Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story (1791), p. 15 (Vol. I, Ch IV)


Miss Milner's first appearance at the home of her new guardian:

Beautiful as she appeared to Miss Woodley and to Dorriforth the preceding day, when she joined them the next morning at breakfast, repossessed of her lively elegance and dignified simplicity, they gazed at her, and at each other alternately, with wonder!--and Mrs. Horton, as she sat at the head of her tea-table, felt herself but as a menial servant, such command has beauty if united with sense and with virtue.--In Miss Milner it was so united.--Yet let not our over-scrupulous readers be misled, and extend their idea of her virtue so as to magnify it beyond that which frail mortals commonly possess; nor must they cavil, if on a nearer view, they find it less--but let them consider, that if Miss Milner had more faults than generally belong to others, she had likewise more temptations.

From her infancy she had been indulged in all her wishes to the extreme of folly, and habitually started at the unpleasant voice of control--she was beautiful, she had been too frequently told the high value of that beauty, and thought those moments passed in wasteful idleness during which she was not gaining some new conquest--she had besides a quick sensibility, which too frequently discovered itself in the immediate resentment of injury or neglect--she had acquired also the dangerous character of a wit; but to which she had no real pretensions, although the most discerning critic, hearing her converse, might fall into this mistake.--Her replies had all the effect of repartee, not because she possessed those qualities which can properly be called wit, but that what she said was spoken with an energy, an instantaneous and powerful perception of what she said, joined with a real or well-counterfeited simplicity, a quick turn of the eye, and an arch smile of the countenance.--Her words were but the words of others, and, like those of others, put into common sentences; but the delivery made them pass for wit, as grace in an ill proportioned figure, will often make it pass for symmetry.

Most fascinating about this passage is the contingency of Miss Milner's character: the "virtue" which in Clarissa Harlowe is a static, defining quality becomes in Miss Milner radically subject to change, even within the confines of the paragraph in which it is introduced. Her virtue unlike Clarissa's is not beyond the capacity of other frail mortals, and her seeming wit (unlike Lovelace's) is presented as a misconception. Often in sensibilious novels what is "read" in the face and figure is truth beyond dispute; but Miss Milner's sensibility is presented as quite liable to misreading.

Related terms:

dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography