Archive for September, 2010


Reading Roulette; or, Varying The Diet

Okay – here’s how this is going to work. (“Work”, she said, optimistically.)

While I intend to keep on with my ordered journey through the early years of the (mostly English) novel, it seems to me that doing that and nothing else might make it all a bit of a chore rather than a pleasure, both for myself and for anyone stopping by. In addition, there are literally thousands of other things I want to read – so many that simply choosing a book is almost impossible. (Am I the only one who finds a long wish-list paralysing? As some wise men once said, Freedom from choice is what we want.)

So, while I continue with my chronological stroll, I intend to break things up by randomly choosing a novel from my reading list, with the cut-offs set at 1751 – 1930. (I originally had the cut-off at 1900, but there are a whole bunch of Viragos and Persephones that I’ve never read from between 1900 and 1930, so I moved the goalposts.) Not everything I hit on this way will be immediately available, of course: some books may need to be purchased, some may need an eReader; some might be simply impossible to get. Conversely, if I hit upon an author in whom I have an interest, I might choose to read an earlier/earliest work instead. As you’ve probably already gathered, I like doing things in order.

Hopefully in this way, I will have the chance both to finally tackle those authors who have eluded me up until now, and to stumble over some obscure but interesting works that deserve to be better known.

On the other hand— Well, if you’re going to play a game like this, I guess there’s always the chance that there’ll be a bullet in the chamber.


The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 4)

“I want nothing more from you. I am mad to keep saying the same things over again, I must leave you and not spare you another thought…”
— (?)

The fact that it has taken me three full posts on the subject to even begin talking about the Lettres Portugaises themselves is an indicator of just how much cultural and scholarly baggage they have managed to acquire over the centuries – a case of not being able to see the letters for the words.

In a way I feel I should apologise for the way this series of posts has gone. I picked The Love-Letters Of a Portuguese Nun to kick off this blog because it was a famous work I’d never read, and because I knew it was considered to be a strong influence upon the subsequent development of the novel. I was aware that there was some controversy over its authorship (“some” – how naive I was back then! – last week), but if I’d had a more accurate idea of just how much, I probably would have done things differently. As it turned out, before I realised it I was, well, I was in Mariana, stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

(Hmm… I hope the operative word in that paragraph isn’t “tedious”.)

Anyway – while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this journey on my own account, it does strike me as being rather unfair on you, O loyal, uh, reader. (You know who you are!) All I can say now is that I’ll try in the future not to get quite so carried away, and that I promise this will be my last post on this particular subject.

Although I don’t promise it will be short.

Having examined what we might call the external history of the Lettres Portugaises, and the arguments pro and con resulting from it, what I want to do now is examine the text, and see if there are clues in there as to the work’s reality as fiction or non-fiction.

Naturally enough, many people reject the idea of a nun having a love affair! – although not so much that she would as that she could. However, I think it has been adequately demonstrated that the prevailing political and social conditions of the time might have made it possible. Spain had succeeded in forcing Rome to cut its ties with Portugal, which meant that to a large extent the convents were left to their own management, without too much oversight. It was a time of war, and there was much disruption of the normal processes. The Convento da Conceição, although founded on principles of poverty, had over the years become extremely wealthy. In order to remain so during these troubled times, it began opening its doors to potential benefactors, wealthy men, who were entertained with conversation and music and scrummy Portuguese pastries. Visiting the convent became a common pasttime for many young men – possibly including the French officers stationed nearby. Although it was against official regulations, nuns from wealthy families often had private accommodations in the grounds of the convent, rather than being forced to sleep in the communal dormatories. The logistics of an affair might, therefore, have been less daunting than it appears at first glance.

Some critics have taken issue with the fact that, although Mariana’s affair is an open secret at best, she seemingly attracts no punishment. Improbable as this may now seem, it may well have been so. The era of the supposed affair was a time of great lawlessness in Portugal, even amongst the clergy: there are accounts of monks, in particular, involved in everything from murder to tobacco-smuggling – importation of illegal tobacco from Spain was hugely profitable – to sexual misdeeds of all kinds. (Mariana’s brother, Balthazar, had three illegitimate children after entering a monastery.) As usual, there was more toleration for bad male behaviour than female, but the records show that in this respect, the men didn’t have it all their own way. At the turn of the century, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that the nuns in a covent in the north of the country were using the little buildings on the grounds, which supposedly were cooking-houses, to entertain their lovers – and that they, too, were involved in tobacco-smuggling. (It is unclear which of these two transgressions attracted the most official ire.) The king, Dom Pedro II, tried to crack down on the licentious behaviour of his clergy, but even as he did so his son, John (later King John V), was openly taking nuns as his mistresses. In the context of the time, Mariana’s affair may have seemed no more than a minor indiscretion. Indeed, you get the feeling that the affair per se was not the problem, but rather that she had it with a Frenchman.

These stories of misconduct amongst the clergy underscore one of the the most striking aspects of the Lettres Portugaises: what we might call the absence of God. This was an era when many people were forced into convents and monastaries against their wills for political or financial reasons. Mariana and two of her sisters were, to remove them from the inheritance line and thus concentrate the family fortune in their brothers. However, it is one thing for a woman to be a nun in a convent and yet have no sense of vocation; it is another for such a nun to write an account of an illicit sexual affair that contains no hint of either moral or spiritual angst. Mariana’s emotions of shame and humiliation are all entirely personal. There is no hint anywhere that she feels that she has sinned against either man or God.

Perverse as it may appear, this lack of religious feeling is one of the qualities of the Lettres Portugaises that inclines me to think they might be real. It seems to me that if you chose to write about a nun having an affair, these are the sorts of touches you would include, on one hand to exploit your subject matter to the full, and on the other to deflect accusations of immorality or anti-clericalism. Fiction had not, granted, yet reached the point where female misconduct was invariably punished (usually with death, but sometimes with – oh, irony! – entering a convent); but it seems to me unlikely that someone would conceive of such a story and then offer no external framework at all. Similarly, I find the lack of internal reference points persuasive. These are the letters of someone, understanding her situation and circumstances, who writes to a second person equally aware of the situation and circumstances. There is no instance in which they do what openly fictional letters too often do, and have the writer telling the recipient things he already knows, or describing things he has already seen, or explaining references to landmarks and events with which he is perfectly familiar. There is no sense in them of the awareness of an audience, or an audience’s expectations.

Whether they are fiction or non-fiction, the Lettres Portugaises were indeed hugely influential upon the development of the novel – the English novel in particular, which is ironic for reasons we shall consider presently. The main basis of the letters’ influence is that their intense interiority showed people a new way to write. We get almost no sense of Mariana’s surroundings, her companions, her duties, or the day-to-day details of her life in the convent. As one commentator puts it, we know the state of her soul, but not what she had for dinner. Her passion absorbs her to such an extent that, we feel, everything else in her existence has become rather dim and shadowy.

This leads into the other aspect of the letters’ influence, the way in which their writing functions for Mariana as a form of self-psychoanalysis. She cannot always maintain her distance, of course, and repeatedly slips back into pleading, cajoling and making improbable plans; but increasingly with the passing of time and the writing of each individual letter, Mariana is able to step back and examine her situation, the growth of her love, the stages of her affair, her lover’s desertion, how real his love for her could have been – and indeed, how real her love for him. That Mariana has been, if you’ll excuse the expression, “in love with love” becomes increasingly clear to us and to her. It is not very surprising. Confined to a convent since childhood, this epoch in her life has come along and simply overwhelmed her. It is her slow recognition of the true nature of her feelings, that they were not entirely what she first thought, that sustains Mariana through the sickening realisation that what to her has been a great and glorious passion has been to her lover a mere diversion, something to rank alongside hunting and gambling as a way of passing the time between his military engagements. It is not, however, this which finally cures her, but the two letters she does eventually receive in return for her own. The first is short, cold, and written with obvious distaste and reluctance; the second is even worse, full of expressions of kindness and – as Mariana puts it – impertinent protestations of friendship. It is the second one that does the job.

There is little in Mariana’s language that rings false, given her circumstances. We might wish her to effect her cure sooner, but we are not surprised when she cannot. The letters circle around and back again as she is unable to leave her subject alone, her words passing from helpless pleading to bewilderment to indignation and bitter anger, mixed with occasional flashes of sarcasm, such as that provoked when an officer who has agreed to carry a letter for her is kept waiting – and waiting – as she repeatedly tries and fails to sign off. How importunate he is! she observes, when he sends her yet another reminder of his need to leave. No doubt he is forsaking some unfortunate woman…  (There’s even an unnerving, pre-Alanis Morissette moment when she reflects darkly that if she’d really loved him as much as she thought she did, his desertion would have killed her – which it didn’t – so she couldn’t have.)

Published letters, including love-letters, were nothing new in 1669. The magnitude of the success of the Lettres Portugaises then begs the question of what it was about these particular letters that made them catch fire all across Europe. It’s tempting to answer “their reality”. Either way, it seems feasible that the rawness of their language and the refusal by Mariana (whether character or author) to either shrug off her desertion or to suffer it in silence may have struck a nerve at the time, particularly in salon society where, whatever the real feelings of the participants, love was often treated merely a game for sophisticates. In any event, the letters swiftly spread from country to country, being published (legally or illegally) in England, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia – but not Portugal; not legally. Pirated copies did slip across the border, but an authorised edition of the Lettres Portugaises was not published in their putative country of origin until 1819.

It is the effect of the letters in England that I wish to consider here. As it evolved, there was a strong tendency for the English novel to be defined by what it was not: it was not European; it was not “a romance”, that is, a string of improbable events; it was not immoral – or not as immoral as European romances. There had been “immoral” English novels, but by the mid-18th century, they were being expunged from the record. They were not to be spoken of, except perhaps by tactful allusion, as a reminder of past unpleasantness. The same was true of the (mostly) women who wrote them.

The overriding irony of this is that the single work that had the most influence upon the development of the English novel was that most European of productions, the Lettres Portugaises  – not least by inspiring an “immoral” novel by an “unspeakable” woman, which would itself be enormously influential. Women had long written and published in England, but never with impunity. Those who, in the second half of the 17th century, were trying to make a living by it were subject to disapproval and criticism at best, and violent abuse and social ostracism at worst. This, however, applied to women trying to earn a living as playwrights, journalists or (eventually) novelists. At the same time, there was one branch of literary endeavour at which, it was considered, women excelled – and at which they were allowed to do so: letter-writing. Many women did publish their letters – or wrote letters with the intent of publication – and these ruminations upon the subjects of general interest were embraced.

The arrival in England of the Lettres Portugaises opened a new door for the writers of the day – the women in particular. The emotion and focus of the letters, their lack of any surrounding plot or purpose, gave birth to a new form of literature, the epistolary novel: a story told from the inside out. Such novels could, of course, have a conventional framework, but it was no longer necessary; and as the letters themselves had so graphically demonstrated, they were the perfect vehicle for an amatory tale. For the aspiring women writers of the day, it was an amazing opportunity – a form of novel-writing that seemed to need a female author. The extent of breakthrough that this represented is illustrated by the fact that all of the important female English writers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and from both sides of the moral divide – that is, Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood on one side, and Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin on the other – adopted the epistolary novel as a means of expression, very often making the connection with the Lettres Portugaises explicit in their titles. And even as the letters themselves had swiftly entered the language in France – a passionate love-letter was said to be “à la Portugaise” – before long, amorous letters and novels published in England were being advertised as “in the Portuguese style”.

Of all the works influenced by the Lettres Portugaises, the one that was itself the most influential was Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, published across 1684 – 1687, wherein Behn penned an amatory epistolary novel that not only exploited to the full its thematic connection with the Lettres Portugaises, but allowed her to serve her own political purposes by writing what Claude Brabin had indirectly suggested that the letters might be, a roman à clef of a contemporary scandal. Behn’s novel was written and released in three separate parts. The first volume is very much “in the Portuguese style”, although it does what its forebear does not (could not?) and takes the reader inside the minds of both participants in an illicit affair. In writing the second and third volumes, however, Behn was without the political purpose that shaped the first, and was free to experiment with style. Extraordinarily, the result of this is that the three volumes represent three different kinds of epistolary novel, with each of them taking a different approach to the handling of their material, and above all to the way in which the characters are presented to the reader via their letters.

Later novelists may have disapproved of Aphra Behn, but disapproval did not stop them appropriating her style – and taking credit for it. The worst offender was probably Samuel Richardson, whose moral purpose may have been new, but whose technique was borrowed from a woman whom he frequently condemned. (Richardson liked to condemn Eliza Haywood, too, despite the fact that during the 1730s he reprinted her novels and made a lot of money from them.) There’s no disputing that Richardson’s writing, particularly in Clarissa, took the epistolary novel to heights, and psychological depths, that had never before been achieved; but in doing so he built unacknowledged upon work that came before, that of Aphra Behn, certainly, and of—

the author of the Lettres Portugaises.

[That’s it. I promise!]


The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 3)

“You have known the depth of my heart and of my tenderness, and yet you could bring yourself to leave me forever and to expose me to the dread I must feel that you will no longer remember me unless it be to sacrifice me to a new love. I see well enough that I love you to the point of madness…”
— (?)

And now, m’lud – the case for the defence.

To be perfectly honest, midway through Myriam Cyr’s romanticised telling of the lives of Mariana and Noël de Bouton – which really did strike me as a case of the lady protesting too much – I was quite ready to pull a 1066, and declare the Mariana-ists Wrong but Wromantic, and the anti-Mariana-ists Right but Repulsive. (And yes, I am looking at you, Jean-Jacques Rousseau!) Let’s face it, Mariana-as-author makes for a much better story – and this, clearly, has influenced many analysts of the letters more than it should. However—

To me, the value of Cyr’s work lies not in its story-telling, or even in its translation of the letters, but in the final section of the book that highlights certain research which refutes the arguments made by Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques Rougeot to support the notion of Guilleragues being the author of the Lettres Portugaises. Cyr quotes the work of Alain Viala, who in his book Naissance de l’écrivain addresses the publishing practices of late 17th-century France, and contends that the fact that Guilleragues’ name was on Claude Brabin’s Privilège du Roi means very little – and certainly not that he was the author of the letters.

We learn that when the letters were published, French law insisted upon the name of an author being supplied; and further, that an anthology of work by various writers could, and often was, be published under the name of just one author – or even, not under the name of any of its actual authors, but of that of the person who collected the writings. It has also been shown that many other similar author attributions from the same period were later proved to be incorrect. In this case, however, the use of Guilleragues’ name may have been more accurate than  usual: Claude Brabin’s permission covered not merely the five now-famous letters, but a second set of letters as well, along with “valentines, epigrams and madrigals”, all supposedly by Guilleragues. All of these works were cleared for publication – but when Brabin went to press, he published the five letters alone. Possibly, recognising that he had something special on his hands, he had always intended to do so.

There was a second bar to the letters’ publication besides that (supposing them to be genuine) of Brabin not knowing their author’s name: if the letters were real, they were also extremely dangerous. Real letters written by a real nun describing a real affair with a real French officer— That was dynamite. The political sensitivity overseeing the censorship of the time would never have allowed the publication of such letters, even had Mariana’s name then been known. The only way that Claude Brabin could get them into print was by submitting them in the guise of a work of fiction.

How, then, did Guilleragues get involved? As Deloffre and Rougeot show, even as they support the notion of his authorship, Guilleragues, although an aristocrat, was a “fringe-dweller”, always in debt, always trying to get a foot in the door of the inner circles of polite society. He had tried, and failed, to earn money by writing. He may have been willing enough to lend his name to Brabin, particularly if Brabin promised him in exchange to publish his earlier literary efforts.

There are practical objections to Guilleragues having written the letters – some social, some scholarly. Guilleragues was, as has been admitted, desperate for admission to the higher regions of French society – and yet even when the Lettres Portugaises became a stunning success, he never drew attention to himself by claiming to be more than their translator. Those who support Guilleragues as the author of the letters tend to disparage the notion that Mariana, a “simple, unwordly nun”, could have written them. At the same time, they seem unable to explain why the letters are so completely different, in tone, content and, yes, quality from anything else that Guilleragues’ name is attached to; or why, if he was capable of writing like this, he never did it again. This is an objection made by Myriam Cyr, as it is also by Charles R. Lefcourt, who in 1976 published in the journal Hispania a paper titled, Did Guilleragues write “The Portuguese Letters”?, in which he also highlights a number of errors contained within F. C. Green’s epoch-making article.

There is another possibility. As mentioned, the bundle of writing submitted by Claude Brabin contained not one, but two sets of letters. Given the circumstances of Brabin’s application for the Privilège du Roi, it is feasible that the second set, consisting of seven letters, were actually written by Guilleragues, although again he never claimed authorship, as conversely he did of the “valentines, epigrams and madrigals” submitted with them.  Initially withheld from publication, the second set of letters was later released bundled with the original Lettres Portugaises. These seven letters form, as it were, a “prequel” to the other five, and bear very little stylistic resemblance to them. They have since been severed from their infinitely more famous companion-pieces, and have fallen into obscurity while the others went through countless editions. I’m not aware of any serious attempt to claim that they were written by Mariana. Rather (proving that really is nothing new under the sun), they were written to “cash in” on the originals, and they were not the only one: there was even a spurious set of “replies” written in response to the Lettres Portugaises, published anonymously in England, entitled Five love-letters written by a cavalier, in answer to the Five love-letters written to him by a nun. Such follow-ups to popular successes were common at the time, although they were rarely accompanied by any pretense of a genuine connection with the original document.

One thing that does strike me about the circumstances of the Lettres Portugaises‘ publication is how swiftly the name of Noël de Bouton became associated with them. The fact that this detail became public linked not with Claude Brabin’s first edition, but with the first pirated edition, is also suggestive. As we have seen, Brabin had his own reasons for promoting the letters as a work of fiction. At the same time, no-one would have known better than he that letters, particularly love-letters, sold much better if they were believed to be real. The immediate association of de Bouton’s name with the Lettres Portugaises suggests that either his involvement was already publicly known, or that Brabin knew the truth and had a quiet word with someone. Illegal publication was rife at the time, granted, but just the same I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Brabin was secretly involved with the Cologne edition, which appeared so rapidly on the heels of the original.

These days, it can be very difficult to grasp the fact that in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was hardly any such thing as “a private letter”: that letters were passed around, read aloud, dissected and discussed for entertainment. From a modern perspective, we might be inclined to think that the Lettres Portugaises must be a work of fiction, because no such real letters would have been published, at least not in the lifetime of their author and recipient – but the contrary is true. Assuming the letters to be genuine, the question is not how they came into Claude Brabin’s hands, but how they left Noël de Bouton’s. For what it’s worth, de Bouton never denied being the man to whom the letters were addressed, nor did he make any attempt to recall or suppress them. Perhaps he enjoyed the celebrity they brought him. Seducing and abandoning a nun may have been a dangerous act politically, but socially it was the kind of thing that, despite the obvious lies and broken promises involved, might win a man the reputation of being a “romantic” and “a great lover” – rather than that of being a nasty piece of work. The notion of “honour”, in this respect, has always been strangely mutable. It is clear from the Lettres Portugaises themselves that there was, at some point, an attempt made by the nun’s lover to excuse his desertion of her on the grounds of “duty” – duty to his king, his country, his family. Mariana is, to put it mildly, unimpressed.

The other outstanding question about the letters is what language they were written in. Pondering this, it occurred to me that it was actually much more likely that they were written in French than in Portuguese. French was, after all, the “polite language”, the language of the European courts; the common ground on which strangers of different nationalities communicated. It was a standard component of a good education. Even girls, who were taught precious little else, were taught French. If Mariana did receive an education in the convent, it is likely that French lessons were an aspect of it. On the other hand, it strikes me as unlikely that Noël de Bouton learned Portuguese. He may have picked up enough Portuguese during his time in the country to understand and speak it, but would he really, between battles and love affairs, have gone to the time and the trouble to learn to read it? – and particularly if the Portuguese officers with whom he associated (one of whom was Mariana’s brother, Balthazar, who supposedly introduced them) knew French. If Mariana wanted to be sure her lover understood the letters that she sent after him, it seems to me probable that she would have written them in French. Consequently, the fact that the Lettres Portugaises specifically promoted themselves as having been translated from Portuguese into French made it, to me, more and not less likely that they were faked.

I had barely even begun preening myself upon this particular brilliant deduction when my reading brought it forcibly home to me that I was not exactly the first person to make it. (Is there anything more deflating than having what you think is a clever idea, then finding out that it’s old hat?) As it turns out, arguments over the language of the text of the Lettres Portugaises are almost as old as arguments over their authorship. One early reaction (a quote that I have been unable to re-find, sorry!) was to grumble, “They are a translation, and a bad one.” Some scholars, accepting this, have gone to some lengths to translate them “back” into Portuguese. Others have found within the French text indications of Portuguese rhythms and idioms, and used this to support Mariana’s authorship. More recent examination of the text builds upon this suggestion, as Myriam Cyr’s book also brings to light, with the first, French edition of the letters offered as an example of textural plurilinguilism – which is to say, that they were written in French by someone thinking in Portuguese.

But if so – why “Traduites En François“? Perhaps to keep a sense of romance and exoticism about the letters; tales of shocking goings-on in foreign lands (and at a safe distance from home) were popular. Or perhaps as an indirect acknowledgement of their connection with Noël de Bouton, while the safe façade of a work of fiction was maintained. Alternatively, if de Bouton was involved with their publication, he may have kept the originals and given Brabin a copy of them – which Brabin may have assumed was a translation.

So where does this leave Guilleragues? He could hardly have been the letters’ translator if they didn’t need translating in the first place. On this subject, I may say that I have found no evidence of his own ability to read and write Portuguese, which such a task presupposes, nor even a suggestion of how and when he might have acquired such knowledge. (Of course, my own research is hardly exhaustive; Deloffre and Rougeot may examine this point.) Perhaps he acted as go-between for de Bouton and Brabin? Quite a number of those who dispute Guilleragues’ authorship and/or his role as translator – and who are prepared to admit he had anything to do with the letters, beyond letting Claude Brabin use his name – suggest that he may have been given the task of “cleaning them up” somewhat for publication, making Mariana’s informal language and expressions more acceptable to the reading public for whom the letters were intended.

And after all this, what do I think about the letters? I honestly don’t know – although it does occur to me that if the Vicomte de Guilleragues did “overwrite” Mariana’s text, that is, if the letters were in effect written by a man and a woman, it might go some way towards explaining how they seem to have managed to be all things to all people. I’m not convinced that Mariana Alcoforado wrote the Lettres Portugaises…but on the other hand, I see no reason to believe that Guilleragues did. If these are my only choices, then I choose Mariana.

[To be continued…]


The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 2)

“Stop, wretched Mariane, stop eating your heart out in vain, stop searching for a lover you will never see again; he has crossed the sea to escape you; he is in France, in the midst of dissipations and does not spare one moment’s thought for your sufferings…”
— (?)

The 1970s onwards saw a growing wave of feminist literary scholarship, much of it devoted to re-establishing the reputation and standing of female authors critically acclaimed in their own time, but since passed over and ignored by academia. This time also saw a reawakening of interest in Mariana Alcoforado and the Lettres Portugaises. For the analysts of the time, it was often less a question of Mariana’s authorship per se, and more a matter of the way that her story illustrated the scholarly tactics too often used to undermine and trivialise women’s writing. In particular, there was strong exception taken to the gender assumptions upon which the previous several decades’ dismissal of Mariana were built. Most prominent in this new wave of scholarship were the feminist critics Peggy Kamuf and Nancy K. Miller, who started out butting heads in public over the question of Mariana’s authorship and how far it actually mattered whether she wrote the letters or not, and ended up as friends and collaborators.

One woman who chose, for the most part, to side-step the gender debate on the Lettres Portugaises was Anna Klobucka, whose book, The Portuguese Nun: Formation Of A National Myth makes it pretty clear where she stands on the question of Mariana – as inded does the book’s prologue, subtitled What Really Happened. Klobucka does not entirely negate the possibility of Mariana having written the letters, although she considers it unlikely. This, however, is an issue peripheral to the main thrust of her study, which examines the fluctuating reaction to Mariana in her native country over the centuries, and the way in which her acceptance as the author of the letters tended to coincide with times in which the struggle for a national identity was at its height, or conversely, when the character or the status of Portugal was most under threat from external forces. She shows also that acceptance did not necessarily mean celebration; and that Mariana herself has run the gamut from being almost deified as a great national heroine, to being denounced for her immorality, to undergoing psychoanalysis via the letters and being diagnosed as an hysteric, a narcissist, and a masochist.

Anna Klobucka’s book is wide-ranging, and examines a great deal of material, literary, historical and sociological, that, while fascinating and often amusing in its insight, travels far beyond the scope of this very amateur(ish) examination of the history of the letters. That said, when Klobucka does focus on the letters, she tends to put her finger with great acuteness upon the critical points in the debate. Most telling of all, perhaps, is her assessment of the crux of the conflict between the “Mariana-ists” and the “anti-Mariana-ists”:

“…the position of privileging and defending historical accuracy has been, naturally if somewhat ironically, assumed by those who claim the Lettres Portugaises to be a literary fake…while, on the other hand, the believers in the historically authentic origin of the letters have been forced, by the scarcity and unreliability of the evidence, to couch their convictions in terms of fictional discourse, rewriting the disjointed and occasionally self-contradictory record as a coherent narrative…”

You could hardly ask for a more accurate summation of Letters Of A Portuguese Nun: Uncovering The Mystery Behind A Seventeenth-Century Forbidden Love: A Historical Mystery, by Myriam Cyr, who is best known as a stage and screen actress (and who I know best for Ken Russell’s Gothic). As she tells us in her introduction, Cyr came across the letters in Montreal, when they were being presented in the form of a play. She was captivated, and set about doing her own translation of them – not knowing, as she confesses, their history, or the extent of the controversy surrounding them. (I know how she feels!) Cyr won’t hear of them being written by anyone other than Mariana; and to bolster her argument, she surrounds her own versions of the letters with an account of the lives and careers of Mariana and Noël de Bouton. She tells her story well and persuasively…but it is just a story. Therein lies its danger.

We notice, too, that in her translation of the letters, Cyr is careful to smooth over some famous points of contention, such as the famous opening cry of the first letter, given by her as, “Love, consider well your lack of foresight”, and by Guido Waldman, in comparison, as, “Only consider, my love, how you have carried your lack of foresight to the point of exaggeration” – thus leaving open the possibility that Mariana is addressing not her absent lover, but her own feelings. Many critics have also pointed to a reference to Mariana’s mother, who had been dead for some years before the supposed time of that remark. It has been argued (and quite reasonably, when you examine the context) that this was a reference not to Mariana’s own mother, but to her Mother Superior – which Cyr makes explicit.

Cyr provides an extensive bibliography, but makes very few direct attributions. Even when we follow one of her rare endnotes, it generally leads from one unfounded assertion to another. Her pages abound with words and phrases such as “perhaps” and “it may well be” and “in all probability” and even “legend has it”, making it quite clear where the weak spots are in the tale she tells; yet the mere fact that she does weave historical fact through her imaginary account gives it a verisimilitude that the actual historical accounts of these events, so full of unvoidable holes, is quite lacking.

Myriam Cyr is not alone in her efforts to, as it were, write Mariana into existence. Anna Klobucka also draws attention to two more contemporary works: Mariana, by the American writer Katherine Vaz; and Cartas de Amor, the most recent “retranslation” of the letters, from French into Portuguese, by the Brazilian author Marilene Felinto. Like Cyr’s book, both of these works assume the reality of both Mariana’s existence and her authorship; unlike Cyr’s, neither of them so much as acknowledges the existence of the Vicomte de Guilleragues. To this, the latest generation of Mariana-ists, Guilleragues has become merely an inconvenience, if not an irrelevance; someone to be pushed aside and consigned to the ranks of the “dead white males”.

[To be continued…]


The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 1)

“In particular, the possibility of situating Soror Mariana Alcoforado and her celebrated love letters within a hypothetical genealogy of Portuguese women’s writing presents a fundamental difficulty that may be summed up as follows: the most acclaimed, both nationally and internationally (at least until mid-twentieth century), Portuguese woman writer was most likely neither Portuguese nor a woman.”
—Anna Klobucka (2000)

In one of its most recent incarnations, the 1996 edition attributed to Gabriel de Lavergne, Vicomte de Guilleragues, and translated by Guido Waldman, The Love-Letters Of Portuguese Nun contains only forty pages, including a foreword and five full-page reproductions of engravings. It has, in other words, less pages than it took me days to obtain a copy.

Strange to think that such a slender volume, a mere five letters, could cause such a sensation, and extert such a profound influence upon the development of the novel; and that today, nearly 350 years after their initial publication, they should have accumulated so much historical and cultural baggage, and been the focus of so much academic conflict, that it should have become almost impossible to examine them merely as a piece of writing.

In 1669, the French publisher Claude Brabin released an anonymous text, Lettres Portugaises Traduites En François, which purported to be a set of genuine letters written by a Portuguese nun to an officer in the French army, with whom she fell in love and had an affair, but who abandoned her and returned to France. Passionate, angry, imploring and reproachful in turns, the letters trace the evolution of the nun’s feelings as she tries to come to terms her situation. The letters were a stunning success across Europe, and ran through many editions, authorised and unauthorised, over the following decades. The first English edition, released under the title Five Love-Letters From A Nun To A Cavalier. Done Out Of The French Into English, was translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange and published in 1678. The volume became Love Without Affectation, In Five Letters From A Portuguese Nun, To A French Cavalier during its subsequent English editions, and then Letters From A Portuguese Nun To An Officer In the French Army, before settling down for a century as Letters From A Portuguese Nun. The book did not acquire the qualifier “Love” until published in America in 1890. Possibly it was considered that American audiences needed reassurance about the nature of the letters, and that they were not so dull (nor, for that matter, so religious) as you might expect the writings of a 17th-century nun to be.

The 1890 American edition is important for another reason: it explicitly declares who wrote the letters, and who they were written to. These two—well, what shall we call them?—assertions had come separately to the reading public, and each under odd circumstances. One of the earliest pirated editions of the Lettres Portugaises, published in Cologne in 1669, carried in its preface the statement that, “The name of him to whom they (the Letters) were written is the Chevalier de Chamilly, and the name of him who made the translation is Cuilleraque”. No indication is given of the source of this information. It was not until 1810 that an identity was claimed for the letters’ author, when the French scholar Jean-François Boissonade published a note claiming that he had found a copy of one of the 1669 French editions with a handwritten note inside stating, “The nun who wrote these letters was named Mariana Alcaforada. She was a nun living in Beja, between Estremadura and Andalusia. The gentleman to whom these letters were written was the Count of Chamilly, also called the Count of Saint-Léger.”

In 1888, it seemed that the matter had been settled once and for all, when the Portuguese author and historian Luciano Cordeiro published Soror Mariana, a freira portuguesa, which gave an account of the life of Mariana (or Marianna, or Mariane, or Maria Ana) Alcoforado and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the Lettres Portugaises. According to Cordeiro, Mariana, a native of Beja, had entered the Convento da Conceição, the Convent of the Conception, at the age of only eleven; she took her vows at sixteen. In 1666, at the time that the affair was supposed to have begun, she was twenty-six years old. Meanwhile, Noël de Bouton, Comte de Saint-Léger and Comte de Saint-Denis, later Marquis de Chamilly, was one of the irregular troops sent to Portugal by Louis XIV as part of his unofficial support of the Portuguese in their War of Restoration against the Spanish. Early in 1666, Chamilly and his fellows were stationed outside of Beja. The American edition of the Portugaises Lettres accepted these attributions, as did most of those interested in the issue.

Things changed in 1926, however, when a paper entitled, Who was the author of the “Lettres Portugaises”? was published in The Modern Language Review. Its author, F. C. Green, had examined the Privilège du Roi, the permission to publish, associated with the first printing of the Lettres Portugaises, and concluded that the “Cuilleraque” mentioned in the pirated Cologne edition was in fact a man called Guilleragues, who was not merely the work’s translator, but its author: that the letters were a work of fiction. Green stopped short with his attribution, but others did not hesitate to assert that this was Gabriel-Joseph de Lavergne, Vicomte de Guilleragues, a French diplomat and sometime author.

From this point onwards, scholarly opinion of the Lettres Portugaises began to shift, although it was never unanimous. And of course, it is not at all surprising that in the absence of concrete evidence one way or the other, debate upon the subject should refuse to die. Consider, after all, the scope for controversy inherent in this publication, which is either a set of real letters written by a Portuguese woman, a nun, or a work of fiction written by a Frenchman, an aristocrat.

The nationality of the respective putative authors has, naturally, been of most interest to Portuguese and French academics – although even most of the former seem these days to have given up the fight. The relative social position of Mariana and the Vicomte de Guilleragues comes to prominence only in arguments about whether Mariana could have written the letters: it is generally claimed that she received a “polite education” in the convent, and also held the position of scribe. The gender argument, meanwhile, is not merely alive, but thriving.

And speaking from recent personal experience, I have to say that it is extraordinarily hard to avoid considering the letters from a gender perspective – particularly when you read over the various attributions of their authorship to the Vicomte de Guilleragues and realise that most of the arguments amount to, well, they must have been written by a man, because they’re far too clever to have been written by a woman. Most notoriously, it was apropos of the Lettres Portugaises that Jean-Jacques Rousseau made his infamous declaration upon the subject of female authorship (among other things), dismissing not only Mariana, but her entire sex:

“…Women, in general, show neither appreciation nor proficiency nor genius in any part… They may show great wit but never any soul. They are a hundred times more reasonable than passionate. Women know neither how to describe nor experience love itself… I would bet everything I have that the Portuguese Letters were written by a man…”

The modern version of this viewpoint, at least with regard to the letters, began with Leo Spitzer, who in an influential essay published in 1954 asserted that they were written by a man, and one “who knew his business”. This stance was built upon by Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques Rougeot, who first reissued the letters in 1962 with attribution to the Vicomte de Guilleragues and some supporting arguments, and then in their rather smugly titled “definitive” edition of the letters, released in 1972, not only maintained their stance, but declared the subject closed once and for all.

The following thirty years must have taken these gentlemen rather by surprise…

[To be continued…]


How do you solve a problem like eReader?

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone to hear that I’m contemplating the purchase of an eReader – nor, probably, that I am hesitating very much over the decision. I can think of no piece of new technology released over the past several decades that so much comes down to factors of pro and con, rather than it being a matter of how many bells and whistles, and what you can afford. Of course, this situation is largely driven by, on one hand, Amazon’s focus on cornering its own market via proprietary access; and on the other, the various competitors’ attempts to undermine this position. The result is an artificial kind of evolution, with designers reacting and tinkering in response to each other, rather than to the wants of the customer. The outcome is that no-one seems certain before they buy – or is afterwards completely satisfied.

I confess to being particularly bewildered by the recent tendency for eReaders to get ever smaller. The overriding charm of the eReader is, surely, the fact that is a dedicated reading device – so why would you want it so much smaller than the actual book that you would otherwise necessarily carry around? And that’s aside from the practical consideration that the more compulsive a reader you are, the more likely it is that you’ll have problems with your eyesight (she said, feelingly). Still, at least this trend has narrowed my options and (at least theoretically) simplified my choice. Larger screen size, good quality eInk (or equivalent) and a range of font and contrast options are what it comes down to for me.

And yes, with its 10-inch screen, the Kindle DX was my first choice – except that much of what I am buying an eReader for is available through various online academic databases in PDF or ePub format, for which the Kindle is not the best option. So this pushed me towards the Sony Daily Edition: only a 7-inch screen, but much better PDF/ePub support….balanced by the fact that, being a Sony, it is automatically about $100 more expensive than its immediate competitors. The other, larger screen eReader options come with a range of other functions that I really don’t want – or want to pay for. And now I hear that an upgraded Sony, the PRS-950, supposedly with improved PDF support, will be released in November – which does nothing to help with the fact that I want an eReader NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!

So what do I do? Wait until November and buy the upgrade? Wait, but then try to pick up the earlier model at what I assume (perhaps incorrectly) will be a reduced price? Buy a Kindle and hope for the best?

How on earth does anyone make this decision?


Bodies of evidence

“From the wombe comes convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseyes, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evill quality of it.”
—John Sadler (1636)

Women’s bodies are the stuff of history, declares Mary Elizabeth Fissell at the outset of Vernacular Bodies: The Politics Of Reproduction In Early Modern England, her study of the way in which English popular culture, or rather, the vernacular (Fissell prefers the somewhat different connotations of this term), imagined and reimagined the female body, female sexuality, pregancy and childbirth during the political, religious and social upheaval of the Reformation, the Civil War and the Interregnum, the Restoration and the Exclusion Crisis. Fissell sees the female body being used throughout these troubled times as a metaphor for the reshaping of society and its norms, as with increased access to cheap printing came an increased tendency – mostly, though not exclusively, male – to dissect, re-evaluate and reassemble the female form and function via the written word.

Fissell’s work covers a lot of fascinating ground. Her take on the Reformation is particularly interesting, for doing what too many such studies fail to do, namely, to consider the sweeping actions of the monarchy from the point of view of those on the receiving end. For centuries, pregnant women had been encouraged to identify with the Virgin Mary, to view the mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth as a recapitulation in miniature of the miracle of the birth of Christ, to understand their labour pains as linking them directly to Mary’s sufferings, not during the birth, but during the crucifixion.

With the Reformation, all that stopped. Identification, the use of holy relics as supports and even prayer was outlawed; and instead of choosing to identify with Mary, women were ordered to identify with Eve – and to view childbirth not as something sanctified by God, but as a personal punishment from God. The single prayer issued by the new church to be used by women in labour amounted to “I’m a sinner and I deserve this”. Welcome to Protestantism, ladies. The enforcement of these dictums was taken very seriously indeed, with church representatives even  interrogating midwives to discover who women prayed to while giving birth. (Fancy being held accountable for anything you said during labour! I bet the mortality rate went up during this time, too…)

English society prior to the mid-17th century was based upon a series of strict recapitulations – the king as father of the nation, representing God; the husband/father as head of the family, representing the king – but with the execution of Charles I, everything changed. In the face of such an unprecedented act of revolt, it is little wonder that women began to rebel against their “kings”, and the assumption of submission and obedience. During this period, women became visible in English society as never before, preaching, protesting and publishing. The men who had committed the ultimate act of social rebellion had, however, no intention of putting up with being rebelled against. Something resembling a gender war broke out, one inevitably couched in terms of sexual abuse and accusation, where civil disobedience on the part of a woman was declared a clear sign of sexual licentiousness. This was the era, too, of the Adultery Act, wherein adultery ceased to be “a sin” and became instead “a crime” – and a capital crime, at that. Reading the Act, we find adultery defined as, Sexual intercourse between a married woman and a man not her husband. Conversely, a married man who had intercourse with a woman not his wife was guilty only of “fornication” – three months in jail, rather than death.

By examining the medical texts of the time, Fissell is able to demonstrate just how bizarre and extreme the need to control women, and women’s sexuality, became. Although the processes of conception and pregnancy were not understood, earlier texts envisaged the womb as the site of miracles, a warm, gentle environment that first gladly welcomed the man’s seed and then used it to shape and nurture new life. Across the 17th century this view changed, with the womb recast as the site of evil and sickness; something with a mind of its own, quite capable of attacking and even killing the body that contained it if it so desired.

Then we have the midwifery texts, from which we discover that the male impulse to remove women from the process of childbearing as much as possible, as discussed in Angus McLaren’s Reproductive Rituals, was alive and well during this much earlier period. Nicholas Culpeper’s hugely influential A Directory For Midwives began the trend. In spite of its title, the book was all about denigrating midwives, privileging the male written word over the female spoken word. It begins by describing the reproductive physiology of both sexes, but in male terms: the male is declared “the norm”; the female is described only as far as it is different (i.e. inferior). Culpeper insists that women cannot really know or understand their own bodies: if childbirth is to be successful, it must therefore have male guidance. However, Culpeper’s condescending attitude to women pales besides that found in the extraordinary The Compleat Midwifes Practice, written by a team of four doctors, which reconfigures pregnancy and childbirth as a partnership between the father and the foetus, and barely mentions the mother at all – and then in no positive terms. The womb is here nothing more than a passive receptacle for the active male seed; while childbirth is envisaged as a process determined entirely by the foetus, which itself tears open the membranes and fights desperately to free itself from the female “container” that can no longer sustain it.

Over a century later, England was in the grip of another reproductive crisis. We are so accustomed these days to the cultural construct of the sexless Victorian woman that it always comes as a bit of a shock to be reminded that in earlier times, women were held to be the lusty ones, their desires so strong as to be essentially uncontrollable. The second half of the 17th century was awash with dirty jokes and dirtier ballads about insatiable women and pathetic, cuckolded men – men who could never be sure that “their” children were really theirs. In the final section of her book, Mary Fissell ties this obsession with sexual incontinence and paternity to England’s own paternity crisis. The Restoration had not brought to the country the hoped-for stability. While littering England with his bastards, Charles II failed to produced a legitimate heir. Next in line was his brother, James, a situation that carried the threat of a Catholic monarchy. Having just recovered from one civil war, England shuddered at the prospect of another. Agitation began for the exclusion of James from the succession, possibly in favour of the Duke of Monmouth, whom some believed (or chose to believe) to be Charles’s legitimate son. However, James did succeed his brother; but when, after many years of reproductive failure, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, a Catholic heir, England exploded in conspiracy theories.

This was, as we touched upon with respect to Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, the time of the “sham prince”. Three theories were prevalent:

  1. That Mary had never been pregnant, and that another woman’s baby had been smuggled into the fake birthing-chamber in a warming-pan, and was being passed off as the Prince of Wales
  2. That Mary had given birth, but the child was stillborn; then as above
  3. That Mary had given birth, but James wasn’t the father – the most popular suspect being the papal nuncio, the unfortunately named Father d’Adda (and you’d better believe the wags had a field-day with that one)

How far anyone actually believed the rumours is moot, but in any event, they served their purpose of undermining the already shaky monarchy: James and Mary were eventually forced into exile, with the throne of England offered to the safely Protestant William of Orange and his wife, James’s daughter, Mary.

The sexually uncontrollable and deceitful woman had, by this time, become a standard metaphor for social upheaval, as Fissell shows; but surely no one woman was ever so branded in this respect as Mary of Modena, nor suffered so much personal humiliation. Every detail of the pregnancy and the birth became fodder for the pamphlet-writers and the balladeers; bloody bedsheets and lactation were topics of coffee-house gossip. In the pursuit of political and religious ends, what had once been a private act of mystery and wonder, a miracle even, had been transformed into something crude, ugly, and very, very public.


Subtitles, exclamation marks and quadruple-barrel names

Ah, LibraryThing— Joy of my existence, bane of my existence…

So, I was browsing obscure 18th and 19th century novels on LibraryThing, as you do – okay, as I do – and after a while it occurred to me to wonder why some books got earmarked and others got left on the sidelines. Obviously, you can’t tag everything (although actually, a glance at my wish list might suggest otherwise); so what were the characteristics of the books that made the cut?

It was an interesting psychological exercise, highlighting some aspects of my taste I wasn’r necessarily aware of. It appears I prefer Scotland to Ireland; the land to the sea; rural to urban…at least in Great Britain: in America, it’s the other way around, urban rather than rural. As for “the South” – including “the old South” – I tend to take things on a case-by-case basis.

I’m more interested in contemporary tales than historical novels, although some books dealing with aspects of history in which I’ve recently acquired an interest, like Mary, Queen of Scots and the Gunpowder Plot, made the list. I’m more interested in strikes than revolutions. I tag domestic novels over those with a broader canvas. Actually, I’m not surprised about that one: contemporary, domestic novels tell us a great deal about the reality of day-to-day life, those fascinating little touches that wouldn’t necessarily make it into a Big Important Novel about Big Important Themes. Anthony Trollope was often scorned for his eye for domestic detail, condemned as a recorder of pettinesses. It’s exactly that, I feel, that helps to make him fascinating to readers now. In Phineas Finn, there’s a passing comment I’ve never forgotten: that Phineas, living grossly above his means in public but trying to economise in private, takes the Telegraph instead of the Times because the Telegraph costs 1d. and the Times costs 2d. I love that kind of stuff.

I like the simplicity of the hero or heroine’s name as the title, it seems – and never mind how corny. While men don’t have a monopoly on “meaningful” names, as Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures Of David Simple illustrates, over the years this kind of thing does seem to have become more associated with male writers, giving us heroes like “John Splendid” and “Joshua Humble” and “John Vytal”; while you almost have to admire the chutzpah of anyone who would actually call his heroine “Lily White”.

Another thing that suckers me in is a good subtitle – or better yet, a subtitle that leaves me none the wiser; which, I hasten to add, is more often due to my ignorance than the author’s incapacity. Thus, we have works like The Strawberry Handkerchief: A Romance Of The Stamp Act and Deborah: A Tale Of The Times Of Judas Maccabaeus. On the other hand, some authors went to the trouble of catering for the ignoramuses out there by explaining themselves – for instance, Anna Burr, with her Sir Mark: A Tale Of The First Capital (Philadelphia).

I like exclamation marks, too, and the more, the better. Small wonder you’ll find the collected works of Francis Lathom on The List, as well as novels like Behold The Woman! and Six Hours In A Convent; or, The Stolen Nuns! and Joan!!!! There’s just something about an exclamation mark – the suggestion, perhaps, that the novel will make up in enthusiasm what it lacks in quality.

I was a little surprised at the number of religious novels on The List. Some of that I chalk up to my reading of Margaret Maison’s Search Your Soul, Eustace, but most of it I blame upon the insidious influence of The Little Professor. The preponderance of temperance novels, however, I have no explanation for. I have some experience of the breed, and I’m yet to come across one that wasn’t dreadful. But who knows? – maybe they’ll be bad enough to be entertaining. Or maybe I’ll find a genuinely good one.

It’s childish, I admit, but I’m more likely to list a novel by a writer with an unusual name. Ethelinda Custard! – who wouldn’t want to read a novel by Ethelinda Custard? I also like the (chiefly American) phenomenon of the female author with multiple names, of whom Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth may be the best known example. It almost seems that you had to have at least three names to get published; four and even five are commonplace.

Speaking – and rather more seriously – of female authors, one of my aspirations for this Course Of Reading is finally to tackle those important writers who have so far largely escaped me – Maria Edgeworth, Harriet Martineau, Dinah Craik, Eliza Lynn Linton, Charlotte Yonge, Margaret Oliphant, Mary Humphry Ward, Edith Wharton. Why female authors? No, it’s not a girl thing. Rather (and without wanting to get my Dale Spender on too much), it’s that I’ve already read the important male authors of the time, because they’re simply out there; the women you usually have to hunt for.

And that’s even more true of the second- and third-tier, and beyond, female authors of the same period; prolific and popular in their day, mostly forgotten now; writers like Regina Maria Roche, Catherine Gore, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood, Agnes Giberne, Dorothea Gerard, Adeline Sergeant, Emma Jane Worboise, Mary Cholmondeley and the two Lizzie Bates-es.

And just who are the two Lizzie Bates-es? Oh, don’t worry – we’ll get around to that soon enough…



The world’s (Second) Slowest Interlibrary Loan has arrived!

Now I can finally settle in to my Course Of Steady Reading, and to making this blog something like it was envisaged in the first place.


Not quite the “Northanger Novels”, but

Joanna Martin’s Wives And Daughters: Women And Children In The Georgian Country House is a cross-generational study of the prominent Fox Strangways family of Dorset (known and referenced by Thomas Hardy) from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Martin is herself a descendant of the individuals whose lives she depicts, and her privileged position allowed her access to family documents including financial records, bills, journals and a voluminous correspondence to to trace the ways in which the world changed for, in particular, the women of the family over the century or so that her book considers. We see that although the topics of conversation didn’t necessarily vary over the years, attitudes and mores did: Martin uses extensive quotations to elucidate the existing range of opinions of marriage, housekeeping and servants, health and medicine, childbirth and childrearing, education, gardening, religion, politics, travel, literature and science.

Perhaps the latter is the most interesting, particularly for the younger generation at the beginning of the 19th century, when “science” as a subject shook off its connotations of “an interesting study” and came into its own as a profession. During this transitional phase, science was, somewhat oddly, considered a suitable subject for girls; indeed, it was considered one of the few “hard” areas of study in which (as it was depressingly phrased) a young woman could, Excel without being unfeminine. The children of the family took full advantage of this viewpoint, boys and girls alike, throwing themselves into amateur but serious studies of natural history, botany, astronomy, chemistry and in particular geology. One of the family, Mary Theresa Talbot (who, to her mother’s dismay, obviously preferred geology to men) was involved in the opening up and excavation of a number of caves in South Wales, and the discovery of the so-called “Red Lady of Paviland”, a skeleton (actually that of a man) that at 29,000 years of age represents the earliest example of formal human burial to have been found in western Europe. Another of this generation was William Henry Fox Talbot, better known simply as Henry Talbot, who like all good scientists started out by blowing up his lab, and grew up to become one of the most significant figures in the development of photography.

Given my current obsession with the evolution of the novel, the section dealing with the changes in reading habits over the course of the hundred years examined, both in terms of what was available and what was considered acceptable, proved extremely valuable. Best of all, however, the undoubted highlight of the book for me, is the excerpt from a letter written by Christopher Talbot (brother to Mary Theresa, cousin to Henry). At the age of fourteen, Kit was at Harrow and hating it. Displaying an almost frightening understanding of his mother’s thought processes, Kit refrained from addressing her directly on the subject, and instead set about convincing her, obliquely, that he was wasting his time at school, and falling into bad company, besides. We can only imagine the horror of the serious-minded Mary Talbot, upon receiving this epistle from her son:

“…I have read Evelina, Wakefield Castle, The Three Monks, The Faro Table, The Black Tower, The Mysterious Penitent, The Mysterious Hand, The Recluse Of Norway, Tom Brown, The Mysteries Of The Castle, The Mysteries Of The Forest, The Towers Of Ravenswould, The Castles Of Athlin And Dunboyne, Sebastian And Isabel, and The Witch Of Ravensworth…”

Evidently young Master Talbot had a taste for Gothic novels. He goes on to recommend The Recluse Of Norway and Wakefield Castle, but dismisses The Faro Table (disingenuously or not) as, A satire that I did not understand. In any event, his tactics worked beautifully: with little loss of time, he was snatched away from Harrow like a brand from the burning, and placed with a private tutor.

And what a list! I’ve read Evelina (Frances Burney) and The Castles Of Athlin And Dunbayne (Ann Radcliffe). The letter was written in 1817 or 1818, so Tom Brown can’t be a reference to Tom Brown’s Schooldays. As for the others:

  • Wakefield Castle – probably Warkfield Castle, although it’s listed as both – Jane Harvey (1802), unavailable
  • The Three Monks – sorry, that should be The Three Monks!!! – was translated from a French original by H. J. Starrett in 1803, but I cannot find that it is available, alas. I say “alas” on the strength of a contemporary review that, referring to the book’s dedication to Matthew Lewis, comments acidly, “He must be keenly affected that his own volumes should, as it were, have given birth to such excessive lewdness and impiety as pervade the profligate pages now before us.” Given the content of Lewis’s own (singular) Monk, one doubts it. (Interesting that this wasn’t the one Kit Talbot felt compelled to disclaim.)
  • for The Faro Table, we have the choice of John Tobin’s play The Faro Table; or, The Guardians, written in 1790 but not performed until 1816 because, I gather, of libel issues; or The Faro Table; or, The Gambling Mothers, a novel by Charles Sedley from 1808. Given Kit Talbot’s assurance to his mother that it didn’t understand the work, I’m guessing he read the play.
  • for The Black Tower, we have the choice of The Mysteries Of The Black Tower by John Palmer Jr (1796, reprinted by Valancourt Books in 2005), or Syr Reginalde; or, The Black Tower by E. W. Brayley (1803, not available).
  • The Mysterious Pentinent; or, The Norman Chateau – author unknown, 1800; possibly available through some of those “print-on-demand” outfits, so caveat emptor
  • The Mysterious Hand; or, Subterranean Horrours!! – by Augustus Jacob Crandolph (1811), also reprinted by Valancourt, bless ’em.
  • The Recluse Of Norway – Anna Maria Porter (1813), available through Google Books and Open Library
  • The Mysteries Of The Castle – seems to be another play: Miles Peter Andrews, 1795
  • The Mysteries Of The Forest – Mary Arnald Houghton (1810), available through Google Books
  • The Towers Of Ravenswold – William Henry Hitchener (1813), available through Google Books
  • Sebastian And Isabel; or, The Invisible Sword – hmm… Possibly by T. C. Long (1810), but may also be a reissue of an earlier novel, The Man In Armour; or, The Invisible Sword, listed as by T. C. (or J. C.) Loney (1807); unavailable
  • The Witch Of Ravensworth – George Brewer (1808), also available through Valancourt

And yes, of course they’re all now on my “to read” list – naturally!