Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

The governance of female desire has always been central to the establishment of patriarchal orders. In 18th-century England, where the printing business was budding and institutionalized education was not yet widespread, cultural values circulated through other avenues including print material within the domestic realm. Two examples of literary genres that reached women of the time are conduct books, a literary form that educates readers on gendered social norms to prepare them for entrance into society or marriage, and novels. Conduct books are often written by a paternal figure, usually a man of status and thus the agent of predominant values, and addressed to young women in need of guidance and discipline. 

Writer Elizabeth Inchbald combines these two feminine literary genres, dramatizing two father-daughter relationships in her bipartite novel A Simple Story (1791), which begins as a novel of manners that shares conduct books’ focus on behavioral constraints, but later evolves into a gothic tale. The first of these relationships is the heroine Miss Milner’s filial-turned-romantic bond with her guardian, the Catholic priest Dorriforth; and the second is their daughter Matilda’s subsequent relationship to her father, now Lord Elmwood. This essay focuses on the incestuous undertones of both relationships which result from the patriarchal attempt to control female desire through familial structures while considering  how subject positions are shaped by experiences of dissent and subordination. The heroines Miss Milner’s and Lady Matilda’s love for Dorriforth-Elmwood are at once in congruence and at war with societal expectations due to their incestuous nature. Despite being ostensibly in control, Dorriforth is subject to more consequential laws against incest, and risks losing not only his paternal position but also his societal one upon transgressing. Therefore, Dorriforth possesses a horror for the female protagonists and strives to keep them at a distance. I argue that this inaccessibility, overcome by Miss Milner and celebrated by Matilda, enables each woman to establish subjectivities less vulnerable than that of Dorriforth who, rendered as an object of female desire, is shaped in accordance with their passion and exoticised as a result of their transgression. 

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observes incest prohibition to be “the prohibition”, and concludes that, because “culture has opposed [incestuous urges] at all times and in all places”, the Oedipal impulse is “a desire for disorder” (Lévi-Strauss 491-93). According to Lévi-Strauss, the primary purpose of incest prohibition is to ensure alliance and continuation through inter-tribal marriage by avoiding endogamy, which reduces the number of kin that can be used for marital exchange. Speaking in terms of symbolic positions, the patriarch’s power is manifested in his ability to assign kinship by distributing his daughters, choosing the in-laws, and banishing those who dare to transgress, in which case incest refers to all relationships that are against the Father’s will (479-85). Although the universality of such model is dubious, the way patriarchal approval and refusal centre incest prohibition in A Simple Story strongly resembles the patterns of a Lévi-Straussian kinship system. Some express the concern that reading the novel through the lens of incest prohibition risks stigmatising female desire (Ward 7). I would argue that, on the contrary, female desire is given more subversive potential when positioned at the centre of incest, a most dire transgression against patriarchal kinship laws. If sexuality’s unparalleled disruptiveness exposes society’s deployment of sexual knowledge as a means of cultural control (Foucault 106-09; Haggerty 13), female desire’s association with incest reveals the long-standing restraints imposed upon passions of the subordinated instilled in familial structures, which subsequently encourages subversion through not only the liberation of personal desires, but direct confrontation with traditional kinship and its homologs. 

According to her late father’s wish, the heroine Miss Milner enters the house of Roman Catholic priest Dorriforth, but tension arises between the ward’s rebellious character and the guardian’s austere rules. A series of events reveals the pair’s mutual passion, and Dorriforth is released from his priesthood to marry Miss Milner as Lord Elmwood. The marriage ends in misfortune due to Elmwood’s distancing from Miss Milner, which leads to her infidelity. The second section centers their daughter Matilda, who was renounced after her mother’s death and wanders the Elmwood estate longing for paternal love. When Matilda runs into her father by accident, she is exiled and gets abducted by Lord Margrave, before Elmwood changes his mind, rescues and reaccepts her. 

Dorriforth’s paternal role for Miss Milner is evident in his insistence on disciplining her unruly character, as well as his capability and reluctance to offer her recognition. Lévi-Strauss argues that culture is designed to prevent incest (492), but it is precisely Dorriforth’s desire to fulfill the paternal obligation to introduce societal restraints to children that makes him the source of both Oedipal resentment and inaccessible approval. Chapter VII of Volume I provides an instance that illustrates the power struggle between Miss Milner and Dorriforth. Disturbed by Miss Milner’s hedonistic lifestyle, Dorriforth asks Miss Milner if she would pass the night at home. Not wishing to be the subject of her guardian’s moral condescension, Miss Milner promises to stay when she in fact plans to go out as previously arranged. This trivial deceit can be read as Miss Milner’s attempt to transgress without consequence, as she “[flatters] herself what she had said to Mr. Dorriforth might be excused as a slight mistake” (80). Miss Milner is reluctant to obey because it risks dissipating her subjectivity that is built around defying Dorriforth’s values and authority—yet in this ostensible rebellion is a desire for recognition, or the fear of being distanced from it. Miss Milner wishes Dorriforth to be this all-knowing and generous patriarch who would allow disobedience without taking away recognition, and is disappointed when the latter appears astonished by her deceit “when he should know the truth” (80). As a result, she “[trembles]—either with shame or with resentment” when confronted: ashamed that she had defied the “reason” Dorriforth represents and rebelled against paternal authority, resentful that her attempt to be her own person is held back by Dorriforth’s success in being a watchful guardian but failure to fulfill the role of an omniscient, generous Father. Because Dorriforth’s identity rests largely upon his assigned guardianship, which Miss Milner’s disobedience threatens to unravel, he attempts to reinforce authority by commanding Miss Milner to stay. Curiously, the prohibition is delivered with “a degree of force and warmth [Miss Milner has] never heard him speak before” (81). Spoken with pure force, Miss Milner would be able to justify her disobedience of tyranny; with pure warmth, she would not be concerned about losing Dorriforth’s favour. By delivering this command, Dorriforth has fulfilled the disciplinary obligation paternity expects of him, and is temporarily secure as Miss Milner’s possible resistance could now be attributed to flaws in her character instead of his incompetence. Miss Milner is aware of this predicament that, if she were to disobey, she would be rendered a petulant child unworthy of recognition, much less desire. Thus, she opts for compliance and turns the tables: Dorriforth is inclined to compliment her to make up for his unjust severity, but he fears it would undermine his authority once again. Fortunately, the situation is resolved by Miss Milner’s teared expression of gratitude, a submissive gesture that reveres Dorriforth as the source of paternal recognition and promises future obedience. Dorriforth is “charmed to find [Miss Milner’s] disposition so little untractable”, which “[forebodes] the future prosperity of his guardianship” (84), ignorant that his triumph depends not upon her belief in conventional virtue but desire for recognition. 

Yet, however closely Dorriforth resembles a father to Miss Milner, there are no explicit codes to inhibit love between a guardian and their ward. It is then necessary that Inchbald designs Dorriforth as a Catholic priest, providing a religious connection that is ostensibly effective in exercising incest prohibition. Ironically, the sacrilegious element only makes Miss Milner’s love all the more incestuous, as it reinforces Dorriforth’s paternal position by presenting the familial and the religious structures as homologous. 

Due to religious restraint, the extent of shame Miss Milner bears when confessing her love for Dorriforth is far beyond what is expected of one who is in love with their guardian. Miss Woodley, upon hearing such abhorrence, uses religious language to reprimand her: “And even in death, do not be so presumptuous as to hope to shake them off—if unrepented in this world. (119)” Luckily, Inchbald excuses her protagonist from rebuke by attributing misconduct to the absence of Roman Catholic upbringing: “[Had Miss Milner] been early taught what were the sacred functions of a Roman ecclesiastic,” she should have been “precluded from [her passion for Dorriforth] as by that barrier which divides a sister from a brother” (74). Yet, when Inchbald reveres the Catholic Dorriforth as morally superior and supposedly unsusceptible to transgressive passions, she is also warning against the danger of being in touch with that passion: Dorriforth’s union with Miss Milner would render Catholic prohibitions violable and Dorriforth himself no longer an agent of patriarchal orders. Religious chastity is hence paralleled with the kinship principle against incest, as both establish control by imposing restraints on sexual affiliation. It is no wonder that a priest is addressed as “father,” and the Christian god, symbol of the highest order, goes by “Lord our Father” as the inaccessible figure of authority. While transgressing boundaries of the secular and the sacred, the subject and the ruler, is so repellent a conduct that Dorriforth has to be relieved of his divine duty before responding to Miss Milner’s affection, transgressing incest prohibition is impossible to mitigate. To delay the fall of Dorriforth, Inchbald introduces an obstacle to Miss Milner and Dorriforth’s union, which is Mr. Sandford, Dorriforth’s Jesuit mentor, an agent of higher laws to prevent Dorriforth from fallibilities, namely, from conforming to the vices of Miss Milner. Sandford draws on religious text to describe Miss Milner as Eve and Lucifer, whose beauty and malice lead man astray, and tries to prevent Dorriforth from enclosing his distance with her (154). In this way, we are constantly reminded that, while Dorriforth powers over Miss Milner as her substitute father, he is subject to laws of the Church and society as personified by Sandford. In addition to strengthening Dorriforth’s connections with the Church and kinship principles, Sandford is anxious to assign Miss Milner to marriage, a gesture that would reinforce Dorriforth’s paternal authority without feeding into the incestuous dynamic, since distributing kinship is a particular power of the patriarch and marriage would make the already “distributed” Miss Milner less desirable. However, occupying the position of a patriarch, Dorriforth is also in power to reject unfavorable suitors of his kin, and Lord Lawnly happens to be a suitor as such. As a result, Sandford’s measures fail to prevent Dorriforth and Miss Milner’s eventual engagement, and the story continues to explore Dorriforth’s struggles with transforming from Miss Milner’s guardian to her lover. 

The masquerade incident is a moment of disobedience that foils the ball incident, where Miss Milner overpowers Dorriforth by obeying his orders. When Miss Woodley reproaches Miss Milner for insisting on going to the masquerade against Dorriforth’s (now Lord Elmwood’s) will, Miss Milner says: “As my guardian, I certainly did obey him…but as a lover, I will not” (186). Here, she attempts to defy the incestuous element in her and Dorriforth’s relationship, establishing her independence through disobedience to present herself as no longer part of the child-father/ward-guardian structure but a subject worthy of desire, an act of transgression whose aim is to not only establish subjectivity but also offset a more severe transgression, namely incest. Yet Lord Elmwood reacts still as if he is her guardian, and sees her disobedience as a denial of his masculinity and person, which is true considering the threat of incest and power contained in a capable subject compared with that in a child. In her desperation, Miss Milner calls upon her late father to invalidate Lord Elmwood’s paternal position (195-196). Miss Milner later laments her loss of Dorriforth: “[by Dorriforth] alone, is he dear to me… under that title [Lord Elmwood] he has been barbarous; under [Dorriforth], he was all friendship and tenderness” (198). 

Dorriforth’s inability to transition from guardian into lover is related to his transformation into Lord Elmwood as a response to the danger of incest, which threatens his validity in the patriarchal order. Unfortunately, while the rise in social status does enhance masculinity, it does not alter the parent-child dynamic between Dorriforth-Elmwood and Miss Milner. Dorriforth states at the beginning of the novel that he “[wishes] to see Miss Milner married, to see his charge in the protection of another” (72), suggesting marriage is a transference of control from the father to the husband. In this sense, because both male custodians wish the girl/wife to remain an incapable child, marriage is as incestuous as guardianship. Therefore, to maintain his inaccessibility to Miss Milner that is necessary to the parent-child model he holds on to, Elmwood leaves for the Americas and refuses to connect with his wife in the hope that distance would prevent him from becoming an incestuous outcast. However, the need to maintain his paternal position drives Elmwood to continue conspiring with patriarchal order by abusing the powers culture and societal codes grant him. In his letter to Miss Milner, Elmwood disguises his very personal anger and jealousy with virtue and “Prudence”, and later dismisses Miss Milner by convicting her of “adultery” (204-05), a uniquely female and incestuous crime because Miss Milner’s affair with Lord Lawnly is an unapproved connection that challenges the patriarch’s authority to distribute kinship. In his full embodiment of the Father’s Law, Elmwood sentences the heroine and her daughter to their symbolic deaths, announcing simultaneously his own death, since full embodiment can only be achieved by empty clay shells, not living, flawed persons. As Dorriforth-Elmwood continues to live through the novel, he has to be demonized as an uncontrolled force of masculinity that is not approved of by societal orders, this time represented by those who sympathize with his exiled daughter. 

The latter half of the novel shifts from a novel of manners, which focuses on realistic depictions of class behavior, to what resembles gothic fiction. In addition to introducing elements of the sublime, the section utilizes tropes such as Lady Matilda being the victim of patriarchal oppression who lives in a constant horror of rejection, or Lord Margrave’s villainous attempt to impose himself upon her. Together, these devices tackle incestuous elements in Matilda’s longing for her father and their role in constructing her subjectivity, a theme particular to the gothic as a testing ground for deviant desires (Haggerty 2). 

The Elmwood estate possesses features of the sublime, bearing mystical powers and characters of its owner (Haggerty 14). When Matilda enters its gates, she feels “an awful, and yet a gladsome sensation no terms can describe”, and as she wanders the interior of the house, “the tenderest, yet most afflicting, sentiments rushed to her heart” (243). By using the word “awful,” which connotes both overwhelming joy and terror, Inchbald suggests the estate is a mediator between Matilda and the truly terrifying sublime she desires, Elmwood, who could only be longed at a distance so not to risk rage and rejection. Contrary to Miss Milner who strives to enclose her distance from Dorriforth, Matilda revels in the knowledge of Elmwood’s inaccessibility, since it guarantees her right to live on the estate, which is the remnant of her father’s love. She shrinks back with fear when confronted with Elmwood’s portrait, and takes some time before casting eyes on it, because being at so close a distance from her father—even though it is just his image—presents to her the possibility of being denied yet again (244). But the fear of losing her validity in the estate and the kinship system by Elmwood’s rejection is only part of what constitutes Matilda. She does not only live with her father’s prohibition and the misery it causes her, but celebrates the condition as crucial to who she is. She rejoices at being able to live under the same roof with her father, and devotes herself to not enraging him by accidental encounters. While Miss Milner engages in constant defiance to establish her subjectivity, Matilda’s identity is built surrounding Lord Elmwood’s rejection, which explains why Inchbald resorts to not revealing whether Rushbrook’s marriage proposal is accepted or not, since only when Matilda knows her own desires can the question be answered. 

The mixed feeling of desire and terror is mutual. Elmwood’s necessity to keep Matilda out of sight derives from the fear that she would dissolve his masculine presence with transgressive love like her mother did. Permitting Matilda to reside in the estate might be an act of mercy, but even if Elmwood did try, he could not possibly exile her from his world entirely. Matilda’s haunting presence is tied to Elmwood’s memory of his late wife as well as his entanglement with the patriarchal kinship system, since exercising power over Matilda, even when it is to renounce her, reinforces his paternal authority. His scheme falters when Matilda calls out to him in her swoon when she runs into him by accident. Inchbald describes the instance as “[Matilda’s] voice unmanned him” (Haggerty 359), the crumbling of his position in the patriarchal order as Matilda’s presence unleashes his incestuous desires. Afterall, it is Miss Milner’s name he utters at the sight of his daughter. Terrified, Elmwood exiles Matilda from the estate and morphs into a gothic tyrant who wanders outside societal laws. Only when Elmwood, in response to Sandford’s inquiry “Will you then prove yourself a father?” (330), rescues Matilda from the malicious Lord Margrave does he return to his approved social position. Elmwood performs the paternal obligation to protect the child from non-marital contact, and, by announcing “[the] law will be [Margrave’s] only antagonist”, aligns himself once again with societal orders (334). Admittedly, the alignment is an unstable one due to its susceptibility to incestuous desires, and is only narrowly secured by Rushbrook and Matilda’s potential union. 

In exploring Miss Milner’s and Lady Matilda’s relationships with Dorriforth-Elmwood, we observe the construction of abject subjectivity. Both female protagonists are rejected and distanced by Dorriforth-Elmwood and develop subjectivities from their respective conditions, whether it is direct, Oedipal rebellion or silent tolerance of mishaps. Meanwhile, Dorriforth-Elmwood, the seemingly tyrannous maker of laws, is subject to higher laws against incest. His masculinity and the subsequent rightful place in the society depend upon his distance from the female protagonists, whose desires to enclose that distance would invalidate him as no longer a subject recognised by society. Unlike the female subjectivities that thrive upon abjection, male subjectivity rests on its compliance with the patriarchal order. Therefore, wary of the dangers of transgression, “[it] is male behavior, not female, which appears… wayward, and contradictory in this novel” (Spencer 656). In a sense, we are presented with a A Simple Story of struggles for recognition, either from the guardian, the father, or the Father. As the drives and passions of individual characters manifest within oppressive structures, instances of inevitable friction become means by which we expose desire as central to societal governance as well as potential subversion. 

Works Cited

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1980. 
  • Haggerty, George E. “Female abjection in Inchbald’s A Simple Story”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 36, No. 3, 1996, pp. 655+.
  • Haggerty, George E. Queer Gothic. University of Illinois Press. 2006. 
  • Inchbald, Elizabeth. A Simple Story. First Published 1791. Edited by Anna Lott. Broadview Editions, 2007.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer. Edited by Rodney Needham. Boston: Bacon Press, 1969. 
  • Ward, Candace. “Inordinate Desire: Schooling the Senses in Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story”. Studies in the Novel, Vol. 31, No. 1, spring 1999, pp. 1-18. 

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