Saturday, January 24, 2015

*The Power of Sympathy, by William Hill Brown

digireads, 2011
89 pp

originally published 1789

"...Nature still presides.
And Sympathy unites, whom Fate divides."

Having now finished The Power of Sympathy, I've read what appears to be the first novel to have been published in America. Like the later The Coquette and The Boarding School, The Power of Sympathy is related through a series of letters.  Another similarity between this book and The Coquette is that the author uses a true-life "seduction" scandal as a basis for part of this work; the education of women also ties these books together.  The action in this novel occurs in Boston; the author borrowed the scandalous bits from a widely-publicized story that took place in Rhode Island.

We get a little taste of what's going to happen in the preface.  The author bemoans the fact that the novels that "have ever met with a ready reception into the libraries of the ladies" are read for amusement but that they contain no "particular idea," and "not beneficial."  He states here that his novel will counter that trend and provide something more morally meaningful -- in his book,
"the dangerous consequences of seduction are exposed, and the advantages of female education set forth and recommended." 
As things play out, the dangers of seduction are made very clear, as is the message that its consequences transcend the players and carry forth into the next generation.  But there is more, much more to be found in this book.

So here's where having no clue about earlier English literature becomes my downfall. Many of the quotations in this novel refer to Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, as does the title itself.  Oops. Never read it. Uh-oh. So I'm punting here.   While it seems to me that the "power of sympathy" alluded to in the title has a great deal to do with how the characters are called upon not to condemn but to show some measure of compassion and understanding  toward the sad fates of the  ill-fated lovers in this book (and in the case of weighing the situation before pronouncing sentence on the seducer)  it also seems  to call for a more emotionally-charged approach when one speaks of such ills as slavery in a new nation where as one of the characters puts it,
"all men are declared free and equal, and their tempers are open, generous and communicative."
It also seems to imply the need for more of a collective responsibility  in bringing about the changes in the status quo to bring about some measure of hope for the future.

While the seduction tales, which I won't go into since someone just might be interested in reading this book later,  are indeed quite prominent, they are only a part of what  is going on in this book.  One very big part of this novel has to do with the education of women.  In one notable scene (Letter XI from Mrs. Holmes  to young Myra Harrington)  Mrs. Holmes recounts a visit from a Mrs. Bourn and her daughter. Mrs. Bourn asks the gathered company which type of  books they might recommend for her fourteen year-old daughter, beginning a conversation about reading for their personal and social edification. As one might guess, the novel is not the correct choice.   As one of the older men notes,
"Most of the Novels ... with which are female libraries are overrun, are built on a foundation not always placed on strict morality, and in the pursuit of objects not always probable or praiseworthy. Novels, not regulated on the chaste principles of true friendship, rational love, and connubial duty, appear to me totally unfit to form the minds of women, of friends, or of wives."
It appears that books which will aid in forming "an estimate of the various topics discussed in company; and to bear a part in all those conversations which belong to your sex"  are the most acceptable.  As a way to make his point, the letter writer's father-in-law then goes on to illustrate the evil of having a "poetical imagination," using the case of Elizabeth Whitman, "a great reader of novels" (and the disguised subject of The Coquette) whose "airy talents, not counterpoised with judgment, or perhaps serious reflection, instead of adding to her happiness, were the cause of her ruin."   The study of history and poetry is recommended; satire is okay too as long as the female reader can be discerning.  In a later letter, young Myra is advised that women should "habituate" their minds to "remark the truth between truth and fiction," to make them "capable of deducing the most profitable lessons of instruction." In short -- it seems that the responsibility for moral instruction is to fall on the women of this new country.

Sarah Apthorp-Morton, the wronged party in the scandal that rocked Rhode Island in 1788, upon whose story this book is partially based. 
Another topic of interest that should be mentioned is the way "American" is  separated from  "British" or "European." Considering that this book was published in 1789, and that less than a month after its publication George Washington was chosen by the first electoral college, it's clear that at least to the author, there's a  sort of imperative for Americans to assert their own identity.  He touches on this in Letter XXX from Mrs. Holmes to Myra where Mrs. Holmes heaps scorn on the "ridicule" of "learned ladies," saying that it's a transatlantic idea, which must have "been imbibed from the source of some English novel or Magazine." She goes on to say quite proudly  that
"The American ladies of this class, who come within our knowledge, we know to be justly celebrated as ornaments to our society, and an honour to the sex."
Continuing, she makes the point that it's a pity that "American" literature boasts so few productions from the pens of the ladies. This theme of being "American" and having a decidedly American culture  is picked up here and there throughout the book.

Considering that there are only 89 pages in this book, it did take a while to read mostly due to language. I had moments where I'd sit down with a pen and paper and actually translate passages into present-day English just to make sure I'd understood what was being said.  There's an entire letter, for example, going on and on and on about a young man's joy at his objet d'amour admitting her feelings toward him when in our modern parlance he would have simply stated "Oh, she loves me! How cool is that!"  It's also interesting to me that the three books I've read so far, The Coquette, The Boarding School and now The Power of Sympathy, are novels that focus on women's education not just in the intellectual sense, but also in terms of its role in making them wiser and more discerning when difficult or otherwise untenable situations arise.

I am very sure I've missed a lot in this book since I feel hampered by a lack of familiarity with its literary antecedents, but that's okay -- I'm not a literary scholar, nor do I pretend to be. This is after all, for me a kind of exploratory project at a casual-reader level.  At the same time, despite its didactic and often melodramatic moments, I actually ended up enjoying this book. I don't know if it's the kind of novel most people would want to read nowadays because of the flowery, overblown sort of language we're not really used to, and because the whole "dangers of seduction" thing really doesn't seem very relevant to modern readers. However, if this period of American history is of interest to anyone, The Power of Sympathy might be a book someone might want to read.

next up is Wieland, a novel by Charles Brockden Brown, written in 1798.

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