Study Questions for Mrs. Mathews, Simple Facts; or, The History of an Orphan

1. We apparently know nothing about Mrs. Mathews, other than the fact that she was not Eliza Kirkham Mathews (1772-1802),another novelist of the period who was born Eliza Strong and who married the comic actor Charles Mathews in 1797. That Mrs. Mathews published several novels (not very good) and, later, some children's books and a collection of poems, followed in 1801 by a good novel, What Has Been.
     Our Mrs. Mathews, about whose name and history we presently know nothing more, seems to have published two novels, Simple Facts; or, The History of an Orphan (1793) and Perplexities; or, The Fortunate Elopement (1794).
Given these facts, what sort of information do we not have about the author (and the novel) that we may be accustomed to having when we study a novel like those we have read so far in this course?
     What (if any) are the disadvantages for us as modern readers of not having any biographical, textual, or other information about Simple Facts?
     What (if any) are the advantages for us as modern readers of not having any biographical, textual, or other information about Simple Facts?

2. Sometimes a good way to learn how a novelist does her or his work is to study the first several pages carefully, looking for how the author releases information about setting, character, and incident. How an author chooses to reveal information – including the "pace" at which the narrative moves – can tell us much about the sort of tale the author is telling, and also about what (if any) moral, intellectual, or ideological "agenda" on the author's part may be operating in the novel – either explicitly or by suggestion and inference.
     Try analyzing the first chapter of Simple Facts to see what you can discover about any or all of these matters. Look not only for statements of "facts" (character description, details of plot and incident, etc.) but also about "loaded" language that tells us more than what is just on the surface: language that reveals the author's (or narrator's) opinions, beliefs, prejudices, etc.

3. How important to the overall plot of the novel are the family circumstances that are related in Chapters 1 and 2 of Volume I?

4. Does the relationship that grows up between Charles Palmer and Maria Harcourt lead us to expect anything in particular about the "prospects" for these two young people? That is, how does the description of the evolution of their early relationship seem to "predict" anything about what happens to them subsequently?
How important is it for the author (and for the novel) that we form judgments and expectations about Maria and Charles? Upon what actual details are these expectations founded? And what expectations are founded not on actual details but rather upon our own culturally conditioned responses to the situations and relationships that Mrs. Mathews describes?

5. Why does Maria seem so unprepared for Charles's proposal? Her response (including her fainting) may seem to modern readers to be very improbable indeed – or at least rather thick-headed. The fact that she responds as she does, though, is not at all uncommon either for fictional women or for real British young women in the 1790s. If that is so, what do these circumstances suggest to us about the social "world" of the time? Should women be better prepared to have a knowledge of "the way(s) of the world"? Or are they best allowed to grow up sheltered and "innocent"? Defend your position.

6. Dr. Curtis would seem to be a good potential husband for Maria. What "advantages" does he bring to the potential marriage? Why does Maria not encourage him or accept him? Is she being reasonable? Realistic? Practical?

7. Why does the author introduce Miss Scot into the story? What is her function in terms of the story of Maria's life and experience that Mrs. Mathews is presenting? What benefits to Maria does she bring to their relationship? Does she bring any "negatives" to that relationship?
     What about Maria's relationship with Lord and Lady D? Does the fact that Lady D is Miss Scot's sister prejudice Maria in her favor before she even gets to know her?

8. Why does Mrs. Mathews have Charles Palmer visit Maria (and the others) before leaving for India? What does this episode tell us about their relationship? Imagine the story had he not had the chance for the visit – what would have been different, both about the story itself and about how we "read" it?

9. What is the purpose of the story about Miss Scot and her unfortunate relationship with Mr. Spencer? Did you expect, when you read about the mysterious young "hermit" earlier in the novel, that he was going to figure into the plot in some way? If so, why? If not, did you think the detail was just "thrown in" for "color"? Or if not, then for what purpose did you think he was in the novel?

10. And then there is Sir Richard Harlow. He first encounters Maria (and she him) in Volume I, and he begins calling on her at Miss Scot's residence. He comes and goes, and Maria is firm in resisting his advances. He refuses to take "no" for an answer, of course.
     Now – how believable is Maria's persistent rejection of Sir Richard? Have you ever been in a comparable situation (don't necessarily think literally, but do think in terms of the implied "power relationships")? Is his increasingly obsessive behavior believable? How about his abduction of Maria? Can you think of any contemporary parallels?

11. When Maria finally seems to capitulate and agree to marry Sir Richard, is that psychologically believable? What would make her agree? If it is not believable, why not? What are her alternatives – again given the apparent "power relationships" in the novel?

12. Explain what Mrs. Mathews intends to accomplish by Maria's wedding-day declarations in the church? What is the author's point? How does this sudden "turn of events" affect you as an engaged reader? Did you see it as a "turn," or didn't you? Why or why not?

13. Charles returns. Why does Mrs. Mathews go so far as to put in the business about the burning house? What point does that episode serve? Is it there merely to be "one more thing" that makes the tale seem fantastic to a degree that makes it impossible to take it wholly seriously? Granting that the author may very well have recognized the whole episode as the stuff of melodrama, why would she include it nevertheless? What point is served?

14. Looking back, what is the central theme of the novel? Are there supplementary or subsidiary themes? If so, what are they?

15. How does this novel relate to those we have studied thus far?