Eaton Stannard Barretts The Heroine as Comic
Avril Horner & Sue Zlosnik
Eaton Stannard Barrett’s The Heroine
has traditionally been read as a reactionary text. In problematizing
this received status, however, we are not simply aiming
to recuperate Barrett’s novel into a more politically correct
framework by focusing on a potentially subversive subtext.
Rather, we seek to raise questions concerning the nature
of parody, particularly in relation to three elements: its
historical moment of production, its engagement with a particular
textual tradition and the way in which different readers
construct meaning from a parodic work. Parodic texts tend
to have been read as limited in their significance, their
very provenance in another work constraining the critic’s
engagement with wider issues; they are therefore frequently
dismissed as low comedy at best or parasitic or reactionary
at worst. For
example, in his introduction to the 1909 edition of Barrett’s
novel, Walter Raleigh writes disparagingly of parody; while
acknowledging that certain writers transcend their own intention
to write parody, he states that in Barrett’s case ‘it cannot
be claimed that he proved superior to the task which he
A typically dismissive comment on parody, Raleigh’s judgement
of Barrett’s work fails to acknowledge the complexity of
Barrett’s engagement with both the social issues of his
time and with the wider streams of Romanticism. We wish
to argue here, however, that the accomplished parodic text
does not merely react to another text or genre (although
that may be its starting point); rather, it forms part of
a sophisticated cultural dialogue in which humour and wit
assert themselves. We would argue that parody, as a complex
form of textual response and negotiation, and as a subgenre
of comedy, carries a freight of ideological ambivalence
which is always as culturally significant as the issues
raised by the ‘serious’ source which it burlesques.
Such an approach
to parody is inevitably informed by contemporary theoretical
Linda Hutcheon, for example, links the double-coding characteristic
of post-modernism to the double-coding inherent in parody.
Hutcheon challenges the assumption that parody’s double-coding
always results in comic form, preferring to characterise
parody as ‘repetition with critical difference’.
Rose suggests that Hutcheon’s ‘virtual elimination of the
comic from parody … may be described … as a “late-modern”
reaction to the modern description of parody as burlesque
comedy which has divided parody from the comic rather than
reunited the latter with the parody’s more intertextual
The status of The Heroine as a comic text has never
been in doubt, nor has its overt and covert debt to other
texts. What has not been acknowledged in its critical reception
to date is the way in which both of these aspects of the
novel create a textual space in which alternative modes
of being and thinking are given free rein. The ‘critical
difference’ afforded by Barrett’s playful engagement with
the popular fiction of his time opens up serious issues
relating to national and gendered identities. The post-modern
feminist reader may still laugh at Barrett’s comedy but
it is with the knowledge that beneath the farce and grotesquery
lie both poignant truths about the social and economic status
of early nineteenth-century women and an emotionally freighted
history of women as readers which are not to be dismissed
as lightly as the novel’s closure seems to suggest.
Published in 1813,
The Heroine quite clearly draws on the content and
conventions of other texts as a way of creating its comic
effects. More specifically, the contrivances and contraptions
of Gothic novels are much in evidence as the eponymous heroine
turns her back on a humdrum rural existence and embarks
upon a set of picaresque adventures. While Jane Austen’s
Northanger Abbey (1818) has long been enjoyed as
an entertaining engagement with the Gothic (first as a burlesque
and more recently as a subtle appropriation of Gothic conventions
for the purpose of exploring dark but mundane truths ),
Barrett’s The Heroine has fallen into obscurity.
Austen’s famous novel begins with the words, ‘No one who
had seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed
her born to be an heroine’. Barrett’s
‘heroine’, Cherry Wilkinson, is a similarly unlikely candidate
for the role; like Catherine Morland, she is a novel reader
but one who wilfully sets out to adopt an identity modelled
on the fictional heroines she has encountered. The result
is that the story of Cherry’s adventures, like those of
Catherine Morland, bears a parodic relationship to the novels
of her time.
is a novel in the form of letters from a young woman
to her governess. Cherry is the rosy-cheeked daughter of
Gregory Wilkinson, a farmer; her head turned by her reading
of Gothic and sentimental literature, she misconstrues a
‘frightful fragment’ of a copy of a lease as proof that
she is descended from the Willoughbys of nearby Gwyn Castle.
Changing her name to Cherubina de Willoughby, she therefore
leaves home (thereby causing her father great distress)
and sets off to claim her inheritance on a journey which
initially takes her, a country innocent, into the less than
respectable echelons of London society and into the company
of disreputable theatre folk. Various masquerades and deceptions
on the part of her new companions ensue, including one of
them presenting himself, in cod middle English, as Wylome
Eftsoones, an ‘ancient and loyal vassal’ (p. 142) of
the Willoughby family, and thus furthering Cherry’s delusions
of nobility. Followed by this train of fortune-seekers and
by genuine admirers, she fails in her aim to ‘reclaim’ Gwyn
Castle, but does manage to ‘capture’ Monkton Castle, which
is not much more than a ruin and which (strongly influenced
by her reading) she decks out as a Gothic abode. In short,
she acts out the role of a heroine. After many adventures,
she is brought to her senses, re-united with her father
and is ‘re-educated’ by ‘an exemplary pastor’ and by one
Robert Stuart. The latter, formerly her father’s ward and
a sensible man of property, eventually rewards her ‘conversion’
back to reality with a proposal of marriage.
readers find the witty one-liners and what Emma Clery and
Robert Miles have described as ‘the delirious silliness’
of Cherry’s adventures very entertaining;
it was also greatly admired as a comic work by Barrett’s
contemporaries. Hugely popular in the decade after it was
published, The Heroine has been undeservedly out
of print since 1927. It was described in The Biographical
Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland
(1816) as ‘not inferior in wit and humour to Tristram
Shandy, and in point of plot and interest infinitely
beyond Don Quixote’.
Jane Austen, in a letter dated 2 March 1814, comments: ‘I
finished The Heroine last night and was very much
amused by it … It diverted me exceedingly … I have torn
through the third volume … I do not think it falls off.
It is a delightful burlesque particularly on the Radcliffe
An essay on The Heroine, published in the Southern
Literary Messenger in 1835, and thought to have been
written by Edgar Allan Poe, describes Barrett’s novel as
never having had ‘attracted half that notice on the part
of the critical press, which is undoubtedly its due’.
Devendra Varma claims to admire the novel but almost damns
it with faint praise by describing it as ‘perhaps the best
work of the reactionary school’.
It would seem, then, that nineteenth-century readers were
more open to the delights and significance of parody than
early twentieth-century critics who tended to dismiss it
as a parasitic and inferior literary form. However, for
the late twentieth-century reader, schooled in post-modern
irony and aware that meaning is created by the reader’s
interaction with the text, The Heroine can present
itself as a work that moves skilfully between the discourses
of Romanticism, sensibility and the Gothic in order to produce
a witty and penetrating analysis of the literature and culture
of its time. In so doing, it foregrounds the problematic
nature of the relationship between the text and the reader,
the fictional and the ‘real’, and the interchange between
literary constructs and social behaviour.
It is easy to
see, though, why The Heroine might be read as a conservative
or even reactionary text. It is clear, even from our brief
plot description, that it can be placed in the tradition
of novels such as Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote
or The Adventures of Arabella (1752) which burlesque
the romance. Lennox’s novel manifests a very English anxiety
about the romance genre and its effects on female readers,
for eighteenth-century middle-class English women were,
as Margaret Anne Doody has noted, to ‘have neither history
nor adventures’ if they were to remain proper ladies. Despite
Jane Austen’s sophisticated exploration of the relationship
between romance and the ‘real’ world in Northanger Abbey,
such ideas about female decorum influenced reader reception
of such texts right into the mid-twentieth century. As late
as 1967 the aim of Lennox’s novel was being described as
a ‘desire to ridicule the French heroic romances, and to
point out their potentially harmful effects on the minds
of inexperienced readers’.
The reception of The Heroine has been similarly influenced,
with Walter Raleigh describing the novel in his 1909 introduction
as simply reflecting the ‘middle-class code of (Barrett’s)
own time’ and as a work which was written to warn the heroine
‘against the extravagances that so easily beset her’.
The critic here aligns himself with the mentoring male in
such novels in that he focuses on what is seen as a female
tendency to be deluded by romance fictions, thereby emphasizing
his own sophistication and worldliness. The fact that the
author of The Heroine was a man has provided further
confirmation, for many readers, that the novel set out to
educate silly women readers into a more ‘mature’ state of
mind. Indeed, Gary Kelly’s description of Barrett as ‘a
Tory professional man and … an anti-Whig, Anti-Jacobin,
anti-Sentimentalist, antifeminist writer’ underpins his
reading of The Heroine as part of the institutionalization
of a ‘professional middle-class culture and hegemony’ which
wished to see the middle-class woman safely constrained
within the home.
Of course, The
Heroine mocks the Gothic novel as well as the romance
genre. From yet another perspective, then, it may be read
conservatively. Many of the themes and tropes of eighteenth-century
Gothic writing—for example, the restoration of lineage and
property, the moving picture, the old servant who knows
a family secret, the Gothic building—are parodied in Barrett’s
novel. Traditionally it has been assumed that the tide of
such parodies, which appeared between 1790 and 1820, was
a reaction to the excesses of horror and terror that characterised
the Gothic text of the same period.
Until recently, the general critical assumption was that
the aim of such parodies was to entertain and to educate;
Devendra Varma describes their authors as ‘teachers of moral
prudence whose influence had been impaired by the flood,
but not destroyed’. In
other words, comic Gothic at the opening of the nineteenth
century has frequently been seen as a reinstatement of Enlightenment
values in the face of Romantic ideals: rationality, common
sense and the importance of the social fabric were to be
valued above the thoughts and feelings, passions and emotions,
of the individual. Accordingly, what we might call the comic
Gothic novel was often read as conservative in its recuperation
of the individual into the social fabric—and, indeed, endings
such as Catherine Morland’s engagement in Austen’s Northanger
Abbey and Scythrop’s choice of a glass of Madeira sherry
over death by pistol shot in Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey
do seem to dissolve darker questions raised earlier.
In similar vein, even more recent critical readings of The
Heroine present, with varying degrees of sophistication,
both the work and its author as reactionary. Paul Lewis,
whilst giving credit to the power of the novel’s humour,
sees ‘beneath the apparently harmless, even delightful,
literary thesis an unquestioning faith in patriarchy and
As we have noted, Gary Kelly, whilst grounding the novel
far more securely in contemporary culture and politics than
Lewis, nevertheless sees it as the product of historical
forces which were ‘pressing hard for professionalization
and the conservative values of emergent professional middle-class
Jacqueline Howard refuses to find any subtlety in the novel,
arguing that Barrett ‘trivializes’ Cherry ‘to such a degree
that she becomes a tedious character with whom we can have
little sympathy’; she also claims that in The Heroine
‘(w)e find none of the ambiguity which Hutcheon sees as
characteristic of the ironic inversion constituting parody’.
Both Lewis and Howard seem to assume that only serious Gothic
can raise serious questions in the mind of the reader. For
example, Lewis states:
In the hands of sophisticated
writers (for example, Godwin, Brown, Poe, Hogg, Hawthorne,
Melville, James and others), mystery has the potential for
raising important theological, epistemological, psychological,
and social questions … (whereas) … Barrett misses the very
human sense of doubt and fear, the adventurous exploration
of the fantastic at the center of the Gothic.
In a similar vein, Howard argues that Cherry’s
‘ “slavish adherence” to purely literary conventions
so thoroughly pre-empts any raising of the epistemological,
psychological, and theological questions found in the Gothic
that it trivializes the genre’.
This approach affords comedy a very limited role and ignores
the changing nature of the contract between the author and
the reader. We would suggest, instead, that as well as illustrating
‘with unusual clarity the interrelationship of social, cultural,
and political issues during the Romantic social and cultural
The Heroine can also be read as comically negotiating
contemporary anxieties—for example, those concerning women
and property—in such a way as to raise serious questions
in the mind of the reader.
Much has been
published on the relationship between the Romantic and the
Gothic; far less energy has been devoted to that between
Romanticism and the comic. Even less work, however, has
been done on the links to be made between Romantic critical
thought and the parodic, perhaps because of what, in Howard’s
words, appears to be the ‘trivializing’ nature of parody.
Of course, parody can be seen as its own worst enemy: in
making obvious its own highly intertextual nature, it frequently
draws the accusation that it is merely derivative. Moreover,
what Linda Hutcheon has defined as ‘the continuing strength
of a Romantic aesthetic that values genius, originality
and individuality’ has worked against a more positive reception
of the parodic. As Hutcheon notes,
Michel Foucault (1977) has
argued that the entire concept of the artist or author as
an original instigator of meaning is only a privileged moment
of individualization in the history of art. In that light,
it is likely that the Romantic rejection of parodic forms
as parasitic reflected a growing capitalist ethic that made
literature into a commodity to be owned by an individual.
Yet there was Romantic interest in the
comic and the parodic although it blossomed relatively late.
As Thomas H. Schmid has pointed out, a look at the chronology
Between 1817 and 1822 Melincourt,
Beppo, Nightmare Abbey, Witch of Atlas, Swellfoot the Tyrant
and Peter Bell the Third are published. Throughout this
period as well, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb and even Shelley
(to a minor degree) wrote critically on the comic. What
interest the comic has for Romanticism seems to burgeon
during this period, when humour can be seen as a challenge
to Romanticism’s apparent seriousness or even ‘farce of
… tragic nostalgia’ as Jerome McGann puts it.
More recently, Gary Dyer’s attempt to reappraise
the role of romantic satire has revealed the strong seam
of comic writing which runs through Romanticism.
As David Kent has pointed out, however, ‘Dyer’s ascription
of the comic with the parodic misrepresents the fierce ideological
battleground parody frequently embodied’.
However, so far, little critical attention has been paid
to contemporary Romantic theorisation of the comic and/or
parodic. In our attempt to define the complex cultural role
played by parody, we turn now to Jean Paul Richter’s Vorschule
der Aesthetik (School for Aesthetics) which was
published in 1804. In defining the value of humour (which
he describes as the Romantic comic) as an aspect of the
imagination, Richter offers an exposition of it as ‘inverse
sublime’, a concept which perhaps derives from eighteenth-century
appropriations of Longinus’s theories of the sublime. This
is clearly an attempt to bring humour into the legitimising
embrace of Romantic aesthetics. For Richter, whereas the
sublime evokes terror, awe and fear, the ‘inverse sublime’
invites an ironic detachment from the world. This results
from the juxtaposition of the details of a finite world
against the idea of the infinite: we thus become aware of
the world’s folly and detached from ‘both great and small,
because before infinity everything is equal and nothing’.
Arguably, this could be read as a variation on the Romantic
withdrawal from the social, but Richter’s insistence that
humour encourages sympathy rather than condemnation prevents
his ideas on the comic from embracing misanthropy. In laughing
at humanity rather than at individuals, we rise above the
finite and so experience a sense of the ‘inverse sublime’.
In Schmid’s words,
the experience of humor
as adumbrated by Romantic theorists is subjective, imaginative
and liberating. Because humor ‘annihilates’ finite categories
of the understanding and levels all before the ‘infinite’,
it subverts the moral certitude of forms like satire, and
encourages sympathy rather than ethereal withdrawal … 
At the same time, however, the text will have
thrown the frames of social reference into doubt and will
have made moral judgement appear a matter of relativity:
it is in this sense that the comic can function as intellectually
liberating and provocative. ‘Humor’, writes Richter, ‘is
a raving Socrates, as the ancients called Diogenes’.
In similar spirit, Barrett notes in his preface to The
Heroine that making ‘the world laugh … is the gravest
occupation an author can chuse’ (p. 6). In choosing
parody as his comic vehicle, Barrett, we argue, embraces
what Linda Hutcheon sees as one of its key functions:
I see parody as operating
as a method of inscribing continuity while permitting
critical distance. It can indeed function as a conservative
force in both retaining and mocking other aesthetic forms;
but it is also capable of transformative power in creating
new syntheses, as the Russian formalists argued.
In similar spirit, Glen Cavaliero has recently
Even when the parody is
largely celebratory … it is also purposeful, its target
the tyranny of the monolith, its aim to be liberating and
remedial. Both the strength and the weakness of any literary
artefact can be illuminated by a parody … 
certainly retains and mocks ‘other aesthetic forms’ in that
it is an extremely self-conscious text addressed to a well-read
reader. The Glossary appended by Michael Sadleir to the
1927 edition lists over thirty novels referred to in the
text, including: Mrs. Roche’s Children of the Abbey,
Fanny Burney’s Cecilia and Evelina; Ann Radcliffe’s
The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian;
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Clarissa and Sir Charles
Grandison; Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse; Samuel
Johnson’s Rasselas and Corinne by Madame de
As Gary Kelly points out, it also draws on ‘Burke’s notoriously
ornate style in his Reflections on the Revolution in
France … speeches by Bonaparte, and a speech by the
reformer Sir Francis Burdett to the electors of Westminster
Barrett’s text thus rhetorically dissolves the apparent
distinction between the worlds of politics and popular fiction.
Such a dense fabric of intertextual reference presupposes
that the author and the reader share a legacy of cultural
codes and experience. Moreover, the ‘rules’ of both sentimental
and gothic writing are frequently made fun of by the author
in an acutely self-reflexive manner. For example, the heroine
points out early in the text to one of her admirers that
‘whoever rescues me now, you know, is destined to marry
me hereafter. That is the rule’ (p. 63); a few pages
later she remarks to another character: ‘I give you my word
I will reward you at dénouement along with the other
characters …’ (p. 67). Sometimes this baring of the
device results in strangely dislocating moments, as when
Cherubina comments that ‘Men who converse with a heroine,
should talk for the press, or they will cut but a silly
figure in her memoirs’ (p. 194). But exposure of the
rigidity of the rules of fiction is also used to make the
reader query the rigidity of the rules and the ‘truth’ of
supposedly objective disciplines such as ‘history’. In a
passage which is remarkably consonant in tone with the more
famous section in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which
Catherine Morland queries history as an objective narrative
since it contains ‘hardly any women at all’,
Cherubina debates the relative merits of history and fiction
with a fellow traveller:
‘you must confess, that novels are more
true than histories, because histories often contradict
each other, but novelists never do.’
not novelists contradict themselves?’ said he.
replied I, ‘and there lies the surest proof of their veracity.
For as human actions are always contradicting themselves,
so those books which faithfully relate them must do the
exclaimed he. ‘And yet what proof have we that such personages
as Schedoni, Vivaldi, Camilla, or Cecilia, ever existed?’
proof have we’, cried I, ‘that such personages as Alfred
the Great, Henry the Fifth, Elfrida, or Mary Queen of
Scots, ever existed?’ (p. 54)
Against the ‘common-sense’ reading of the novel,
then, which sees the dénouement as the displacement
of fanciful fictions by the concerns of the ‘real’ world,
The Heroine seems to tempt us continually to see
life and fiction, history and novels, ‘truth’ and fantasy
as not, in fact, easily separable but as part of one continuum.
As Margaret Anne Doody notes of The Female Quixote’s
similar self-reflexiveness, ‘To control modes of narration
… is to control the world’.
Read from a feminist
viewpoint, of course, this self-conscious appropriation
of narrative control by Cherry/Cherubina has interesting
implications. In a preface entitled ‘The Heroine to the
Reader’, Barrett introduces the idea of a parallel imaginary
universe created through the act of writing:
Know, that the moment a
mortal manuscript is written out in a legible hand, and
the word End or Finis annexed thereto, whatever characters
happen to be sketched in it (whether imaginary, biographical,
or historical) acquire the quality of creating and effusing
a sentient soul or spirit, which instantly takes flight,
and ascends through the regions or air, till it arrives
at the MOON; where it is then embodied,
and becomes a living creature; the precise counterpart,
in mind and person of its literary prototype. (p. 2)
We are alerted
here to the Quixotic notion that an alternative world of
romance or fantasy can (like modern science fiction) offer
the means whereby the values of this world can be held open
to question; that there is, in Jonathan Lamb’s words, ‘a
particular sort of integrity which is defined by literary
In this sense, if the fictional world of serious Gothic
horror offers the sublimity of horror, then that of comic
Gothic offers an inverse sublime of humorous possibility.
Similarly, Cherry Wilkinson’s deliberate adoption of another
persona, the alter ego of Cherubina deWilloughby, can be
seen as the creation of a benign doppelgänger (a
term coined by Richter) which allows the heroine a freedom
and power undreamt of in contemporary conduct books or novels
of sensibility. The monstrous doppelgänger which
was to become a familiar figure in later serious Gothic
texts of the nineteenth century as a mode of expressing
fear of the abject and an anxiety concerning split subjectivity,
is allowed in this comic Gothic text a humorous excess within
which notions of liberty and the testing of conventional
boundaries can be explored. Thus, when quizzed by Cherubina
as to how romances and novels ‘contaminate the mind’, a
female fellow-traveller answers tartly: ‘by teaching little
misses to go gadding, Mem, and to be fond of the men, Mem,
and of spangled muslin, Mem’ (p. 53). Searching for
freedom and adventure, Cherubina decides to play the part
of the heroine, since:
The heroine may permit an
amorous arm around her waist, disobey her parents, and make
assignations, yet be described as the most prudent of human
creatures; but the mere Miss must abide by the regular rules
of modesty, decorum and filial obedience. In a word, as
different classes have distinct privileges, it appears to
me, from what I know of the Law National, and the Law Romantic,
that the Heroine’s prerogative resembles the king’s; and
that she, like him, can do no wrong. (p. 140)
There is a sharp recognition here that the discourses
of the law, class and gender situate the subject and constrain
her freedoms as firmly as any set of iron bars. And indeed,
as a ‘heroine’, Cherubina enjoys powers and privileges only
dreamt of by Cherry. Not only does she command a train of
followers and freely make numerous assignations but she
also takes and reigns over her own gothic space, Monkton
Castle (even if this is no more than a draughty ruin). Whilst
inviting the reader to laugh at such excesses of liberty
and their dire consequences, the novel nevertheless reminds
the reader that the alternative ‘reality’ lies in shades
of the bourgeois household closing in on the growing girl.
‘You know that a mere home is my horror’ says Cherubina
(p. 98). At the same time, however, The Heroine
undermines this escape fantasy. For we finally see the independent
Cherubina recuperated into a Cherry who marries her father’s
choice of a well-educated middle-class man of property;
the novel’s implicit critique of the old aristocratic way
of life is thereby reaffirmed and it reinforces the model
of middle-class domesticity offered by early nineteenth-century
The Heroine thus has it both ways: it inscribes the
values of the aspiring middle-class (as Kelly argues) but
simultaneously exposes the constraints they impose on the
imaginative young woman. Nor does the answer lie in a compromise
between aristocratic ideals and the emergent middle-class
management of women, as Barrett’s tart rewriting of Fanny
Burney’s hugely popular Evelina reveals. Cherubina
hears from one of her London companions masquerading as
the fictional character, Sir Charles Grandison, that Lord
Orville and his Evelina are not happily married: ‘ “Happy!”
cried he, laughing. “Have you really never heard of their
notorious miffs? Why it was but yesterday that she flogged
him with a boiled leg of mutton, because he had sent home
no turnips. (p. 271). We could, of course, see this
as evidence of Barrett’s conservatism and of his anti-feminist
attitude towards women writers such as Burney and Jacobin
thinkers such as Wollstonecraft. An alternative way of reading
it, however, is to see it as indicative of the cultural
ambivalence characteristic of parody as a genre. Here we
should bear in mind Hutcheon’s premise that parody is ‘fundamentally
double and divided’ and that ‘its ambivalence stems from
the dual drives of conservative and revolutionary forces
that are inherent in its nature as authorized transgression’.
In this respect,
the representation of the female body in Barrett’s novel,
which clearly relates to the legacy of Romanticism and the
cult of sensibility, is particularly interesting. The way
in which heroines react to moments of crisis in, say, Ann
Radcliffe’s works—by fainting, blushing or falling into
silence—derives, as Daniel Cottom has pointed out, from
a body language specific to notions of femininity and sensibility
current from the mid-eighteenth century.
Not surprisingly, then, Cherubina defines a heroine in the
A heroine is a young lady,
rather taller than usual, and often an orphan; at all events,
with the finest eyes in the world. She blushes to the tips
of her fingers, and when mere misses would laugh, she faints.
Besides, she has tears, sighs, and half, sighs, always read;
can live a month on a mouthful and is addicted to the pale
consumption … to be thin, innocent, and lyrical; to bind
and unbind her hair; in a word, to be the most miserable
creature that ever augmented a brook with tears, these my
friend are the glories of a heroine. (p. 66)
The powerful construct within Western culture
which equates femininity with physical delicacy and emotional
susceptibility is here exposed as fiction rather than truth,
as ‘the glories of a heroine’. But the connection between
body image and femininity is further quizzed when Cherubina
meets someone claiming to be her long lost mother who, she
learns, has been confined, in true Gothic spirit, within
a subterranean vault of a villa. In a coup de grâce,
it is revealed at the end of the novel that this has been
a fake mother and indeed a fake woman: it was Lady Gwyn’s
nephew, put up to the charade by his aunt who had taken
to excess Robert Stuart’s injunction to humour Cherry’s
‘caprices’. In a passage reminiscent of several in Radcliffe’s
novels, the heroine is conducted at midnight by two strange
men to her ‘mother’, whom she expects to find in a state
of starvation ‘stretched on a mattress of straw’ (p. 184).
Instead, she finds her supposed mother ‘suffering under
a corpulency unparalleled in the memoirs of human monsters’
(p. 186): to be fat is, for the modern woman, a horror
of Gothic proportions. Appalled by her size, Cherubina is
assured by her ‘mother’ that ‘This deplorable plumpness
proceeds from want of exercise’ (p. 186) and that at
least she has managed to preserve her paleness (an indication
of both sensitivity and class). And, anticipating the spirit
of Jo Brand, the ‘mother’ confesses not to dreams of a convent
life or restoration to her long-lost husband, but to fantasies
It was but last night, that
maddened by hunger, methought I beheld the Genius of dinner
in my dreams. His mantle was laced with silver eels, and
his locks were dropping with soups. He had a crown of golden
fishes upon his head, and pheasants’ wings at his shoulders.
A flight of little tartlets fluttered around him, and the
sky rained down comfits. As I gazed on him, he vanished
in a sigh, that was impregnated with the fumes of brandy.
Shuddering at the sight of her obesity, Cherubina
finds herself hating her long-lost ‘mother’ and despising
her ‘mother’s’ memoirs (entitled Il Castello di Grimgothico,
or Memoirs of Lady Hysterica Belamour: A Novel by Anna Maria
Marianne Matilda Pottingen, Author of the Bloody Bodkin,
Sonnets on Most of the Plants, etc. etc. etc.) But we
should not forget, of course, that Cherubina, in all her
slim pallor, is the doppelgänger of Cherry Wilkinson,
the farmer’s daughter, brought up, no doubt, on a wholesome
diet enriched by butter and cream—and a young woman who
is acutely aware of her name as suggestive of an all-too-visible
What a nameCherry!
It reminds one so much of plumpness and ruddy health. Cherrybetter
be called Pine-apple at once. There is a green and yellow
melancholy in Pine-apple, that is infinitely preferable.
I wonder if Cherry could possibly be an abbreviation of
CHERUBINA. (p. 11)
‘Cherubina’, of course, while suggesting cherubic
proportions, also evokes an aerial transcendence of the
corporeal. Sliding between these relative images of female
corporeality, invited to laugh at them, the reader is offered
a position of critical distance from contemporaneous and
influential notions of the desirable female body. The ‘target’
of parody is thus not just other works of fiction: it also
engages with subtly influential forms of coded discourse.
In this way, parodic writing can offer an intellectual liberation
from powerful social constructs.
vexed relationship to property rights and the ambiguous
nature of her status as a legal subject during the eighteenth
century is implicitly questioned through Cherubina’s appropriation
of Monkton Castle. Energized by her campaign to seize the
castle, Cherubina blossoms as leader against the siege to
reclaim it. ‘I stood, and gloried in my strength’ she writes
(p. 246). In her rousing speech to her fifty followers,
she promises them, should they be victorious, ‘all such
laws and institutions as shall secure their happiness’ (p. 248).
In 1813, when The Heroine was published, women could
hold property legally only if they were over 21 and unmarried.
It was not until the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870
that a married woman could legally hold property in her
own name; before then the estate of a married woman passed
to her husband. Money could be held in trust for a married
woman but had to be managed by an independent party, which
meant that the woman had no direct access to it. There was
also the possibility of the separate maintenance agreement,
which allowed the husband and wife to live separately and
through which the husband agreed to his wife having direct
access to her money.
Such apparent advances were, however, counterbalanced by
severe legal restrictions in other ways: for example, a
daughter could not directly inherit her father’s property;
it could only be left in trust, giving her the right to
income deriving from it but no right to sell it. The many
changes affecting women’s property rights during the eighteenth
century suggest at best an equivocal attitude to the female
subject. Whereas the legal code during this time clearly
indicates that the institution of property is essential
to the identity of the legal subject, the lesser privileges
accorded to women and the emergence of what Sharpe has called
‘the bloody code’ (which saw the number of capital offences
rise from 50 to 200 during the period )
express an acute anxiety about the security of the (masculine)
legal subject in the face of the irrational as represented
by the feminine and by the mob.
Moreover, Cherubina—as leader of a ‘mob’ which includes
Irishmen and as a ‘heroine’ who has a devoted Irish follower
(Jerry Sullivan)—should be seen in the context of the period
1800–29 which saw a huge rise in the publication of novels
featuring Ireland and Irish characters. The most famous
of these, Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806),
deals with the condition of Ireland and centres round a
beautiful, intelligent Irish girl called Glorvina who is
devoted to her father and whose marriage to an English nobleman
metaphorically suggests a reconciliation between England
and Ireland. Barrett’s novel, which reasserts the supremacy
of ‘Englishness’, nevertheless still functions, like Owenson’s,
as a work in which Ireland becomes ‘a privileged site …
for the residual revolutionary romance of sensibility’.
As Jacqueline Belanger has noted, Barrett’s portrayal of
‘Irishness’ in The Heroine links the 1798 Rebellion
with the French Revolution as potential threats to English
The novel’s closure,
although apparently comically satisfying and reassuring
in its restoration of the status quo, consigns its heroine
to a cosy domestic oblivion. We see Cherubina transformed
back into Cherry Wilkinson, ‘the daughter of an honest squire’
(p. 289) rather than into the long-lost offspring of
an aristocratic family. We also see her about to marry—an
act which will result in her giving up the limited property
rights she would have enjoyed as an unmarried woman. In
‘educating’ her out of reading romances and Gothic fiction,
her future husband educates her out of visions of independence.
Indeed, in giving her a copy of Don Quixote to read,
Robert Stuart draws her attention to the deleterious effect
of romances such as ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian,
and the Bravo of Venice’ which ‘act upon the mind like intoxicating
stimulants’ (p. 293). This degenerate form of reading
he then links to a stage of moral decline, and from there
it is only a short step to the ‘refined vice’ of a ‘depraved’
France (p. 293) and, presumably, to the turbulence
of a ‘wild’ Ireland. We might remember here Burke’s description
which, drawing on Milton’s Paradise Lost, evokes
‘the revolutionary harpies of France’ as ‘sprung from night
and Hell, or from that chaotic anarchy which generates equivocally
“all monstrous and prodigious things .
Cherry is thus directed by her future husband to a ‘more
rational line of reading’ which includes ‘morality, history,
languages’ (p. 294) and is recuperated back into ‘Englishness’
and a proper femininity underwritten discursively by the
law of England in 1813. This construct of femininity is
a domestic, sentimentalized one which is easily identified
with the emotional and the private world. It is, as Susan
Okin has observed, ironic that at the very historical moment
when ‘the freedom, individuality, and rationality of men
was coming to be recognized as the foundation of their political
and legal equality’, women were being represented as ‘creatures
of sentiment and love rather than of the rationality that
was perceived as necessary for citizenship’.
Lennox’s The Female Quixote, The Heroine ‘is
full of parodic and self-referential explications of narration
itself, and the power that narration provides’.
Whilst it seems, on the one hand, a reactionary text which
safely recuperates its transgressive heroine back into middle-class
ideology and which defuses both foreign and domestic threats
to national identity, the verbal brio with which
Barrett describes Cherry’s adventures imprints quite firmly
in the reader’s mind an imagined alternative world where
women are rabble rousers and property owners and in which
Frenchmen and Irishmen represent excitement rather than
threat. The tensions within the novel thus perhaps reflect
the tensions evident within English law itself as capitalism
develops. For while, on the one hand, the law in the eighteenth
century was seeking to advance economic freedom through
the development of contractarian doctrine, on the other
it saw itself as the instrument whereby both aristocratic
privilege and the essence of the traditional matrimonial
bond could be preserved. It perhaps should not surprise
us that Eaton Stannard Barrett was a lawyer before he became
a playwright and a satirist. His novel, a best-seller in
its own time, deserves more critical attention than it has
attracted so far. Certainly, The Heroine amply demonstrates
Hutcheon’s claim that parody is not mere imitation ‘but
imitation characterized by ironic inversion’; it repeats,
but it offers ‘repetition with critical difference’ (p. 6).
Addressing itself to the shared knowledge and values of
what Wayne Booth has called ‘amicable communities’,
Barrett’s novel, like all good parodies, is hard to pin
down. Its ‘meaning’, which slithers between idylls of conservative
cosiness and fantasies of social transformation, is as slippery
as the silver eels in the dream narrated by Cherubina’s
Rose begins her extensive 1993 study with the following words,
‘When I first published on parody some twenty years ago now
it was still being treated by many critics as a rather lowly
comic form which had been of little real significance in the
history of literature or of other arts.’ (Margaret Rose, Parody:
Ancient, Modern and Post-Modern (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993), p. 1.)
Stannard Barrett, The Heroine, ed. Walter Raleigh
(London: Henry Frowde, 1909), p. ix. All subsequent
quotations from the novel, hereafter referenced in the
text, are from this edition of the novel.
book offers a useful exposition of contemporary,
late-modern and post-modern theories and uses of
parody (Parody, pp. 193–274).
Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century
Art Forms (London, Methuen, 1985), p. 6.
Parody, p. 239.
an example of the latter sort of reading, see Claudia
Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel
(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
Austen, Northanger Abbey, ed. Anne Henry Ehrenpreis
(1818; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 1.
J. Clery and Robert Miles (eds.), Gothic Documents:
A Sourcebook 1700–1820 (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 2000), p. 204.
in Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame: Being
a History of the Gothic Novel in England: Its Origins,
Efflorescence, Disintegration and Residuary Influences
(1957; Metuchen, NJ and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.,
1987), p. 181.
The Letters of Jane Austen,
ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 376–7.
Cited in Romantic Reassessment: Vol. 3 ‘Collateral
Gothic 1’, ed. by Thomas Meade Harwell (Salzburg:
Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 1986), p. 178.
[Edgar Allan Poe?], Review of The
Heroine from Southern Literary Messenger 1835
(pp. 41–3). Online: Internet (13 June 1999) <www.eapoe.org/works/criticsm/slm35b04>.
Varma, Gothic Flame, p. 181.
Lennox, The Female Quixote or The Adventures of Arabella,
ed. Margaret Dalziel and introd. by Margaret Anne Doody
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p. xi.
Isles, ‘Johnson and Charlotte Lennox’, The New Rambler
(June 1967), 41–2.
Raleigh, ‘Introduction’ to Barrett, Heroine, pp. iii–iv.
Kelly, ‘Unbecoming a Heroine: Novel Reading, Romanticism,
and Barrett’s The Heroine’, Nineteenth-Century Literature
45:2 (Sep 1990), 220–41 (pp. 226, 227, and 241).
for example, notes in Gothic Flame that during
this period, ‘The frequent parodies and satires are symptomatic
of the new sensibility which was manifesting itself in
English prose fiction as the Gothic manner became exhausted’.
Marilyn Butler, whilst seeing the Gothic novel as ‘a product
of the three decades of quickening pulse, the revolutionary
era from about 1760 to about 1797’, a product which came
to full fruition in England in the work of Ann Radcliffe,
also notes that after about 1797, all self-respecting
novelists steered clear of the Gothic for about two decades
unless it was to parody it (Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries:
English Literature and its Background 1760–1830 (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 156 and 157).
Varma, Gothic Flame, p. 180.
Lewis, ‘Gothic and Mock Gothic: The Repudiation of Fantasy
in Barrett’s Heroine’, English Language Notes
21:1 (Sep 1983), 45–52 (p. 45).
Kelly, ‘Unbecoming a Heroine’, 221.
Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 155.
‘Gothic and Mock Gothic’, 52.
Howard, Reading Gothic Fiction,
Kelly, ‘Unbecoming a Heroine’, 227.
Hutcheon, Theory of Parody,
Thomas A. Schmid, Humour and
Transgression in Peacock, Shelley, and Byron: A Cold Carnival
(Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter,
1991), p. 30.
Gary Dyer, British Satire and
the Politics of Style, 1789–1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997; Cambridge Studies in Romanticism
David A. Kent, ‘On Gary Dyer’s British
Satire and the Politics of Style, 1789–1832’, Romantic
Circles: Reviews <www.rc.umd.edu/reviews/dyer>.
Jean Paul Richter, Horn of Oberon:
Jean Paul Richter’s ‘School for Aesthetics’, introd.
and trans. by Margaret R. Hale (1804; Detroit: Wayne State
University, 1973), pp. 88–9.
Schmid, Humour and Transgression,
Hale, Horn of Oberon, p. 99.
Hutcheon, Theory of Parody, p. 26.
Glen Cavaliero, The Alchemy of
Laughter: Comedy in English Fiction (Basingstoke:
Macmillan, 1999), p. 60.
A list of other texts drawn upon
by Barrett in The Heroine is included in the 1927
edition of the novel, introduced by Michael Sadleir, and
published in London by Elkin, Mathews, and Marrot, Ltd.
Kelly, ‘Unbecoming a Heroine’, 233.
Austen, Northanger Abbey,
Lennox, The Female Quixote,
Jonathan Lamb, ‘The Comic Sublime
and Sterne’s Fiction’ in The English Novel: Smollett
to Austen, ed. Richard Kroll (London and New York:
Longman, 1998), p. 148.
See Kate Ferguson Ellis, The
Contested Castle; Gothic Novels and the Subversion of
Domestic Ideology (Urbana: University of Illinois
See Nancy Armstrong, Desire and
Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), esp. Ch. 2.
Hutcheon, Theory of Parody,
Daniel Cottom, The Civilized
Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and
Sir Walter Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge University
See Susan Staves, Married Women’s
Separate Property in England, 1660–1833 (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 163–4 and
J. A. Sharpe,
Crime in Early Modern England 1550–1750 (London:
Longman, 1984), p. 145.
like to record here our gratitude to Sue Chaplin for her
helpful comments on this part of the essay.
Watson, Revolution and the Form of the British Novel,
1790–1825: Intercepted Letters, Interrupted Seductions
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 112.
Belanger, ‘Some Preliminary Remarks on the Production
and Reception of Fiction Relating to Ireland, 1800-1829’,
Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text 4 (May
2000) <www.cf.ac.uk/encap/corvey/articles/ cc04_n02.html>.
Letter to a Noble Lord in The Works of Edmund
Burke (Michigan: Scholars Press, 1965), V, 187.
Okin, ‘Women and the Making of the Sentimental Family’,
Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (1982), 72.
Quixote, p. xxvii.
is taken from his A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago
and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974) and is
cited by Hutcheon, Theory of Parody, p. 94.
This article is copyright ©
2000 Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, and is
the result of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars
credited with authorship. The material contained
in this document may be freely distributed, as long as the
origin of information used has been properly credited in the
appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc.).
TO THIS ARTICLE
A. HORNER and S. ZLOSNIK. ‘Dead Funny: Eaton
Stannard Barrett’s The Heroine as Comic Gothic’,
Cardiff Corvey: Reading the Romantic Text 5 (Nov 2000).
Online: Internet (date accessed): <http://www.cf.ac.uk/encap/corvey/articles/cc05_n02.html>.
Avril Horner is Professor of English and Director
of the European Research Institute at the University of Salford.
Sue Zlosnik is Deputy Dean of Arts and Sciences and Director
of Graduate Studies at Liverpool Hope University College.
have written two books together (Landscapes of Desire:
Metaphors in Modern Women's Fiction [Harvester/Wheatsheaf,
1990] and Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the
Gothic Imagination [Macmillan, 1998]) and are working
on a third, Gothic and the Comic Turn, to be published
31 December, 2001
This document is maintained by Anthony Mandal (Mandal@cf.ac.uk).