Archive for August, 2010


Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 1)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender


History, as I have already mentioned, is not my strong suit (I was a science/geography girl). So when an historical drama tampers with the facts to such a degree that even I can spot it easily, it’s cause for concern.

Sometimes, of course, there are very good reasons for screenwriters to take historical liberties – particularly when the facts are in dispute and we don’t know for sure what happened anyway: such speculation is understandable and, dramatically speaking, essential. Sometimes, in adapting a true story, it is necessary to compress events just on practical grounds. And then there are the times when history is re-written for no good reason you can think of, which is the case with Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.

It’s hard to know what James McGovern was trying to do here. His extensive alterations suggests he had some particular agenda in mind, but the end product hardly supports this view. The story is built on a simple schema of Catholic vs Protestant. The Protestants are, one and all, depicted as lying, scheming murderers, which might suggest we’re supposed to side with, or at least sympathise with, the Catholics – except that counterbalancing this we have the fact that everything, and I mean everything, the Catholics do fails due to their own stupidity. Possibly we’re just supposed to curl our lips contemptuously at both factions.

For its DVD release, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has been compressed into two uneven chapters, the first, shorter part dealing with the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the second part with that of her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, leading up of course to the infamous failed plot of November 1605.

First the good news: this production is very well cast. Kevin McKidd gives us a romantic Bothwell (no wife-abandoning, possible rapist here), devoted to Mary, but ultimately too violently impulsive for his or anyone else’s good. Paul Nicholls as Darnley moves from superficially charming suitor to drunken, abusive husband with frightening conviction; and Catherine McCormack is a rather splendid Elizabeth I, although her appearances are disappointingly brief.

The French actress Clémence Poésy is not at all my idea of Mary, but she gives an interesting performance, although one somewhat hampered by the script’s desire to have Mary all things to all people. Essentially, what James McGovern does is declare Mary guilty of almost everything she’s ever been accused of, while providing her with excuses for her actions. I say “almost” because she is exonerated on the charge of an adulterous affair with her Italian advisor, David Rizzio…but then “wee David” is (rightly or wrongly) coded gay here, presumably by way of explanation of Mary’s failure to transgress.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot begins with the death of Mary of Guise, and the return of her daughter to Scotland to claim her throne. Curiously, the script ignores the fact that she had been “Mary, Queen of Scots” since the ripe old age of 6 days. It also ignores her first marriage, and her time as Queen Consort of France, partly so that it can show her development/corruption from her beginnings as “a wee girl, a silly young thing”, and partly so that she can be given an horrendous wedding night after her marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

The description of Mary as “a silly young thing” issues from her illegimitate half-brother, James Stewart, here depicted as conspiring against Mary with Elizabeth from the outset, rather than turning against her after her marriage to an Englishman. Mary has already upset both religious factions by declaring her intention of allowing Scotland to remain Protestant, while continuing to practise her own faith, despite violent opposition to this from John Knox and his followers. James stirs the pot still further by goading the young Catholic Sir John Huntly into the murder of another prominent Protestant, Lord Gunn. Mary’s refusal to stay his execution turns the Catholics against her, too.

The Huntly episode is a fabrication. In fact, all the major events of Mary’s reign are jumbled and misordered here. We have Bothwell declaring his love for Mary and being rejected because of his “inferior” position, which is nonsense. There is, nevertheless, an odd attempt to depict Mary and Bothwell as star-crossed lovers,  their desires thwarted by Mary’s determination to bear a son who will be heir to the English throne. This possibility motivates her marriage to Darnley, whose conduct subsequent to the wedding justifies, in script terms, everything else that happens. Darnley soon degenerates into drunken violence, as Bothwell glowers from the sidelines.

James takes the opportunity to arrange, and involve Darnley in, the murder of David Rizzio, attempting to seize power in the wake of it. However, Bothwell manages to smuggle Mary out of the castle. The two of them raise an army, and drive James and his followers from Scotland. Bothwell again declares his feelings for Mary, who returns them, but rejects his advances on the grounds of her pregnancy. Bothwell is sent into a sort of exile after this, during which he works off his feelings by slaughtering the English, and by sending Elizabeth news of Mary’s pregnancy. The little detail of his own marriage, at which Mary was a guest, is never mentioned.

As with many such productions, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot does very well in its interior scenes, but fails in its exteriors due to a paucity of extras. This hurts the story at several points, but never so much as in the scene of “Mary’s army” and “James’s army”, in which there are rarely more than eight people in shot. Besides that, of course, there’s the fact that James had been driven out of Scotland a year before Rizzio’s murder, after leading a failed rebellion in the wake of Mary’s marriage. Darnley did arrange and participate in the murder, at which time Mary – in whose presence it was committed – was already seven months’ pregnant with the future King James.

In this storyline, a temporarily sober Darnley reappears from wherever after the birth of his son, and in his one decent action declares the child legitimate. Anything resembling reconciliation evaporates the next moment, however, as Mary tells Darnley bluntly that it is only for this that she has spared his life.

We get a rare bit of historical accuracy next, as Bothwell is seriously injured (an attempt on his life by James), and Mary rides to his camp to see him. The two become lovers (so much for “seriously injured”), and they continue their not-very-discreet affair after Bothwell’s resummons to Edinburgh. This is the last straw for Darnley, who has returned to his violent, drunken ways. Barred from Mary’s bedroom, one night he breaks in and tries to rape her. It is this that provokes Bothwell to propose his murder, to which Mary does not agree until Darnley threatens the baby – his reasoning being that if the child is dead, Mary will have to return to his bed to conceive another.

We make no bones here about Bothwell’s guilt, which I suppose is fair enough; but the depiction of the murder is fairly ridiculous. Having failed to kill Darnley by blowing him up with gunpowder (Subtle Foreshadowing!), Bothwell tracks him down and strangles him in front of witnesses. Friendly witnesses, but still… After this, it is not Bothwell’s mock-trial, acquittal, divorce and rapid marriage to Mary that turns Scotland against them – bad enough, you might have thought – but the fact that the two of them are openly living together! However, some time into the conflict (there’s never any sense here of the amount of time passed), Mary decides that enough men have died for her, and she turns herself over to the English, where she is imprisoned and her baby, literally torn from her arms, last seen in the ominous grasp of James…

[To be continued…]


Fiction factions

I’ve found Factual Fictions a very useful addition to this course of historical / social reading: it has, for the most part, quite a different focus from most other studies looking at “the rise of the novel”, concentrating its first half upon print media generally, the evolution of news, and – even as early as mid-16th century – social concerns over the truth, or otherwise, of printed material and its possibly corrupt effects. (Looking at this through contemporary eyes, we see that the concern was indeed focused upon the truthiness of news.) Lennard Davis’s study is wide-ranging, and addresses any number of critical watersheds, among them:

    • the infinite definitions of “novel” that existed across the 17th and 18th centuries
    • not just the development of printing, but the lessening of its cost during the 17th century, which put the dissemination of information within the reach of many, and took this prerogative away from church and state
    • the founding of regularly published journals during the conflict between the Royalists and the Roundheads for purely political reasons, which saw “truth” redefined in terms of political truth, party truth, and a shift in attitude by the ruling classes towards the population in general, which ceased to be viewed merely as a mob to be repressed and controlled, and became instead a force to be appealed to for support
    • the attempt to control the press in the early 18th century by taxing the publication of news, which forced a separation between “news” and “fiction” (which until then had generally been co-published if not blended, and were frequently both undistinguished and indistinguishable), and sent each entity on its own distinct evolutionary journey

Factual Fictions then considers the widespread and lingering habit of claiming a fictional work to be true, and the question of why, more than fifty years after Aphra Behn and with “the novel” an accepted and recognised form of writing, we still find Samuel Richardson insisting upon the literal truth of Pamela. The gradual shift towards a distinction between moral truth and literal truth that became the justification of the novel is examined, as well as the way this led to the eventual pruning away of the political / amatory writings of Behn, Manley and Haywood from the novel’s history.

At the climax of his study, Davis tags as the key work, the first real novel, Tom Jones – citing Fielding’s habit of repeatedly reminding his readers that the work is entirely fictional (something that profoundly disturbed the critics of the day), his chatty, omniscient narrator, and the artistic breakthrough that saw real-life events threaded into a self-declared fictional narrative, with the closing stages of the story running in parallel with, and occasionally crossing paths with, the Jacobite Rebellion of November and December 1745.

The jewel in the crown here, however, is Davis’s chapter on Daniel Defoe, in which he highlights not only the incredible manoeuvrings to which Defoe resorted in order to avoid ever having to admit anything he wrote was fiction, but links this with Defoe’s, shall we say, malleability of political conviction, which saw him working for both parties simultaneously while repeatedly denying that he was working for either, and even uttering those denials to the people who were paying him to work for them! So convoluted were Defoe’s actions in this respect that I think I cannot do better than simply quote Lennard Davis’s summation of the situation, in which he declares—

…the frames that are involved here are almost mind-boggling. Defoe, originally a Whig writer, was persuaded to write from the Tory point of view for Harley by insinuating himself into the control of a Whig paper. However, Defoe then secretly agreed to push the original Whig position while pretending to write as a Tory infiltrator… As if this were not enough, Defoe also agreed to infiltrate Dormer’s Newsletter, which was a Tory opposition paper, and to cause, “The sting of that mischievous paper to be entirely taken out, though it was granted that the style should continue Tory, as it was, that the party might be amused and not set up another, which would have destroyed the design.” One has only to imagine the subtlety of style required to produce the Whig Flying Post that would allow the Tories to think they had infiltrated it while at the same time expressing the Whig hard-line point of view. And Defoe did all this while writing Dormer’s Newsletter in such a way that the Tories would believe he was writing from their viewpoint while in reality he was infusing Whig ideology…

But he never wrote fiction! Let’s be quite clear about that!

Davis takes at face value the attack upon Defoe and Robinson Crusoe by his contemporary, the author, playwright and critic Charles Gildon (as Kate Loveman does not, arguing instead that Gildon’s response was an example of the faux-outrage with which Defoe’s various shams were punished), and in doing so highlights the fact that, whatever the motive for his outburst, Gildon may have stumbled onto a critical insight about Defoe: that he did, indeed, Think, that the manner of your telling a lie will make it a truth…

“To read” addition:

The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 – Lawrence Stone


Lennard J. Davis throws down the gauntlet

I’ve mentioned how irritating I find the condescending attitude of many early studies on the rise of the novel towards the reading population of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as I do the insistence that anything not written by Daniel Defoe was not at all important. I’m pleased to find that I’m not alone in that respect. Midway through Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, he begins to consider the many professional writers of that time, and takes exception to the dismissive tone of certain of his fellow analysts. Strong exception.

    …even Ian Watt, whose Rise Of The Novel had done much to place novels in their proper class perspective, begins his book with Robinson Crusoe and dismisses the earlier forms of popular fiction as irrelevant. Watt glides over serialized fiction, which, as we will see, was the predominant reading material for a good deal of the literate public, saying that, “The poorer public is not very important*; the novelists with whom we are concerned did not have this form of publication in mind.” Watt is wrong on this score, and his decision to begin at the moment when novels began to be more widely accepted by the middle-class reader creates the impression that before Defoe there was not much in the way of prose fiction. Watt barely mentions the novels of Aphra Behn, Mrs Manley, Mary Davys, Ned Ward, Eliza Haywood, and others.
    While it may be true that many of these works are inferior to those of Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding, there is much in them that is essential to understanding the history of the novel. Certainly, Defoe at his worst is not as good as Manley at her best, and the History Of Rivella is as inventive and creative of two-thirds of Defoe’s hack exercises…

You go, Lennard!



Tabloid journalism, circa 1640

Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions differs from most of the other studies of the rise of the novel that I have read in being much more interested in form than content. It asks, in essence, how did the novel get to be the novel? In one chapter, Davis deals with the role played by ballads in the 16th and 17th centuries, presenting them as an early form of news broadcast, a way in which word of various events was disseminated amongst the population at large with unprecedented rapidity and immediacy. Criminal lives and deaths were a particularly popular subject, and the more gruesome the details, the better. Here* is an account of the execution of a man convicted of treason:

    His Belly ripped open wide, his Bowel all he gat.
    And to the fire he straight
         them threwe which ready there was made:
    And there consumed all to dust, as is the fire’s trade.
    His head cut off, the Hangman then, did take it up
        in hand:
    And up alofte he did showe, to all that there did stand.
    And then his body in four parts was quartered in that
    More pity that his traitorous heart, could take no
      better grace.

It doesn’t seem that this particular branch of journalism has changed much in the last 400 years. You can almost hear the ballad-seller, can’t you? “Our ballads get you closer than ever before! As if YOU were one of those that there did stand!”

(*Davis reproduces this ballad from Ballads And Broadsides, edited by Herbert Collman [1912])


A watched interlibrary loan never arrives

I suppose it’s my own fault for being naive. I meant to launch this blog with a review of the book officially first in my new reading list; which is to say, after sliding inexorably backwards in literary history since first conceiving this project, I finally managed to make myself draw a line in the sand at one particular work. Unfortunately, the work in question required an interlibrary. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll place it and fill in the time with some non-fiction; how long could it take, anyway?

Well, I’ll say this: it’s not *the* slowest interlibrary loan in history; I suffered that earlier in the year, working on a different project (three and a half months to get from one side of the city to the other); but it’s starting to push for the title… So here I sit, twiddling my thumbs while my blog template shakes its head sadly and gives me reproachful glances.

So— More non-fiction!

I don’t mean to say much about Ros Ballaster’s Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction From 1684 To 1740, because I will likely be dealing with its main subject matter – the fiction of Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood – in context at a later date. I will say, though, that in its willingness to take the writing of these well-meaning ladies on its own terms and examination the political and social context of its creation, it provided a welcome counterbalance to the dismissive attitude of John Richetti’s Popular Fiction Before Richardson. Ballaster traces the various influences that shaped Aphra Behn’s fiction in particular, before showing how she in turn influenced other writers including Manley and Haywood. From the point of view of my own limited knowledge, perhaps the most interesting, if rather depressing, aspect of the book was the discovery that the most purely amatory writing of the three, that of Eliza Haywood, is ultimately also the most joyless, painting love and passion as inevitably destructive for the female sex. Ballaster also goes on to show how, under the increasing and ever-more restrictive demands of respectability, these three vital female writers were, over time, ruthlessly pruned out of the publicly acknowledged version of the novel’s family tree.

I was a little out of my depth with Life In The Georgian City, by art and architecture historian and BBC documentarian / presenter Dan Cruickshank and his collaborator, Neil Burton. Much of the hardcore architectural detail passed me by, I’m afraid; but on the other hand, the sections of the book dealing with daily life for the inhabitants of London during the 18th century were fascinating. Despite its broad title, the book does focus almost exclusively upon life in London purely, as Cruickshank admits, because of the comparative wealth of information that can be drawn upon. This study examines practicalities like house design and decoration and room arrangements; the evolution of house fittings such as lights, ovens, water and fuel sources, and (oh, admit it, you really do want to know!) sanitary arrangements; at how people of all sorts occupied houses of all sorts, and went about their daily lives; and at the rise of the garden. The book concludes with various case studies of specific elements of Georgian-built houses still standing in London (one of which, I gather, is Dan Cruickshank’s own). The text is well-supported by numerous photographs and reproductions of sketches and paintings.

More Dan Cruickshank. The Royal Hospital Chelsea: The Place And The People is an account of the famous military pension-house established by Charles II (at the prompting of Nell Gwynne, or so legend has it) partly as a refuge for those injured or disabled through militaty service, and partly as a barracks to serve as a standing warning to various disgruntled factions. The book is a deft sketch of the Hospital’s chequered history of threatened closures, political manoeuvring and financial chicanery, and a celebration of its survival into the 21st century. Cruickshank’s account has something for almost every interest, as it glances at the royal, architectural, military and political influences that shaped the Hospital – including the outright corruption of many given the task of running it. (Fun [?] fact: the famous Ranelagh pleasure gardens were built illegally on profits siphoned off from the Hospital.) The book is almost overflowing with sketches, paintings and photographs. An engaging read.

Currently reading: Factual Fictions: The Origins Of The English Novel by Lennard J. Davis. (Or to put it another way, no, my interlibrary loan still hasn’t arrived. Sigh…)


Lyes, damn’d lyes, and hoaxes

Now, THAT was interesting – if not at all what I expected when I borrowed it. Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture is a fascinating study of a complex and dangerous era in English history. It is, however, far more history-centric than I expected from the title. That’s not a criticism: rather, it’s an admission that I’m weak in history, which is one of the subjects I’m reading for in this course. I didn’t do too badly, overall: I already knew about the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, and even the sham-prince and the warming-pan; but I confess, references to the “Meal Tub Plot” and the “Flower-Pot-Association” (!) sent me scrambling for Google.

Loveman’s book deals initially with the religious and political upheaval of the Restoration, and the battle lines between the various factions: pro- and anti-monarchy; pro- and anti-Stuart; pro- and anti-Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian; and pro- and anti-Tory and Whig. The latter in particular, the rise of party politics, seems to have been key, as it became acceptable (and relatively safe) to be in opposition without necessarily being in opposition to the king. It was a time of plots, false accusations and frame-ups; a time that got a great many innocent people killed, and saw the legitimate heir to the throne forced into exile. There was nothing remotely funny about these particular “shams”.

However, running in parallel with these deadly serious manoeuvrings were three related phenomena: the “bantering” and “raillery” and “biting” that flourished in and around the coffee-houses of London, themselves a relatively new phenomenon; the chroniques scandaleuses and romans à clef that did much to undermine the already-shaky position of James II and Mary of Modena; and the extraordinarily complicated literary hoaxes perpetrated during the same period, some again for political and/or religious purposes, and some, it seems, just for @#$%@ and giggles.

It was the latter that were of the most interest to me, as playing a significant role in the rise of fiction writing. Loveman examines the purpose(s) of these hoaxes; how exactly they were worked; how they exploited the news networks of the day; and most importantly how the reading public reacted to them. What is perhaps most amusing about the whole thing is the way that these hoaxes relied absolutely for their success upon male gossip – the swapping of stories and rumours and theories around the coffee-houses and at the Royal Exchange – although of course it wasn’t called “gossip” then any more than it is now. Women being barred at the time from all of the direct news sources, and largely from acquiring the education required to participate, hoaxing was necessarily a game played exclusively by men.

The most refreshing thing about Loveman’s book is the picture it paints of the reading public of the day. Far too many of these studies dealing with the early days of the novel treat the readers of the time like idiots: “simple” people capable of understanding only “simple” stories. While it is true that a great proportion of the population was only just emerging from illiteracy, it seems also true that the already devoted readers of the day were anything but “simple”: Loveman uses extracts from letters and diaries and reactive publications to demonstrate that the readers at whom the hoaxes were targeted were intelligent, sceptical and capable of intensely analytical scrutiny of the text. Hoaxing, she argues, was a two-way game understood and enjoyed by both parties to it, one in which the authors certainly did not have it all their own way.

The final section of the book looks at how this atmosphere of wary and cynical reading impacted upon the development of the novel in the early 18th century, focusing primarily upon the works of Daniel Defoe. Defoe was known to the public as both a shammer and a party political writer. When Robinson Crusoe was published, a section of the public took its revenge on him for his various deceits by choosing to treat it not as “fiction” but as “a true story” – one therefore demonstrably full of blatant lies. It didn’t matter that Defoe didn’t want to play any more; the public wasn’t done with the game. Loveman goes to to show how the reception of Robinson Crusoe shaped Defoe’s subsequent fiction, with the rapid development of the unreliable narrator; Roxana in particular, who tells lies to the other characters, if not to the reader, withholds information, and sometimes chooses to deceive herself. This approach allowed Defoe to place a critical distance between himself and his creation: it isn’t the author who is lying, it’s the narrator. Finally, Loveman examines Jonathan’s Swift’s “bites” before looking forward to the reaction to Pamela and to Richardson’s pose as merely its “editor”: indicating that the game of hoaxing hadn’t quite run its course even by 1740.

While I heartily recommend this book, it has had the most terrible effect upon my already untenable reading list…

“To read” additions:

The Amours Of Messalina, Late Queen Of Albion – Anonymous
Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister – Aphra Behn
The English Rogue Described, In The Life Of Meriton Latroon – Richard Head/Francis Kirkman
O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island – Richard Head
The Western Wonder; or, O Brazeel, An Inchanted Island Discovered – Richard Head
The Isle Of Pines – Henry Neville
The Perplex’d Prince – Anonymous
The Sham Prince Expos’d – Anonymous

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts Of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction – J. Paul Hunter

“To watch” addition:

Gunpowder, Treason And Plot

(This book has given me an odd affection for the concept of “plot” as a discrete entity: not “a plot” or “the plot” or “to plot”; just…”plot”.)


Walks like a woman, talks like a man

I did a thorough reading of Aphra Behn’s fiction some years back (which is why I may not repeat the process in this particular course), but I had never read any of her poetry before coming across To the fair Clarinda, who made Love to me, imagin’d more than Woman. If this wickedly ambiguous effort is representative of Behn’s work, I need to read more of it.

      Fair lovely Maid, of if that Title be
      Too weak, too Feminine for Nobler thee,
      Permit a Name that more Approaches Truth:
      And let me call thee, Lovely Charming Youth.
      This last will justifie my soft complaint;
      While that may serve to lessen my constraint;
      And without Blushes I the Youth persue,
      When so much beauteous Woman is in view.
      Against thy Charms we struggle but in vain
      With thy deluding Form thou giv’st us pain,
      While the bright Nymph betrays us to the Swain.
      In pity to our Sex sure thou wer’t sent,
      That we might Love, and yet be Innocent:
      For sure no Crime with thee we can commit;
      Or if we shou’d—thy Form excuses it.
      For who, that gathers fairest Flowers believes
      A Snake lies hid beneath the Fragrant leaves.

      Thou beauteous Wonder of a different kind,
      Soft Cloris with the dear Alexis join’d;
      When e’er the Manly part of thee, wou’d plead
      Thou tempts us with the Image of the Maid,
      While we the noblest Passions do extend
      The Love to Hermes, Aphrodite the Friend.


Despicable, indefensible and lubricious

Few things annoy me more than those studies of the novel that seem to believe that Daniel Defoe woke up one morning and said to himself, “Hmm…today I think I’ll invent the novel!”, and which dismiss any writing that doesn’t fit a set of parameters devised in academia centuries after the fact. So John J. Richetti’s Popular Fiction Before Richardson got off on the right foot with me by making exactly the same objections to certain other studies as I do – although centring the novel’s “beginning”, as you would infer, in Pamela.

However, it was soon clear from Richetti’s language that while he would not be doing as many of his fellows have done, and casting no more than a single shuddering glance at the majority of popular writing of the early 17th century, that this study would nevertheless be an exercise in gritting the teeth, holding the nose and wading through. Expressions such as artistically despicable and morally indefensible appear with great regularity from the earliest pages, as indeed do pointed remarks about the intellectual capacity (or lack thereof) of the many, many individuals who put the “popular” in “popular writing”. The comparisons to television and comic books come soon enough, as does a reference to tabloid journalism. It could hardly be clearer that Richetti is somewhat embarrassed by his own subject matter.

Be that as it may, this an important work in spite of its air of head-shaking and tongue-clucking, simply because it engages with, and in some detail, the writers in question and their influence upon the likes of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding – which influence they certainly had, albeit often in the form of negative example. Richetti quotes from and discusses a variety of popular genres, including rogue, whore and pirate biographies, travel journals, scandal fictions (including romans à clef), political allegories, erotic tales and moral fables. The section on the political and amatory works of Mary Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood is particularly amusing. The usual note of gender judgement is struck, of course: it’s bad enough for anyone to be writing this stuff, we gather, but for women to be doing it – ! Although he is unable to deny their success – or their embarrassing popularity, as he puts it – Richetti makes no real attempt to investigate whether there is more to these works than immediately meets the eye.

(Here’s a fun game: count the number of times Richetti uses the word lubricious in this part of his book.)

It is with a palpable sense of relief that Richetti moves onwards, and perhaps a little upwards. He is clearly more comfortable dealing with the moralities of Jane Barker (described as relentlessly edifying), Penelope Aubin and Elizabeth Rowe, and as a consequence (consciously or unconsciously) is far less critical of their works; even though he admits that Aubin’s stories, in particular, tend to consist of little more than a string of absurd coincidences, a lesser degree of which he condemns in Haywood’s writing. Comfort brings a greater degree of perception, and Richetti is able to sum up these works as, Symptoms of the gradual accommodation of fiction to the ideological needs of the time.

It is not, however, upon that comparatively gracious note that Richetti’s study concludes. His epilogue finds him declaring, The bulk of eighteenth-century pre-Richardson popular narrative is largely beyond redemption, and making reference to, The sorry hacks and well-meaning ladies who produced this fiction; and in short, struggling to justify his own work.

(Odd, isn’t it, how in that context “well-meaning” seems a nastier epithet than “sorry”? I think it’s the implication of the juxtaposition with “ladies”.)

However, perhaps the strangest thing of all is that all this negative rhetoric hasn’t in the least quelled my eagerness for the literary journey I’m about to take through the same era. If anything, on the contrary: I’m very much looking forward to discovering just how much teeth-gritting and nose-holding is actually required.



A course of steady reading

“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through – and very good lists they were – very well chosen, and very neatly arranged – sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen – I remember thinking it did her judgement so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma…”

—Mr Knightly knows too much.

So what is this, exactly?

I was a voracious reader from an early age, and as I grew older I developed an increasing fascination with what I’m tempted to call “The Golden Age Of The Novel” – say, the years 1750 – 1900. Many great works of literature were published during that time – and many, many stinkers, too; and it is the latter that currently hold my interest. You may notice on the way through some absence of the usual suspects: my prevailing interest at the moment is those novels and authors who have slipped through the cracks of history, sometimes with good reason, occasionally unjustifiably.

However – never let it be said I ever did anything without completely overdoing it. The recent explosion in electronic access to previously rare and inaccessible documents has seen my reading list not only lengthen dramatically, but slide backwards into the era of what we might call “The Rise Of The Novel”: the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

My intention is to start out by taking a more or less chronological journey through the very early days of novel-writing, the time before anyone was quite sure what “a novel” was; and to support my fiction reading with a few necessary dips into works about literary, social and political history.  My hope is to a few kindred bibliophile spirits to join me for some reading and a chat over virtual coffee.