What I would like to focus in this blog is the heroine’s conduct in Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story. It’s generally difficult to ascertain from the narrative how the reader should judge Miss Milner’s manners. Since she is writing to an eighteenth century audience, we can reasonably conclude that much of Miss Milner’s behavior is unconventional but there are moments in the story that indicate approve of such unconventional behavior.
For example, when Miss Milner is confronted by Dorriforth about her true feelings toward Lord Federick , she gives him a response that shocks both him and other characters, but in the end, she is the better person among the three people that interview her. She’s candid and straightforward unlike Sanford. Assertive unlike Miss Woodley and resilient unlike Dorriforth. During this interrogation, Miss Milner confesses she is not interested in marrying Lord Frederick but enjoys his company. He amuses her but could never “constitute [her] felicity” (57), or in other words, could never make her happy as a wife. Everyone responds in shame and shock at Miss Milner’s response but in the end, we are left with good feelings toward Miss Milner and negative ones toward Sanford.
It could definitely be argued that I’m imposing a modern interpretation on Miss Milner’s self-confident feminine attitude but the text also tells us that we cannot fully rely on the truth/ethical value of Dorriforth and Miss Woodley’s reactions. This is because like Miss Milner, we are invited to enjoy, in comic relief, their intense religiousity. During their first meeting with Miss Milner, the reader laughs with her at their “pious ceremony”:
The kind Miss Woodley ejaculated a short prayer to herself, that heaven would forgive her young friend the involuntary sin of ignorance – while Mrs. Horton, unperceived as she imagined, made the sign of the cross upon her forehead to prevent the infectious taint of heretical opinions. (17)
Miss Woodley, Dorriforth, and Mrs. Horton’s reaction to Miss Milner’s “sin of ignorance,” like much of their reaction toward her behavior, seem a little over the top.
Miss Milner’s neimsis, Miss Fenton, though a “saint”, is a character the text does not applaud. She is dormant and possesses almost no vitality because she is too much of a “good girl.” One of the few people who admires her is Dorriforth for even, Lord Frederick is exhausted by her “insufferab[ility]” (38). This tells us that Lord Frederick is a better judge of love and women as Inchbald claims, “Yet Dorriforth, whose heart was not formed (at least not educated) for love; regarding her [Miss Fenton] in the light of friendship, beheld her as the most perfect model of her sex” (37). Dorriforth has been trained to see women in black and white colors as either “saints” (37) or women whereas Lord Frederick, at least, understands that in order to love a woman, she cannot fit the model of a “saint” so rigidly that she is a replication of the statue itself – lifeless and without variety.
As Bethany Lee Getz explains in her dissertation, Virtue Embodies: Fathers and Daughters in the Eighteen Century Novel, in Inchbald, morality is inextricably tied to manners and conduct. Exhibiting “carless manners” (40) is equivalent to being “artful” (40), according to the elderly priest Sanford. However, Miss Milner is at various moments described as artless and disingenuous as the narrator tells us that she speaks her mind, and though what she says is honest, “looks and manners alone [should] express (17). She expresses her thoughts through words and wit instead of looks and manners, giving little consideration to social settings and its participants. Thus, she needs to acquire an education in which her careless thoughts can be informed by a sensitivity toward other people’s emotions, refining her manners so that she acquires a habit of “thinking before speaking.”