by Lady Mary Hamilton, 1739-1816
London: Printed for Robson and Co. New Bond Street; Walter, Charing Cross; and Robinson, Paternoster Row, 1778.
The plot of Munster Village has many twists and turns, as Lady Mary Hamilton recounts the fortunes and romantic misfortunes of the Munster family. I recommend keeping a scorecard at hand to track the entanglements of the various Lord Munsters!
At first it seems like a digression that Lady Hamilton devotes considerable detail to describing the establishment of a utopian community by Lady Frances Munster. Munster Village includes homes for tradesmen and artificers, a public hospital, and a public university with libraries, museums, and classes in both arts and sciences for men and women of talent.
However, a central theme of the book is the interaction between education and inclination. Lady Hamilton sees education as being at least as important as inclination when forming a strong and lasting romantic attachment. The educational theories and practices that shape her characters are described in detail, to show how their characters, morals, and behavior have been formed. Their choices are a result of early training as much as they are of immediate emotion.
"In an age where men of letters seem so regardless of morals – in an age where they have endeavoured to persuade mankind, with but too much success, that the virtues of the mind and of the heart are incompatible – let them cast their eyes on the character of Mr. Burt – When they find so many virtues united in a man, whose understanding was both sublime and just – when they find a man of his penetration to have been a strictly moral man – they will then, perhaps, be convinced that vice is the natural effect of an imperfect understanding."
Lady Hamilton hopes, in depicting Lady Frances' utopian Munster Village, to map out a possible future in which women (and men) engage in broad and liberal philanthropic work for the benefit of all.
"She considered society is manifestly maintained by a circulation of kindness: we are all of us, in some way or other, wanting assistance, and in like manner qualified to give it."
That Lady Frances becomes a great benefactress is not accidental. She has great resources, but more importantly she has been well educated, and her experience has given her sympathy for those who have endured hardships. She is intended to be a model for real people to emulate. It is also important to Lady Hamilton that a woman is being shown to have agency. For the utopia that Lady Mary Hamilton describes is based on merit, and she is explicit that merit can be found in both men and women.
Lady Frances' university admits 200 young men and 20 women at any given time. Students are chosen on the basis of talent, regardless of class or gender, and given full financial support. The goal of educating both men and women is to help them "to discover wherein their genius consists" and educate them in those pursuits, so that they may be self-supporting.
"These young ladies are not instructed to declaim with grace, or sing with taste; but if they are less amusing, they are infinitely more useful and interesting companions to those they afterwards associate with, whether in the character of wives or friends."
An emphasis on usefulness, and the ability of women to support themselves, recurs throughout Lady Hamilton's account of the various Munsters. Several of her female characters find themselves in difficult straits, lacking the support of family or friends. One character, Lady Eliza, informs her lover that she will not give up her country and her friends to marry him, for "from all her observations in life, no love ever lasted long enough to make it worth while to sacrifice every thing else to it".
One of Lady Hamilton's most positively drawn male characters is attracted to one woman, after having promised himself to another. Inclinations of both males and females are likely to lead them astray, unless their characters have been well formed through education. One of her female characters chooses not to marry until she has discharged other responsibilities, fearing that marriage would cause her to neglect them.
Lady Hamilton's utopian vision is a very egalitarian one, based on merit, and explicitly disavowing assumptions of value based on race, class, and gender. It is not a future in which the wealthy give up their advantages, but rather one in which they put them to good use. It is notable that the various threads of the romantic plot are untangled at a celebratory ball held in honour of Lady Frances, the benefactress of Munster Village. Guests arrive in the guise of famous historical and mythological figures, and acclaim Lady Frances for her virtues and noble deeds. Those who have failed to show respect for women are not admitted!
The themes of Lady Mary Hamilton's novel are also the themes of her life: education, enlightenment, and romance. Lady Mary Leslie was the youngest daughter of Alexander Leslie, fifth earl of Leven and Melville, by his second wife Elizabeth, daughter of David Monypenny. Lady Mary married Dr. James Walker of Innerdovat on 5 Jan. 1762, and had several children. Their education was a major concern of Lady Mary's. Lady Mary left Walker in the early 1790s and moved to Lille, France, with British merchant George Robinson Hamilton. Styling herself "Lady Mary Hamilton", she was accompanied by two of her daughters, Isabella and Elizabeth (Betzy) Walker. The girls married French officers, Étienne de Jouy, and Paul Dieudonné. After Hamilton's death in 1797, Lady Mary may have been involved romantically with Sir Herbert Croft.