The following long introduction to the work of Rosa Nouchette Carey (1840-1909) is a departure from the usual practice of the Victorian Fiction Research Guides. With increasing interest in the minor novelists in the period covered by the Guides, it seems timely to provide readers with a more comprehensive outline, in the work of one author, of some of the recurring themes and patterns treated by many of these novelists. Carey is a suitable subject for this task. Her oeuvre was considerable, and it is doubtful whether researchers who are looking at the period as a whole would be able or even inclined to become familiar with it all. This guide therefore offers a survey of the overall characteristics of her novels in sufficient detail to permit modern readers to identify in her oeuvre the individual works relevant to their own concerns.
Rosa Nouchette Carey was a popular and prolific writer of what her reviewers characterized as “wholesome” domestic romances in the tradition of Jane Austen and, more immediately, of Charlotte M. Yonge. Between 1868, when her first novel Nellie’s Memories appeared, and her death in 1909, she produced forty-one novels (two more than the thirty-nine she is credited with by the Dictionary of National Biography and by Wolff); thirty-three of these novels were of “triple decker” length (450-500 pages in the standard one-volume Bentley and Macmillan editions) and eight were somewhat shorter (250-300 pages), six of these being for The Girl’s Own Paper and the Religious Tract Society. She also produced a number of short stories and articles and the biographical study Twelve Notable Good Women of the XlXth Century.
To these works we may possibly need to add a further four pseudonymous novels by “Le Voleur”, attributed to Carey in the British Library catalogue. To date, however, there is no evidence to support this attribution. Hutchinson’s records might have settled the matter, as both names were on their list at one stage, but the relevant archives were destroyed during the Second World War. The “Le Voleur” novels are totally unlike those to which Carey put her name, being strongly plot-oriented and sensational. This difference would be ample grounds for her using a pseudonym, but it is hard to imagine so consistently wholesome a writer dealing in murder, adultery, “savage lust” and “brutish passion”. Nor do the reviews of works by either writer mention any connection, although, if one was known or suspected, it would have been extremely newsworthy. Moreover, given their publication dates, the “Le Voleur” titles would have represented a considerable increase in Carey’s productivity, and at a time when any pressures on her to seek additional sources of income would seem to have been diminishing. The works by “Le Voleur”, therefore, have not been included in the following account of Carey’s novels; they are, however, listed in a separate section of the bibliography.
Carey’s first novel was dismissed by its original reviewers as “feeble” and “not worth reading”, and her popularity, according to Bentley as reported by Morgan, was “slow in coming” (Morgan p.184). That she did become extremely popular however, at least with some sections of the reading public, is amply demonstrated by the number of editions and reprints to which most of her novels, including the so cavalierly treated first one, actually ran. The following figures, taken from the publisher’s advertisement bound with The Sunny Side of the Hill (1908), are of interest here, even allowing that they may be inflated:
Nellie’s Memories (originally published 1868) “52nd Thousand.”
Wee Wifie (1869) “38th Thousand.”
Not Like Other Girls (1884) “41st Thousand.”
Only the Governess (1888) “37th Thousand.”
The Mistress of Brae Farm (1896) “30th Thousand.”
Herb of Grace (1901) “25th Thousand.”
At the Moorings (1904) “21st Thousand.”
As further evidence of her recognition one might note her inclusion in such contemporary surveys of popular writers as Sarah Tooley’s “Some Women Novelists” in Woman at Home ( 1897), in the London Magazine’s “Who’s Who in Literature” (1904), in Helen Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day (1906), and in an article by A. B. Cooper on “The Mottoes of Distinguished Men and Women” in the Sunday at Home (1909/10), as well as the fact that she rated obituary notices in both the Times and New York Times. In spite of — probably even because of — an increasing perception of her as being “old-fashioned”, this popularity continued for several decades after her death. The present writer’s father recalls buying a complete set of her novels “in about 1928” as a birthday present for his mother; and Charles Morgan notes in his 1943 history of Macmillan that “a dozen” titles “were until quite recently in print” (p.184). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that one can still come across her books in secondhand shops.
The few details of Carey’s life to be gleaned from contemporary interviews and such of her letters as have survived present a fairly familiar picture for the times, and, indeed, one that would not be out of place in her own novels. The daughter of a London ship broker, she was born on 24 September 1840, the last but one of a family of five sisters and two brothers. After an early education which she described to Helen Black as “somewhat desultory”, due to her “delicate” health she attended the Ladies Institute at St. John’s Wood. For most of her adult life, she divided her time between her writing and the family duties usual for women of her class, married and unmarried alike. Indeed, as Elaine Showalter suggests, it was probably these same family duties that gave financial and moral sanction to her career as a writer, as it did for many other women novelists of the period (1977 p.58). After their father’s death, she and another unmarried sister continued to live with and look after their mother; when she died the sisters joined their widowed brother in Croydon and cared for his four children; her sister’s marriage to Canon Simpson and later her brother’s death left her with virtually sole responsibility for her brother’s family. For the last twenty or so years of her life Carey appears to have enjoyed a measure of independence, sharing a series of houses in Putney with her close friend Helen Marion Burnside (known for her poetry and her art needlework and a regular contributor to The Girl’s Own Paper, in which they both took an interest) and the by then widowed Mrs. Simpson, whom Sarah Tooley reports as being the practical “Martha” of the household while the other two got on with their writing (1897 p.164). Carey died on 19 July 1909, and was buried in Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green, West Hampstead. Of the two epitaphs over the grave, “Peace Perfect Peace” was possibly her own choice, being one she gave to some of her fictional characters; “She Being Dead Yet Speaketh” seems more likely to have been a tribute added by her family or Helen Marion Burnside.
The forty-one novels published regularly throughout the forty-one years between Carey’s father’s death and her own in many ways help flesh out the bare outline of their writer’s life. The almost guide-book descriptions of Kirkby Stephen, Westmoreland, in Heriot’s Choice (1879) are known to derive from frequent visits there to her sister and brother-in-law, Canon Simpson, to whom the novel is dedicated; a letter in the Wolff collection reveals that the central house in the story is modelled on the vicarage where the Simpsons lived, and the heroine’s room is the one that was usually occupied by the novelist herself (1981 p.206). The basic story situation of this novel is also familiar to both sisters: “Aunt Milly”, still in mourning for the mother whom she has nursed through her final illness, is called to fresh duties caring for her recently widowed brother and his children. Extrapolating from this certified instance, one can guess at several visits to France having produced the substantial regional detail surrounding heroines’ visits to Flanders in Mary St. John (1882), to Brittany in Basil Lyndhurst (1889), and to the Cote d’Azur in At the Moorings (1904) and The Household of Peter (1905). Many of the highly individualized houses and gardens, not to mention household pets, so lovingly described in the novels seem likely also to have had their real life counterparts. The authentic feel to certain characters’ ailments can reasonably be attributed to firsthand experience – the eye trouble from which Carey suffered in 1895 appearing in Mollie’s Prince (1898), and Helen Marion Burnside’s deafness in A Passage Perilous (1903). More generally, one might note that the situations so often depicted, although common enough in domestic fiction of the period, were ones with which Carey had, or can be presumed to have had, some personal acquaintance: families making do on small means, coming to terms with bereavement and new responsibilities, moving into a new neighbourhood or a different house, allegiances, frictions and jealousies among members of a large family. Speculation about origins aside, the telling observation of domestic detail is a major characteristic of her works, and one on which reviewers regularly commented.