The Wanderer: Volume II

Where the first volume of The Wanderer found Ellis in the unenviable position of a toad-eater (an eighteenth-century name for an indigent person who lives at the mercy of a protector whose payment was the pleasure of publicly tormenting one less fortunate), this volume finds her in the somewhat more comfortable position of seeking her own humble living. Making use of her musical talents, Ellis decides to set herself up as a music teacher. She soon discovers that even free from the immediate humiliations heaped upon her in Mrs. Maple's house, she still must suffer the prejudices and piques of the quality who wish to take advantage of her skill and time without rendering any service or payment in return. She exclaims, "how a FEMALE to forever fresh springing are her DIFFICULTIES when she would owe her existence to her own exertions! Her conduct is criticised, not scrutinized; her character is censured, not examined; her labours are unhonoured, and her qualifications are but lures to ill will! Calumny hovers over her head, and slander follows her footsteps!" (276).

Perhaps the most perilous tendency of those the gentry is their desire to pull her ever more fully into the public eye, an act which both assaults her female modesty and puts her secret past at risk of discovery. She is at turns neglected and despised or celebrated but harassed. Burney's exposition makes clear to the reader that Ellis's situation is not a peculiar one; she is the unhappy emblem of victims of a wrong but entrenched system of thought. The behaviors of those who both humiliate and neglect her are brought about by "hereditary habits, and imitative customs, which had always limited the proceedings of...almost every...noble family, of patronizing those who had already been elevated by patronage...To go further,--to draw forth talents from obscurity, to honour indigent virtue, were exertions that demanded a character of a superior species; a character that has learned to act for himself, by thinking for himself and feeling for others" (229). From this observation grows the novel's argument for progressive social reforms brought about by independent thinking and moral sentiment rather than by the violence and tyranny utilized by the sans-cullotes.

In this same volume we experience the return of Burney's symbol for the other side of reform: the violent, radical, and self-defeating Elinor. Secure in the justice of the indigested credos that she garnered from her sojourn in France, Elinor makes a public display of heroics at Ellis's first concert, publicly stabbing herself while declaring her love for Harleigh, the brother of her ex-intended. This act aims at being an incontrovertible sign of her own independence from the decorum and oppression of "hereditary habits," but instead comes off rather as an adolescent plea for attention. Ironically, her indecorum saves Ellis from making one of her own: displaying herself as a public performer and thus shutting her out forever from the place in polite society of which either her own family connections once discovered or Harleigh's love might one day give her the advantage.

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