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…