7 Ecstatic and Legalistic Literary Traditions: Rose Lerner's In for a Penny

This chapter contains plentiful “spoilers” for Rose Lerner’s In for a Penny so if you’d like to read the novel before continuing, here are details about where to buy it. For those who don’t mind spoilers, or who’ve read the book and would appreciate a quick refresher, I’ve included a plot summary here.

If you’ve landed here directly and haven’t read earlier chapters of this book, the key terms “ecstatic” and “legalistic” were discussed in relation to faith here and love here.


Rose Lerner’s In For a Penny (2010), set in the early nineteenth century, frequently alludes to works which would now be considered precursors of the modern romance genre and which seem to fall into two distinct literary traditions, one primarily legalistic in nature and the other ecstatic. The novels of Jane Austen, which value propriety and good taste, can be considered legalistic, not least because legalism is associated with activities “conducted in a relatively calm and sober atmosphere” (Whitehouse 294). Legalism, one might say, values sense over sensibility, just as Austen does. In contrast to the realistic, legalistic tradition represented by Austen stands the “romance, broadly construed to include everything from ballads to chivalric tales” (Fuchs 118). This motley group of texts is also present in In For a Penny: Nev is a reader of Minerva Press gothic romances, Penny and Louisa sing popular ballads including “songs about girls joining the navy” (112), and the first work of literature Penny and Nev discuss is Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, a representative of the large body of medieval and early modern romances. It is also a work which represents the ecstatic mode: in it love is “very intense emotionally” (Whitehouse 294) and might even be considered to have produced an “altered state[...] of consciousness” (Whitehouse 294) in the lover who is “so enamored” he does not know whether he is “on horseback or on foot” (Lerner 304).

First printed in 1485 by William Caxton, the Morte had only recently staged a comeback in the years before In for a Penny opens: there had been a very long gap between William Stansby’s 1634 edition and the editions published in 1816 and 1817 (Matthews 355). The renewed interest in the Morte can be considered part of a wider “rebellion against a constraining neoclassical aesthetic ideal of order and unity” (Kilgour 3): the antiquarians who championed Malory’s work in the early nineteenth-century:

promoted the genre of romance partly in reaction against the dominant neo-classicism of the eighteenth-century. Warton [...] conceded that most good taste and criticism flowed from neo-classicism and its emphasis on realism. But, he suggested, something had been lost with the rejection of medieval culture, for all its superstitions. “We have parted with extravagancies that are above propriety,” he wrote, “with incredibilities that are more acceptable than truth, and with fictions that are more valuable than reality” [...]. Romance, more than any other genre, embodied the spirit of these fictions. (Matthews 357)

Whereas the “improbabilities” of the romance tradition excite a sense of wonder, novels such as Austen’s “are concerned with selfhood and morality within a cultural context and thus depict the inevitable conflict between private and public personas and between illusion (imagination and desire) and the actualities of daily existence” (Brothers and Bowers 4): “middle-class, Christian, and family-centered values [...] dominate characterization, plots, and themes” (Boyd Thompson 374).

In keeping with I. M. Lewis’s observation that "sober ritualistic dogmatism is the mark of religions which have become so thoroughly embedded in society that almost all trace of inspirational spontaneity has departed" (Lewis 119) and "the more strongly-based and entrenched religious authority becomes, the more hostile it is towards haphazard inspiration" (Lewis 29), Lerner’s novel associates legalistic fictions with propriety and social acceptability while ecstatic fictions are depicted as guilty pleasures. When Lerner’s protagonists first meet, Penny admits to being “fond of the Morte d’Arthur” (5) but flushes at acknowledging this, “as if it were something to be ashamed of” (5), and promptly adds that her “taste in modern literature is rather more elevated” (5). The Morte’s antiquity perhaps gives it a slight degree of cachet, lacking in the other ecstatic texts present in the novel. Penny and Nev are at least willing to admit to reading the Morte, whereas Nev has “not the heart to admit” his “shameful fondness for the Minerva Press” (71), a publisher which was “synonymous with Gothic potboilers” (Mandal 166).

By contrast, Penny declares unequivocally that Austen is an author she would “recommend” (71). A community-wide acceptance of Austen is signalled in In for a Penny by the mention of Sir Walter Scott’s having given “one of her books a most favorable review” (69) and it is indeed the case that

Sir Walter Scott hailed the ‘new style’ of novel [...] crafted by Austen for its characterization, its depiction of the life and speech of ordinary people, and its eschewing the improbabilities of the romance-even for its comic parodying of the characters, situations, and plots of those stylized heroic fictions. (Brothers and Bowers 6)

Austen’s novels, which are firmly in the legalistic tradition, embody all the values to which Penny, whose parents were originally working-class, aspires. For Penny,

Control, restraint, elegance—they were all synonymous with that indefinable something that made you gentry and not common. Excess was [...] all the things that Penelope had trained herself never, ever to do. (107)

That Austen’s novels can be considered “calm and sober” (Whitehouse 294) legalistic works is demonstrated by passages such as the following, which Penny comes across during her reading of Mansfield Park:

This would be the way to Fanny’s heart. She was not to be won by all that gallantry and wit and good-nature together could do; or, at least, she would not be won by them nearly so soon, without the assistance of sentiment and feeling, and seriousness on serious subjects. (Lerner 66)

In keeping with her ownership of a “well-thumbed copy of Sense and Sensibility” (19), Penny rejects her mother’s talk of “Grand Passions” as “romantical” (20). Her own intellectual preference is for legalistic love: “Mutual esteem and warm affection were good enough for her” (20) and that, she is sure, she could find with her friend Edward (who shares a name with the hero of Sense and Sensibility, who marries the sensible Elinor). However, by the time Penny argues that “Surely a good, sensible man must always be pleasing” (64), it is clear that good, sensible Edward is not as pleasing to her as Nev.

As Penny acknowledges, she “had chosen a pleasing form over every dictate of reason” (65) and from a legalistic point of view, “choosing a pleasing form, easy address, or an attractive costume over sense and character is unpardonably foolish” (64). Ecstatic passion-love of the kind associated with love at first sight would seem, to bystanders, to be based solely on what is visible, such as “a pleasing form” and “an attractive costume." Yet the mysteries of the ecstatic mode are not revealed through careful, rational study: they are the product of experiences such as “collective possession and altered states of consciousness” (Whitehouse 303). There is certainly little logic and no deliberation involved when Penny agrees to marry Nev, “a man of whose character she knew nothing - or worse than nothing! A man, in fact, of whom she knew only that he had a spendthrift father, a taste for strong drink, and a very pretty mistress” (28). Rather, as though possessed, she assents to Nev’s proposal because her “tongue moved without consultation with her brain” (25). Admittedly she reverts to a semblance of rationality by proclaiming, in what seems a pastiche of Austen, that she sees

no reason why two people of good sense and amiable dispositions should not find a tolerable measure of conjugal felicity, even if they are not, perhaps, united by those bonds of affection and familiarity which one might wish. (26)

Yet this temporary, superficial reversion to rationality is undermined by the fact that it is rather unclear at this stage in the novel whether they are, in fact, “two people of good sense.” Penny’s rejected, sensible, legalistic suitor certainly believes they are not, and sends Penny a wedding gift of a series of Hogarth prints depicting a Marriage à la Mode. These begin with Lord Squanderfield contracting a marriage to a rich merchant’s daughter, proceed through “the young couple’s idle, unchaste life” (55), the lord’s death at the hands of his wife’s lover, and end with a depiction of the deathbed of his wife who, “back in her father’s house, had taken an overdose of laudanum on hearing of her lover’s execution” (56). It is a gift which clearly predicts a disastrous ending for both bride and groom since Penny is the daughter of a rich member of the mercantile class while Nev, like Lord Squanderfield, is a rather dissolute aristocrat.

Due to his lifestyle, Nev would appear to be similar to Lord Squanderfield and thus the antithesis of the Austenian hero. Indeed, Penny marries Nev despite the warnings contained in Austen’s novels. Lerner deliberately depicts Penny reading the following passage just before Nev arrives to propose to her:

Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence—and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury—had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. (Lerner 19)

It is a description of Austen’s anti-heroic Mr Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility, whose choice of bride, like Nev’s, is shaped by her wealth: Willoughby’s Miss Grey “is very rich” with “fifty thousand pounds” (Austen 205) and Nev’s Penny (whose surname, Brown, is similarly monochrome) has a dowry of “a hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds” (Lerner 7). Nev, too, has certainly acquired “habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury.”

Nev is, however, perhaps implicitly compared favorably to one Austen hero with respect to his response to Penny, for Nev considered her “very pretty” and appreciated her “fine dark eyes” (4) when they first met, at a ball. This description may recall Mr Darcy’s comment about “a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman” (Austen 73) in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, yet the proud and proper Darcy showed no enthusiasm about Elizabeth Bennet at the ball at which they first met. Indeed, he

had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. (70)

By contrast, Nev was eager to make Penny’s acquaintance, even though her mother’s Cockney accent made it clear that they were of much lower social status than him (Lerner 3). He may be faulted for his lack of propriety, but his lack of pride is depicted favourably.

With this and his “feeling, affectionate temper” intact, Lerner’s novel proceeds to demonstrate that Nev’s character had not sustained an “irreparable injury” as a result of his bad habits. Instead, he is able to veer from a life of excess to total renunciation of gambling “along with liquor and horse racing and women of easy virtue” (68) and also of his best friends, on the grounds that, as he tells them, “I’ve got to be respectable now, and I can’t do that with you two” (53). Moreover, he adopts a clearly legalistic view of love and marriage:

Living with someone, being married [...] that’s work [...]. It’s trying to be what she needs even if it doesn’t come naturally, and struggling to understand her, and working together to make a life! It’s accepting that sometimes things aren’t perfect. It’s understanding that sometimes one of you has responsibilities that have to come first, and knowing that she understands that too! (236)

In this legalistic frame of mind, Nev is unsympathetic towards his sister Louisa's love for Percy Garrett. It is clearly ecstatic “passion-love” (Paizis 109): “Louisa [...] was madly in love, [...] Mr. Garrett loved madly enough to throw caution to the winds” (218). Nev critiques their behaviour, saying he

can’t understand how a clever girl [...] could have been so stupid as to risk everything for a few stolen kisses. Tom Kedge saw you, did you know that? He’s threatening to tell Sir Jasper. The bastard’s been skimming from the Poor Authority funds and underpaying his employees, and I’m going to have to renew his lease to save you from the consequences of your own folly. (235)

Ruled only by love, Percy and Louisa simply respond by saying that they love each other; “He and Louisa said it the same way, as if it excused everything, as if it were the one unanswerable argument in the world. Maybe it did and maybe it was” (242). It is, indeed, the ecstatic mode’s argument about the rule of love. To Nev, though, who is taking into consideration the rules of society and attempting to be both “a responsible landlord and a responsible guardian to Louisa” (161), their love does not justify putting him in a position where he feels he must choose between letting Louisa’s reputation in society be destroyed, which would make her a social outcast, or abandoning measures to protect those who live on his estate from exploitation by Tom Kedge.

It should be noted, however, that although Percy and Louisa’s ecstatic love eventually prompts them to elope, risking yet greater scandal, they then promptly return because, as Louisa tells Nev, “I made him turn back after the first twenty miles. I couldn’t do that to you, Nate” (305). Louisa’s ecstatic love, it would appear, has been tempered by legalistic love, for her brother. Ultimately, therefore, neither the ecstatic nor the legalistic mode seems wholly satisfactory as a guide to how to approach all aspects of living. It is admirable to be “responsible” (161), especially when, as is the case for Nev, one has power over others’ lives: “At [Nev’s estate of] Loweston, if a man who had lived there all his life could not find work, it was because Nev had not hired him. If a child starved it was because Nev and Penelope had not given her food. At Loweston, they were answerable for all those people” (151). However, legalism can lead to “missing chances to be happy” (207) when it becomes “refined, sensible, and a little too careful” (95). Instead, the novel seems to adopt the Greek motto “Pan métron áriston [...] Moderation in all things” (51) with respect to the ecstatic and legalistic modes. Marriage to Penny helps Nev become more legalistic in his approach to life, while she is enabled to explore ecstatic aspects of existence:

She was in love, she loved him madly. She had always thought that grand passions were a myth created by fools to explain their own weak-willed behavior, and now their reality was blinding. Penelope felt as if she had turned a corner on an ordinary London street and seen a great dragon coiled there. (264)

Their marriage, then, effects a reconciliation of the ecstatic and legalistic modes in much the same way that the modern romance genre itself shows it to be the offspring of both Austen who, it has been claimed, is “the mother of the romance novel” (Crusie 240), and that collection of unruly ecstatic texts which includes the medieval romance, the Gothic novel and popular fictions such as broadside ballads.

As a work of literature, In for a Penny clearly combines elements of literary realism in the tradition of Austen with aspects of Gothic romance. Although Penny rejects the legalistic approach to marriage promoted by her reading of Austen’s fiction, neither she nor Lerner ever reject realism to the extent of viewing Nev in an unrealistic manner. As romance reviewer Janga Rholetter has observed, Penny

never sees him as a romanticized, impossibly handsome figure whom she loved at first sight. She views him as “a perfectly ordinary-looking young man” of “middling height” with hair that is “merely brown” and eyes that are “an ordinary blue, of an ordinary shape and size.”

Moreover, since Nev is not living in “a Minerva Press novel” (47), his need to marry for money is not represented as a “tragic sacrifice” (47). Even Nev’s debts of “tens of thousands” (48) of pounds are prosaically given to include bills for “candles and black gloves and ink” (22). Also detracting from potential melodrama is another way in which Nev requires Penny’s financial assistance. He can, as her father observes, “barely add” (29), and this incompetence leads Penny to offer him a quick lesson in how to “cast out nines” to “verify sums” (27). Penny, then, is definitely not the stereotypical Gothic heroine, whom she considers

a fainthearted creature incapable of a single coherent speech or thought [...] Existing merely to be abused by one’s guardian or abducted by an unprincipled rake [...] I never fainted in my life, and I am quite [...] capable of self-exertion and rational thought. (72)

However, Penny and Nev’s neighbour, Sir Jasper, became a widower under rather mysterious circumstances: his

wife was killed by one of the [spring] guns [in the grounds of their home], two years ago. She ought to have known better than to go walking in Sir Jasper’s coverts, but - well, no one knows what happened. She was found with a bullet through her head. (88-89)

This could merely have been an accident, but one imagines it would certainly have led to speculation by an avid and credulous reader of gothic novels such as Austen’s Catherine Morland. In Northanger Abbey (1818) she suspects that General Tilney had murdered his wife, only to be scolded

Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you - Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? (Austen 159)

The denouement of Lerner’s novel, however, does nothing to dispel the possibility that murders of this kind could be planned by men of Sir Jasper and General Tilney’s standing. Sir Jasper’s being English and a Christian does not prevent him feeling emotions of “pure violence [...]. His face was chalk white, his eyes dark, furious slits” (272). Perhaps Sir Jasper did commit an earlier crime and it is not until he goes “mad” (290), blaming Penny’s “degenerate influence” (275) for all his plans going awry, that his true nature is revealed to the neighbourhood. Gothic suspicions seem vindicated by a plot which involves a situation that recalls and undercuts Penny’s earlier words about the lack of realism inherent in “desperate duels amidst Gothic ruins” (71). Penny is lured into the woods below a “Gothic ruin” (286) so that Sir Jasper can dispose of her but Nev follows them, confronts the murderous Sir Jasper and

Within a very few moments, Penelope had more sympathy with Gothic heroines than she ever had before. There simply did not appear to be anything she could do to help Nev [...]. So she stood like a particularly useless stone and watched as he and Sir Jasper lunged and feinted [...].

Penelope remembered the Gothic heroine’s weapon. She began to scream, as loudly as she could. (299-300)

Having incorporated the Gothic into the plot, this section of the novel ends with the death of Sir Jasper and a return to normality which blends and reconciles the ecstatic and legalistic literary traditions: over a family breakfast Nev outlines an alternative to a “daring raid on the jail to free the poachers” (308) which will achieve this goal by literally co-opting legalism:

I shall have to become a justice of the peace and drop the charges. [...] True, he’d originally been planning something more in line with Louisa’s suggestion [of a “daring raid”], but with Sir Jasper safely dead, this was a better way. (309)