Elizabeth Hays Lanfear: Fatal Errors (1819)

Fatal Errors; or Poor Mary-Anne. A Tale of the Last Century. In a Series of Letters. London: A. J. Valpy, [1819]. Republished in 2019 by Routledge, edited by Timothy Whelan and Felicity James.


The story concerns the adventures of a Miss Mary-Anne Southerdon and is told, as was typical of the time, through letters. Her primary correspondent is a Miss Eliza F— [interesting to think in terms of Eliza Fenwick, but no way to know this.] Supposedly the story is true and based upon a set of letters the author actually saw, though that may well be pure convention. The story is about the consequences of making a bad decision, in this case, not one that leads to a young lady becoming a “fallen” woman, nor one that, if not that bad, still can ruin a young lady’s reputation. The heroine’s reputation is not harmed by her actions, just her mental and physical well-being and hopes for a happy life in marriage. It is a story about a young woman making the wrong choice of a marriage partner under the wrong circumstances for all the wrong reasons.

The heroine’s mother has just died leaving her an orphan at about the age of 18, having been raised in the West Country. Her father had died not long before her; he almost became a clergyman but he could not take orders upon matters of conscience, so essentially they are a Dissenting family. Since she has very limited means and is currently dependent upon other male members of her family for support, she must be careful and her future is precarious unless she can find a good marriage partner. She is going to live with her uncle, a Mr. Dennet who lives in Sussex, since he is her nearest of kin. His wife is dead and daughter, Sarah Woodfield, is married, so he welcomes her arrival to keep him company.

Soon company comes in the persons of a Mrs. and Mrs. Cooper, relations of Mr. Dennet. The Coopers invite our young heroine to join them for a time in London, in Berner Street, and she agrees. Within a short time, she writes to Eliza, she says,

I have both seen and heard more of this great world than ever I did before, or perhaps ever may again; and have gained from observation and experience, that species of knowledge which mere speculation can never afford. Whether I am the happier or the better for my newly acquired wisdom [9], is a question which at present I have not time to ask myself. (8-9)

She is a free spirit and shows her West Country spirit of independence by critiquing London life and its abundance of “vices and follies”:

Among the higher classes, with a very few exceptions, interest and pleasure appear to be the Baals to which all bow the knee; and even among the literary circles, into which Mr. Cooper has been so good as to take me, though generally amused, I have not unfrequently been disgusted; and am at last, though reluctantly, obliged to confess that I like books better than book-makers, philosophy than philosophers, and tell Mr. Cooper, who sometimes talks with me on the subject of religion, that divinity must not be confounded with divines. (9)

She concludes by professing that she finds “every one full of themselves, and ready to pronounce their own judgment a criterion from which they allow of no appeal” (10).

She meets Mr. Howard at a party at the Smiths, whom Mr. Cooper had often praised for his superior manners and intellectual capabilities, two qualities that our heroine admits her interest in had somewhat “abated” since her time in London, for she had expected often to meet “gods,” only to find them mere “men” (13). Howard arrives, he is about 35, and his presence is palpable to the rest there. She thinks him definitely superior to the others, and when he speaks to her she is overdone:, “yet the very first time that he addressed me, I found in the very tone of his voice, an attraction which rivetted my attention” (15). The topic of conversation turns to “the propriety of a sexual distinction in character and manners,” a topic she has a strong opinion about [cp. to both Mary and Elizabeth Hays and their reading of Helvetius], but she will not push her ideas too much against his because she is too enthralled by his presence to do so (15). But she does complain to him about the general treatment of women, which she describes as “melancholy,” which Howard takes issue with, thinking that both men and women face various degrees of oppression (16). Nevertheless, she reminds him “that men everywhere enjoyed a much greater degree of liberty than was allowed to women” (17). He asks her if she is referring to political or domestic tyranny by men, and she answers neither. She is referring to the freedom to choose one’s life partner, a topic he says even men are not as free as she thinks they are, for “very few men,” he adds, “are united to the woman of their choice” (17).

Mary-Anne then confides to Eliza that women will never be “free” so long as they are “their chains are so sweetly gilded” by the words and manners and looks of such men as Howard. In such situations, she exclaims, “it is nonsense to contend for equality” (18). Much like Clara Wieland in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, a man’s voice (Carwin and now Howard) is capable of mesmerizing the auditors around him, both male and female. Her adjectives describing his voice are “manly,” “harmonious,” “elegant,” “correct.” “In short,” she writes, “there was a sort of fascination in his eloquence which could be better felt than described” (19). She has been in a “delirium,” she writes, ever since meeting him (19).

Mrs. Cooper mentions that he has not married probably because “he has never yet met with a woman clever enough to suit him,” which her husband believes is not necessarily correct because of other considerations that go into marriage, such as wealth (20). Mr. Cooper introduced her to a Mr. Wansey at the party, and he thinks he would be a good match for her. Mr. Cooper thinks him a proper match for her, but she is not interested because she does not view him as ever being her “lover,” which Mr. Cooper thinks an inappropriate response, for since she is unmarried and without sufficient funds of her own, she must be aware of making a profitable match, not one solely based on love. She attends the theatre with the Coopers and Wansey and she sees Howard there and cannot recover her emotions she is so smitten with him.

At a dinner at the Coopers Howard is present again, and this time she engages him in a conversation about women once again, asking him whether he thought “women in general were too much the slaves of opinion?” and Mrs. Smith asks him about “the natural equality of the sexes,” adding if he thinks that, “as men have more physical strength than women, they have also more mental capacity” (28). He thinks they are not connected, and that if women had “the same opportunities of acquiring it,” she and her sex would be “equally with us capable of attaining every branch of knowledge” (29). Mrs. Smith pushes him further, contending that women’s education is too “narrow” and “confined” to every approach equality with men. “How many the prejudices by which we are shackled; and, out of our own families and immediate connexions, how few are the opportunities which we possess of gaining knowledge of any description” (29). Howard believes that domestic occupations are of great value, however, and should not be diminished and require much mental ability to do well (30). He admits that there are “few families” operated in such a manner by such women, and that many women who could do so do not have “a family to conduct,” to which our heroine emits a loud sigh, which embarrasses her but also reveals her heart to be taken by Howard.

After 3 months in London, her initial attitude of dislike of the “gaudy” society she first met with has been replaced by the virtues of Howard’s society, so that she has lost her original “sense of general corruption” and replaced it with “the more pleasing contemplation of private excellence” (32). She meets him once more before leaving, alone in the parlour, where a copy of Gilpin’s Western Tour was lying on the table [William Gilpin, known for his Observations On The Western Parts Of England, Relative Chiefly To Picturesque Beauty, Also The Isle Of Wight, but most likely she is reading Observations on the River Wye (1782)], which Howard commented upon in relation to the virtues of traveling. After some conversation on a painting of Milton’s Satan, she concludes:

The strong sense which I entertain of his superiority to myself in every point of view, over-powers and oppresses me: never, I fear, do I appear to so little advantage as in his presence. Before him, all self-conceit, all self-possession are annihilated; and after having been in his company, I feel restless, mortified, and unhappy. (35)

She refers to his voice as having “honied accents” (36). Not long after, Howard leaves London and our heroine receives an offer of marriage from Mr. Wansey, which she promptly refuses (40). The next day, she leaves for Sussex and her uncle’s estate, Mr. Dennet, seeking “retirement and repose,” she writes (42). Dennet had hoped she would have gotten married during her stay in London, but she wants Mr. Right, which he is not so keen about. He has gotten engaged to a nearby widow and will soon marry. Our heroine decides to go visit his daughter for a while. She visits the widow before leaving and pronounces her guilty of “ostentatious politeness, that overstrained civility, which is rather calculated to give disgust, than to gratify a delicate mind” (48). She prefers simplicity, honesty, and naturalness and “an amiable heart” which diffuses “a grace, a charm, over the various and nameless intercourses of social life!” (48). Their wedding and all its trappings she describes as “vulgar mirth, idle parade, and domestic confusion” (49). The couple soon begin to quarrel because the new Mrs. Dennet wishes to change everything in the house and views our young heroine with much suspicion, which contributes to her desire to visit her cousin. She writes to Miss F—, “I am now afloat on the great ocean of life; my happiness I fear has already suffered shipwreck” (51).

She likes the Woodfields, who seem a happy couple having good hearts and good sense (53). He operates a farm and she manages the house and children. “Thus each employed in their proper departments, and mutually necessary the one to the other, they appear to be united on terms of perfect equality; while they leave it to those, who in married life are less happy than themselves to settle the question of on which side the balance of power ought to preponderate” (54).

She and her cousin go to visit her relation, the Devenishes. Upon leaving, they tell her of a new situation in which a housekeeper superintendent was wanted for the country home of a single London man, who just happens to be Mr. Howard! She says she is interested and soon accepts the situation. She is in love with Howard and is aware he may well be engaged, but she goes anyways in much trepidation that she will be hurt in the end. She writes of the classic dilemma for the young single women at that time:

My thoughts are perplexed, bewildered, and doubtful of the path which I would, or ought to pursue. I suffer my imagination to lead me astray, while the dim lamp of reason [64] glimmers but to show me that I am wandering in devious ways, without affording sufficient light to guide me on the road which I almost fear to tread. (63-64)

She adds in the following letter that “It is from myself only that I have any cause of apprehension; the enemy whom I fear is within” (64). Her friend advised her not to go, but she has anyway. “The spell by which I am bound is too strong to be broken, even by the magic wand of friendship; and it is in vain you tell me, though I own it just, that I am seeking perils and courting misery” (65).

She spends her days, she writes, mostly “in wandering about the grounds and in the contemplation of nature taste those pure, those exquisite pleasures, which the tumultuous world can never bestow” (69). “I love the twilight hour,” she continues; “it is then that the mind, disposed to serious and tender contemplation, ascends to heaven, or, borne on the wings of fancy, takes flight to air-built castles of its own creation,

‘Till nothing is but what is not.’” (69)

Howard soon visits rather unexpectedly and she relates to him how she has ended up as his superintendent! He will send her books from London to give her something to pass her time. He does, and she writes that books “are the sources of my felicity, and in reading authors of his selection, I find an interest, a pleasure, which books, much [80] as I love them, never before afforded me” (79-80). She tries to convince herself that he is not getting married. She then meets a woman with a young child selling her baskets whose husband was murdered on a ship some 3 months before and she gives the woman money for her basket and gives her more beyond that, an active illustration of benevolence and its effect upon the heart and feelings (85-6).

Mary-Anne repeats an act of kindness and charity in the next chapter. She tells Howard about what she saw and did and he wishes to help them as well and wants to know about these matters. They then have a discussion about benevolence and the state of the poor [cp. Dyer’s book on this topic in 1792]. She observes that many of the rich are charitable, but that charity alone “was inadequate to relieve the increasing demands of the lower classes of people” (89). He agreed, noting that the remedy would require “a more radical cure, than incidental charity could perform” (89). She thinks such benevolence is more easily done in a country village than the city, and Howard assented as well (90).

Howard has a serious fall from his horse and our young heroine must now stand in as his nurse, which she relishes, staying with him through the night. She thinks he thinks of her now as a sister, and she is quite happy with that. They soon go for a walk and a hike up a hill, which excites her all the more concerning him. She feels she is inadequate to appreciate the beauty of nature the ways he does, and she admits that to him, which he dismisses (100). He thinks “sensibility of mind,” which she possesses, of more value that “the mere scientific cultivation of the taste” (100). She thinks when both are combined, it is best, but he counters that “there are no graces so touching, so interesting, as those which flow from genuine sensibility, when united with good sense and artless simplicity” (101).

That evening they talk about music (she sings and plays the piano, of course). She sings one song and he asks for another, which just happens to have the title, “O say, thou dear possessor of my breast,” which embarrasses her, for she admits, “the words [105] were too appropriate, my hands trembled, my voice faltered” (104-05). A friend arrives and Howard leaves, possibly to marry Miss C., or at least it appears that way, though she overhears him say he wishes to be set free of the engagement (107).

After several weeks alone, she is called to Sussex where her uncle Dennet is dangerously ill and dies about the time she arrives (of course). Sitting at his death bed provokes our heroine to discourse on religion, which befits an Elizabeth Hays quite well in 1795:

Seated [113] by a death-bed, how little appear all earthly passions, all sublunary pursuits; and witnessing the moment of final dissolution, were it not for the bright hope to which religion points beyond the grave, how melancholy would appear the lot of man, passing but a few years on this great globe, struggling with passion, disappointment, sickness and sorrow, then closing the scene with suffering and death! What is death? – Is it, can it be the total extinction of existence? Oh no, Revelation tells us that the various particles of matter, whose combinations make us what we are, will be again revivified with the breath of life, and after resting for a long, long night in the grave, once more reproduce the same conscious, active, thinking being; while our own powers, our faculties, our restless thirsting after immortality and unknown good, convince us, that there is [114] some future world, some purer state, where those powers, those faculties, will properly unfold, and find their true end and full attainment” (112-14).

Convinced now that Howard has married and learning that her deceased uncle had no will and his second wife has creditors, our heroine is now thrown on the world with little recourse than to work for a living somewhere. “I have no choice, no hopes, and scarce a wish to gild the gloom” (115).

She accepts a position as companion to an elderly, wealthy woman, a typical situation for many single women at this time (Mary Hays will do it, and so will Eliza Gould). She later says that at Mrs. Blount’s she has “no pursuits,” and all is “stagnant” around her (119). Her nephew, Mr. Vernon, arrives and spends some time with Mrs. Blount, but our heroine is not impressed with Vernon. But on his second visit asks for her hand in marriage, which she rejects as an affront to her in the way he does it (124).

He again reproaches her for her resistance to him (126), and she refuses him, which prompts a letter from him again professing his love for her and how he is a good match for her (127). She considers it an insult and writes that had she been a young woman of money, he would never have addressed himself to her as he did:

But men, who are designed both by nature and society for our protectors, seem to consider us, when unprotected, as their natural and easy prey. I feel every day more and more unhappy, and this unexpected and undeserved insult has not tended to raise my spirits. (128)

She sends his letters back unopened and thinks she is rid of him, but not so. He visits again, insists on repeating his interest in her and says “that his future happiness depended on [her] answer,” of course (130). He wishes to seek Mrs. Blount’s approval of their marriage, and she says it is her decision alone and a very serious one at that (131). She believes they had a complete disparity “of taste, sentiments, and principles” (132). She wishes to return to her cousin for a time to think about it, but Mrs. Blount rejects this and presses her to accept her nephew, which she reluctantly does. She writes, “My decision will soon be called for, and whichever way I decide, it is more than probable that at some future period I may repent of that decision” (136).

She writes to her friend that she may well be making a huge mistake, but pleads, “Yet situated as I am, how could I refuse [137] him? With a clear perception of right and wrong in the abstract, in every important action of my life, circumstances have hitherto led me to act against my better judgment” (136-37). This is the turning point in the story, for her bad decision will have horrific consequences. She fully understands the perils of her situation:

Nurtured with extreme tenderness, and educated above my fortunes, the forlorn isolated state in which I have for some time past found myself, has, I confess, for me a thousand terrors. Unused to labour, I konw not how to work for my living. Accustomed to liberty, and possessed of an active mind, a state of indolent dependence is to me a state of almost insupportable slavery . . . By changing my situation I may possibly only change my cares: but as a married woman, I shall have [138] that station in society, which I now have not: I shall also have affections to cultivate, and duties to perform, and engaged in scenes of active life, shall cease to cherish that first, that fatal prepossession which it would be a sin, as well as a folly, to indulge. (137-38) [cp. to Clara in Wieland!]

Instead of finding in her husband her “Protector, guardian, friend,” she will most likely have to take care of her husband (139). But no matter, given her current “worldly prospects,” for her to be “querulous and discontented, would be ungrateful both to God and man” (140). [A note her by the author says that, “Some letter containing nothing of importance, excepting the celebration of the marriage, are here omitted.”]

They visit Brighton after their marriage and she sees considerable vanity in her husband (143), and he tells her she is too young “to set up for a philosopher” (143). Soon Vernon brings his friend, Mr. Malvern, home with him and the latter is smitten with our young heroine, though she is his friend’s wife! She does not like what she sees and it is very different that anything she has known before. She writes, “Since my marriage, I feel as if I had entered into a new world; but it is not a world of my own creation” (153). Nor is her new society what she would have chosen. For attempting to correct her husband’s ways, she may fall by the wayside herself, possibly the punishment for attempting such a feat in the first place (154).

Soon they leave the seaside for London. He continues to lead his dissipated life with Malvern his closest companion. Mrs. Cooper visits her and provokes her to contemplate her situation. She writes,

I see now in the strongest light all the errors of which I have been guilty. In solitude, and in the world, how different are our ideas of the same subject, and how different the standard by which we judge of the same action! In the former, the enthusiasm of our sentiments, the rectitude of our hearts are our only guides; in the latter, opinion, the voice of the multitude, and ‘the dread laugh, which scarce the stern philosopher can bear,’ is all in all.” (159). She and her husband attend a dinner at the Coopers, and during cards Howard appears! which causes much consternation to our heroine and jealousy in her husband and he begins to resent her. He then learns that she lived six months in Howard’s country home and is even more jealous (167). He becomes even more distant and more dissipated (he learns of it from Malvern, which we find out later).

Mrs. Blount dies and he learns that her will was changed during her last illness to leave it all to her live-in companion, Mrs. Morgan, and her children! leaving Vernon out of it all (173). Now our heroine regrets marrying Vernon even more, for his being Blount’s heir had played some part in her decision, but she must make the best of it now. He is greatly in debt having anticipated being her heir, and now he must contemplate his ruin. Our heroine remarks, “Situated as I am, I cannot be too scrupulous, too guarded in my conduct” (177).

Vernon is furious over his being disinherited, and leaves London in a fury, fearing now his creditors. Mary-Anne wishes to see no one, and is beside herself: “What I am to do, or where I am to go, I know not: but I am no longer my own mistress, or at liberty to act for myself. My fate is united to that of Mr. Vernon, let his be what it will” (179). Malvern came by after three days to see Mary-Anne with a letter from Vernon telling her to travel to Paris where he will meet them. She could not stay in the London house (181). She feels she should have left England under the “protection” of Vernon, not Malvern, but she has little choice. They leave the next day.

She is silent for 12 months, and the topic of much gossip in London for her leaving with Malvern and the subsequent announcement of Vernon’s bankruptcy. The next letter to Miss F—comes from Mrs. Cooper in Berner Street.

Mrs. Cooper sees a forsaken young woman at a masquerade ball and after talking to her is interrupted by Howard who, when he addresses the young lady, invokes a shriek from her that causes her to faint in his arms. They discover she is Mrs. Vernon and Mrs. Cooper takes her home to Berner Street. Mary-Anne recovered after several days. After spending much of one day writing her story of the previous 12 months, she has another fit and dies! (194). What follows is her last letter.

She is glad Eliza still supports her, but she regrets that those, like her husband, “who were bound by every tie both human and divine” to protect her, did not (195). In Paris she does not see Vernon, so she and Malvern take rooms in a hotel. After many days in which Vernon does not appear, Malvern tells her he has abandoned her and even bartered her honor for a sum of money! (199). She accuses Malvern of being the betrayer, but he defends himself. She is incapacitated for 14 days and Malvern moves her out of Paris a few miles into an apartment there. She recovers her health and wants to return to England, but she knows her reputation has been greatly damaged, even though she is innocent. She writes,

My own heart did not upbraid me; and it is rectitude, and not opinion, which ought to be the support of our virtue, and the standard by which we should try our conduct. But my nerves were weakened by illness, and my mind, depressed by misfortune, and lost all its native energy. (204)

She contemplates entering a convent, though her religion would prevent her from taking the veil, but she could stay there for some time in seclusion from society until someone in England could rescue her (205). Malvern soon brings a priest to the apartment and offers to marry her to make her legal (206). He tells her that Vernon had shot and killed himself, and he will have the rights redone in England if she wishes but wants to return to rooms in Paris. Once again she feels trapped: “I felt that I was ensnared; but, like the silly bird when caught by the fowler, I vainly fluttered about, without being able to effect my escape” (209). She later sees a letter from Vernon and she realizes he is not dead, but Malvern tells her he thought he was dead. He tells her she can divorce him when she returns to London and they can marry properly then. She decides she does not want to continue in public as his wife and will not do so anymore, since he could not make a legal claim that their marriage was legal to begin with, though in the eyes of society she had become very close to being a fallen woman now for she was pregnant! (214).

Malvern proposes they return to England immediately and obtain a divorce from Vernon, and she consents. She realizes returning will be difficult for her, since her name has no doubt been “bandied about in newspapers and pubic courts of [216] justice” (215-16). She takes ill and Malvern returns to England without her, and during his absence she suffers a miscarriage, a blessing to her in some ways (217). Malvern becomes cold to her in his letters and cannot find Vernon to enact the divorce, and would not give a time for his return to Paris.

She is in Paris in 1789, at the time of the Revolution, and she feels as an English woman that she may be in danger (219). She returns to England with a maidservant on her own, and Malvern meets her at Dover. He takes her to London and puts her up in an apartment then leaves. She is depressed and thinks of committing suicide, but for religious reasons does not, and she pleads to God for succour (223). Malvern continues to call but seems less interested in finding Vernon and making Mary-Anne a proper woman, and one day invites her to attend a masquerade ball with him so she can get out of the apartment and enjoy some society. She relents eventually and goes with him. As she is getting ready to go, she learns from the maid that Malvern has been keeping a mistress in another apartment in London (227). She tells the girl it must be idle gossip, but she is struck by the comment. She does not have an opportunity to confront Malvern about the report prior to going to the ball, and they go. At some point during the ball, she believes she sees and hears Vernon. She seizes him and tears off his mask and it is him! (232). He flees her grasp and she finally sits down on a bench in a numb state. Soon Mr Howard comes and asks what is the matter and when she realizes it is him, tries to flee the ball, but she faints. Her last lines (and she says she is dying) are:

When I am no more you will lament my Fatal though involuntary Errors, while you shed a tear to the memory of your once beloved, once admired, but now poor mary-anne! (234)

The “editor” of the letters adds her own final comments. She cannot answer why Malvern wanted Mary-Anne to go to the ball in the first place since the correspondence ends with this last letter. She does say, however, that there is a note in the margin of one of the last sheets that Malvern may have brought her to the ball so that a certain member of the aristocracy, who had seen her in Paris, would take her as his mistress, but a miscue between the two men left Mary-Anne alone long enough to find Vernon and create the final catastrophe (235). Another note states that a few days after her death, two men fought a duel in Hyde Park, in which both were mortally wounded (Malvern and Vernon), though whether they shot and killed each other at the same time, or one shot the other and then shot himself, cannot be known because there were no seconds present (236). The author then relates the physical traits of Mary-Anne, her height and figure, etc., in which “her form, exquisitely proportioned, appeared to be cast in nature’s finest mould” (236), with a complexion that was “clear, delicate, and animated” (236-37). She had “luxuriant” brown hair, a brow like that of “Raphael’s Madonna,” a nose not quite Greek or Roman, long dark eye-lashes, and blue eyes “beaming with intelligence and sensibility, were at cone both soft and brilliant. . . . I never but once knew eyes that resembled them, and they were closed in earliest youth by the cold hand of death” (237). These are the last words in the novel.