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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Vortex of Dissipation | guest post from Lona Manning

You can find Lona Manning's opinions on sundry Austenesque topics in this year's Janeite Conversations, but today, she joins us to talk about the scandal! The horror! The dreaded: ~Vortex of Dissipaaaationnn~... 


“Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good;” Jane Austen told her niece Anna Lefroy, an aspiring novelist, ”but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘vortex of Dissipation’. I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression; it is such thorough novel slang–and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened."

Austen’s warning to her niece about the “vortex of dissipation” being “thorough Novel slang” got me curious. I wondered how many authors of her era used the term? Turns out it was easy to find many vortexes, not just in novels, but in conduct-books and magazines. Here are just a few of them:

Novels of Austen’s era often described London as a place of vice and hypocrisy where the gilded and privileged upper class wasted their money and corrupted their morals. For example, in Modern Times, or the Age We Live In, a dissipated noblewoman faces bankruptcy and social ruin. She laments: “At my mother’s death had I possessed a prudent friend, how much sorrow might I have escaped! Alas, I was not so fortunate, and I launched into the world, vainly seeking happiness where it was never yet to be found—in a vortex of folly and the bustle of dissipation!”

In Geraldine, or modes of faith and practice, the clergyman Mr. Maitland cautions the heroine that she has been neglecting her religious observance in favour of the London social scene. “There is some danger of your being drawn into a vortex, where perils abound, and from whence escape is difficult.” But Mr. Maitland doesn’t need to worry. The virtuous heroines of 18th century novels were always repulsed by the vanities and hollow pleasures of London life. Clara in Clara and Emmeline tells her sister Emmeline: “Perhaps the dissipated vortex in which we live might be disagreeable to you…. believe me, my love, I by no means approve the bustle of fashion I am forced to endure…”

The law student Mr. Churchill in Memoirs of Modern Philosophers is too poor to be “drawn into the vortex of dissipation.” Another young hero survived the vortex: “though, unguarded by moral or religious inculcation, I was left, in the very fever of passion, to my own guidance—though carried away by the current, and whirled round for a time in the vortex of dissipation, I never sunk to the level of the gambler, the bacchanal, or the debauchee—my honour has always been untainted.” 

Essayists all assured their readers that the temptations of dissipation led only to misery. Fordyce’s Sermons (the book which Mr. Collins wanted to read to the Bennet girls) warns against the “whirl of dissipation” which can carry away “the weak and the wavering.” Likewise, in his Enquiry Into the Duties of the Female Sex, Thomas Gisborne says “so magnetic is the example of wealth, and rank, and fashion; that she who approaches the stream with a mind unsteadied by those principles of moderation and sobriety which are essential to the Christian character [may be] sucked into the vortex, and whirled, day after day, year after year, in a never-ending round of giddiness and dissipation.”

The British Magazine and the Monthly Mirror printed “letters to the editor,” which were really cautionary tales in disguise. A heedless girl named Melissa “whirled in the vortex of dissipation” until struck by tragedy and financial ruin. A man wrote to confess that he and his wife were “irresistibly sucked within the vortex of dissipation” after receiving a large inheritance, and “we entertained guests whom we despised, we visited friends whom we did not love, and invited company whom we could not esteem. We drank wine that we could not relish, and ate victuals that we could not digest… Our houses might have been termed the temple of uproar; card-tables were the shrines, and the votaries seemed agitated by the demons of envy, spite, rage, vexation and despair.”

Despite Austen’s warning about “thorough novel slang,” authors continue to drop their characters into a vortex of dissipation for decades afterwards. In the 1867 novel Old Court, Sir Walter D’Arcy, a young baronet, is “whirled about for some time” in a “giddy vortex of a London life,” while the beautiful Lucetta Chetwynd is accused of rushing “headlong into a vortex of dissipation.”

The novelist Maria Edgeworth wrote a short story which pokes fun at the cliché on its head. Her story features an idealistic young man named Forester who rejects the station in life to which he was born. He tells his tutor: “I feel that I cannot be at ease in the vortex of dissipation; and the more I see of the higher ranks of society, the more I regret that I was born a gentleman.”

His tutor thinks Forester is silly and has been reading too many novels: “You inform me, that you cannot live in the vortex of dissipation, or eat the bread of idleness, and that you are determined to be a gardener. These things seem to have no necessary connection with each other. Why you should reproach yourself so bitterly for having spent one evening of your life in a ballroom, which I suppose is what you allude to when you speak of a vortex of dissipation, I am at a loss to discover.”
We will never know the fate of Anna Austen LeFroy’s Devereux Forester because she never published her novel and it has been lost to history. Did he escape the whirl of dissipation? Or was he caught in the vortex?

Lona Manning is the author of the Mansfield Trilogy, based on Austen’s Mansfield Park, and has contributed short stories to Christina Angel Boyd’s Quill Ink Austenesque anthologies. Her website is at www.lonamanning.ca, where she publishes her blog series, “Clutching My Pearls.” Follow her on Twitter at @lonamanning.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Many 18th century novels showed dissipated characters, but for the purposes of morality, it was important that they either be reformed or be punished by the end of the story. Thus they provided both titillation and a moral lesson.
    I think my favourite dissipated character in 18th century literature is Lady Delacour from Belinda by Maria Edgeworth, though she doesn't use the word "vortex."

  3. Goes to show I shouldn't assume what words were in vogue back in the day. I would have never picked 'vortex' to show up in so many novels and other books back then. Interesting how it was to draw attention to the untemperate vices.
    Food for thought. Thanks, Lona!

  4. Now I am thinking how I can slip this phrasing into my own novel. Ha!

  5. I feel like that would've been an apt term to use for my college experience (but now I'll be dropping it into the Regency LARP letters I write)- thanks! :D


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