Archive for December 27th, 2010

27/12/2010

Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge (Part 1)

“…for my tastes are, I fear, incurably vulgar, as you may perceive by my fondness for Mrs. Meeke’s novels.”
—Thomas Babington Macaulay (1832)

Which brings us to the first entry in our new series, Authors In Depth, in which (to start with) we will be examining the extant works of the once popular and now largely forgotten novelist, Mary Meeke.

Anyone who knows anything about the popular literature of the late 18th and early 19th century will be aware of the notorious Minerva Press, home of the “scribbling women”, mainstay of the circulating libraries, and favourite target for condescending critics and antinovelists alike. For some twenty years, William’s Lane’s mini-empire turned out three-, four- and even five-volume sentimental and gothic novels, crammed from cover to cover with instanteaneous passion, extravagant speeches, swooning women and improbable events. Mary Meeke is, in many respects, the perfect exemplar of the Minerva Press novelist: prolific, popular, and critically scorned.

Very little is known about Mrs Meeke herself. She seems to have been the wife of a minister, and was evidently well-educated. Between 1795 and the (disputed) time of her death, she wrote over thirty novels, as well as publishing several translations of European works. Though selling well in their time, her novels were not reissued and have since fallen into obscurity. Search for information on her, and for the most part you will find only that quote above, which has been used time and again to demonstrate conclusively that Mary Meeke was a bad writer – which is not at all what Thomas Macaulay intended when he penned those words. That damning quote has been taken quite out of context.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, later the 1st Lord Macaulay, was a poet, an historian, and a politician, serving at various times as Secretary of War and as Paymaster-General. He was also – and for our puposes, this is far more important – a lifelong, voracious devourer of novels, good, bad and indifferent. Even as today we adopt lines of dialogue from popular TV shows, Macaulay and his sister Hannah, later Lady Trevelyan, quoted novels at one another and compared people they knew to various fictional characters. Macaulay once contended that, between them, he and his sister could re-write Sir Charles Grandison from memory. His letters to Hannah contain any number of references to his reading, and there are at least three remarks in them about the novels of Mary Meeke. The tone of those remarks makes it clear that Macaulay’s fondness for her books was something of a running joke between his sister and himself.

And in truth, Macaulay may have been Mary Meeke’s Number One Fan. By his own assertion, he owned and repeatedly re-read her novels. He used catchphrases from her writing. When he went to India in 1834, he took a crate of her books with him.  Once, having read a novel he really didn’t enjoy, he declared his intention of cleansing his palette by re-reading Mrs Meeke’s Langhton Priory. In the letter containing the quote above, jokingly as it is phrased, Macaulay is in fact comparing Mrs Meeke’s novels favourably with a good old-fashioned English dinner. It is quite incorrect for that quote to be used as “evidence” that she was a bad novelist.

Mind you— None of this proves that Mary Meeke wasn’t a bad novelist, either. It simply proves that Thomas Macaulay wasn’t ashamed of his taste in light literature – and that he had a sense of humour. In the course of this series, we shall find out for ourselves exactly what kind of a novelist Mrs Meeke was.

(By a rather charming coincidence, sometime in the next few weeks we shall be hearing a bit more from Thomas Macaulay, Literary Critic.)

27/12/2010

Well, it’s a start…

The Reading Gods must have been listening when I was complaining about my inability to hit anywhere near the novels I was most interested in while playing Reading Roulette: this time around they dropped me in the right century, at least – just. My latest random selection is The Rebel’s Daughter by John Gabriel Woerner, which was published in 1899.

It’s a start.

For the following information we have to thank Woerner’s own son, William, who published his John Gabriel Woerner: A Biographical Sketch in 1912. A German immigrant, Woerner spent his early years in Philadelphia, but grew up in Missouri, in St Louis and the (then) small towns of Springfield, Belle Font and Waynesville. Initially acquiring only a patchy education along the way due to his need to earn a living to help support his family, Woerner took every opportunity that presented to improve himself in this respect. Beginning in trade, Woerner became a printer and then a newspaper editor, but his ambition was for the law. Obtaining a legal clerkship, he studied in his spare time and was admitted to the bar. He found great success as a lawyer, but his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. Missouri was a bitterly divided “border state”; Woerner served on the Union side in the militia, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

In parallel with his legal career, Woerner entered politics on the Democratic ticket, repeatedly elected as a Councilman before being elected to the Senate in 1866. Before this, however, he was forced to confront the political division of his state. During the war years, despite his affiliation with the Democrats, Woerner not only served in the Union forces but became a supporter of Lincoln; afterwards, however, he fought against what he considered the self-defeatingly punitive measures of the Reconstruction. In 1870, Woerner was elected to the position of Judge of Probate, an appointment that would shape the rest of his life. Apart from an unblemished career on the bench, Woerner won professional fame for his legal treatises, in particular for one dealing with probate law – on which subject, I gather, he quite literally wrote the book.

But law books were not Woerner’s only literary output. From an early age he had written and published poetry and short stories. He also wrote a novel, which was serialised in a German-language newspaper and then published to strong sales amongst the German-speaking community. Also in German, he wrote a play that was completed in 1873: it was Anglicised and produced as Amanda, The Slave, and became a success. After this, Woerner wrote another play, which was also produced, but which he later evolved into a fully-fledged novel: The Rebel’s Daughter: A Story Of Love, Politics And War, which in its author’s words was intended to illustrate, “An ideal of a Southern woman, purified and chastened by the fierce war of rebellion and representing the triumph of Truth and Freedom over the negative phases through which American civilization has passed.”

Appropriately enough, I have had to obtain a copy of this novel from Missouri – thank you to Patten Books of St Louis.