One of my fantastic readers asked me recently whether all early 19th century novels had happy endings. I answered yes, as up until this latest book I had always believed this to be the case!
The Tales of the Woods and Fields is a harrowing society novel by Anne Marsh-Caldwell. It was first published in 1836 in three volumes. Volume the first, and the first thirty six pages of volume the second contain ‘A Country Vicarage’. The remaining two volumes are taken up with the long poem ‘A Tale of an Oak Tree’ and a further novel called ‘Love and Duty’. I have decided to review only the first tale: ‘A Country Vicarage’.
The novel opens with a series of letters discussing the beautiful but young and naive Louisa Evelyn, who has received an invitation to a fashionable ball. There is concern in the vicarage about whether it would be good for Louisa to go. Charles, the son of Mr. Evelyn’s oldest friend, is secretly in love with Louisa, and worries that if she mingles with high society it might have a detrimental effect on her.
Louisa attends the dance. On her arrival at Dangerfield, she is scrutinised by the French maid who finding nothing suitable in Louisa’s trunk, dresses her in something fashionable from her mistresses wardrobe. The hostess Mrs. Carlton then presents her to the dining room and she is escorted to her place at the table. The author highlights the shallow and critical attitude of British upper class society by revealing the thoughts and conversations of the guests, including a Duke, many of the gentry, some army officers, and countless single ladies. Louisa is initially admired for her beauty, but is soon politely mocked when it gets out that she is only the parson’s daughter. Sir Harry’s recollection of her dressed in ‘a blue pinafore with torn bonnet’ is spread around the table by several Lady Marys who ‘happening to be within hearing, looked, I am sorry to say, rather ill-naturedly pleased at this description’. Louisa feels alienated during the dinner, and she is unable to add anything to the fatuous conversation. This continues the following morning at breakfast and at the races, and Mr. Evelyn’s experiment ‘seemed in a fair way of succeeding’.
At the ball, Lord William Melville solicits an introduction to Louisa and here she has her first experiences of love. Louisa spends the next few days languishing for Melville. Eventually they meet again at a play in the following chapter. There follows a brutal coach accident and Lord Melville runs to the crash to aid Louisa who is shocked and faint but not really hurt. Melville then escorts Louisa and Mrs. Carlton to her house, and Louisa who now feels decidedly worse, is carried into the dwelling by his Lordship. The author alludes to many classical literary references (especially to Greek mythology and to Shakespeare), which makes it a little difficult and a disjointed read if one needs to ‘refresh’ ones knowledge of the Classics (lovelier than Juliet… softer than Miss Haller … innocent as Perdita… more tender than Ophelia… more fatal than that of Circe, etc).
Louisa spends a vast amount of time with Lord Melville at Dangerfield, and she falls hopelessly in love with him. It is a mutual affection, but the naïve Louisa expects too much. Eventually she is summoned back to the country vicarage by Mrs. Digby, and there begins a gradual decline in her health. By degrees it is noticed by her sister and the maid, and indeed by Charles. One day he catches her crying while nursing her sister’s baby in the garden and becomes aware she is clearly in love with someone. This is later confirmed by one of his chums in a letter, as it has become widespread knowledge in society that the lucky Louisa has caught the eye of the wealthy, titled and most eligible bachelor, Lord Melville. Charles is heartbroken by the news, but is determined to throw himself into his studies and help Louisa the best he can.
Mr. Phillips (Mary’s husband) returns after a long period of absence in Ireland. He notices Louisa’s strange affliction, which is verified by Charles later in the evening. Without giving Louisa’s secret away, he explains her situation. Phillips forms a plan to send Louisa away with his wife and children for a change of scene.
One day while out walking in the copse, Louisa is surprised to see Lord Melville, and instantly hugs him. Realising her impropriety she shrieks and runs back to the house. Charles who happened to be nearby, confront Melville, and there is a haughty exchange of words. Charles convinces Melville it is imperative that he doesn’t delay formalities with Mr. Evelyn, and that he declares his intentions honestly, for her sake.
The next morning Mr. Evelyn receives a letter from Lord Melville requesting permission to present himself at the vicarage. At this point in the novel Charles takes permanent leave from the house. Louisa and Lord Melville are married in less than a month after his first appearance at the vicarage, and it appears their early married life is one of complete bliss. He rents a pretty cottage ‘of gentility’ in Wales and they spend the winter enjoying each other’s company and activities. Things take a turn when Louisa becomes pregnant and she cannot partake in all their usual entertainments. The selfish Melville sees Louisa solely as a great and beautiful prize, won to gratify his own needs.
They move to Melville’s London residence, and Louisa meets the dowager and his sisters. The author gives her readers another unflattering and detailed portrayal of upper class attitudes. Melville leaves Louisa with the women and goes to his local club. Louisa feels isolated and out of place in the house. When she goes to bed the young sisters and the dowager head off to the opera and Louisa is left feeling desolate.
The next morning Louisa is ill and fatigued, and the whole family, including the marchioness, take breakfast in Louisa’s chambers as she reclines on a couch. There is an interesting discussion. The family plainly state that it is out of the question that Louisa attends church, but they propose she will naturally be well enough for an afternoon display in the carriage around the park. ‘We will be the admiration of the whole world!’ Louisa argues that if she isn’t well enough for church, she won’t be well enough for a drive. It appears her new family are only pious when they are on display. This contrasts with Louisa’s father and Charles, who live genuine pious lifestyles back at the vicarage.
It is a long day and the family spends hours parading in their new carriage and conversing with their set. In the evening, Louisa is subjected to a long and tiresome formal meal with more aristocratic strangers. Louisa retires at a late hour, and feeling depressed she starts to worry that her life will continue like this – separated from the person her unschooled heart loves, and left to mix with the aristocratic sets which she feels alienated from. As the months go by, Louisa realises the gulph is insurmountable. Lord Melville leads his own life, and Louisa is constantly in the company of his family, who practically live with her, and she has nobody from her own/old peer group to relate to. Her poor health trapped her in Melville’s family and their set: ‘the empty fleeting bubbles of mere fashionable life’.
After the birth of her daughter, Louisa realises she cannot even control the nursery. The family hires their ‘own’ people for that role. A further unsettling realisation hits Louisa when her husband asks her what she is doing this summer! It transpires he is going to Norway for an expedition and will not be returning until the following spring around April. Louisa is told to enjoy herself as much as she can and spare no expense ‘there is the world before you’. She realises that any dreams she harboured of them being a normal couple are well and truly dashed.
Lord Melville goes to Norway and Louisa and her in-laws go to Babington Castle in the Midlands for a season. She also spends time with her sister, and they holiday on the coast. Louisa arrives in Park Lane for her husband’s expected arrival the following April – but he arrives only four months later. During the long absence Louisa’s natural vigour and health is restored. On Melville’s return there is an initial revival of their early intimacy and socialising, and Louisa naively assumes they will final become close. As can be imagined, Lord Melville soon returns to amusing and entertaining himself, while his wife is neglected. Matters finally come to a head when Louisa hears her husband is having an affair with an Italian actress ‘who has all the exciting traits she herself fails to entice in Melville’. Melville now becomes short tempered and even impatient with his wife. The family and servants follow suit and Louisa begins to feel friendless and frustrated. Melville begins to despise his own infant daughter and has no patience with Louisa and her tears.
At the start of the volume II the infant Miss Melville comes down with a fever, but she is neglected by all the servants and nurses. She calls for her mama, but the rooms are so far away she cannot be heard. When Louisa finally becomes aware her child is sick the rest of the family think it is nonsense and an excuse for Louisa not to leave Brighton and attend a party in London where the Royals will be present. Melville needs Louisa to attend with him to prove their marriage is fine. He is anxious to clear his reputation and to prove to society he is not having an affair. Of course, Melville gets his way, and the very sick child along with the family set off for London. On route, the child becomes dangerously sick, but the nurse and the selfish Lord Melville insist she is fine. Louisa reaches breaking point, and realising the seriousness of her child’s illness, she hysterically orders the carriage to stop. She defies her husband and causes such a scene, that she cannot be ignored this time. They are released at the next inn and Melville with a mock bow drives off leaving the distressed mother and daughter behind. Medical advice is immediately sought, but it is too late. The child dies and Louisa’s harrowing shrieks pierce the inn. She is desperately agitated so the innkeeper calls a visiting clergyman upstairs for assistance. Louisa recognises him as her old friend Charles, and she drops to the floor in a fainting fit.
When she is revived, Charles comforts her with reassurances of God’s eternal love and protection. They pray together and Louisa is put to bed. Charles then sends the news to Lord Melville. Of course, Melville is envious of Charles and for the first time in his life, he feels genuine remorse for his behaviour. He orders his four horses to be harnessed and to be instantly dispatched to the inn. Meanwhile, Louisa takes a turn for the worse, and Charles is again summoned upstairs by the maid. He finds Louisa in the last stages of life. Her heart ‘was hurrying with the rapidity of a mill wheel’. He kneels down beside her to hear her confession – and here she expires.
In a nutshell: a perceptive novel packed with realism and frustration. The author Anne Caldwell Marsh offers a scathing critique of the emptiness of ‘fashionable’ society and its destructive influence on human lives.