Ira and Isabella: Or the Natural Children, A Novel (1807) by William Hill Brown

Summer 2018 – Just Teach One, no. 13
Text prepared by Duncan Faherty (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center) and Ed White (Tulane University)

Text and Introduction (PDF)


Brown had extensive literary ambitions from a young age.  He was apparently inspired and encouraged by his aunt, Katherine Byles (1753-1833), granddaughter of the prolific clergyman satirist and poet Mather Byles (1706-1788).[1] By the age of twenty-three or -four, he had (anonymously) authored one of the first US novels, The Power of Sympathy (1789) and the short tale “Harriot: Or, The Domestick Reconciliation” (Massachusetts Magazine, 1789).  He also published a number of poems and songs, including the libretto for the comic “The Better Sort: Or, The Girl of Spirit. An Operatical, Comical Farce” (1789) and the tragic West Point Preserved or the Treason of Arnold (posthumously published, 1789), and authored two series of essays, published in Boston, under the monikers “The Reformer” (1789-90) and “The Yankee” (1790).  All of these works were left unsigned, as were some shorter poems and essays published during a stay in North Carolina, where his sister lived. Brown died suddenly in North Carolina in 1793, and though we do not have firm evidence, it is possible that he wrote Ira and Isabella there.  In any event, the manuscript remained unpublished until its posthumous appearance in Boston in 1807, apparently promoted by friends or family who wanted to highlight Brown’s literary achievements.

In Ira and Isabella, these literary ambitions are abundantly apparent.  The preface poses a number of questions focused less on the moral aim of the novella than on the literary craftsmanship and taste.  The narrative voice wonders about the “taste of the times,” the use of fantasy devices (like fairies) or shocking events in plot resolution, the challenges of distinguishing characters’ voices, and the problem of convention and novelty, and concludes with an elaborate, possibly satirical, chart about how to evaluate novelists.  In addition to the Spanish Miguel de Cervantes and two Swiss writers (Salomon Gessner, writing in German, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in French), the preface cites six French authors, from the long-popular François Fénelon and Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) to the more contemporary Jean-François Marmontel and Madame de Genlis (Stéphanie Félicité du Crest de Saint-Aubin). The remaining nine authors are British, from the Scottish Tobias Smollett to the Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne to English writers like Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson.  The range extends from the 16C François Rabelais and Cervantes to Charlotte Turner Smith and Frances Burney, whose novels would have been just recently available in North America. It may be worth noting, as well, that in the quantitative tally of literary qualities offered here, the top five scores are awarded to Johnson (122), Swift (121), Cervantes (117), Voltaire (116), and Sterne (113)–with the exception of Johnson, all writers well-known for their comic works.  Throughout Ira and Isabella, Brown explicitly references an additional seventeen authors while implicitly alluding to four others. William Shakespeare is mentioned or referenced no less than six times.  Familiarity with the literary world is always assumed.

As for the narrative itself, Ira and Isabella move through episodes with characters whose names seem to allude to different subgenres of fiction, from the allusive names of 18C comic adventure stories (the Savage family, opening and closing the narrative) to the pastoral romances with more Mediterranean settings (the Lorenzo exchange about true love) to the steamier tales of rakes (the Florio exchange about sexuality) and the more realist tales of surreptitious birth (the tale around Dr. Joseph and “the Nurse”).  It is as if the novella is playing with different conventions and literary modes from scene to scene. And in sharp contrast to the convention that illicit sexual behavior must be punished with death, the novel takes a jab at “the moral opinions of those novelists” and depicts Lucinda quite happily carrying on with her life.

It is this happy ending that may be most surprising.  Much of the familiar literature of the period adhered to sentimental conventions, frequently ending with tragic deaths or, at the very least, with tears.  By contrast, Ira and Isabella sets up several scenes of emotional tension only to resolve them comically.  As is common to much comic writing of the 18C, sexuality is understood as a regular feature of the social world, not simply with Lucinda and Mr. Savage but with Isabella herself.  This renders Ira a potentially silly figure, subject throughout the narrative to the corrections of other characters and literary modes. Numerous critics have noted the irony running through the narrative–perhaps Ira’s name itself alludes to this interplay of irony and Isabella.

Suggestions for further reading

In 1894, Arthur W. Brayley, after communication with William Hill Brown’s niece, Rebecca Valentine Thompson, identified Brown as the author of The Power of Sympathy: see “The Real Author of ‘The Power of Sympathy,’” in The Bostonian (December, 1894), 224-33.  Almost forty years later, Milton Ellis confirmed this identity, in part by examining similarities between Power and Ira and Isabella. For Ellis, Ira and Isabella represents an attempt by Brown “to salvage his plot [from The Power of Sympathy] by rewriting the story entirely, disguising its identity with the original form, omitting the illustrative episodes which proved injudicious at first, and substituting a happy ending for the appropriate tragic one,” (367); see Ellis, “The Author of the First American Novel,” American Literature, 4:1 (1933), 359-368. Four years later, Ellis edited the first modern edition of The Power of Sympathy and his introduction further advanced his argument about the connections between the two novels by suggesting that Ira and Isabella “is of particular interest in connection with The Power of Sympathy since it represents a second—or possibly earlier—attempt to deal with the same plot, a threatened incestuous marriage resulting from an earlier seduction” (v-vi), see, Ellis ed., The Power of Sympathy, William Hill Brown; reproduced from the 1st ed. (Columbia University Press, 1937). Building on the biographical portrait of Brown that Ellis framed, Roger Powell Marshall speculated that Ira and Isabella may have been the first American novel “written in North Carolina,” since Brown had moved to Murfreesboro to “to study law with General Davie” early in 1790 (184); see, Marshall, “A Mythical Mayflower Competition: North Carolina Literature in the Half-Century Following the Revolution,” The North Carolina Historical Review, 27:2 (1950), 178-192. Terence Martin was the first critic to offer a sustained commentary on Ira and Isabella in a 1959 essay which began by observing that while the novel had “succeeded only in being unnoticed,” it was nonetheless full of “many surprises” (238). Devoting most of his attention to considering the chart of authors which concludes Brown’s preface, Martin argues that the novel is notable for its “insight” about “the important relation between the novel and love,” its “unique sub-title,” and the aforementioned “unexplained ‘Scale of Novelists,’” which Brown uses to introduce the text (242). Martin decries what he considers the novel’s “amateurish characterization,” and its “feeble plot enacted with almost a complete lack of temporal-spatial setting, ironic diction, an allusive and playful manner” (242). For Martin, these surprises and flaws “merged into” a text which reflected “the quixotic temper of Brown’s imagination” (242); see Martin, “William Hill Brown’s Ira and Isabella,” The New England Quarterly, 32:2 (1959), 238-42. In his important compendium The Early American Novel (Ohio State University Press, 1971), Henri Pater argues that “it is not tenable to discuss Ira and Isabella exclusively as the reworking of material used in the main plot of The Power of Sympathy, with some of its features reversed or given an ironic slant” (251). Such attempts at conflation, Pater suggests, ignore how there are “parallels between the two books which are presumably independent of any burlesque of design and some traits which give Ira and Isabella a modest degree of distinctiveness” (251). Cathy Davidson notes that surprisingly “the protagonists of Ira and Isabella (who actually go through the marriage ceremony before they are told they are brother and sister) never regret that they cannot consummate their marriage” (29). In underscoring how the text upholds conventional scruples, she concludes that Ira and Isabella never “question the morality which forbids their union even though they do lament their ill-fortune,” and she views Brown’s revelations that they are not in fact siblings as a convenient way end the text and avoid having to reconcile the complexities of Ira and Isabella’s unconventional yet conventionally-minded situation (29); see Davidson, “The Power of Sympathy Reconsidered: William Hill Brown as Literary Craftsman,” Early American Literature, 10:1 (1975), 14-29. Philip Young is slightly dismissive of Ira and Isabella, when comparing it to Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, declaring it “another tale of incest that turns out not to be,” which he considers to be “more than a little satirical, and the fun lies in ‘the fatal Consequences of SEDUCTION’ this time around,” (121); see, Young, “’First American Novel’: The Power of Sympathy in Place,” College Literature 11:2 (1984), 115-124. For Anne Dalke, Ira and Isabella is unique among the wide range of early American texts which explore the issue of incest. Even as she describes how the novel registers concerns with how “fathers [who] misbehave . . . egregiously” inflict enormous suffering on their children, she concludes that “the book cheerfully dissolves the threat of incest that is viewed so soberly in other early American fiction. Indeed, Ira and Isabella is the only American novel of its period that portrays the incest threat as specious, and so allows a man and woman to marry who have been accused of being brother and sister;” see Dalke, “Original Vice: The Political Implications of Incest in the Early American Novel,” Early American Literature, 23:2 (1988), 188-201. In an intriguing essay on the prevalence of the epistolary form in the early Republic, Christian Quendler notes that Ira and Isabella serves as an “ironic” (since it declares itself a “A Novel, Founded on Fiction”) “predecessor of the legal framing conventions to disclaim intentional resemblances to living persons” so often associated with novels based on local scandals like Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789) or Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) (112); see, Quendler, “Framing National, Literary, and Gender Identities in Early American Epistolary Fiction,” Polysèmes: Revue d’études intertextuelles et intermédiales (11: 2011), 87-113. In her recent book Intimacy and Family in Early American Writing, Erica Burleigh traces how early American writers understood kinship in expansive ways in order to explore the possibilities for national cohesion. As part of her overall argument, she turns to Brown’s Ira and Isabella to suggest that it “mobilizes incest . . .as a logical end point for theories of affection in order to suggest that the very structure of intimacy threatens to dissolve the possibility of social relation and reproduction;” see, Intimacy and Family in Early American Writing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 9. David Lawrimore has recently argued that Brown’s prefatory catalog of novelists in Ira and Isabella reflects “acuity when it comes to the dictates of genre” (703). Lawrimore continues by noting that within Ira and Isabella, Brown moves beyond simply “cataloguing and reflexively compares” his own text “to the generic standard” in that “near the novel’s end, for example, the narrator pauses to explain how the happy end of a coquette contradicts the model seduction tale (703). “This subversion,” Lawrimore concludes “is a minor, playful example of how Brown” evinces his awareness “of the genre conventions and cannily reshapes them to fit his needs (703); see, Lawrimore, “The Novelist as Organic Intellectual: William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Reconsidered,” American Literature, 88:4 (2016), 695–721. Finally, in an essay entitled “The Early American Novel and Sentimentalism,” Philipp Schweighauser argues that Brown’s use of the subtitle “Founded in Fiction,” indicates his refusal “to subordinate the novelist’s right to invent fictional worlds to the demands of morality and religion” (228). As such, Schweighauser contends, “Brown aligns himself with the satirist and parodists that he extols alongside sentimental writers in his prefatory scale of novelists” (228). In this regard, “Ira and Isabella oscillates between a pre-modern inclination to make literature serviceable to morality and religion and a modern assertion of the right to fiction” (229). See, Schweighauser, “The Early American Novel and Sentimentalism,” in Handbook of Transatlantic North American Studies ed. Julia Straub, (De Gruyter, 2016), 213-233.

Teaching Reflections