The Affecting History of Caroline, or, The Distressed Widow: A True Tale
Author: Unknown (plagiarized from Charlotte Smith)
Publisher: S. Carvalho
Publication Year: 1805
Book Dimensions: 18cm x 10.5cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2 .R66 1800
A story of love and tragedy, this 1805 chapbook features plagiarized excerpts from Charlotte Smith’s 1789 novel Ethelinde.
The Affecting History of Caroline, or the Distressed Widow: A True Tale is the fourth gothic story in a collection of four volumes. In the back of the front cover of the collection, there is a note written in pencil that states “4 Vol,” denoting there are four rebound volumes in the set. Notably, none of the volumes have an author listed at the front.
The chapbook collection consists of a front and back cover made of chipped, faded red-dyed paper, with the spine of the book dyed green and highlighted by a black outline on the front and back. Both sides are blank, leaving a polished but plain look. From the top of the spine, there is a gold fabric label printed with the word, “ROMANCES” bordered by a series of decorative black lines and dots arranged symmetrically. Including the cover, the book is approximately 18 cm long, 10.5cm wide, and 1.4cm thick. Inside, the pages are evenly cut, but yellowed and worn.
Although the pages are very thin and easy to flip through, their texture is rough like sandpaper. Without any spots or signs of damage other than age, the book is in fairly good condition.
The title page features the main title, The Affecting History of Caroline, settled at the top half of the page in large fine black font. The alternative title, Distressed Widow, is italicized.
Underneath, outlined by a thin horizontal line, is the subtitle, A True Tale. The footer of the title page includes publishing information: “London, published by S. Carvalho, 19 Castle Calley, White Chapel.” This is followed by the chapbook’s individual sale price: sixpence. Then, at the very bottom, there appears to be a misaligned line of text that cuts off past the margins, plausibly additional publishing information.
Positioned at the center of the title page is a small printed illustration of a woman in a red dress holding a baby in a blanket. The illustration is painted over in watercolors, which gives the image a glossy texture that stands out from the rest of the pages. There is no caption for the illustration, but it is implied that the woman pictured is the titular “Distressed Widow.”
Furthermore, there is a frontispiece that consists of a full color spread of a woman and young girl standing on a paved road while a smiling man appears to lead them to a carriage. Similar to the title page illustration, this picture was hand-painted in watercolor, which gives the page additional heavy weight in comparison to other pages. The twentieth (and final) page of the story includes a printed illustration of various household items at the bottom, such as two bowls.
Pagination of Caroline does not begin until page 4, and the chapbook is twenty pages long. Every left page of the open book includes the abbreviated title Caroline in the header, with the page number listed above it. The markers for printing sections B and C are located on pages three and fifteen, respectively, in the center of the footer. These sections denote to the publisher when to fold the pages so that the book is bound in the right order. The pagination continues to another story, titled The Negro: An Affecting Tale, which then closes its respective volume. Each of the four rebound volumes has its own pagination, so they are not continuous among one another.
The Affecting History of Caroline: or, The Distressed Widow was published in 1805. This twenty-five-page chapbook entered the Sadleir-Black Gothic Collection at the University of Virginia as one of four chapbooks rebound into a single volume, yet a digital copy of the chapbook as its own isolated volume, with a front and back cover, is publicly available through Duke University Library and HathiTrust.
There are few differences between the University of Virginia and Duke copies of the text. One that stands out is the alignment of the title page. Whereas the print of University of Virginia’s copy is slightly tilted and thus parts of the text cut off at the bottom margins, the print is fully aligned, listing details on publishing information, “E. Billing, Printer, 187, Bermondsey Street.” Furthermore, the Duke copy has a marbled cover, whereas the University of Virginia’s rebound copy uses a paper cover. Otherwise, the pagination, font, publication date, and publishing company are all the same. Furthermore, neither copy lists an author anywhere in the chapbook.
According to WorldCat, S. Carvalho, the publishing company, was located in London and published other novels between 1805 and 1831. Their other works followed a similar subject as The Affecting History of Caroline: a woman’s reflection on her life, such as in The Lady’s Revenge: a Tale Founded on Facts (1817) and The History of Miss Patty Proud (1820). Yet, throughout S. Carvalho’s legacy, there were no other reprints of Caroline, nor any known translations. However, in 2015, two publishing companies dedicated to revitalizing old books, BiblioBazaar and FB&C Limited, reprinted the original text in a new paperback edition. FB&C Limited would go on to publish a hardcover edition of The Affecting History of Caroline in 2018.
The Affecting History of Caroline is actually an excerpted plagiarism of a Charlotte Smith novel, Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake, published in 1789. From the years 1789–1792, multiple serialized magazines such as The European Magazine and London Review and Walker’s Hibernian Magazine published an excerpt of Ethelinde under the title, The Affecting History of Caroline Montgomery. This story aligns almost exactly with The Affecting History of Caroline. In The European Magazine, The Affecting History of Caroline Montgomery was released in two parts, just one month apart from each other. The first sixteen pages of the 1805 version of The Affecting History of Caroline match the first part of The Affecting History of Caroline Montgomery word-for-word; there are plot variations in the second half of the two stories. Perhaps what is most interesting is that all magazines cite the acclaimed author Charlotte Smith and Ethelinde as the source of their release of The Affecting History of Caroline Montgomery, bur the 1805 version of The Affecting History of Caroline does not make this attribution.
To verify this link, one can observe the stark similarities between The Affecting History of Caroline, and an excerpt from Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde. The text of The Affecting History of Caroline from pages 1–16 aligns almost word-for-word with chapter 16 of Ethelinde (Smith 128–55). Differences between the texts include formatting preferences, such as Ethelinde using the long S that looks closer to an f, as well as spelling changes like how The Affecting History of Caroline uses “mamma” whereas Ethelinde spells the same word as “mama.” The most stark difference is the textual context: in Ethelinde, Caroline Montgomery tells her tale to the titular character, Ethelinde; in The Affecting History of Caroline, mentions of Ethelinde are completely removed. This change is understandable, for if the intent of The Affecting History Caroline was to present the plagiarized text as an original story, then any evidence of being associated with plot elements from the world of Ethelinde needed to be removed. Attempts at erasing ties to Ethelinde are most noticeable following page 16 of The Affecting History of Caroline. From just pages 16–18 of The Affecting History of Caroline, over ten paragraphs of Ethelinde are skipped over, but these cuts are presented as a seamless transition between not only paragraphs but sentences as well (Smith 155–61). There are also noticeable changes in phrasing, such as the line “Lord Pevensey took this opportunity of departing,” versus the line from Ethelinde, “Lord Pevensey took that opportunity to depart” (Affecting History of Caroline 16, Smith 155).
It is not surprising that someone would want to plagiarize Charlotte’s Smith’s work, for she was an illustrious novelist during her time. From 1784 to 1806, Smith used her writing to support her large family of twelve children as a single mother. She is known for influencing the Romantic era, particularly for writing with an emphasis on nature and human emotions. Although there are no reviews of The Affecting History of Caroline, scholarship does attend to Ethelinde (see Hawkins). With this context in mind, it is understandable how the illegitimate chapbook The Affecting History of Caroline was classified as a “Romance” when rebound, as it sits at the intersection of gothic, romance, and Romantic literature.
Narrative Point of View
The Affecting History of Caroline is narrated in the first-person singular voice of the titular character, Caroline, who delineates the events of her childhood and upbringing. In The Affecting History of Caroline, the narrator focuses less on descriptive language and more on singular plot-relevant events, however, this pattern deviates in moments of intense emotion, such as when Caroline falls in love. The sentence structure is dense, but direct, which allows for a clear narrative to unfold. At times the narrator mentions the second person “you,” as if retelling the story of her life to an unnamed individual.
I will not detain you with relating the various expedients for accommodation, which were in the course of the first month proposed by the relations of the family, who knew the tenderness the late lord Pevensey had for my mother; that he considered her as his wife, and that her conduct could not have been more unexceptionable had she really been so. Still lingering in France, and still visiting a house into which his cruelty had introduced great misery, the proceeding of lord Pevensey wore a very extraordinary appearance. My mother now continued almost entirely to her room; and Montgomery concealed from her his uneasiness at what he remarked; but to me he spoke more freely, and told me he was very sure his lordship had other designs that he suffered immediately to appear. In a few days the truth of this conjecture became evident. (15)
The narrator, Caroline, uses an individualized first-person point of view to create an intimate and engaging voice. Referring to an unnamed “you” implies the narration is directed at an audience outside of Caroline’s world—hence, the story becomes an attempt at reaching out to this world. The differentiation between “late lord” and “lord” Pevensey establishes a clarity in the narrative that stands out from other gothic works that utilize confusion and chaos as a tool for narration. This easy-to-follow narration is ideal when communicating to an audience unfamiliar with these past events, suggesting the implied audience is a stranger to Caroline’s life and irrelevant to her past. Furthermore, the characters around Caroline are characterized primarily by their actions in relation to Caroline, such as the mother “continued almost entirely to her room,” and Montgomery, who “spoke more freely,” rather than through a direct description of inward thoughts or feelings. Interestingly, even their conversations only seem to happen in summarized instances, with no direct dialogue. This means even the conversations Caroline has every day are ultimately translated by Caroline’s perspective, first, before being narrated. This limited point of view creates a story tailored to Caroline’s perspective on her life, with all of her potential bias, allowing for a deeper understanding of Caroline as a character.
The story of The Affecting History of Caroline begins and ends in Scotland. The titular character retells her life story from childhood into adulthood with all of the trials and tribulations she faced along the way. The first tragedy in Caroline’s life is the loss of her father, a Scottish nobleman. He died as a casualty in a military campaign for Scotland’s independence from Britain. At the time of his death, Caroline was an infant, and her mother became a young single mother without anyone to support them. So, they begin the story struggling in poverty with just the remaining money left by Caroline’s father. Although the war her father fought in eventually ended, she along with the rest of the Scottish community continued to struggle to rebuild stability. Despite this, Caroline’s mother soon finds out that in Caroline’s grandfather’s will, no money was allocated to her. Soon afterwards, Caroline’s grandfather also passes away, but he only left money for Caroline’s uncle from England. The death of the grandfather spurs Caroline’s mother to migrate to England in hope of seeking assistance from her brother. At first, Caroline’s uncle appears to be welcoming and kind to his sister and niece. However, his wife is much more reserved, and repeatedly tells her husband not to be so hospitable to Caroline and her mother. Although the husband agrees to pay for a small home in London for Caroline and her mother to stay in, he soon becomes too influenced by his wife and limits the funds for Caroline’s small family, and so the girl and her mother must continue to struggle through life.
Caroline’s mother has no one to comfort her, and so she also continues to grieve for her deceased husband. It is in this state that she comes across a gentleman one day, named Pevensey, who falls in love with her at first sight while she walks through town with Caroline. The man orders a carriage to take Caroline and her mother home, and then insists on accompanying them in the carriage. On the carriage ride home, Pevensey admits that he is from the same noble lineage of Caroline’s father, and this is how he knew of the widow beforehand. What was once curiosity, however, has now turned into infatuation, and so he begins courting Caroline’s mother.
Their romance appears to go quite smoothly until Pevensey admits that he is actually already married. Granted, it is an arranged marriage to a woman he despises, and no longer lives with, yet, they are still married under the law. After revealing this, the man proposes to have Caroline and her mother live with him, where they would no longer have to live in a shabby home and instead build a family together. This proposal causes Caroline’s uncle and auntie to see Caroline’s mother with a new form of respect, and so they are receptive to the nobleman. Caroline’s mother, however, is still haunted by the loss of her husband, and the fact that they can never truly be married, so she deliberates before ultimately agreeing to fully love the man and live with him.
Caroline and her mother adjust well to their new lifestyle. Her mother gains a bit more peace of mind now that she no longer feels like her brother’s burden, and Caroline is able to live a more enriching childhood and gain a stellar education. Unfortunately, their joy is soon cut short when the nobleman dies from disease while on a business trip. Even worse, all of his property rights and wealth were passed on to his brother, leaving Caroline and her mother in poverty once again. However, this time, they are not alone. A friend of Pevensey, Mr. Montgomery, takes them under his wing so that they no longer have to suffer. At this time, Caroline falls in love with Mr. Montgomery. In a bittersweet display of love, they get married the night before her mother also passes away from illness.
Then, finally, Caroline’s luck starts to turn for the better. Her husband wins a duel against Pevensey’s brother, who finally agrees to respect Caroline’s right to her step-father’s inheritance as retribution. In another turn of events, war returns to Caroline’s life via the conflict between France and England. Montgomery enlists in the English regiment, and Caroline leaves with him so that they are not separated. Eventually, though, they are separated as Montgomery gets more involved in the war. Meanwhile, Caroline becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to a son. They do not reunite until the war finally ends, and then retire together to live with their new family in Paris.
Their marriage remains true and fulfilling until Montgomery dies from illness, leaving Caroline as a single mother, just as her mother once was. She decides to raise her son back in Scotland, where they are able to spend the rest of their lives in peace.
Hartley, Cathy. A Historical Dictionary of British Women. London: Europa Publications, 2005.
Hawkins, Anne. Romantic Women Writers Reviewed, Taylor & Francis, Vol 5, Issue 2, 2020, pp.40–41.
Smith, Charlotte. Ethelinde, Or The Recluse of the Lake. T. Cadell, 1789.
“The Affecting History of Caroline Montgomery.” The European Magazine, and London Review, 1790, pp. 353–58, 457–62.
“The Affecting History of Caroline Montgomery.” Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, Or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, vol.1, 1790, pp. 38–40
The Affecting History of Caroline; or, The Distressed Widow. A True Tale. London, S. Carvalho, 1805.
The Affecting History of Caroline; or, The Distressed Widow. A True Tale. BiblioBazaar, 2015.
The Affecting History of Caroline; or, The Distressed Widow. A True Tale. FB&C Limited, 2015.
Researcher: Seblework Alemu