It’s been a while since I’ve read anything pre-1950s – and so it was great fun to sit down with Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline, or The Orphan of the Castle this week. The book was published in 1788 and was Smith’s first novel (of ten).

The story centers on a young woman – Emmeline Mowbray – who is raised on her own in a castle belonging to her uncle. The castle was once her father’s, but his death (which shortly followed her mother’s death in childbirth) has left her an orphan and, more importantly, an orphan without claim to her father’s or his family’s name. The uncle provides for her basic needs but is not planning to raise her as a part of his family. When Emmeline is sixteen her caregiver dies, leaving her exposed to the advances of one of the servants. She sends a letter to her uncle, asking for help, and eventually he arrives to sort out Emmeline’s future, but he has brought along his son, Delamere, who instantly falls in love with the young and beautiful and softspoken Emmeline. He decides he must have her at any cost. His obstinate pursuit of her (because his family does not approve of the match, nor does Emmeline love him) sets in motion the next 527 pages of passionate speeches, near escapes, clever subterfuge and so on and so forth.

The book is highly entertaining and I stayed up far too late several nights in a row just wanting to see what would happen and how it would all work out. I’ll put your fears at rest – the book has a fantastic happy ending. Highly satisfactory.

But Emmeline is definitely a novel of its times—extremely sentimental. The endless weeping, sobbing and fainting becomes tiresome about halfway through the book. The slightest emotional upset will send any one of the female characters into a dead faint, or at the very least, a high fever that may last for several days. Luckily, our Emmeline is a plucky woman and in the midst of her near-fainting, she is able to deliver some amazing speeches. She is a model of integrity and it is only through her sound mind and clever thinking (while crying, while sobbing, while falling down with fatigue), that she manages to keep her “honor” intact.

Where I found myself enjoying the book the most was in its social critique. Smith is clearly arguing against the social and family structures of the era that leave women so open to “moral compromise.” Two of Emmeline’s closest friends in the novel have been forced into horrible marriages and their lot in life is not a happy one. They are without any means to correct their situations themselves, and must rely on their male friends (a risky maneuver) or relatives for any assistance. Because Emmeline is the only character without any real family ties, especially male ones, she is at the greatest risk. And of course this is what drives the story—how will she avoid all the traps that surround her, how will she manage to maintain her honor when her social situation makes it so easy for men to take advantage of her? The simple act of crossing town in the company of a man who is not a brother or established “safe” connection, is fraught with danger.

As Emmeline was Smith’s first novel, I’m keen to see how her work developed, in terms of theme but also style, and I look forward to reading her other novels. I’d also really like to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Mary: A Fiction, which was published the same year as Emmeline but may be quite different. At least Wollstonecraft was supposed to have been very critical of the sentimental novels and their tradition. So we shall see – I do love it when one book leads to another right away.