Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott

I must confess that I’ve been a little lax lately in reading my Viragos – and it’s not as if I haven’t got a huge lovely TBR shelf of them! However, sometimes I need a little motivation to get me to focus on something specific, and the LibraryThing Virago group have been doing group reads of the VMC titles in chronological date order – that is, of original publication, so starting with some very early fiction by women.

The second book they tackled was this, and I managed to eventually track down a copy (an American Virago/Penguin release) so I could catch up with the group. Published in 1762, and known as a work of didactic fiction, it wasn’t necessarily the obvious type of work I would pick up – but I’m very glad I did!

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Sarah Scott was a fascinating woman; she lived from 1720-1795 and was a novelist, translator, and social reformer, spending much of her life dedicated to writing, domestic female friendship and Christian philanthropy (it’s worth checking out her Wikipedia entry for more information). Scott had an unhappy marriage and when it failed spent much of the rest of her life with her close friend Lady Barbara Montagu; together the ladies did much in the way of helping other women, establishing cottage industries and helping to educate the poor. It was these ideas of good works that form the basis of her novel “Millenium Hall”.

The novel initially appears to take an epistolary form, but this is just a framing device to allow the narrator, a gentleman of property who has just returned from the tropics, to relate the tale of the ladies of Millenium Hall. This gentleman is travelling with a young coxcomb of a friend, Lamont, and they are forced to take refuge at the Hall when their carriage breaks down. It turns out that the narrator is related to one of the founders of the Hall, Mrs. Maynard. The narrator is delighted to rediscover his cousin; the visit is extended in the tranquil setting of the Hall; and Mrs. Maynard is prevailed upon to tell the history of the ladies involved.

There are Miss Mancel and Mrs. Morgan, friends since childhood but separated by circumstances and an unfortunate marriage (and apparently a portrait of Scott and Lady Barbara); Lady Mary Jones, uneducated in the correct way to behave in society and almost prey to a number of men; Miss Selvyn, who lost a lover and found a mother; and Miss Trentham, who loses the love of her life to a coquette

Although much of the narrative is couched in didactic language (and one of my fellow LT group members tells me this is how women were expected to write at the time), nevertheless it’s a fascinating read. Each woman has in effect been a victim of a man’s bad behaviour and has come through these vicissitudes by a mixture of luck or judgement or both; they’ve ended up with money which has enabled them to do what they want, and what that is, is to help other women.

There *is* a slight element of repetition in the women’s stories, with the convenient passing away of husbands or ageing relatives, providing a convenient fortune; but this was a necessary plot element to show what women had to contend with on a daily basis and how vulnerable they were to parental pressures and male wiles (and also the tricks of less morally sound females).

And it interested me very much that the women felt the need to withdraw from the world to live a rational and intellectually, artistically stimulating life; because that is what is portrayed here at the Hall. The women read, write, paint, sew and undertake all sort of creative activities which give them a fulfilment they’ve not had before. It seemed to me that it was much of the current modern life which was being criticised here, with its coquetry, cards and shallow behaviour (which I kind of imagine as a Vanity Fair world, even though I haven’t read that book)

I was also struck by the fact that women have often withdrawn from the world – in convents, in utopian settings and more recently in communes (though the latter tend to be mixed) as if the world as created by men will never treat them fairly.

There’s also much emphasis on education which I tend to concur with – not just in a knowledge sense but in a moral kind of sense, and I do feel nowadays that with the rotten examples set by the media, young people (and particularly women) get no real guidance about what is a good way to behave. We’re all independent women who can theoretically make our own lives the way we want them – but we’re still judged by the behaviour of all women and until that changes those of us who behave in a Miley Cyrus kind of way affect how we’re all viewed!

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One element which I have to pick up on is, of course, class; society was rigidly ordered at the time Scott was writing, and it was women of the middle and upper classes who could take control of their lives in such a situation as this, and make a new existence in Millenium Hall. Those women from lower classes were helped and instructed, but had little autonomy and were expected to behave in the way the moral, upper-class women expected – and to be grateful for the help they were receiving!

However, sifting through the moral platitudes I was left with a vision of how Scott thought women might live: in a harmonious community, creatively productive, artistically stimulated and helping others. It’s a Utopian vision, but a strong one – very much ahead of its time and besides the fascination of the women’s stories, the book is worth reading to open a door into the past to see how their existence used to be; some things have changed, but unfortunately some problems are still recognisable today…

(For further discussion, it’s worth having a look at the LT thread here)

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