As you’re wrapping up the second volume of Arthur Mervyn this week, I want you to mull over a couple paragraphs from Norman Grabo’s early and influential book The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown (1981). In his chapter on Mervyn he notes that
the whole second part … turns on [Mervyn’s] relationship with women — Mrs. Wentworth, Mrs. Althorpe, Mrs. Villars, Mrs. Fielding, Clemenza Lodi, Miss Carlton, Eliza and Susan, Fanny and Mrs. Maurice, and Mrs. Watson. Stevens the authority figure has effectively disappeared from the foreground in this part, and the extent of his absence is thrown into significant relief when we remember who most strikingly occupied our attention in the first part — Stevens, Wortley, Wallace, Watson, Welbeck, Medlicote, Thetford, and Estwick. We realize that Brown, intentionally or not, has given us Arthur in two kinds of education: the first into the possibilities of fatherhood, the second into the possibilities of mothers and wives. Part one is a book of masculine cunning, deceit, and sickness; part two the exposure to forces of healing and wholeness. Sons and lovers? Exactly. (116-17)
What do you make of Grabo’s summary? He follows up later in the chapter by citing a few paragraphs from Brown’s essay “Walstein’s School of History,” which includes what seems to be an early outline of Arthur Mervyn‘s plot, with a few significant variations. (It’s included in full in the volume we’re reading.) These are the key paragraphs for Grabo, taken from what he and many other critics take to be one of Brown’s key statements of his theory of fiction:
The relations in which men, unendowed with political authority, stand to each other are numerous. An extensive source of these relations, is property. No topic can engage the attention of man more momentous than this. Opinions, relative to property, are the immediate source of nearly all the happiness and misery that exists among mankind. If men were guided by justice in the acquisition and disbursement, the brood of private and public evils would be extinguished.
Next to property the most extensive source of our relations is sex. On the circumstances which produce, and the principles which regulate the union between the sexes, happiness greatly depends. The conduct to be pursued by a virtuous man in those situations which arise from sex, it was thought useful to display. (337)
Can we talk these issues through this week? Is this an anticipation of Jane Austen’s famous opening to Pride and Prejudice?
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
[Illustration: Charles Brockden Brown, attributed to Ellen Sharples, after James Sharples Senior, circa 1810. I always imagine Arthur Mervyn as looking a little like this.]