Catherine Cuthbertson vs. the critics

When I was looking for a copy of Catherine Cuthbertson‘s first novel, Romance Of The Pyrenees, for my next round of Authors In Depth, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that there were three copies of it at Open Library, two of the first edition from 1803, one of the third edition from 1807. As I was flicking through them to gauge their quality and decide which one I was going to download, I found this in the front of the 1807 version:

“The Author of the following work, grateful for the commendations and animadversions it has been honoured with (both in public critique and private opinions), while cherishing in fond remembrance the encouraging praise as a pleasing incentive to future exertions, more fully to deserve it—to prove that the censure has been treasured in the stores of reason and reflection, as precepts to amend by, has in this edition attempted to correct those errors which superior judgement pointed out, as much as might be without injury to the plan of the whole; the leading features of which were too closely interwoven with every component part to allow greater latitude of alteration. The horrors of the work are something softened; repetitions avoided; and the long story now divided: but of the improbabilities the author has made no effort to divest it. For while the title-page announces a romance, the reader surely has no right to form an expectation of meeting only with the simple facts of common life, delineated by the hand of Nature; and those who relish not the bold unlicensed flights of fancy, in the region of fiction, must relinquish the perusal of this work, since romance has ever been the avowed offspring of imagination.”

Hear, hear!

In any case, Miss Cuthbertson had the last laugh: her first novel went through at least five editions, possibly more; while twenty years after its initial publication, her works were still being advertised as, “By the author of Romance Of The Pyrenees.” It was also translated into French – and misattributed to Ann Radcliffe: high praise indeed.

This preface also settled for me the question of which edition I was going to read. While the repetitions I could do without, there’s no way I was going to choose a version in which “the horrors of the work are something softened”. Unlike the critics of the early 19th century – apparently – when I open a Gothic novel, I want a Gothic novel, dammit!

Which I suppose is another way of saying I’ve got no issue with “improbabilities”…

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3 Responses to “Catherine Cuthbertson vs. the critics”

  1. I get the impression that critical censure has never been much of a bar to selling huge numbers of copies of a book. (Though painting Cuthbertson as the Michael Bay of her era might be going a bit far, I think the concept of “give the masses what they want” is essentially similar.)

  2. I would never dream of comparing Catherine Cuthbertson to Michael Bay – I like her work infinitely better! 🙂

    I don’t doubt (in fact I know) that the stylistic criticisms were valid; it’s the last bit that puts me firmly on Cuthbertson’s side. Picking up a Gothic novel called Romance Of The Pyrenees and then complaining about improbabilities is like buying a Persian cat and then complaining about hair on the furniture.

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