste” which are “light, trifling, despicable, and void of noble energy of thought” (Ann Yearsley to Eliza Dawson, dated 29th December 1788, Felsenstein 36). Yearsley’s female characters instead instruct the men around them on how they should respond to and treat women. Their attitudes arise from a liberal education and upbringing; ideas encouraged by enlightened parents who are shown to be political moderates, and whose views, as a result, the reader is encouraged to see as entirely natural.
Yearsley’s only foray into novel-writing was a well thought-out and executed venture. By choosing the Robinsons as her publishers, Yearsley ensured that the radical views expressed within the text would be treated sympathetically. Yet it is possible that The Royal Captives failed her expectations as much as Earl Goodwin had six years earlier. Yearsley had broken from the Earl of Bristol in 1789, seemingly full of confidence in her writing to provide for her, but in 1796, only one year after the publication of her lucrative novel, she dedicated her final volume of poetry to Bristol. It is Bristol’s name that heads the list of subscribers, taking twenty volumes of The Rural Lyre, and his name is followed by various members and friends of his family including the Duchess of Devonshire. No mention is made in the dedication of the volume to the events which led to Yearsley’s denial of any “witless patron” in Earl Goodwin. Instead, the dedication is the embodiment of gratitude:
You inspired me with hope, encouraged me to persevere, and enabled me to divide my domestic cares with the pleasures of meditation. Your Lordship immediately left England. In this long interval, whilst cheered by your instruction, animated by your sentiments, delighted with your elegant language, and supported by a reliance on your protection, I became less fearful of general approbation.Yearsley, The Rural Lyre vi-vii
Frank Felsenstein proposes that the ultimate cause for Yearsley’s disillusionment with Bristol was her recognition “that too great a dependence on the slow-moving workings of an antiquated system of patronage would not serve to feed her children and sustain her family” (371).
However, Yearsley’s refusal of the patronage relationship which had been so important to her earlier literary productions indicates that more is at work than only concerns about her family’s welfare. Despite changes to the political culture between 1791 and 1795, publishers continued to feel able to print radical material, and Yearsley had clearly learnt much from her patrons’ dealings with the literary marketplace. Indeed, Yearsley’s ability to negotiate such a large sum of money for her only novel suggests that she had developed a sound understanding of print culture, and her place within it. Only a year later, Yearsley would find it necessary to conform to the increasing loyalism that characterised the closing years of the century, but in 1795 her novel speaks to a moment where a particular sort of radicalism was called for, and Yearsley was able to meet that demand. The publication of The Royal Captives marks Yearsley’s emergence as an independent professional writer, and demonstrates that much was still possible for radical writers, even as the increasing violence in France inspired a new form of British patriotism incompatible with Revolutionary sympathies.
See Gerard O’Brien, ‘Hervey, Frederick Augustus, fourth Earl of Bristol (1730-1803)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.wam.leeds.ac.uk:80/view/article/13111. O’Brien documents The Earl of Bristol’s support for an Oath of Allegiance acceptable to British Catholics though that support was not always particularly helpful. Towards Yearsley Bristol seems to have been genuinely keen to help, but such a clear attack on the nobility may have forced him to see his position as Yearsley’s patron as untenable.
Remarks in square brackets are editorial notes within the article.
See Craciun 141-7.
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- ——— The Monthly Review 16 (January to April 1795), 112-114.
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- ——— The Rural Lyre. London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1796.