I’ve been having a problem settling into a reading pattern lately, with each aspect of my reading program running into difficulties. And, yes, I’m well aware that most of those difficulties are self-inflicted, so you needn’t bother pointing that out.
My suprising success rate in accessing obscure, late 17th century texts must have lulled me into a false sense of security, because my first serious failure in that respect came as a real shock. I became aware of The English Monsieur, A Comical Novel, by James Howard, courtesy of an interesting article by Nicholas Hudson published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, entitled, Social Rank, ‘The Rise Of The Novel,’ and Whig Histories of Eighteenth-Century Fiction, which goes against many of the “rise of the novel” studies with their paradigm of the parallel “rise of the middle class” and an assumption of increasing liberalism, domestic values and social levelling.
Hudson argues instead for an even longer history of what we might call Tory novel-writing, beginning in the late 17th century and continuing at least into the early 19th century, that was concerned with maintaining a social hierarchy headed by an exclusive and self-contained aristocracy, and discouraged social aspiration and the mingling of the classes. The final author considered in this respect is Jane Austen. Hudson concedes that while her novels display a belief in the traditional Tory values, there has been a considerable softening of the 18th-century stance that shows itself in both an expressed disapproval of the aristocracy, along with an admission that the gentry is all the better for an injection of middle class values. Some of the barricades, at least, had been torn down.
The English Monsieur is cited by Hudson as an early example of his own paradigm of Tory novel-writing – and onto The List it went, despite having been published in 1679, earlier than the works I’d progressed to. (Just when I thought I was out of the 17th century, it pulls me back in.) And yes, I located and downloaded a copy, and off I went…until I got to the final page of what I had and found the ominous announcent, END OF PART ONE.
What the – !?
I subsequently had no luck finding a complete version. Admittedly, this was disappointing more from an historical point of view than a literary one. Whatever else it might have proven to be (and I might say that by the end of Part 1, I’d seen little to support Hudson’s theory), The English Monsieur was the first work I’d come across that used the word “novel” in the sense that we might use it today. Extrapolating from Part 1, it must have been a work of some length, certainly the longest piece of straightforward fiction I’ve encountered so far from this period; although a significant portion of the first volume is given over to a common tendency at the time, the interpolation of side-stories into the main one, usually in the form of one or other of the supporting characters relating their “history”. Still, there was a reasonable amount of movement and plotting, too; and that, along with the amorous adventures of the title character, made it strike me (and without wanting to get too carried away) as a sort of embryonic Tom Jones.
But, in the absence of Parts 2 – 4, it was back to the bad jokes and plagiarisms of Richard Head. Groan.
Well, I’ve made it over that speedbump now, although of course there’s a much bigger one to come. Anyway, I can’t be sorry I found out about O-Brazile, because apart from being mercifully short, it turns out (like most of Richard Head’s work, it seems) to be interesting for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing. But we’ll deal with that presently.
Elsewhere, with Philip And Philippa out of the way, I was up for another game of Reading Roulette. This time around, the Reading Gods smiled: my visit to the random number generator gave me an excitingly low number – which turned out to be connected to exactly the kind of novel I had in mind at the outset of this ridiculous project: The Mysterious Wife by Mary Meeke, from 1797.
Yes, it was perfect. A little too perfect… So perfect, I decided to make it, or rather its author, the focus of a third reading thread: Authors In Depth.
Mary Meeke was one of the mainstays of the notorious Minerva Press. Between 1795 and 1823, she wrote more than 30 novels, most under her own name, but some (evidently the more “daring” ones) under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, while some were published anonymously. She also translated several European works, including Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s The Messiah. Too prolific and popular ever to find much favour with the critics, Meeke essentially cut her own throat by admitting publicly that before starting a novel, she always consulted with her publisher to see what was selling. Her early novels had received some positive reviews, but from that moment onwards Meeke was regarded as the worst exemplar of the “scribbling woman”, and attracted nothing but scornful dismissal – the assumption being, as always, that you cannot both write to please an audience, and write good novels.
Whatever we make today of Mary Meeke’s professional pragmatism, her willingness to act as a literary weather vane makes her novels a remarkable window into shifting public taste over a full quarter of a century. Unfortunately, however, Meeke finally suffered the fate of many popular but critically dismissed novelists of the time: her works were never reprinted. Consequently, a number of them are today unobtainable. Others are available electronically (although I can’t currently swear to their condition); while back in 1977, her first novel*, Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge, was reproduced as a three-volume set by the Arno Press, God love ’em – and as it turns out, my academic library has a copy – God love them. However, right now, the third volume – just the third volume – is out on loan…which somehow is much more annoying than the whole book being unavailable. Anyway, when I get my hands on it, Authors In Depth will begin – and we’ll find out for ourselves just what kind of novels Mary Meeke wrote.
(*There’s a 1783 novel out there in eBook world called Madeline Clifford’s School Life, which is attributed to Meeke. It may represent an early effort, before she hooked up with the Minerva Press. However, none of the articles on Meeke that I’ve read – and I’m pleased to find that there have been a few recent efforts made to rehabilitate her reputation as a novelist – mention it, so I’m going with Count St. Blancard.)
So then it was back to the random number generator, where I landed upon Money To Loan, On All Collaterals: A Tale Of The Times by Minnie Lawson, from 1895. Alas, this one was obscure to the point of being unobtainable. (American novels are, generally, much harder to get hold of than British ones.) All I’ve been able to find out is that it expressed Lawson’s concerns about the state of public finance and the conduct of the banks and Wall Street (and plus ça change once again), that it contained an unflattering portrait of J.P. Morgan (although whether in person or under a pseudonym, I can’t say), and that Lawson wrote at least two other “social issues” novels under her married name of Minnie L. Armstrong.
Third spin, third time lucky? Yes, I guess so. This time I hit 1903’s The Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard. Not only did Gerard live an intriguing personal life, but like Mary Meeke, she wrote prolifically and over a period of many years, her career extending from the early 1880s to the time of WWI, with her novels featuring a wide variety of settings and subject matter. (Her first novels were written in collaboration with her sister, Emily, who was the collector of the Transylvanian folklore that Bram Stoker drew upon when writing Dracula.) And in fact, my moment of hesitation after landing on The Eternal Woman was due to an uneasy feeling that Gerard, too, really deserved to be the subject of Authors In Depth…
…but finally I decided that this business was getting out of hand even by my ridiculous standards. And so—
Chronobibliography: it’s an Exclusion Crisis smackdown, with The Perplex’d Prince vs The Fugitive Statesman
Reading Roulette: The Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard – a “New Woman” novel, I gather, although not an approving one
Authors In Depth: Count St. Blancard by Mary Meeke, which based upon its Arno Press revival, may be a Gothic novel…I hope
For the benefit of those of you playing along at home, I can’t see that Count St. Blancard is available electronically, but a good academic library might do the trick. The Eternal Woman is available through the Internet Archive, but I strongly recommend the PDF version rather than the ePUB one, which has some serious formatting issues.