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!

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