Archive for October, 2010

30/10/2010

Sisters under the dust-jacket

“I propose to trace Romance to its Origin, to follow its progress through the different periods to its declension, to shew how the modern Novel sprung up out of its ruins, to examine and compare the merits of both, and to remark upon the effects of them.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)

I have learned, over the years, to keep my hobbies to myself – at least out there in the real world. I’ve learned to dread the look; that combination of puzzlement, pity and discomfort that seems to accompany any public admission of how I spend my time. Its bad enough, it seems, that I read at all, without reading, you know, old stuff. I shudder to think what a confession of my chronobibliographical aspirations would get me.

So it was with feelings of pleasant surprise and some comfort that I read Clara Reeve’s The Progress Of Romance Through Times, Countries, and Manners; With Remarks On The Good And Bad Effects Of It, On Them Respectively; In A Course Of Evening Conversations, which seems to have been inspired by an impulse similar to that which led to this blog.

Clara Reeve turned to writing comparatively late in life: her first novel, The Champion Of Virtue, written in disapproving reaction to Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, was published in 1777, when she was forty-eight; it was revised and reissued the following year under the title by which it is now much better known, The Old English Baron. Reeve subsequently wrote half a dozen more novels, none of which were anywhere near so successful as her first, and which today are virtually unknown. In between, she also published some poetry, translations and non-fiction. (Like every other woman writer of the time, or so it seems, she had a plan for the education of the young.)

The Progress Of Romance, published in 1785, had a double purpose and a unique structure to go with it. The book is fashioned as a series of conversations between three friends, the well-read Euphrasia (Reeve’s alter-ego), Hortensius, her main antagonist, and Sophronia, who acts as an arbitrator between them. This was a clever move on Reeve’s part, turning what otherwise might have resembled a series of lectures into a more easily absorbable form. It also allows Reeve to argue against many of the prevailing opinions of the day, most of which just happen to be Hortensius’s.

The premise of this work is that Hortensius has taken exception to, or at least been startled by, some remarks of Euphrasia’s in which she seemed to denigrate epic poetry. Euphrasia explains that, rather, she was merely expressing her opinion that romances are by no means necessarily inferior to “the works of the great Ancients”, as is usually asserted, but may be regarded as essentially the same works in a different format.

Hortensius is affronted by this comparison of the classics and a form of writing that he has no hesitation in condemning as “trash”. It turns out, of course, that he hasn’t actually read most of the works he condemns – plus ça change. Reeve’s response to this revelation, which she puts into the mouth of Sophronia – “I have generally observed that men of learning have spoken of them with the greatest disdain, especially collegians” – is, I suspect, an expression of her opinion of the narrowness and inutility of the classical male education. It is evident throughout this work that Reeve considers the results of her own autodidactism far more satisfactory, although she never says so outright. She does, however, while admitting the often pernicious effects of novel-reading on girls, take issue with basing the education of boys on the classics – thus familiarising them at a young age with the Ancients and, “Their Idolatry – their follies – their vices – and everything that is shocking to virtuous manners.”

Euphrasia then proceeds to make her case by examining the origins of epic poetry, romantic prose, and other related works such as ballads, tracing fiction of all kinds across countries and centuries, highlighting their handling of the same historical events and demonstrating how the same story-telling impulses underlie each.

We emerge from this section of her book with a mental picture of Clara Reeve as highly intelligent, astonishingly well-read and amusingly opinionated. She also strikes us as very much a woman of her time, a stern judge who condemns any work that seems to her to have an immoral tendency. Her main argument in favour of the old romances is that they were almost always aspirational works, which celebrated courage and fortitude, and featured heroes and heroines of unimpeachable virtue, and which therefore were appropriate works “to put into the hands of young people”. The same cannot always be said, alas, for the romance’s descendant, the novel.

One of the purposes of The Progress Of Romance is to tackle the question that so obviously greatly bothered so many analysts of the time – just what is the difference between “a romance” and “a novel”? The definitions offered here seem to have guided opinion on the subject for many years afterwards. At the outset, we have Hortensius (prior to his conversion to Euphrasia’s point of view) asserting that a romance is, “A wild, extravagant, fabulous story”, to which Sophronia adds the rider, “Those kind of stories that are built upon fiction, and have no foundation in truth.” The conversationalists return to the point following Euphrasia’s dissertation of the history of the romance, with Euphrasia giving her own definition:

“The romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that it is all real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.”

It is the “reality” of the novel that makes it such a double-edged sword. Its familiarity makes it a far more effective vehicle of “instruction” than the romance, but it also makes it more likely to do harm. We get the usual sketch here of “young persons”, particularly young women, being mindlessly influenced by what they read. The fear of what novel-reading could do to girls was so widely expressed at the time that I suppose people actually believed it – although we notice that “Euphrasia” seems to have emerged from the reading of the works she subsequently condemns without suffering any particular moral damage. Reeve must have been aware of this inherent contradiction in her stance, although she avoids engaging with it directly, merely having Euphrasia observe, not of her own but of Sophronia’s reading, that certain works are, “Apt to give a romantic turn to the reader’s mind, unless she has as much discretion as Sophronia.” Discretion, we gather, is a quality largely lacking in novel-readers.

The second section of The Progress Of Romance is one of the earliest serious studies of the novel, and a fascinating snapshot of the mindset of the time. To my infinite amusement, Euphrasia / Reeve starts out by expressing a doubt I know only too well, as she contemplates with obvious dismay, and possibly some feeling of panic, the magnitude of the task she has undertaken:

“At our last meeting, I mentioned some difficulties I apprehended in my progress…and I must now confess, upon relexion they increase… It is now that I begin to be sensible in how arduous an undertaking I have engaged, and to fear I shall leave it unfinished.”

Sister! I cried.

“I purpose in future to take notice only of such novels as are originals, or else of extraordinary merit… I will endeavour to go forward warily and circumspectly…”

Okay, I muttered, obviously one of us was adopted…

But even Reeve’s cut-down history of the novel is extensive and impressive. She starts out tracing its origins out of Italy and Spain, before discussing its flowering in France. Here she does something that many later critics are strangely loath to do (a point I’ll be returning to in a subsequent post), and admits candidly the strong influence of the French writers of that century and the preceding one upon the development of the English novel.

Of the English novelists, she starts, inevitably, with “the Fair Triumverate of Wit”, and offers an interesting perspective on the three ladies who would suffer so much abuse over the succeeding centuries. Poor Delariviere Manley comes off the worst, being dismissed as a mere scandalmonger. Reeve admits Aphra Behn’s “genius” but, striking the key-note of the rest of her analysis, argues that her genius does not make up for her immorality.

It is Reeve’s opinion of Eliza Haywood that is the most intriguing. As you might imagine, she condemns her early writings utterly – but then insists that Haywood be given a pass, “Because she repented of her faults, and employed the latter part of her life in expiating the offences of the former.” Haywood’s reinvention of herself in the 1750s as a didactic novelist is indeed one of the most remarkable phases of the lady’s serpentine career, regardless of whether it represents her “repentence” or merely her pragmatism; while The History Of Miss Betsy Thoughtless is one of the most important novels of its time, as I hope to be discussing at some unspecficied future date…

As you will have gathered, at all times in this review, it is less the quality of the novel that is considered important than its morality. Not surpringly, then, it is a discussion of the relative merits of Richardson and Fielding, those twin kings of the 18th-century novel, that shapes the rest. Reeve concedes that in Fielding’s novels, “Virtue has always the superiority she ought to have”, and that his books are superior to Richardson’s in terms of “wit and learning”. However, “As I consider wit only as a secondary merit”, Reeve contends that Fielding’s work is, “Much inferior to Richardson’s in morals and exemplary characters.” And indeed, “To praise the works of Mr. Richardson is to hold a candle to the sun.”

Reeve then goes on to consider most of the more successful novelists of the preceding fifty years. (She chooses discretion over valour, and refrains from giving an opinion of the writings of her immediate contemporaries.) Reeve praises Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Sarah Scott, Oliver Goldsmith and (with reservations) Tobias Smollett. The latter allows her to take another pot-shot at Hortensius: when he praises Humphry Clinker she marvels, “Then you do condescend to read novels sometimes, especially when they are written by men?” Hortensius also asks her opinion of Tristram Shandy, which she condemns – although not with as much certainty in her own judgement as she usually displays: “What value posterity will set upon [his writings] I presume not to give my opinion of, it is time that must decide upon them.” Sterne’s more sentimental works, however, she does approve.

From my own peculiar point of view, I was somewhat disappointed that Reeve did confine herself to the better-known novelists; I was hoping for a few more obscure works to add to The List, but for the most part it was not to be. The closest we get is some praise for Elizabeth Griffith, whose novels are allowed to be, “Moral and sentimental, though they do not rise to the first class of excellemce”; and on the other hand, a dismissal of “Miss Minifie’s novels”, which are tartly summed up as being, “In the class of mediocrity, if I were to mention such, it would make our talk too long and tedious.”

Given Reeve’s general reticence  in this respect, one does wonder why the unfortunate Margaret Minifie was chosen to represent “the class of mediocrity”. This probably wasn’t the reaction she wanted, but…I’m sorely tempted to go and find out…

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27/10/2010

The Floating Island

Or, to give it its full title: The Floating Island; or, A new discovery relating the strange adventure on a late voyage from Lambethana to Villa Franca, alias Ramallia, to the eastward of Terra del Templo, by three ships, viz., the Pay-naught, the Excuse, the Least-in-sight, under the conduct of Captain Robert Owe-much, describing the nature of the inhabitants, their religion, laws and customs. Published by Franck Careless, one of the discoverers.

The longevity of satire is by its nature often dependent upon the identity and/or scope of its target. Attacks upon nations and rulers may be understandable decades, even centuries, afterwards; while the more specific a reference to a certain time and a certain place, the more likely it is that a particular work will be of relevance only to that time and place. Thus, while at this distance I was able to grasp a number (although certainly not all!) of the concerns that prompted Henry Neville to write The Isle Of Pines, a perusal of Richard Head’s 1673 pamphlet The Floating Island left me largely baffled. It was certainly set in London, despite its promise of voyages to fabulous lands, and it was certainly satirising something – but what?

Fortunately, help was at hand – a surprising amount of it, actually. I am indebted to the writings of Matthew Steggle (from Notes And Queries) and Nigel Strick (from Social History and the British Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies) for being able to shake a meaning from this faux-travelogue.

The Floating Island, as its extended title indicates, is supposedly an account of a voyage of discovery; although the names of the intrepid explorers and their vessels makes it clear that this is anything other than a serious scientific report. We hear at the outset that, A Council was held of Indigent persons, and such who were both Indebted and Insolvent; these individuals (failed tradesmen, as it turns out) meet to consider, What course might be most expedient, for the present relief, and future prevention of such insufferable mischiefs, which dayly threatened the utter ruine of the poor and distressed Society, called the Owe-much, or Bankrupt. The decision is to mount an expedition to distant shores, seeking new territories to colonise well away from the terrible laws of their own country, where the explorers live in imminent risk of, A dreadful Judgment, and irremediless cruel Execution. Setting out, the voyagers discover a number of exotic new lands – which, according to his or her knowledge of geography, history and literature, the contemporary reader may recognise as various regions and landmarks in London, their names twisted and Latinised. Meanwhile, the costumes and customs of the inhabitants of these strange realms are reported with mock solemnity by our narrator, Captain Owe-Much.

We have already touched upon Richard Head’s life-long battle with gambling and debt, and there’s a nice irony about him using his own difficulties as the basis of an effort to earn a little money via the publication of his pamphlet. However, the purpose of The Floating Island goes far beyond one man’s financial woes, and into an area about which I previously knew very little. Nigel Strick’s papers discuss not only the bizarrely counterintuitive English debtors’ laws (with which anyone who has done any 18th- or 19th-century reading would certainly be familiar), but the co-existence of debtors’ sanctuaries, areas within or near London to which those in debt could flee and live in relative security.

The medieval church had upheld the custom of sanctuary within London, but following the Reformation these traditional areas of protection were progressively undone. Nevertheless, certain regions around London, particularly those on which church buildings had previously stood, such as Whitefriars and the Minories, remained accepted as sanctuaries under common law well into the 17th century; and although protection for criminals ceased to be recognised, protection for debtors remained de facto even after technically outlawed.

The largest and most notorious of these sanctuaries was the Mint, a region in Southwark whose protective properties stemmed from a strangely mixed history that gave it some solid basis for its rejection the jurisdictional laws of the City of London. Its residents, the “Minters”, implemented their own laws and processes, claiming that their protection was only offered to the insolvent and bankrupt, and was exerted to allow those individuals an opportunity to pay their debts, as indefinite imprisonment under the actual laws did not. However, while the Minters certainly made their territory a place that any bailiff would enter at his peril, too often the “protection” turned violent – and far too often serious criminals were also given shelter. These breaches of the tacit agreement between the outside powers and the Minters gave parliament the weapon it needed, and the Mint, the last of London’s sanctuaries, was legally dismantled in 1723.

The Mint features in several well-known literary works, particularly the writings of Daniel Defoe. Despite his own financial woes, Defoe does not seem to have claimed sanctuary himself – but his characters do. It is within the Mint that his Moll takes the name “Mrs Flanders”, while for Roxana the prospect of ending up there was one to be dreaded. Fifty years earlier, however, when Richard Head was writing, the Mint was only one of several sanctuaries in which those in debt could hide from the threat of prison. The “journey” of Captain Owe-much and his crew, then, is in and out of these areas, with the men zig-zagging between these “territories”, where they are made welcome and feel safe amongst the inhabitants, and venturing out into dangerous new realms, such as the Fleta, or that ruled by the terrible King of Marshelsia, where danger and destruction lurk at every turn.

While we can (with expert help) make sense of the bulk of Head’s writing, the purpose of the object to which his pamphlet owes its name is less evident. The “floating island” encountered by Owe-much and his men, Called the Summer Island, or Scoti Moria, is situated in the middle of Golpho de Thame-Isis: the Christian-shore lying to the Norward, and the Turkish-shore to the Southward. This strange land mass appears only in the warmer months, when it becomes the site of a mysterious female ritual, its only means of ingress being, For the more convenient reception of the Christian and Barbarian Amazons, who in the Summer time constantly repair thither, to meet with their Bully-Huffs and Hectors to generate withall. Owe-much makes the acquaintance of one of the “Christian Amazons”, who turns out to be a native of Westmonasteria, a region that, Lyeth to the Westward of Pallatium Regale, which place is too splendent for common eyes to behold, and too virtuous for vulgar breath to prophane. An extended satire on the less-than-virtuous habits of the “Westmonasterians” follows.

Matthew Steggle points out in his article that the emphemeral floating island, which travelled across or even above the surface of the sea, was a potent symbol in these troubled and uncertain times, and had been throughout the 17th century. In 1636, a play called The Floating Island: A Tragi-Comedy, by William Strode, was performed at Oxford University by the students of Christchurch for Charles I and Henrietta Maria; the play was finally published in 1655. Various other works make use of this symbol, which became particularly popular in the period following the financial disaster known as “the South Sea Bubble”. Evidently, none of the emblematic potency of this idea was lost over the succeeding 150 years: Jules Verne eventually used it as the basis for his satire of “the Gilded Age”, The Floating Island: The Pearl Of The Pacific, published in 1895.

Steggle points out a few other things about The Floating Island, too – one of which probably tells us everything about its author that we need to know: namely, that significant portions of it were plagiarised. The source of these passages, which Richard Head barely bothered to alter, was a collection of essays called The Art Of Thriving, published by Thomas Powell in 1636, and in particular the 1623 tract, The Mysterie of Lending and Borrowing. There, we hear of an expedition undertaken by one “Oliver Owe-Much”. Oliver’s ships carry exactly the same designations as his descendant’s do, but he does journey from Ram Alley to Lambeth, instead of the other way around.

It seems that in some academic circles, Head’s plagiarisms are too well-known to attract much attention, or even criticism: the tone of Steggle’s paper is more resigned than outraged; and he moves on to make a cogent point about Head’s “borrowing”, the fact that in spite of England having suffered the upheaval of the execution of a king, a civil war, a Protectorate and the Restoration, the pinched passages, dealing with the unhappy lives of debtors and their necessary manoeuvrings, were still just as valid in 1673 as they were in 1623 – as indeed was London’s geography, even after the Great Fire, a reference to which is almost Head’s only updating of his stolen material.

The Floating Island, like much of the financially desperate writing of the time, is a strange hodge-podge of content, sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling, sometimes crude, sometimes pointless – and then it just stops. I was, I confess, amused to find within it several versions of that eternal legal joke, Who’s to blame? – “…whereupon Jasper had like to have slain Theophilus, which when Edward espied, he made it appear to both Luke and to Francis, that Rowland was the cause of the falling out…” However, I see no reason – no inherent reason – why this should be the one amongst all Richard Head’s pamphlets to be reprinted and propagated (and made available as a free eBook*); but then it isn’t about inherent reasons, is it? I know little more about this than I do about “Lambethana” and “Ramallia”, but my understanding is that, mystifyingly enough, Captain Robert Owe-much is one of the minor players in the world of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where he is celebrated for his discovery of Scoti Moria. I can only suppose that Alan Moore’s research, while impressive, didn’t go far enough to unearth the tales of Robert’s ancestor, Oliver, to whom Robert himself owed so much.

[*For which I’m actually very grateful. Part of my irritation with Sony was that, as with the delay over kicking off the blog properly by refusing to move on from The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, I’d made up my mind that my eReader’s baptism was going to be The Floating Island and was too stubborn to just read it in PDF instead while I was waiting. Besides…the thought of using this piece of 21st century technology to read an obscure pamphlet from 1673 made my brain melt in the nicest way.]

24/10/2010

Second time unlucky

It seems that my landing upon Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events for my first round of Reading Roulette was something in the nature of letting a rookie gambler win a few early hands, a lure to sucker me in so that I could get taken to the cleaners later on. In other words – the second time around, the reading gods have been a little less kind.

I was worried immediately after my recourse to the random number generator. I hit a high number, which meant I was straying from my comfort zone. The book in question I had never heard of: Eve’s Daughters by Arthur G. Learned, from 1905. When I began to hunt for a copy, I learned that it had a subtitle: compiled by a mere man. Hmm, I thought, that doesn’t sound promising. My next discovery was that the book was, A collection of aphorisms about women. No, thank you. In any event, it wasn’t a novel, and that gave me and my OCD an out:

And then it was back to the random number generator, and…another high number. Not really the time period I wanted, but I can hardly object on the grounds of insufficient obscurity:

Philip And Philippa: A Genealogical Romance Of Today (1901) – John Osborne Austin.

Austin was, as his subtitle suggests, a genealogist, one best known for his studies The Genealogical Dictionary Of Rhode Island and One Hundred And Sixty Allied Families. At first I had some faint hope that “A Genealogical Romance Of Today” was simply his facetious way of describing another family history, but no – Austin did just once turn his hand to novel writing, publishing this single work privately through the Rhode Island Press. This helps to account for the book’s comparative rarity: what seems to be the only secondhand copy still in existence is currently winging its way to me from Poultney, VT.

This is turning out to be an expensive hobby. Thank heavens the dollar reached parity.

23/10/2010

Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 3)

And still more SPOILERS – although less than in the previous post. Maybe.

The “recent events” referred to in Agatha‘s subtitle, then, are those of the French Revolution. Britain’s reaction to the upheaval in France was peculiarly contradictory. The corruption, licentiousness and brutality of the French system was taken for granted across the channel and habitually held up as the symbol of everything to be depised, as everything that Britain and its government was not – but from 1789 onwards, the Ancien Régime became regarded as the lesser of two evils. The early years of the French Revolution were deeply disturbing to a nation that had not yet recovered from the humiliation of its own Revolutionary War and the subsequent loss of its colonies (in which, of course, the French had played a significant role).

Initially, although the ruling class was  alarmed and horrified by the possibility of revolution spreading to its shores, many in Britain supported and even celebrated the events in France. All that changed, however, when the perversion of the principles upon which the revolution had been founded led first to the execution of Louis XVI and then to the bloodbath of 1793 – 1794. By the time that Elizabeth Jervis was writing Agatha, late in 1795, Louis had been dead for nearly three years, the new Constitutional Republic was a few months old—and Britain and France were at war. Some things the Revolution had not changed.

Agatha’s taking of her vows occurs late in 1789, when the Revolution was in its earliest phase; but we hear nothing about that. Instead, we are given a sketchy and not entirely convincing account of the new Sister Constance’s adjustment to her life, in which her secular interests figure as prominently as her religious duties. Agatha’s main pleasure in her new position is acting as the convent’s chief almoner, dispensing its not inconsiderable wealth amongst the deserving poor and in the process earning herself a third identity, becoming known as “the Angel of Auvergne”. Otherwise, we hear a great deal about the presents she receives from Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, who have relocated to France and bought an estate near to the convent, and about the visits of Agatha’s friend, Mrs Herbert, who has joined a travelling party in order to have the opportunity of seeing her. Again, the main thrust of this is to remind us of what Agatha has given up to fulfil her mother’s vow, and the extent of her self-sacrifice.

Agatha has been Sister Constance for two years before Mrs Herbert’s visit, and another passes fleetingly before the story settles down to be told again in detail. It is only when “the Revolution” starts to become “the Terror” that Elizabeth Jervis takes an interest in the events going on outside the convent. What follows is a staggeringly one-sided view of the situation. Jervis ignores the early revolutionary phase because, as it soon becomes clear, she has no intention of conceding that the revolutionaries had the slightest justification for their actions. Apart from an admission from the Abbess that, “The power given to the Nobles of our country over the peasantry, however temperately they have used it of late years*, is such as no one, for the honour of human nature, ought to have”, there is hardly a hint in the novel that pre-revolutionary France was anything less than a utopia.

[*emphasis mine]

Elizabeth Jervis was by no means the only English writer to react like this to the Revolution, which provoked a wave of astonishingly rose-coloured looks back at traditional French governance; and like many of them, Jervis’s keynote is ingratitude. At one point, the story of Agatha becomes a series of anecdotes about generous, right-thinking, self-sacrificing French aristocrats who dedicated their fortunes and their lives to looking after their peasants, and this is the thanks they get for it? There is a reference to “the sublime spectacle of a King giving liberty to his subjects – a King, whose humanity, and desire to make them happy entitled him to the adoration of his people”, without any indication of the series of events that brought about that particular “spectacle”. Later, a peasant family takes Agatha in and hides her from the pursuing mob: it comes as no surprise at all when we learn that they are fallen nobility, “degraded to the rank of Plebians”. Finally, we are repeatedly told that the revolutionaries who arrive to sack the convent, and who subsequently shun or attack its former inhabitants, were the very people who queued up to take its charity. Even as we hear of none but completely unselfish nobles, there is no hint here that the wealth of the covent was accumulated for any reason but to disperse it in charitable works.

As events in France threaten to engulf the convent, Agatha is beset on two fronts. First, Sir Charles and Lady Belmont are denounced as aristocrats, and must flee for their lives, their attempt to arrange Agatha’s removal from the convent thwarted. Cut off from her parents and in ignorance of their fate, in danger as both an aristocrat and as a nun, when the revolutionaries storm the convent Agatha manages to escape but is separated from her companions and must begin her dangerous journey on her own, still dressed in her habit. Seeking assistance from the those along her way, Agatha is either rejected in fear of the consequences, or ridiculed and abused. Jervis gets herself in a bit of a bind here: her use of irreligion to emphasise the degenerate state of the peasantry is undermined by the fact that the peasants’ attitude to nuns really isn’t that much different from her own: “Une Fanatique – une Religeuse!

From the perspective of literary history, this section of Agatha is rather intriguing. Two years earlier, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries Of Udolpho had defined a new genre, the Gothic novel, inspiring imitations by the score. For almost a decade, English circulating libraries were awash with tales of distant lands, gloomy castles, evil monks, persecuted damsels, and supernatural events that were (usually) explained away at the end. My own favourite consequence of this movement is the subset of novels that in desperation sold themselves as Gothic via titles like “The Secret Of The Abbey“, and then turned out to be completely domestic and realistic.

In Agatha, Elizabeth Jervis also exploits the conventions of the Gothic novel. Thus, Agatha must make a series of frightening journeys in the dark, being pursued through the woods surrounding the convent. She takes refuge in a hidden cavern beneath a ruined monastery, where she discovers living in retreat another victim of the situation, Father Albert (he who advises her to forget her vows). Later, captured by the revolutionaries, Agatha finds herself sharing a prison cell with a dead baby; while Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, forced against their wills to accept “hospitality” from another group of revolutionaries, are confronted by their own imminent fate when they discover a secret “murder room” containing the dead and mutilated bodies of their hosts’ earlier victims. These sudden detours into graphic horror in what is otherwise an extremely hardcore didactic novel, and the fact that Jervis goes in that direction when the reality of the Terror offered, surely, enough factual opportunities for graphic horror, are a clear indication of the contemporary dominanance of the Gothic novel. You are sure they are all horrid?, indeed.

There are shifts and twists throughout Agatha that hold the interest even when it stumbles as a piece of writing, and we get another one when the novel abruptly forsakes Gothic horror for politics. However, even as Elizabeth Jervis’s own religious prejudices undermine her depiction of the revolutionaries, her reluctance to admit that the peasants may have had a point interferes with her various expressions of patriotic fervour: she keeps comparing France unfavourably with England, even while refusing to admit that things were really all that bad in France.

The same speech in which she concedes that the French aristocracy may have had just a leetle too much power finds the Abbess admitting to Agatha and Mrs Herbert, “I have often looked with envy towards your country, where the same laws protect the person and property of the peasant as of the lord.” St Valorie, the fallen noble who tries to save Agatha from the mob, also utters an empassioned speech about England: “Happy, happy country, if you knew your own happiness… Had this been the government, these the laws of France – !”

St Valorie’s next words are even more telling: “Even this government, excellent as it is, may not be perfect; there may exist faults which you say it is the opinion of many might be rectified; but it is not the season to begin to repair your own house when its foundations have recently been shaken by the shock given to the surrounding earth when that of your neighbour fell…and when the imperfections of yours, if not imaginary, are, at least, so trifling that you may reside in it with comfort and convenience in its present state…”

Here we find Elizabeth Jervis’s rose-coloured glasses perched firmly on her nose again. This time of trifling imperfections of government was that of a yawning gulf between the rich and the poor, and of parallel abuses of the law. Not for nothing did the ruling class of England fear that the revolutionary fever might take hold there. What’s more, the further this passage goes on – and it goes on – the louder becomes the tone of reproof, the more obvious the finger-wag at the working classes, who should just accept their narrow lot and not be so ungrateful as to ask for more. Note, too, the simultaneous finger-wag at the home-grown reformers – one that is almost comically familiar: Hey, if you don’t like it here, go live in— Wherever. In this case, Revolutionary France. I’ve never quite understood why conditions being worse in some other country frees a government from any obligation to try and improve conditions in its own country, but it seems that they do – and, apparently, always have.

There’s a closing point I want to make about Agatha, but before I do, it is necessary to first take a look at another of Elizabeth Jervis’s prejudices. There is a curious passage – curious in light of Jervis’s subsequent marriage to an abolitionist – in which an acquaintance of Agatha’s remarks, “There are two kinds of people I have always wanted to talk to, and those are, nuns and negroes” – going on to add that she has often wondered, “Whether negroes are really so cruelly treated as Mr Sharp and Mr Wilberforce say they are.” This is not the first reference to slavery in the novel. As you may recall, Edward Hammond is himself enslaved in Algiers, the single white man amongst a host of black slaves. His eventual rescue puts Elizabeth Jervis in another of her personal binds, as the fact that Hammond ups and leaves without any attempt to free his companions hardly gels with her depiction of him as “the soul of nobility and sensibility”.

To get around this (she thinks), she has Hammond pause on the brink of freedom and reflect, “Had the companions of my toil evinced the smallest traces of compassion for my sufferings, or even appeared sensible of their own, I could not have parted from them without compunction of heart…but they had always seemed unconscious of their own misfortunes and regardless of mine, which at this minute was a consolation to me, and prevented even the shadow of a regret at leaving them behind me…”

The native insensibility of its victims was a common justification of slavery at the time, of course, and this sophistical manoeuvring on the part of Hammond / Jervis would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for an unexpected piece of juxtapositioning. One of the subplots of Agatha concerns a long-term friend of Hammond’s, a Jew named Aaron Israeli, who was “hated and ridiculed by every other in the school” when Hammond took him under his wing. We don’t see much of Israeli ourselves over the course of the novel, but we hear quite a bit about him – and he is unfailingly generous, noble and loyal. It is he who rescues Hammond from slavery, and at considerable personal cost.

Casual, and not-so-casual, anti-Semitism would be a common feature of English literature for the next 150 years, with even otherwise liberal writers often lapsing on this point. We would hardly call Elizabeth Jervis “liberal”, considering the rest of her novel. Agatha in its entirety is a strange mix of piety and prejudice. Some of its excesses we laugh at, some (I hope) we wince at; but with her sketch of Aaron Israeli, she takes us entirely by surprise. In and of itself a welcome piece of generosity, in the context of the novel that contains it, it is nothing short of astonishing.

23/10/2010

Life with Sony

So, after much agonising on the subject, I decided to buy a Sony Touch Edition eReader – having been assured that the improved visual quality of this model made up for the size of the screen.

Not having a Sony store convenient to home, I ordered online. Since Sony only deliver within normal work hours, I gave my own workplace as the delivery address. Payment was accepted and the order dispatched four days later, with an estimated delivery date of three days after that. Then the fun began.

Four days after the estimated delivery date, with no eReader in sight, I rang the Sony Customer Service Centre to chase it up. There, after some umming and ahhing, I was told that my delivery had been refused and the package returned to the company.

Now— The reception at my workplace receives packages all day, every day. There was no reason at all that a delivery would have been refused. So, I asked, when did this happen? Did they get the name of the person who refused? Why didn’t they use my contact number, so that I could have walked down one flight of stairs and received the delivery personally? And why, assuming the delivery was refused, did they make no attempt to contact me afterwards, but left me to chase the order myself?

This, it seems, was talking like a crazy person. Or so I gathered from the puzzled silence at the other end of the line. Finally, instead of answers to my questions, I was given an e-mail address and again left to chase things myself.

So I sent off an e-mail containing the same details. Three days later, I got a reply: since my delivery had been refused, the items had been returned and my order scrubbed. If I still wanted it, we would have to start over. Did I still want my order?

Evidently the Sony Corporation is so strapped for cash that people often mistake it for a charity, and hand it large sums of money without expecting anything in return. You will notice, at any rate, that although my order was expunged, no attempt was made to refund my payment.

So, yes, I replied, astonishingly enough, I did still want the items I had bought and paid for. And off we went again.

While I was waiting, I received an e-mail. The Sony Corporation had noticed that I had recently used its Customer Service Centre. Would I take a few minutes to fill in a survey about my Sony experience?

As you might imagine, I was just in the mood to describe my Sony experience. Particularly since the e-mail made it clear that the Sony Corporation was under the impression that I had ordered, not an eReader, but a 32 inch television.

And eventually, my order showed up. (My reception people, offended at being blamed for the original snafu, refused to let the delivery guy leave the building until I’d walked downstairs and gotten my hands on the package.) This morning has been spent getting set up and learning how to use it and downloading my first eBook.

And, oh…it’s beautiful.

And that, when you get down to it, is exactly the problem – the alpha and omega of Sony. The quality of its products lets them get away with both overcharging and treating their customers like crap – and particularly in this corner of the globe, where options are more limited and they have, to a degree, a captive audience.

Of course, just because someone can do something, doesn’t mean that they have to. It’s a question of character.

19/10/2010

Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 2)

I said it before, but the further we go, the more it bears reiterating – HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

While Elizabeth Jervis gets points for coming up with so unexpected a plot twist as confronting her heroine with the prospect of life in a convent, it is upon this twist that her novel founders – or rather, upon the attitude that underlies her handling of it.

During this time and, indeed, across much of the 19th century, the English anti-Catholic novel was nothing uncommon. Many of those novels were virulently negative in their view of “the Romish faith” and sincere in their belief in the threat it posed to England…but Agatha isn’t really like that. It has few good words for Catholicism as such, granted, but the overriding feel of the novel is a perfectly English and perfectly Protestant bewilderment as to why anyone would want to be Catholic – let alone a nun. It’s not hostile, merely confused.

This confusion undermines the story. We are told in passing that “Agatha had been raised in her mother’s faith”, but there is absolutely no sense of either she or Lady Belmont as a devoted, practising Catholic; no hint as to when or where they attend Mass and go to confession. We hear much about Agatha’s “religion” but it’s all very generic. Nothing in the early stages of the novel prepares us for believing that Lady Belmont would make and keep such an oath. The other major problem is the character of Sir Charles Belmont, who despite retaining his own faith accepts the necessary sacrifice of his daughter and acts in concert with his wife to raise Agatha so as to prepare her for it. We in turn must accept that he believes that his wife will be eternally damned if she does not succeed in persuading Agatha to enter a convent – or at least that he believes that she believes it – but as the character is sketched, it is easier to imagine him putting down a Protestant foot and exclaiming, “Nonsense!”

However, Elizabeth Jervis’s failure to convince the reader on this point actually creates an extremely interesting tension throughout the rest of the novel. It is clear that Jervis could think of no greater sacrifice in life than entering a convent; no more extreme way for Agatha to exhibit her self-control, her mastery of her own passions and her filial devotion. In short, Agatha wins her author’s unqualified approval by doing something that meets with her unqualified disapproval.

Once Lady Belmont has explained the situation, Agatha is left to make her decision as to whether or not she can and will renounce the world – which means renouncing Edward Hammond, and life as a wife and a mother. Her choice is made no simpler by the fact that every other character in the novel thinks that becoming a nun is wrong, not just for Agatha, but generally.

Agatha takes the usual* Protestant standpoint that entering a convent is not an act of devotion, but an act of cowardice, a retreat from the temptations and challenges of the world; while the choosing of “a Heavenly Spouse” over an earthly one is both wasteful and unnatural. Almost every person that Agatha encounters expresses this opinion to a greater or lesser degree, reacting to her dilemma with unconcealed horror and sympathy.

(*Usual in this era, anyway, some fifty years before the founding of the first English Anglican convents, which were in any case viewed with similar if not equal disapproval.)

These scenes climax in a series of sickly comic passages involving Hannah, the Belmonts’ Malaprop-spouting housemaid, who upon getting wind of the scheme denounces “these nasty abominable nun notions” and encourages Agatha to run off with either of the young men seen lurking in the vicinity of the house – marriage being “a holy constitution”. (The second is William Milson, for whom Agatha is his latest hopeless passion.)

More seriously, Agatha is confronted by a vision of what she is giving up in the shape of Jemima Simmonds, who becomes the object of her sympathy after circumstances force the young woman to choose between her lover and her duty to care for the grandmother who raised her, and who is now ill and unable to be moved. The always over-the-top Mr Ormistace intervenes in the situation and reunites the estranged lovers, and Agatha is later forced to listen to Jemima’s panagyric on a life of earthly, wedded love, literally love in a cottage, where, “Our brown loaf and homemade cheese eats so sweet a lord might envy us… O Madam, them only that love and are married know what it is to be happy!”

This scene leads to one of the novel’s most drily funny moments, when Lady Belmont, who has listened to this and seen its effect upon Agatha with dismay, deflates her dangerous emotion by remarking to her daughter, “A white loaf and Parmesan cheese would not have excited a tear in either of us”, then in a flash of inspiration points out that Jemima has, in fact, been rewarded for her filial devotion. Agatha, to her credit, sees through her mother’s tactics, but is too worn down to combat them. It is, in fact, the very next day that she gives Lady Belmont the promise she seeks, and agrees to fulfil her mother’s oath by becoming a nun.

Now, you might think that upon leaving Protestant England for Catholic France, Agatha would find some support for her decision, but you’d be wrong. No-one in France thinks she’s doing the right thing, either – including the others in the convent – where if anyone has taken the veil out of a sense of vocation, we’re certainly not introduced to them.

The motives of the Abbess, who becomes “a second mother” to Agatha (I’m honestly not sure if that description was intended ironically or not), are not explored, so we’re at liberty to believe in her religious sincerity. Be that as it may, the Abbess seems to put most of her energy into discouraging her noviciates from taking the veil. Among the nuns themselves, we meet only two, neither of whom has renounced the world with a free heart or an easy spirit. Agatha’s closest friend, Sister Agnes, entered the convent following her betrayal by, and the subsequent misery and death of, her fiancé. Later, at a moment of high drama, Agnes will endanger Agatha’s life and her own by returning to her cell for her one earthly treasure, a miniature of her former lover to which she still clings.

Meanwhile, there’s Sister Frances, who drew the short straw amongst her overly numerous sisters. Frances makes no bones about her belief that, since her vows were made under compulsion, they’re not binding – nor of her intention to swap the convent for the world and a man at the first opportunity. (Frances also likes to amuse herself by putting the wind up her companions by dressing up in men’s clothes and wandering around the convent grounds.) The ludicrous climax to this particular plot thread is reached later in the novel, when a Catholic priest who has befriended Agatha admits to her that he does not consider entering a convent as being devoted to Heaven in “the truest sense of the word”, and advises her to just forget about her vows and get married.

However – all of this is intended not to dissuade Agatha from her intention, but to delineate the magnitude of her self-sacrifice, and the depth of the devotion to duty that makes it possible. It is, nevertheless, something of a shock to the reader when Agatha concludes her probationary period undisturbed, and proceeds to the taking of her vows. Even as Lady Belmont screams and faints and has to be carried out of the chapel, Agatha emerges from beneath the black pall as Agatha no longer, but as Sister Constance.

It is now late in the year of 1789 – and the French Revolution is underway…

[To be continued…]

17/10/2010

Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (Part 1)

Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (1796) was the only novel ever written by Elizabeth Jervis. It was written when she was thirty-three years old, and published anonymously in the same year that she married Samuel Pipe Wolferstan, a Leicestershire lawyer and anti-slavery campaigner. The novel was well-received by neither the critics nor Elizabeth Jervis’s immediate circle, including her soon-to-be fiancé (although excluding her proud father); and this, combined with the assumption of new duties including becoming stepmother to two children in their teens, may have discouraged her from trying again. The new Elizabeth Pipe Wolferstan did, however, write poetry under her married name, as well as a text on the education of young children, but published nothing until after the death of her husband in 1820. Although Agatha was translated into French and Dutch, it failed to find an audience in its native land, and a second edition did not appear.

Until now. In my first “Reading Roulette” post, I gave an outline of the circumstances in which the identity of Agatha‘s author was unexpectedly brought to light, and the novel at long last reissued. As to the big question of whether it was worth it—

Is Agatha a lost classic? No. Is it an interesting novel worthy of consideration? Yes, absolutely.

Agatha is very much the product of its time. The language is often overwrought – or perhaps I should say, poetical – and it is full of characters suffering an excess of “sensibility”, to the point of being perpetually on the edge of physical and emotional collapse; and who are, as characters full of sensibility tend to be, utterly humourless.

(As I always say, I can deal with the weeping and the fainting: it’s the tottering that sets my teeth on edge.)

However, these are not mere indulgences. Agatha is a didactic novel, its lesson quite a stern one about the control of the passions and submission of the will to duty and to God; and in pursuit of this theme, it takes its story in some very—I might even say, completely unexpected directions.

Our titular heroine is Agatha Belmont, who from an early age displays “every sign of a warm and benevolent heart, a sweet and serene temper, and a soul exquisitely susceptible”. There is a shadow across Agatha’s life, as we, her readers, are aware: after her parents have been married for twelve happy, although childless, years – something happens – something that makes them thankful to have no child. Naturally, Lady Belmont immediately afterwards falls pregnant. Agatha is raised in almost total seclusion, and taught by her mother to depise the world, including love and marriage, which Agatha is assured are most likely to bring her only misery. Agatha dutifully imbibes her mother’s lessons, but has enough youthful spirit and independence of mind to fancy:

“…that the world, bad as it was, might afford her some happiness; and that when the time should arrive that she was permitted to enter it, thus guarded by caution, she should be able to discriminate; to separate the bad from the good; to make a moderate use of pleasures; to dance without fatigue, love without much jealousy, and to be one of the favoured few who married happily…”

When Agatha is sixteen, her parents visit France, leaving her with the only friend with whom they have not cut their ties over the preceding years, a Miss Hammond. However, Miss Hammond is “seized with a violent fever” and dies, leaving Agatha entirely alone and at a complete loss. Her solitude is abruptly shattered by the arrival of Miss Hammond’s long-lost younger brother, Edward, who (in the first but by no means the last of the novel’s improbable turns) has spent the last few years enslaved in Algiers, labouring for the “Moorish pirate” who captured him. Hammond and Agatha are two peas in a pod, and it is a mere matter of hours before they are in love; although Agatha does not immediately recognise her feelings for what they are. (In an amusing touch, having been taught by her mother that “friendship” is a far higher state than mere “love”, Agatha repeatedly torments her adorer by assuring him of her friendship for him.)

Since she cannot stay at the Hammond house alone with a man, Agatha is received into the household of a neighbour, Sir John Milson, with whose daughter she is slightly acquainted. Here, Elizabeth Jervis’s talent for character sketches shows itself: her protagonists might be sickeningly perfect, but her supporting cast is not. Indeed, and without wanting to get carried away, the crude Sir John Milson strikes me as almost a model for Jane Austen’s Sir John Middleton, right down to the similarities of name, with both Sir Johns embarrassing and disconcerting their young female guests by talking of little other than “catching husbands”. (Agatha conceals her feelings rather better than Marianne, despite her “sensibility”.) The cool description of Lady Milson, who “had she been married to a man of a liberal turn of mind, instead of one whose meannesses she had early learned to contract, would probably have been a respectable member of society”, also strikes me as somewhat Austen-esque.

Surrounding these two are Miss Milson, who “possessed from nature some sensibility, and from art infinitely more”; her brother William, who makes a profession out of being in unrequited love; the eccentric Mr Craggs, a self-ministering hypochondriac of the most peculiar sort; Mr Ormistace, whose “benevolence, untempered by reason” makes him the perfect target for con-men (and women), as well as an object lesson about self-control; and the sensible Mr Crawford, who functions as this menagerie’s voice of reason. Best of all, though, is the tart-tongued young widow, Mrs Herbert, who has both a sense of humour and a nice way with a sarcastic putdown:

  “Why this is no how,” said Sir John. “Whenever one talks to you, Mrs Herbert, you answer one in such a roundabout manner, that a plain sensible man, though he may be a gentleman and a baronet into the bargain, perhaps, can’t understand what you mean.”
  “I am sorry, indeed,” said Mrs Herbert, “and for the future I will endeavour to adapt my language to the comprehension of gentlemen and baronets.”

However, with the reappearance on the scene of Sir Charles and Lady Belmont, this lightness of tone almost vanishes from the novel. Agatha’s parents are furious and horrified at finding her not only in the midst of the very society from which they have deliberately kept her cut off, but only too obviously loved and in love. They whisk her away to her own home without loss of time, making it perfectly clear to Edward Hammond that he is persona non grata, and finally reveal to Agatha the Terrible Secret that will shape the rest of her story.

Now— I have said that Agatha is an interesting novel, and so it is; but it is impossible to discuss exactly what it is that makes it so interesting without resorting to MAJOR SPOILERS. Anyone proceeding past this point does so at their own risk.

The earliest pages of the novel mention in passing that Lady Belmont is French, and that she and Sir Charles made a runaway marriage, which left Lady Belmont estranged from her mother. We now get the rest of Lady Belmont’s story, and its looming impact upon her only child.

The mother of Lady Belmont was, we learn, “born with dreadful and violent passions, which had been from my youth upwards suffered to assume mastery of my reason”. Equally in love with and jealous of her husband, upon coming to believe that she had lost his affections to another woman, she set a band of hired assassins on him – regretting it, of course, as soon as the blow was struck. With her husband lying between life and death, she then swore an oath to God that the child she was carrying would be dedicated to His service. Her husband recovered from his wounds, and the child, the future Lady Belmont, subsequently educated in a convent with a view to her finally taking the veil. However, on a brief visit home before taking her vows, the young woman fell in love with Sir Charles Belmont and eloped with him, thus breaking her mother’s oath.

It was not until many years later that Lady Belmont was allowed again into her mother’s presence, and suffered the full consequences of her actions. As her mother lay dying, she forced from Lady Belmont another oath: that should she in turn bear a child, it would be dedicated to God as she, Lady Belmont, should have been; and that she would keep this oath on pain of eternal damnation. Appalled at this prospect, but facing her mother’s curse, Lady Belmont finally swore the oath – doing so in the belief that after so many barren years, she would never bear a child and thus never have to keep it.

Enter Agatha.

[To be continued…]

16/10/2010

Sex, sex, sex…that’s all they ever think about

So – we meet again, Dan Cruickshank!

The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital finds both Dan Cruickshank and myself out of our comfort zones, and immersed in a study of the 18th-century sex industry almost as extensive as the industry itself. Cruickshank’s usual interests do come under scrutiny here, as he considers the many and often surprising ways in which the epidemic of prostitution impacted upon the expansion of London in the Georgian era, not only in terms of building practices and innovations, but as an influence upon trends in architecture and art. Cruickshank describes the histories of three very specific buildings associated with the sex industry of the time: the Foundling Hospital, built in an effort to cope (tragically, without much success) with the hundreds of babies abandoned and left to die on London’s streets; the Madgalen, a reformatory for penitent prostitutes; and the Lock Hospitals, established specifically for the treatment of venereal disease, which was rampant.

But this study goes far beyond these boundaries. Cruickshank’s facts and figures conjure up a dark, dangerous and violent world whose scope is almost unimaginable – until some ugly economic realities are factored in. This was a time when honest labour for a woman usually meant a short life on starvation wages. For example, for the princely sum of £5 a year, a housemaid would be expected work twelve to sixteen hours a day and to make herself sexually available to the men of the household. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that many young women chose a life of overt, rather than covert prostitution. The hours and the pay were much better, and (as we shall see in the case of Ann Bond) the dangers of disease and violence not always that much greater.

Cruickshank also highlights another way in which some women tried to escape the painfully rigid boundaries of their existence: cross-dressing and passing as a man. While in some cases this was simply a pragmatic response to their limited opportunities as women, in others it was clearly an expression of an aspect of their personalities that Georgian society was not prepared to deal with – as evidenced by the punitive punishments handed out to women found guilty of perpetrating such a “fraud”. The cases of several woman who joined the army or navy in male guise are considered, as are others involving those who “married” other women. The unhappy life of perhaps the era’s most famous cross-dresser, Charlotte Charke – aka “Charles Brown” – the daughter of playwright and Poet Laureate (and political sycophant) Colley Cibber, is also sketched.

Examining legal records and other publications of the time, Cruickshank paints a picture of a society whose attitudes to its prostitutes were profoundly ambivalent, seeing the women simultaneously as victims and abusers, the scourge of society as well as the “salvation of good women”, who were preserved from, on one hand, having to submit to their husbands as often as they otherwise would, and on the other, protected from the threat of an epidemic of sexual assault, which was considered the inevitable consequence of cutting off easy access by men to sexual release, and which was the spectre invariably raised whenever any serious attempt was made to address the problem of prostitution.

The attitude of the legal system itself was equally confused: the statutes were brutal, but juries and judges often sympathetic – unless it could be proven that a prostitute was guilty of or involved in robbery as well as sexual activity, in which case she was likely to suffer transportation or death. This was a time, of course, before a professional police force or channels of investigation, when court cases, even for capital crimes, rested almost entirely upon verbal testimony and who the jury chose to believe. Curiously, despite outward condemnation of the race as “the lowest, most evil and most debauched of creatures”, unless a prostitute was testifying on her own behalf (and sometimes even then), it was a matter of public pride that her evidence under oath should be accepted. The inevitable intertwining of the judiciary and the sex industry is illustrated by accounts of various famous criminal cases involving prostitutes, including the trial of Colonel Francis Charteris for the rape and abuse of his housemaid, Ann Bond, which highlights both the best and worst aspects of the contemporary legal system.

Particular notice is paid to the bizarre case of Elizabeth Canning, who in 1753 claimed to have been abducted and held against her will with an aim of enforced prostitution. Her accused kidnappers were arrested and tried, and initially convicted; but the inconsistencies in Canning’s evidence and account of her ordeal were disturbing to some, who would not let the matter drop. The result was a case that shook the legal system’s faith in verbal testimony to its foundations, as it became increasingly clear that someone – either the seemingly innocent young girl making the accusation, or the far less innocent but far more convincing defendents – was lying through their teeth under oath.

This was also the era of the professional informant, which was one way that the moral crusaders tried to gather the evidence needed to close down “bawdy-houses”. It was, of course, a system open to brutal abuse, with informants willing to perjure themselves condemning their victims to jail, transportation and even death in exchange for payment – or threatening to do so unless paid off. Sympathetic as the law often was to female prostitutes, it was far otherwise towards their male equivalents, or indeed towards any man accused of “sodomitical intent”: the early part of the century saw a wave of executions of men convicted of homosexual activity, and another favourite game of the informers was to extort money from their victims under threat to lodge an accusation of “a sodomy”.

It was in this climate of jurisdictional failure and uncertainty that gave birth to the first police force, the Bow Street Runners, a secret squad of professional criminal investigators founded by Henry Fielding (who had played a rather ugly role in the Canning case), and later refined and expanded by his successor as Chief Magistrate, his half-brother Sir John Fielding (the “blind beak”).

Although much of Dan Cruickshank’s story deals necessarily with its “lower” levels, that there was not an aspect of society left untouched by the sex industry during the Georgian era is illustrated in a series of case studies involving famous figures of the time: the eccentric Dr James Graham, whose “Temple Of Health” promised his clients “marrow-melting” sexual pleasure stimulated by that mysterious new force, electricity; William Hogarth, using “the harlot” as a symbol both explicit and implicit for society’s ills; Sir Joshua Reynolds and his prostitute-muses – including the future Emma Hamilton; John Wilkes, who finally crashed and burned not because of his attacks upon the king, but because of his pornographic Essay On Woman; and Sir Francis Dashwood, whose Hell-Fire Club is a fitting symbol of the age. Also included are biographies of the very few women who successfully parlayed their sexual careers into fame, security, and even respectability – most notably Lavinia Fenton, who began as a prostitute, made her public name as an actress, and finally became Duchess of Bolton. She, of course, was an extreme exception, her story cast into relief by our knowledge of the countless, countless thousands of anonymous individuals who died in obscurity, misery and poverty.

“To read” addition:

The History Of Henry Dumont, Esq; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn – Charlotte Charke

13/10/2010

Too much smutty

Between a work crisis and some access issues, I’m currently a bit behind on my reading / writing. I’m just drawing near the end of a marathon work of non-fiction, which I’ll probably post about on the weekend; Agatha hasn’t arrived yet, although she’s cetainly imminent; and I’m holding off on beginning the next step along my Chronobibliographical road for reasons I’ll get into when they’re no longer relevant. If that makes sense.

What I will do in the meantime is say a little about my next scheduled author, the apparently aptly named Richard Head (which, nota bene, is as much as I’m going to allow myself in the “stooping to the obvious joke” department). Head was Irish by birth, but spent much of his life in London, scratching a living as a writer and bookseller, although a lifelong gambling addiction meant that his income rarely exceeded his expenditure even when he found success, as he did in 1665.

Head’s most successful work, indeed, one of the most successful works of this period, and one of the few English publications to be successful across Europe, was The English Rogue Described In The Life Of Meriton Latroon, a satirical account of the criminal and sexual escapades of its title character. Notoriously, when the first version of Head’s tale was submitted to the censor in 1664, it was rejected for being “too much smutty”. A bowdlerised edition was resubmitted successfully the following year.

I may say that I am yet to find anyone who has read The English Rogue who doesn’t react by exclaiming, “If this is the bowdlerised version – !?”

(More 17th-century pornography? You betcha.)

We have touched already about the English habit at this time of claiming even obvious works of fiction to be true stories. Head’s approach with The English Rogue was to hint, not merely that it was true, but that it was autobiographical. Scholars today agree that certain aspects of Latroon’s life do coincide with that of Head, particularly the account of the early years of his life; but beyond this there is little evidence that it is not a work of fiction. Be this as it may, Head’s intimations that he and Latroon were one and the same backfired spectacularly when the readers of The English Rogue took him at his word. Deciding that Head was an unmitigated scoundrel, they treated him accordingly.

Thoroughly exasperated by this outcome, and in spite of his perpetual financial difficulties, Head turned a deaf ear to the pleadings for a second volume of Latroon’s life from the publisher / bookseller Francis Kirkman, to whom the rights to The English Rogue had passed upon the death of Head’s original publisher. Kirkman’s response was to cash in on the situation by writing a second volume himself, which was published in 1671. It is generally agreed to be an inferior work to the original, and was not as successful. Whether Head was irritated by what Kirkman had done to his story, or whether it was simply a matter of financial necessity, it seems that in time he gave in and collaborated with Kirkman on two further volumes, published in 1674 and 1680. Head and Kirkman then had a falling out, with Head declaring publicly that he had had no hand in writing the third and fourth volumes, although surviving documentation suggests otherwise.

The end of the fourth volume of the life of Meriton Latroon promised a fifth, which never eventuated – or at least not as planned. In 1688, an abridged edition of the four volumes was released “to which is added a fifth part”. However, by 1688 Francis Kirkman and Richard Head were both dead. There is no record of who wrote this belated sequel, which is short, a mere tying up of loose ends; an obvious cash-in by whoever had acquired the rights to the whole.

The difficulty with The English Rogue, then, is deciding just “when” it was published. If we take only the first volume as the “true” edition, its publication date of 1665 puts it beyond my self-imposed cut-off. (Which I’ve already violated once, but never mind.) If we accept the Head / Kirkman volumes as part of the whole, then we go with 1680; while a one in, all in attitude lands us in 1688…which is what I’ve decided to go with, despite my discovery – made with a mixture of horror and delight – that the academic library I frequent has a copy of 1928 Routledge edition of The English Rogue, which contains the first three volumes of the story, for open borrowing.

Anyway…in the meantime, next on my reading list are two other works by Richard Head, which finds him entering into the popular 17th-century game of shamming with two pamphlets, published in 1673 and 1674: The Floating Island  (reprinted as O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island) and The Western Wonder; or, O-Brazeel. Those of you reading along can go ahead. I’ll…catch you up.

10/10/2010

Perfect

So I decided to make a beginning with Reading Roulette. My scheme for this is, as I have mentioned, to select a novel at random from those in my wish list published between 1751 and 1930, inclusive. They are arranged chronologically and numbered, so I can enter those numerical cutoffs into a random number generator and have my book chosen for me.

(Obsessive? Who, me?)

And using this approach, my first random book has been selected – and in terms of an investigation of obscure, forgotten 18th and 19th century novels, I could hardly have hit upon a better example:

Agatha; or, A Narrative Of Recent Events (1796) – Elizabeth Jervis

The joke here is that had I done this only a few months ago, this novel would have been obscure and forgotten to the point of being unobtainable. By a wonderful coincidence, it has been made available by the efforts of John Goss, a M. Litt. student who stumbled across the identity of the author of this anonymously published novel while researching Robert Bage* for his thesis. Learning that less than twenty libraries in the world held a copy of Agatha, Goss initiated a subscription process to fund the editing and reissuing of the novel (I wish I’d known about that at the time) – a second edition 214 years after the first. A limited run of the novel was released earlier this year…and has, apparently, already been pirated by those print-on-demand outfits. Charming.

Anyway – the story being what it is, I’ve decided to order a copy of Agatha (an authorised one, I hasten to add). The first game of Reading Roulette will have to wait just a little longer.

(*Robert Bage! Now, there’s someone I haven’t read for a year or two. I remember enjoying his novels.)