The mother of the English Catholic novel

Elizabeth Inchbald (c 1796), by Thomas Lawrence

A Simple Story (1791) by Elizabeth Inchbald is the first novel written by an English Catholic with Catholic characters, but despite being praised by authors from Wilkie Collins to Lytton Strachey, the book has repeatedly slipped into near oblivion.

The philosopher and women’s rights pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft lauded A Simple Story as “truly dramatic [with a] constellation of splendid characters”.

In 1885, Fr Peter Haythornthwaite wrote to the Dublin Review to protest the neglect of Inchbald, a “woman of original genius, striking character and a devout Catholic”. One year later, Wilkie Collins called
A Simple Story a “rare triumph”.

In the introduction to a 1908 reprint, Lytton Strachey explained that A Simple Story is “one of those books which, for some reason or other, have failed to come down to us, as they deserved, along the current of time, but have drifted into a literary backwater where only the professional critic or the curious discoverer can find them out.”

Despite being available today in handy paperback editions from Broadview Press and in the Oxford World’s Classics series, one may wonder how often Inchbald’s novel is read outside of universities.

This neglect is not because its plot lacks incident. An amorous young woman identified only as Miss Milner is smitten with her guardian Dorriforth, a Catholic priest, who renounces holy orders in order to wed her. A good deal of novelistic misery ensues, involving infidelity and inter-family strife.

Yet everywhere in the novel is a sense of humane compromise, where people find ways to live together in civil agreement, despite their differences. We are told about a married couple, of whom one was a “member of the Church of Rome, but on his marriage with a lady of Protestant tenets, they mutually agreed their sons should be educated in the religious opinion of their father, and their daughters in that of their mother.”

Inchbald’s nuanced portraits of her characters mark a refreshing break from English Romantic literature in which Catholic priests were usually depicted as villains. Dorriforth is introduced as “by education, and the solemn vows of his order, a Roman Catholic priest: – but, nicely discriminating between the philosophical and the superstitious part of that character, he adopted the former only, and possessed qualities not unworthy of the first professors of Christianity.” Later, Dorriforth’s description is nuanced by mention of his flaw of “obstinacy”.

Critics argue that, despite this sense of balance, Inchbald lacks the wit of Jane Austen. But if not witty, Inchbald could certainly be wily. A Simple Story has some coy dialogue, such as when Miss Milner considers whether she believes she is attractive: “I should, if I consulted my own opinion, believe that I was not; but in some respects I am like Roman Catholics; I don’t believe upon my own understanding, but from what other people tell me.”

Born near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, Inchbald was an avid reader. For young women of her day, French novels and the plays of Racine provided the basis of refined education. She even opted to read Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ in French translation.

Small wonder that Lytton Strachey, an aficionado of Gallic literature, diagnosed in Inchbald a sensibility similar to that of an 18th-century miniaturist, “… but it is the 18th century of France rather than of England … it is among the followers of the French classical tradition that she must be placed. A Simple Story is, in its small way, a descendant of the Tragedies of Racine; and Miss Milner may claim relationship with Madame de Clèves.” Strachey also likened the novel to the Abbé Prevost’s Manon Lescaut.

Although certainly no debauchée like Manon, Inchbald went on the stage as a young woman, despite a pronounced stammer. Her fluent, highly readable style was the antithesis of, and a victory over, her speech impediment. She would write and translate dozens of plays, now unread, although Austen mentioned one of her stage adaptations, Lovers’ Vows, in Mansfield Park.

Inchbald’s years around theatres left her with a permanently racy image. The caricaturist Henry Wigstead created a scurrilous engraving showing her at a desk with a bottle of gin, writing good reviews of her own work.

As Inchbald aged, she grew more pious, and overall she led what the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) referred to as a “stainless life”. Yet after she wrote a four-volume autobiography, William Poynter, vicar apostolic of London, advised her to burn, rather than publish, it. Unfortunately for readers today, she accepted his counsel. In October 1833, the North American Review suggested that these destroyed memoirs might have contained overly frank descriptions of colleagues: “We are told that the lady, in her fits of spleen, would occasionally animadvert pretty severely upon the character of contemporaries.”

We shall never know, but doubtless Strachey was correct when he concluded: “It would have been a pleasure, certainly, but an alarming pleasure, to have known Mrs Inchbald.”

Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus