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My article in this month’s Recusant History, entitled ‘Elizabeth Inchbald’s “Catholic Novel” and its local background’, has just been published.
Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story (1791) was the first novel written by an English Catholic with Catholic characters. It was set in the world of the Catholic gentry, a world that Inchbald knew well from her upbringing in Suffolk on a farm adjacent to the estate of an ancient Catholic family. Inchbald herself acknowledged that one of the book’s characters, the ex-Jesuit Sandford, was based on an individual from her childhood, and some effort has been made by Inchbald scholars (notably Patricia Sigl and Michael Tomko) to research her Catholic background and the Gage and Rookwood families whose history may have inspired aspects of the novel. However, the Gage family’s papers have not been considered for the light they can throw on Inchbald and the eighteenth-century Catholic community in Suffolk. These sources contain references to the Simpson family and have the potential to enliven our understanding of the immediate environment of Inchbald’s youth. This article corrects misconceptions transmitted by James Boaden and other biographers of Inchbald, proposes a new identity for the man who became the model for Sandford, and draws attention to possible correspondences between the circumstances and relationships of the Gage family and the characters in A Simple Story.
My study of Inchbald arose almost inevitably from my ongoing research into the papers of the Gage and Rookwood families. After all, Inchbald is the most famous person ever to emerge from the Catholic community of West Suffolk. Hopefully this article will see Inchbald located more firmly in her local context – after all, even after she moved to London she frequently returned to Stanningfield to visit her family.