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.

 

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