Be still, my heart

Last year I obtained a copy of James R. Foster’s 1949 work, History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England (a library discard – shame on you, Ohio University!); and, while I did go through it, it would be too much to say that I read it: the book is a dizzying compendium of forgotten novelists and obscure novels, and what time I gave to it was spent transferring information from the printed page to The Wishlist.

This time around, however, I sat down to take it all in properly, and was immediately overcome by a case of the warm fuzzies. While there are few things so difficult as working through a non-fiction book whose viewpoint is at severe odds with your own, when the reverse is true – when you stumble over an unexpected kindred spirit – it’s like being given a hug.

So you can imagine how I felt when in his preface, James R. Foster stated his position thus:

    In general the attitude toward the bulk of pre-romantic novels has been rather depreciatory. Admittedly, they cannot compete with the wit and verve of the realistic novel, yet in their day they entertained and even charmed their readers. Besides, they helped shape the novelistic genre in its formative years. They preached the religion of the tender heart, stirred the emotions and the imaginations, and planted in many a breast the desire for higher ideals, tolerance, and benevolence.
    The scholar, who must admit the importance of minor works, cannot afford to ignore these pre-romantic novels, even though few of their authors were geniuses. Nor can he, like those Victorian critics who strongly disapproved of certain trends of the “Godless” eighteenth century, refuse to free himself from his own fashion of thinking and feeling and so measure by arbitrary standards. Without a sympathetic understanding of what the eighteenth-century novelists were trying to say, the critic cannot judge whether what they said was said well or not.

Amen, brother.

The only slightly worrying thing I’ve encountered in this book so far is a rather antagonistic reference to the early 20th century critic George Saintsbury, who, as you might remember, caught my attention a while back by simultaneously saying nice things about Aphra Behn and extremely rude things about Richard Head; and whose 1913 work, The English Novel, is next cab off my reading rank. Foster essentially accuses Saintsbury of elitism, which may mean (in spite of his apparent credentials) that he’s not a critic after my own heart after all. Not that I’m not an elitist, I just tend to be one in the opposite direction.

Anyway – as I always seem to end up saying at the end of these short pieces – we’ll see.


11 Responses to “Be still, my heart”

  1. By the bye: I’m reading “The history of sir William Harrington” by Anna Meades in its 1773 french translation, “Les moeurs du jour, ou l’histoire de sir William Harrington” and it has some really funny moment; pure comedy, in alternance with moralistic drama 🙂

  2. Hi, Luca! – good to hear from you. I can only say what I always say at these moments – It’s On The List. 🙂

    You know, if you ever wanted to drop by and give a quick review of any of the books you read, you’d be very welcome.

  3. I think you’ll have to go no later than about 1960 to get sensible reactions to these books – after that, as far as I can see, it’s mostly about which school of criticism you’re in. A feminist critic is apparently required to regard all early books by women as indiscriminately wonderful… and so rarely has anything to say about the particular book under discussion. (And a “mainstream” critic’s job is to disagree with whatever the orthodoxy was when he was an undergraduate.) There are some splendid exceptions, such as Brian Vickers, who writes fine books on Shakespeare…

  4. Well, I think that’s a bit harsh. Though I suppose it depends on what you mean by “critic” and “criticism”. Admittedly, I’m not up at all on what’s being published in the journals or presented at conferences, but at the book level I’m seeing a shift from the necessarily superficial to the sensibly focused.

    Earlier on there was, I think, a perceived necessity to do “the lot” from whatever the perspective was, and it was probably easier to do that with a pre-determined agenda. Now with so much more material available, electronically and otherwise, people are accepting that they can’t do everything and generally giving more thoughtful analyses of a more defined subject. For example, there are a number of newish studies dealing with minor novelists, but which deal with *a* writer or related group of writers in their historical and sociological context, rather than doing what James Foster did and taking in the whole 18th century.

    And really, I haven’t seen any of the kind of strident feminist criticism you refer to since the 1980s – and that was a reaction to the routine – habitual? – exclusion of women writers from university-level literature courses and as conference material. I don’t necessarily agree with the approach, but I certainly understand the impulse to jump up and down and scream about it. 🙂

    • Fair enough, I do tend to get a bit harsh about this sometimes… it certainly seems as though there are sensible books coming out these days.

  5. It’s the earlier approach – the Ian Watt School Of Criticism, if you like – “THESE authors are important and no others!” – that gets me riled up.

  6. Ok! Sorry to be late in answering and…happy 2012 to all the people here 🙂

    I’m finishing the second of the four books of “The history of sir William Harrington” (I use the original title, also if I’m reading the french translation). An epistolary novel, it seems to be the “missing link” between Richardson and Jane Austen, during the Sheridan’s Era 🙂
    The main characters are the three young and genteel Harrington sisters: Constance, the eldest, the Harriet Byron-like character on her way to become an Elinore Dashwood with her wise suggestions from the paternal home in the country to the sisters in Bath and London; Julia, the middle, the proto-feminist and Lizzie Bennet-like character (or “a Lady G.”, as their sisters call her, quoting Richardson); and Cordelia, the youngest, a more reserved and intellectual artist, but closer to Julia than to Constance for wit and freshness. The three become orphans in the first half of the first book, then Julia goes to London and Cordelia to Bath, guests of their aunts, while Constance stays home.
    The male characters are Lord S., the morally steady and wealthy gentleman, not comic as Grandison, not “ingessato” (…sorry, I do not find a translation for this word: it’s something like ‘rigid’, but more in a nerdish sense: the kind of person that makes tapestry during a party or a ball and answers seriously to a joke, thinking it is a true story…), so, not “ingessato” as Darcy, but not yet a Knightley, who marries Constance; Lord C., an ex-libertine turned good guy falling in love with Julia; and a colonel Stanhope, the mature and wise friend future husband of Cordelia.
    Then, there’s a gang of London young libertines, captained by Sir Renholds, devoted to keep the best from girls without marrying them: schemes are their profession, but for genius in their strategies and their success, they are closer to the Drones Club’s guys than to Valmont.
    William Harrington, the brother of Julia, Constance and Cordelia, is a member of this libertine society; he seduces the daughter of the local minister, brings her to London and tries to bring also her sister, in order to present her to Sir Renholds. Julia understands that her brother, probably, is not really as good as he seems to be at home with his sisters and that he is scheming something, so she investigates in order to stop him…
    “The history of sir William Harrington” is still richardsonian (it is not sure that Richardson helped Anna Meades with a revision of some part of the manuscript, but he was her ‘idol’ and he is much quoted, anyway), but the authoress seems to be aware of the necessity of a little more dialectic and change of behaviour in the characters in the evolving of the story, not only perfectly good and perfectly bad beings. So, as I told at the beginning of my post, it seems to be an affectionate and little parodic homage and farewell to Richardson, on the notes of a Sheridan’s or Goldsmith’s comedy, in the direction of the shores of Jane Austen; these shores are still quite far, but the weather is good and the course is well calculated, avoiding the Edgeworth Island and the Burney promontories.

  7. Hi, Luca! Thank you so much for that report. I was aware of the Richardson connection with that novel, though I was never sure whether it was true or just a marketing ploy. 🙂

    Either way, it is interesting that even within Richardson’s circle there was an awareness of the flaws in his novels and the need to “move on”. Personally I find these moments when you can almost see the novel evolving quite fascinating.

  8. Modern literary criticism got you confused? Just go to for a quickie primer on how to deconstruct.

    (Actually, that eHow article probably owes a lot to one Chip Morningstar.)

  9. Not confused, just irritated. 🙂

    Thanks for that!


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