Mary Brunton’s 1814 novel Discipline turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. I’ve really enjoyed other early nineteenth-century novels such as Susan Ferrier’s Marriage, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray, and I was hoping Discipline would be equally good. The novel has some good things to recommend it, but I found it too long, too predictable, and too moralistic. Although, to be fair, a lot of novels from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century feel too long to me (nothing against long novels at all, but some seem too long for the story they have to tell), many are predictable (if you know the conventions, you will not be surprised by any of Austen’s plots), and lots of them are moralistic. And what else should I expect, picking up a novel called Discipline?
The novel tells the story of Ellen Percy, a young girl who has been both dismissed and spoiled by parents who are generally well-meaning but make some serious mistakes. Upon observing her intelligence, all her father can say is:
“It is a confounded pity she is a girl, If she had been of the right sort, she might have got into Parliament, and made a figure with the best of them. But now what use is her sense of?”
Her mother responds:
“I hope it will contribute to her happiness,” said my mother, sighing as if she had thought the fulfilment of her hope a little doubtful. “Poh!” quoth my father, “no fear of her happiness. Won’t she have two hundred thousand pounds, and never know the trouble of earning it, nor need to do one thing from morning to night but amuse herself?” My mother made no answer: — so by this and similar conversations, a most just and desirable connection was formed in my mind between the ideas of amusement and happiness, of labour and misery.
Ellen’s father never finds much time for her, and her mother is too passive to try to rein her in. Her mother soon dies, leaving Ellen with a close friend who has the patience of a saint, but who also fails to instill Ellen with sound principles. Ellen grows up, goes to school, and learns to love luxury, idleness, snobbery, and gossip. In spite of this behavior, she is lucky enough to draw the attention of Mr. Maitland, a number of years older than she and a model of Christian gentlemanly behavior. He falls in love with her, but she is too busy enjoying her first taste of social success to pay him much attention.
This dynamic continues on for a while, Ellen growing more and more insufferable and Mr. Maitland looking more and more sorrowful. Ellen finds herself drawn into a flirtation with a man of uncertain principles who tries to lure her to Scotland where marriages are quick and easy. Before this can happen, though, disaster strikes — her father, it turns out, has just lost all his money and shot himself in despair. Now Ellen finds herself in an entirely new situation — she has no family, no money, and little idea what to do. Absolutely nothing in her life so far has prepared her in any way for this.
So Ellen is finally required to learn something about the world outside her former privileged social circle, and finally she is forced to learn some discipline. There are some interesting elements to this plot, in particular, the portrayal of how difficult it is for a woman to survive on her own and how little society prepares women of the monied classes to do anything useful with themselves. Ellen goes through some harrowing experiences that show exactly how vulnerable, powerless, and abandoned women without family and without money are. This is an idea that comes up again and again in novels of the time.
Also interesting is the portrayal of Scotland. Brunton is Scottish, and her heroine ends up there towards the end of the novel. There is a marked difference between the way the English and Scottish scenes are portrayed: London remains a rather vaguely defined and described place, but the Scotland scenes are described in lavish detail, the Scottish characters are given lots of space in which to tell stories about their family heritage and their culture, and the Scottish sections even have footnotes documenting the historical background of the novel. It’s no surprise that it is here where poor Ellen finally finds some peace and reaps the reward of her hard-earned discpline.
But I was disappointed by the way the characters’ motivations were often vaguely-defined and difficult to believe; in particular, it makes no sense to me why Mr. Maitland fell in love with Ellen in the first place, and Ellen’s behavior in the early parts of the novel is so foolish and so stupid, it’s hard to sympathize with her when things begin to go badly. And although I know that people of the time didn’t necessarily feel this way, as a 21st-century reader, all the moralizing gets old pretty quickly (and surely some 19th-century readers felt that way too).
But I’m glad I read the book anyway because I’m fascinated by the time period and I like to read as much as I can from and about it. Brunton was popular, at least for a short while (you can read Jane Austen’s brief comments on her here), and the Victorians liked her strongly moral writing, so the book gives a good idea of what people of the time were drawn to.