Friday, 20 November 2009

A Simple Story by Elizabeth Inchbald

Inchbald's A Simple Story was the reading group's first book of of the 2009-2010 season. The title seems to deliberately provoke us into thinking what is simple about this story. The plot is far from simple, some of the characters are forced to navigate complicated social situations and we are left at the end with the unsatisfactory assertion that daughters require 'a proper education'. Who though in this story does receive a proper education?

The narrative spans two generations and Inchbald does not neatly resolve the problems of the first generation with a happy marriage promised between the second generation, as Emily Bronte does later in her two generation tale Wuthering Heights. In the first half of the novel the troubled courtship of Miss Milner and Dorriforth ends in their marriage but at this point, at the end of volume II, the reader knows it is a doomed marriage. Dorriforth, now Lord Elmwood, puts a mourning ring on his bride's finger.

Inchbald's ironic treatment of which of these two has received a proper education prompts us to question what an education is, should be and what its purpose is. Miss Milner, we are told, is a spoiled and indulged young woman who has not received a proper education. She abandons herself to frivolity and does not apply herself to the correct forms for ideal female behaviour in the opinion of other characters. She is however sensitive and responsive to the circumstances and emotions of those she cares about. While she can be impulsive, she is also more consistently compassionate towards others than any other character in the novel. Dorriforth has received the proper education for a man of his position but he is dogmatic, and unyielding, in his judgement of others. It is quite clear that he falls in love with Miss Milner despite himself and his education has taught him nothing about human understanding and compassion. The differences in temperament between the two leads irrevocably to the breakdown of their marriage.

Matilda, their daughter, grows up in rural isolation with her exiled mother. After her mother's death she lives in a house her father rarely visits under the condition that he is never to see her. She does meet her cousin, Rushbrook, and they become friends - again two characters of very different temperament. This time Rushbrook is the giddier one despite a correct education for a young man of his status. He is the heir to the Elmwood title, not Matilda, and Matilda schooled 'by adversity' is the more serious and bookish. In exile with her mother she had the run of a library and occupied herself with reading. A phenomenon amongst several women Inchbald was acquainted with who had intellectual ambition but no formal education. At the end of the novel we our left with no clear sense that Matilda will accept Rushbrook's proposal of marriage; we are also left wondering who in this novel has had a proper education. In some respects Miss Milner's open spirit with genuinely felt emotional responses seems the more attractive, even if she is finally broken.