Emma Corbett

Emma Corbett

Author: Samuel Jackson Pratt
Publisher: T. Becket
Publication Year: 1789, 9th edition (1780)
Language: English
Book Dimensions: 2 volumes, each 17.6cm x 10.5cm
Pages: 521
University of Virginia Library Call Number, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2 .P73E 1789 v.1, v.2

In this epistolary two-volume novel, originally published in 1780 and in its ninth edition by 1789, Samuel Jackson Pratt sets romance against the backdrop of the American Revolutionary War.

Material History

In 1789, the ninth edition of Samuel Jackson Pratt’s gothic novel, Emma Corbett (1780), was published in two volumes. The copies of these volumes owned by the Sadleir-Black Collection appear nearly identical, with 521 pages total between them. The spines of the books are a dark green color, slightly cracked with age, and the title, volume numbers, and a bird emblem are stamped in gold in the leather. The cover boards are covered in handmade marbled paper that is red against a dark blue background. Along the bottom edges of the covers, this paper has been worn away from the cover boards by time and use; this damage is more notable on the second volume than the first. The dimensions of the covers are 17.6 cm by 10.5 cm. Inside, the covers are a mottled blue, and bookplates are pasted on the inside of the front covers. Judging by these bookplates, it appears that the novel was originally owned by an individual with the family name “Kinnaird.” Along with the name, the bookplates display a family crest and handwriting in ink and pencil that reads, “B C. 7.” It is likely this handwriting denotes where the individual kept the novel on his or her bookshelf. Other markings were made, but were crossed out, possibly indicating the novel was kept in a different position originally and then later moved.

Emma Corbett half-title page

The pages of the book are thick, cottony, and yellow. The dimensions are slightly smaller than the covers at 16.9 cm by 10 cm. The edges of the pages are smooth, suggesting the publisher, rather than the original owner of the novel, cut them. There is some notable damage to the bottom of the pages in the second volume likely caused by moisture and air pollution.

At the front and back of both volumes are several end pages. On the first leaf is a pencil marking that denotes that the novel comes in two volumes; this may be a remnant from when the novel was sold to another owner or store.

Several blank leaves into the first volume is the preliminary title page. Here, in the center of the page, appears only the title, Emma Corbett. The purpose of the half-title page is to protect the true title page and the rest of the novel from potential damage. The second volume does not include a half-title page.

On the full title page, one page after the preliminary title page, the title is once more printed, along with the author’s name, “Mr. Pratt,” the edition number (nine, in this case), and some publication information such as who it was published for (T. Becket, Pall-Mall, Bookseller to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Their Royal Highnesses the Princes), the date (1789), and the city (London). On the page facing the full title page, in both volumes, is an illustration. In Volume I, the frontispiece depicts a female character dressed in men’s clothing, kneeling over a dying Henry Hammond underneath a tree. An inscription explaining the picture is printed beneath it, as well as the name of the illustrator and the date “April 23 1789.” In Volume II, another illustration depicts several ladies and a man weeping over the corpse of Emma Corbett. The same date is also inscribed on this page.

Frontispiece and Title Page for Emma Corbett volume 1

The text of the novel appears to be in a large font with large margins compared to the size of the pages. On the first page of text after the prologue, the top margin is 3.7 cm. The bottom margins of the pages are 1.9 cm and the side margins are 1.5 cm. These dimensions leave relatively little room for text on the page. The text is also riddled with printing quirks that a reader would not find in modern publications. Some “s” letters are printed as “f,” some letters are accidentally printed sideways, and each page within a chapter is printed with a catchword that helped publishers ensure the pages were in the correct order. At the top of each page, the title is printed once more, along with the page numbers.

Textual History

In forty years, Samuel Jackson Pratt published forty-two novels, poems, and essays. Despite the large number of published works produced by Pratt, writing was his third attempt at a career. After his education at Felsted school in Essex, Pratt worked for a short time as a curate. Struggling with financial and romantic issues, he then attempted a career as an actor in Dublin in 1773 and London in 1774. However, he received unfavorable criticism, and moved on to writing novels, poetry, and criticism. He partnered with a bookseller in Bath in 1774, publishing in order to supplement his income.

Bookplate pasted in Emma Corbett volume 1

All of Pratt’s novels contain a “moral and benevolent emphasis” (London, “Samuel Jackson Pratt”). Yet, Pratt’s philanthropic spirit does not appear to have played out into reality. Indeed, he appears to have been a conflicted character. Accounts made by those who knew him are harsh, painting him as an unpleasant person who abandoned his young family in order to act. His public reputation, however, was thoroughly crafted through his writing so as to present Pratt as a virtuous, affable individual (London).

Emma Corbett is the second to last novel written by Pratt, and by far his most successful. Selling for seven shillings and six pence, it was originally published in three volumes in 1780 under the pseudonym Courtney Melmoth, which Pratt retained until 1781 (The London Review of English and Foreign Literature 302). Nine years later, nine editions had been published in England, and six editions had been published in America. It was also translated into French twice, in 1783 and 1789, under the titles Émilie Corbett; ou Les malheurs d’une guerre civile: roman politique, á l’occasion de la derniére guerre entre l’Angleterre et ses Colonies and Hammond et Corbett, ou Les malheurs d’une guerre civile: traduit de l’anglais. A modern edition edited by Eve Tavor Bannet and published in 2011 by Broadview also exists under the original title, Emma Corbett; Or, the Miseries of Civil War. Another version of the novel was titled Emma Corbett: exhibiting Henry and Emma, the faithful modern lovers; as delineated by themselves, in their original letters.

At the time of its publication, Emma Corbett received mixed reviews. The issue of Westminster Magazine published in London in May of 1780 includes a brief biography of the author before the critic expresses his disapproval of the style and characters of the novel. “The author talks too much about feeling; and does not sufficiently discriminate his characters,” stated the critic (277). Seeing as the majority of the novel consists of the characters expressing their emotions, this may be the harshest criticism that could be offered toward Pratt’s work. The critic allows that the absurd nature of Emma’s adventures in America do make the novel enjoyable to many readers. Still, other critics have stated that these adventures were preposterous and negatively impacted the “credulity” of readers (London).

The popularity of the book, and its survival to a modern publication, lends to the idea that the novel was not received entirely negatively. Indeed, the Edinburgh Magazine praised Pratt’s work in June of 1780. In this publication, Emma Corbett was described as “well-timed” and lauded for its promotion of values and morality (315). Such praise harks back to the public image Pratt constructed for himself through writing moral messages, a staple in all of his novels. Pratt’s use of the “house divided” trope in the wake of the American Revolution certainly resounded with readers on both sides of the Atlantic, and propelled Emma Corbett to fame.

Narrative Point of View

Emma Corbett is an epistolary novel; thus, there is no single narrator. The characters speak for themselves as they write letters to each other, developing themselves through their own characteristic voices. The letters are verbose and loquacious, with the majority of the narrative focused on emotions rather than plot. The letters are conversational and familiar, yet the register ranges from intimate to formal as the characters alternately chastise, praise, and explain their actions to each other.

Sample Passage (from a letter in which Robert Raymond admonishes Charles Corbett for his unchecked political fervor):

You astonish me. I imagined you were, like myself, a citizen of the earth, and of no particular party. For my own part, I have travelled away all enthusiasm of the sort you mention. There is, indeed, something like a natural affection, which one bears for the place of one’s nativity; because there our beings were first linked to the chain of society – there first shot up our ideas – there grew our connections, our affections, our hopes, and our wishes – there our little loves were first formed, and our little wants first accommodated. It is upon these accounts that I am more happy to contemplate the scenes of England than those of India—that I rate more highly my own than I do a foreign language – that I look with fondest partiality at spot (which is marked in everlasting traces on the memory) devoted to the pastimes of my infancy, and that I continue some fort of grateful tenderness for the very trees, whose shades so often soothed me in the summer of my childhood. My predilection for my native country, friend Corbett, ‘hath this extent – no more.’ It has been my fate to travel—I had almost said—wherever Europeans are dispersed. I have travelled too, where civil society hath yet made no progress, but I have never travelled (and oh may I never) where the “human face divine” did not meet my eye. However varied by colour, by tint, and by feature, I saw enough to discover my kind, and to acknowledge it. (138)

Sample Passage (from a letter in which from Emma Corbett praises her lover, Henry Hammond):

Whatever is elegant, beautiful, or amiable, in that fair blossom, the human understanding, under the highest culture, is expressed in the correspondence of my dear Henry; especially in the precious favour that was inclosed in his last billet, dated from the apartment of Louisa. Ah, that Emma were an all-accomplished judge, whose plaudits might reflect all the honour which my hero deserves to receive! This being impossible, let it suffice, that you have, in these tender effusions, furnished your Emma with new proofs of tenderness, though none were necessary to complete the measure of either sentiment in my bosom. (35)

The writing is intimate in these passages as the characters are both addressing a person who is dear to them. In the narrative, this gives the effect of dialogue, which becomes more apparent through interjections, such as, “which is marked in everlasting traces of memory” and “oh may I never” (138). Though both these examples come from Robert Raymond, they are common throughout all of the letters. Such interjections allow the voices of the characters to sound more conversational despite the formal language used. Interestingly, each character expresses conflicting emotions and beliefs, yet their voices are not entirely distinct. For example, Henry Hammond is a loyalist, while Charles Corbett is a patriot. Regardless, the author employs the same stylistic qualities in each letter, giving the characters a universal feel; any one person could choose any one side in a conflict. As such, the characters stand on equal ground to one another. In essence, this allows for the furtherance of the moral message of the novel: war is damaging and harmful for all those who are involved, no matter their affiliation.


Emma Corbett is written in the form of letters, and the plot of the novel must be gleaned from the correspondence between the eight central characters. The prologue of the novel is styled as a letter from the author to a Dr. Delacour, in which the author asserts that he has compiled the letters for the doctor’s entertainment as an act of thanks for Dr. Delacour’s work to save the author’s life in the summer of 1779.

An example of the novel’s epistolary formatting

The novel opens as a letter from Charles Corbett to Henry Hammond. Corbett expresses his disappointment in Henry for his commission to the English army and asks him to resign. Otherwise, Corbett says he will no longer be able to look on Henry, whom he raised in his household along with his sister Louisa for some time, with fondness and friendship. He also states he will retract his blessing towards the nuptials of Henry and his daughter, Emma Corbett. Corbett speaks with patriotic fervor in his argument for the liberty and freedom of America. He also reminds Henry that his son Edward was murdered by English soldiers while trying to defend his property in America from devastation. Henry Hammond responds to these allegations by stating his continued regard for Corbett’s friendship and his love for Emma, but insists he is fulfilling his own patriotic duty by enlisting to fight for the English.

Meanwhile, Emma and Henry have continued their correspondence against Corbett’s wishes, and they hold a clandestine meeting. Emma laments Henry’s departure, which will take place in a few days from the time of their interview. They attempt a second time to hold a meeting at Henry’s sister’s house, but they are unsuccessful. Henry sends Emma some verses of poetry that he wrote for her, and he also tells her of Louisa’s sadness at the death of Edward, whom she was hoping to marry.

Henry receives his sailing orders, and he asks Emma to meet him at Louisa’s house to say their farewells. Corbett discovers Louisa’s letter to Emma offering her house as a place to conduct Henry and Emma’s meeting, and he ostensibly reprimands Emma for this. Henry takes leave for the ship and sends one more note to Emma.

Corbett then writes to his old friend, Robert Raymond, and invites him to join Corbett and Emma. He intends to make a match between his daughter and Raymond, and he tells Raymond that while Emma is still attached to Henry, he believes she will come around. Robert Raymond returns Corbett’s address by expressing his skepticism at his ability to usurp Henry’s place in Emma’s heart. He doubts he will charm her in his middle age and with his custom of wearing a wig.

Henry writes to Emma from his ship as it floats in the harbor. Poor winds have delayed the departure of the regiment. In the letter, he reasserts his devotion to her and laments the task ahead that has separated them. He also implores Emma to look after Louisa because she is susceptible to poor health in her grief. Emma responds to Henry expressing her sadness at his departure, stating she has passed the apartment in which he used to reside several times while running errands and that it evoked a similar feeling as viewing a grave. Upon receiving this letter, Henry sends word to Emma that the ship is finally departing.

Louisa writes to Emma from her retreat, to which she has retired in order to compose her grief for Edward in solitude. She invites Emma to join her there in order to temper her grief for Henry’s departure.

Robert Raymond corresponds with Frederick Berkley after his arrival at the Corbetts’ home in London. Once more, he elaborates on his doubts of being able to win over Emma’s heart. He does express that he may be able to achieve her hand by way of the fortune he attained in India, however he says this would in turn make her less desirable to him because it would reveal fickleness in her heart. Still, in the time he has spent with Emma, she has grown on his heart, and he finds her to have become a necessary fixture to his happiness. Frederick Berkley’s responses to Raymond’s letters are not recorded, though Raymond sends him several letters over the course of the novel.

Louisa becomes too ill to receive Emma at her retreat and is recalled to the city by her physician. While her illness is serious, she writes enthusiastically that she possesses a motivation to continue living. However, she does not disclose the source of this motivation. Louisa settles in with Caroline Arnold, a friend and cousin of Emma.

Raymond confronts Corbett about a rumor he heard that Hammond was still in his favor, and that, on his return from America, he is to marry Emma. Corbett, with much patriotic fervor, assures Raymond that he despises Hammond as a villain. Raymond expresses surprise at Corbett’s enthusiasm and discloses his own neutral status in the war. He views himself as a “citizen of the earth” (137). A neutral status is satisfactory to Corbett to still dispense his blessing in the pursuance of his daughter. Yet, he once more expounds the intensity of his own political affiliation.

The Corbetts and Raymond leave London for Castleberry, the country house in which the Corbett and Hammond children were raised. Since that time, Charles Corbett has sold the property to Raymond. While there, Emma receives a letter from Louisa. Louisa tells her that she married Edward in secret and that she has given birth to his son. Emma also enters under the pupillage of Raymond to learn the practice of surgery.

As the first volume of the novel draws to a close, Emma steadily grows more distressed with the idea of war, Raymond falls more in love with Emma, and the Corbetts suffer the loss of their fortune due to the war. With the news of their ruin, Emma and Charles fall incredibly ill. Raymond offers monetary assistance to Corbett, but tells him not to alert Emma to how he has lifted them from poverty.

Title Page for Emma Corbett, volume 2

In the second volume, Emma and Charles recover from their illnesses, and Corbett informs Raymond he should take the opportunity to propose to Emma. Raymond finds Emma in the library looking at some paintings of war. She is crying at the scenes depicted, and as she laments the terror and injustice of war, she calls out for Henry. This is the first time she has spoken Henry’s name in front of Raymond, and he realizes her love for Hammond has not diminished in his absence. Emma faints and falls once more into sickness.

The Corbetts and Raymond return to London. Corbett informs Emma that her cousin Fanshaw has died and left Corbett ten thousand pounds because of his losses in America. He also left to Emma five thousand pounds on the condition that she does not marry any person who is involved in the war. Emma rejoices with her father for his ten thousand pounds, but tells him she cannot be swayed in her love for Henry so she cannot accept the five thousand allotted to her. Corbett scolds her for this and insists she renounce her sentiments for Henry. Meanwhile, Emma receives a packet of letter from Henry dated at sea. Together with Louisa, she stresses over whether he is still living. When Emma asks her father for comfort because she believes Henry has been injured, he once more scolds her harshly for her continued affections. He denounces her sentiments and mocks her intelligence. At this time, Raymond resolves to leave London and the Corbetts, as he perceives he will never win the heart of Emma.

Once sufficiently recovered, Emma elopes from London. She pretends to call on Caroline Arnold one morning, and Charles does not grow worried until the evening, at which point he makes the discovery of her elopement. Emma sends Raymond a letter asking him to tell her father that she is drawn away by necessity and to assuage any fears that she no longer loves her father. Corbett finally realizes the error in his political frenzy, which he perceives to have banished his daughter from his presence.

Emma boards a ship to America from Portsmouth disguised as a boy. As Raymond sets out to go after her, Corbett receives news that his son yet lives. After he then sends news to Louisa of Edward’s continued existence, she reveals to him her marriage and her son. She expresses her desire to join Corbett in his home as his daughter, but her poor health detains her. Raymond makes progress in tracking Emma and sets out to sea after her.

After some time at sea, Emma’s vessel is attacked and taken. It is as a prisoner that she is reunited with Raymond and Edward. Raymond relays Emma’s story to George Washington, who is posted in a town nearby, and he is moved by her tenacity. Washington agrees to release her from captivity so that she may pursue Henry. Raymond and Emma continue to seek Henry while Edward must remain back at his post. They receive news that Hammond is with his regiment just outside of John’s-Town and head that direction. Emma conceives a disguise that she may approach Henry without shocking or distracting him. She dresses as a boy and dyes her skin with the juice of berries.

Edward receives permission to join his sister. However, as he travels to meet her, he happens upon a group of English soldiers burning a village after a sudden attack. He receives a fatal wound attempting to protect the fleeing townspeople. Bleeding, he directs the two soldiers accompanying him to take him to his sister. These soldiers are forced to abandon Edward’s corpse near Emma and Raymond’s lodgings when the armies engage outside of John’s-Town. Emma discovers the body, and Raymond helps Emma dig a grave for Edward. Resolved, Emma insists she must still fulfill her duty to Henry.

Emma hears a rumor that Henry has died in battle. At the news, she falls deathly ill, but she recovers herself after some time, determined to pay Henry the same respects she paid Edward. In disguise, she traverses the woods to find Henry’s body. She finds him yet breathing with a poisoned arrow stuck in his chest. She removes the arrow and sucks the poison from his wound. For days, Emma shelters Henry in the woods until a group of soldiers passes near them. Emma convinces them to help her carry Henry back to John’s-Town.

Now back at the inn with Raymond, she nurses Henry to health and sheds her disguise. Emma offers her hand to Henry in marriage. Still in love with Emma, Raymond sees fit to leave John’s-Town in order to reside elsewhere for the time being.

Emma and Henry marry. They receive Corbett’s blessing through the mail, as well as news that Louisa is residing with her son in Corbett’s home. She is still infirm, and the news of Edward’s certain death has not helped her.

Six months after Emma and Henry marry, and before Raymond can set back out for England, Emma confides in him that she does not feel entirely healthy and that she has been hiding this fact from Henry. From her symptoms, Raymond determines that she was poisoned when she sucked Henry’s wound. It has taken a long time for the poison to take ill effects upon her body. Henry is greatly distressed by this news and falls gravely ill. It is from this illness that he passes away. He is interred in America. Though Emma is deeply saddened by his passing, she resolves to keep in health as she is with child.

Frontispiece to Emma Corbett, volume 2, which shows mourners weeping over Emma’s body

With Raymond, Emma returns to England to find that Louisa has died. Reunited with her father for only a short time, Emma goes into a premature labor. She delivers a healthy baby girl, but dies from the poison and the exertion of the labor. Raymond takes charge of both orphaned children, named Emma and Edward, and raises them at Castleberry.


“Emma Corbett: or, The Miseries of Civil War.” The London Review of English and Foreign Literature, Vol.11 (May 1780): 302–10.

“Emma Corbett: or, The Miseries of Civil War.” The Westminster Magazine (London) (May 1780): 277.

“Emma Corbett, or the Miseries of Civil War, founded on some recent Circumstances which happened in America.” The Edinburgh Magazine, or, Literary Amusement, Vol. 48 (June 19, 1780): 315–16.

London, April. “Samuel Jackson Pratt.” British Novelists, 1660–1800, edited by Martin C. Battestin, Gale, 1985. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 39. Literature Resource Center.

Pratt, Samuel Jackson. Emma Corbett, 9th ed. London, T. Becket, 1789.

Researcher: Erin Anne Elizabeth Smith