Archive for February, 2012

28/02/2012

Three stones

There’s a preface to The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled in Spiro Peterson’s anthology of 17th century criminal fiction, and while the bulk of it references Ernest Bernbaum’s The Mary Carleton Narratives, it also makes a few points of its own that made me smile.

Here is Peterson’s account of how Francis Kirkman got his hands on The English Rogue – which perhaps also offers a hint of why Kirkman always seemed such a believer in the necessity of there being honour amongst thieves:

Kirkman’s discovery of rogue biography was probably a happty accident. Overly ambitious as a bookseller, he had got into legal troubles in a plot to pirate “the best plays then extant”. On two occasions he had been cheated by Henry Marsh, one of his partners in the pirating venture. After the Plague, burdened with debts and poor relations, Kirkman was trying to recoup his his fortunes. He took over the estate of Marsh, who had died, and here, among many liabilities, he found some assets. Chief among these were the rights to the first part of Richard Head’s The English Rogue, a book so obscene that it had to be expurgated before it could be licensed for publication by Marsh in 1665…

I was amused to discover that Peterson seemed to have come away from his researches with more or less the same impression of Francis Kirkman as I did – basically a nice guy, if not the world’s most honest man, with a genuine love of literature:

Like the true Restoration man that he was, Francis Kirkman emphatically approved of the new freedom that Charles II brought with him. Especially important to him were the signs of the revival in literature. In 1661, as he launched one of his first publications, The Thracian Wonder, Kirkman the bookseller bemoaned the sad effects of the recent tyranny. As long as readers would buy books, he promised to print them, “since ingenuity is so likely to be encouraged by reason of the happy restoration of our liberties.” He never lost his confidence that ingenuity would bring its own rewards. In a long career as translator, author, and publisher, he aimed to please.

Even more amusing, at least to me, was Peterson’s ready acceptance of Richard Head’s involvement in Part 3 and Part 4 of The English Rogue; a conclusion very much against the prevailing dogma, and one I reached only after the shedding of much blood, sweat and tears. Mostly tears:

Of the five books which Kirkman produced as an author, three were picaresque or criminal narratives. He wrote a second part (1668) of The English Rogue and with the original author, Richard Head, “clubbed” harmoniously to produce a third and fourth parts (1671)…

Of The Counterfeit Lady herself, though he does not draw quite so long a bow as Ernest Bernbaum, Peterson is equally impressed with Kirkman’s handling of his material – and with his occasional denials of omniscience:

The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled may serve, according to its preface, “as a looking glass wherein we may see the vices of this age epitomized.” Besides its sociological value, the book should interest readers today for its realistic techniques. Of the criminal biographers who disguise their fiction as fact, Kirkman is the most talented. Instinctively he knows when to hasten the story and when to expand an incident into a brilliantly detailed scene. In his technique he glimpses – sketchily, to be sure – the modern idea of point of view, as, for example, when he interrupts his account of Mary’s affair with the two young lovers “that I may not seem to romance by telling you all their private discourses, which would be impossible”…

But there is one mention of Daniel Defoe; one that keeps it all the family, as it were:

As many as twenty-four books, published between 1663 and 1673, sensationalized her adventures. Samuel Pepys saw the German Princess on display at the Gatehouse Prison, and at the end of her trial for bigamy, stoutly cheered her victory. News of the Lady reached the royal court. In ballads, newspapers, and pamphlets, writers made comparisons with “the German Princess.” To whet the appetite of readers, a criminal biographer claimed, in  1692, that his subject was “a rarity beyond…a Clancie, a Morrell, a German Princess, or any of our most famous imposters.” In the next century Daniel Defoe made the heroine of his Roxana (1724) reflect, “I might as well have been the German Princess”…

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25/02/2012

One bird, two stones

The facts disclosed by our study of the Mary Carleton narratives contradict, if they do not wholly destroy, three cardinal doctrines about the origin of the modern novel,— (1) that the criminal biographies were as a class substantially true, (2) that the narrative methods of Defoe were acquired by “imitating truthful records,” and (3) that in seventeenth century fictitious literature there were no very close approaches to the work of “the father of the English novel.”

Mmm… You know, there’s nothing in the world I find more comforting than a big, steaming bowl of serendipity.

One of the stranger—and more unwelcome—side-effects of my tussle with The English Rogue is that I came away from it with a desire to read something else written by Francis Kirkman; something, that is, not produced under the influence of Richard Head and the shadow of his original work. The trouble was, Kirkman’s other fiction fell into only two categories: archaic romances copied after those he translated early in his career, and rogue’s biographies—of which I had had quite enough for the moment, thank you.

That said, the obvious choice amongst Kirkman’s solo works was The Unlucky Citizen. Published in 1673, on the back of some difficult financial times, this work is a “rogue’s biography” inasmuch as it is a thinly disguised autobiography. This book would, doubtless, have told me everything I wanted to know about Francis Kirkman but was afraid to ask; but in spite of this—or because of this—it didn’t really appeal; although I was amused by the reflection that at a time when most writers were frantically trying to sell their fiction as fact, Kirkman (possibly for reasons of self-preservation) chose to sell fact as fiction.

I was still pondering the issue when I dropped into my academic library one day to do a little browsing amongst the works classified as DD823.400 and slightly upwards. These are those studies of early modern literature that don’t really fit in anywhere else – and which are, for the most part, works decades old and usually considered superseded. Strange and wonderful things lurk on those shelves, which (or so I gather from the dust, the puzzled looks from the librarians, and occasional absence of a barcode) are rarely accessed by anyone but me. I was trolling the shelves with no particular purpose when one book jumped out at me, a slender maroon volume with an unreadable title sticker on the spine, which was quite visually distinct from all the others around it:

The Mary Carleton Narratives 1663 – 1673: A Missing Chapter In The History Of The English Novel, published in 1914 by Ernest Bernbaum, then Instructor in English at Harvard: a book whose importance to the aims of this blog can hardly be overrated, as we shall see; yet a book so obscure and unaccessed that, as I subsequently discovered, it was not listed in the library’s catalogue.

Mary Carleton was a notorious 17th century con-woman. Briefly, she was born and grew up near Canterbury, where she married one husband, possibly two, and fled with everything that wasn’t nailed down. She spent some time in Europe, chiefly around Cologne, and returned to England in possession of a reasonable sum of money and posing as a titled German lady, Maria van Wolway; her alleged position escalating over subsequent events until she became known as “the German Princess”.

Hoping to trap a rich prize through this pose, Mary got more—or rather, less—than she bargained for when she attracted the relatives of a young man called John Carleton, who by way of making him seem an attractive prospect, talked up his birth, fortune and holdings and began referring to him as “his lordship”. In a state of mutual deceit, the two married. The Carletons waited, slavering, for “the Princess”‘s fortune to be forthcoming, while Mary waited likewise for “his lordship”‘s promised shower of riches. Needless to say, they were both doomed to disappointment.

(I seem to be seeing Dickens forerunners everywhere these days. These two remind me of the Lammles from Our Mutual Friend.)

At some point during the ensuing stand-off, John Carleton’s father received a letter from a man who claimed that he knew Mary from Canterbury; that she was the daughter of a church organist, and had two “husbands” still living in the area. According to some accounts, the furious Carleton senior led a family charge to Mary’s rooms, where they literally stripped her of the expensive wedding-clothes they had given her and all of her own jewellery (most of which turned out to be fake), before having her arrested and charged with bigamy.

Mary’s trial was the cause célèbre of 1663. While some people believed her absolutely to be Maria van Wolway, it soon became evident that her guilt or innocence was less important to the gathered crowd generally – and to the jury – than who they preferred, and Mary was soon the popular favourite. The Carletons made the mistake of producing only an eyewitness to Mary’s previous marriage(s) instead of any documentary evidence, and this gave the court the excuse it was looking for to acquit her.

Mary’s triumph was short-lived. The dismissal of the bigamy charge meant that she was in law John Carleton’s wife, and that he was within his legal rights to take everything she owned and then desert her. Mary subsequently made overtures of reconciliation to her estranged husband, but the Carletons weren’t having any. Thrown back on her own resources, Mary was next seen in public starring as “herself” in a play first called A Witty Combat: or, The Female Victor but which soon adopted the title The German Princess; a tacit admission of fraud that must of galled Mary’s genuine supporters. The play, if not very good, had novelty value and for a while drew crowds; although a number of critics commented that Mary was more convincing in the courtroom than on stage.

From here, it was downhill all the way for Mary Carleton. For some time she supported herself through relationships with men, at one point “marrying” again under yet another identity, at others posing as a woman of means in order to attract suitors, but always with the ultimate goal of obtaining what she could by gift or theft before fleeing. Finally, she turned to confidence tricks and robbery. In 1671, she was arrested and tried for theft, found guilty and initially condemned, but had her sentence reduced and was transported to Jamaica. Some years later she managed to make her way back to England and resumed her old way of life, attracting and defrauding more men and stealing the silverware wherever she could insinuate herself. At last she went to the well once too often, and by this time the court’s patience was exhausted. Early in 1673, Mary Carleton was found guilty of robbery, condemned and executed.

Criminal biography, as we have seen, was hugely popular in the second half of the 17th century, and Mary activities were accompanied by two flourishes of related publications, one after her initial acquittal in 1663, the other after her execution in 1673—all told, more than twenty individual works.

The first wave included two accounts of the trial, The Great Trial And Arraignment Of The Late Distressed Lady, Otherwise Called The German Princess and The Arraignment, Trial And Examination Of Mary Moders, Otherwise Stedman, now Carleton, Styled The German Princess, as well as duelling vindications supposedly by John and Mary Carleton, but clearly ghostwritten: An Historical Narrative Of The German Princess and The Ultimum Vale Of John Carleton Of The Middle Temple, London, Gent.

Of the second wave, two publications, both substantial works, stand out: The Memories Of Mary Carleton, Commonly Styled The German Princess by someone calling himself only “J.G.”; and The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled, published in 1673 by—Francis Kirkman.

You were wondering if I was ever going to get to the point, weren’t you?

The truth is, I’ve felt uncomfortable about ignoring Mary Carleton who, whatever she was in life, was certainly a significant literary figure of the late 17th century, with the post-execution flourish of publications landing squarely within my target dates for this blog. So my discovery of Ernest Bernbaum’s study seemed to offer a useful shortcut: reading The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled would simultaneously satisfy my perverse Francis Kirkman fetish and sooth my conscience with regard to the Mary Carleton literature, while through The Mary Carleton Narratives I would get a sufficient overview of the remaining twenty-plus works on the subject. 

Remarkably enough, The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled is in print, as the lead example in a 1961 anthology called The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled And Other Criminal Fiction Of Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Spiro Peterson. My academic library holding a copy, I walked over there one day about a week before last Christmas to pick it up, only to discover to my horror that the library had closed down for the Christmas-New Year break a week early, to facilitate renovations. Cue, if you will, a humiliating mental image of me pounding unavailingly on the front doors and wailing, “But I have to have my Francis Kirkman!!”

So, temporarily thwarted, I read The Mary Carleton Narratives first. To my surprise and delight, far from being merely a summation of the life of “the German Princess” and the writings she inspired, Bernbaum’s study is yet another slant upon “the rise of the English novel”, and one which has some startling things to say on the subject of Francis Kirkman’s work.

Ernest Bernbaum begins his study with a clear declaration of his intent to kick against the prevailing dogma on the rise of the novel, which as you might imagine does him no harm in my estimation; although given his date of publication, it’s the law as laid down by Walter Raleigh and his ilk that he’s arguing against, rather than that of Ian Watt and his descendents, as I like to do. And as so many of these arguments do, it begins with the positioning of Daniel Defoe – and includes the usual distinction:

In fact, most historians of literature, finding the Elizabethan attempts uninfluential, hold that realistic fiction begins with Daniel Defoe. It is Defoe with whom, according to Professor Raleigh, the novel (as distinguished from the romance) arises. It is Defoe who writes, in the opinion of Mr Edmund Grosse, “the earliest great English novel”; and who deserves, in that of Mr George A. Aitken, the proud title “the father of the English novel”… Before his time, we are told, “the promise of the novel dissolved like a mirage.” He remains “the founder of the novel,” in the sense of being the first after the Elizabethans to write a long fictitious prose narrative that is not an allegory, and that realistically and seriously recounts the actions of personages of the lower and middle classes. Such novels, scholars assure us with remarkable unanimity, were before not attempted…

One thing that Bernbaum and his opposition do agree on is that Defoe’s writing grew out of the “criminal biographies” of the previous century, which in turn grew out of the journalism of the day. As Bernbaum points out, journalism was born during the Civil War and, far from being an exercise in factual reporting, its function was to create lies and propaganda in support of one political viewpoint or the other. (Plus ça change.) While this aspect of journalism did not entirely recede following the Restoration, when greater or lesser danger attached to pushing a barrow, the reporting of facts with regard to day-to-day events became an increasingly important aspect of the journalist’s job. However, distances were great and facts sometimes hard to come by; and it was an accepted practice for journalists to fill the gaps in their stories by exercising their powers of invention. The line between “journalism” and “fiction” was often very thin indeed.

(The jokes just write themselves, don’t they? Bernbaum digresses at this point to offer a personal observation that, as you might imagine, surprised a laugh out of me:

The very productive and prosperous Henry Walker concocted, among many other fabrications, a wholly imaginary account of the flight of Charles II; and falsified the death-bed sayings of Oliver Cromwell, professedly recorded by “one who was a groom of his chamber”. Walker was indignantly called by the saintly George Fox “a liar, and forger of lies,”—terms which accurately describe the other prominent journalists of the period, John Harris, George Wharton, and Marchmont Nedham. They were indeed fit predecessors of Titus Oates, who may well be regarded as their monstrous scion, and who in 1678 unabashed perpetrated the most outrageous hoax that has ever misled the British public.)

Defoe himself was a journalist, of course – and a political propagandist – and a liar; qualities, if that’s the right word, that spill over into his fiction. We’ve seen before how Defoe’s supporters tend to dance around these uncomfortable facts, with some even claiming that his greatness is demonstrated by our inability to tell when he’s lying. Bernbaum, like certain others, takes it all in his stride:

As everybody knows, not all of Defoe’s supposedly fictitious narratives can be confidently deniminated either absolute fact or absolute fiction. The Memoirs Of A Cavalier, Duncan Campbell, Captain Avery, Robinson Crusoe itself, have a groundwork of fact… On the assumption that The Apparition Of Mrs Veal was fictitious, critics long used it as a favorite illustration of Defoe’s marvelous power to make the purely imaginary seem plausibly real,—until Mr Aitken’s valuable researches confounded their speculations with the discovery that the story was substantially true. The easy methodof disbelieving in each and every case the solemn protestations of Defoe that he is not romancing, will evidently not do. Sometimes he lies, sometimes he tells the truth; the real difficulty is to ascertain his moments of veracity. Add to that problem a legitimate suspicion that the amount of fictitious matter in the seventeenth century criminal biographies is perhaps larger than supposed, and you have a Gordian knot which may not be lightly sundered but must be patiently untied.

(“Moments of veracity” – heh! “Mr Aiken” is George Atherton Aitken, editor of a late 19th century release of Robinson Crusoe and various academic papers on Defoe.)

The positioning of Defoe as the immediate inheritor of the 17th century journalistic tradition of mixing lies and truth to tell a convincing story, rather than as the “father of fiction”, puts a new slant on where we should be looking for the origins of the English novel. It is precisely this viewpoint that, in Ernest Bernbaum’s estimation, makes the “Mary Carleton narratives” so historically important—because amongst this collection of literature, we find every kind of late 17th century writing, from newspaper reports, to burlesque “advertisements”, to satirical poems, to pamphlets, to novellas; the similarities and differences between these forms in their accounts of Mary Carleton offering a fascinating illustration of the sliding scale of fact and fiction, with each example throwing light on all the others.

As far as the truth of the first batch of the narratives go, Bernbaum is quick to make the amusing point that the two that made the loudest claim to be considered true, that is, the duelling post-bigamy trial publications of Mary and John Carleton, are probably the furthest from it. We are, he further contends, closest to the truth in The Arraignment, Trial, and Examination of Mary Moders, otherwise Stedman, now Carleton, styled the German Princess: this account of the trial is an example of 17th century court reporting, meaning that it offers a reasonably accurate recapitulation of the proceedings, although one embellished with the observatons, interpretations and opinions of its anonymous author.

But it is amongst the seven publications that appeared in the wake of Mary’s execution in 1673 that Bernbaum finds real historical value, singling out four of these seven as particularly informative. By this late date, Mary’s own account of her romantic youth had, of course, been entirely discredited; these publications offer in its place alternative histories that involve her earlier, bigamous marriages and her first forays into fraud and theft. All of them claim to be true; how remarkable, then, as Bernbaum comments wryly, that none of the “facts” contained therein emerged at the time of Mary’s trial for bigamy:

If we are to trust [Memories of the Life of the Famous Madam Mary Charlton, commonly styled the German Princess‘s] author, therefore, we must credit him with the remarkable feat of securing in 1673 specific details concerning many of Mary’s youthful crimes, only one of which her prosecutors in 1663, aided by the full light of the publicity of a scandalous trial, had been able to find.

Of all the Mary Carleton narratives, The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled, being a full Account of the Birth, Life, most remarkable Actions, and untimely Death of that famous Cheat Mary Carleton, known by the Name of the German Princess is not only the last, but the longest—the culmination of all the narratives, if you like. It is not a mere pamphlet, but a genuine novella, if not indeed a novel. As Bernbaum points out, to put things into perspective, Francis Kirkman’s contribution is twenty thousand words in length, fully four times longer than any other of the narratives, and almost the same length as Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which generally is accepted as “a novel”. Its significance, however, lies not in its length, but in its content—something perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Ernest Bernbaum’s own examination of this text occupies more than half of his entire book upon the subject of Mary Carleton.

The first thing we notice about Francis Kirkman’s—oh, hell, let’s just call it “a novel”, shall we?—his novel, is that he did not write all of it himself: the text contains numerous excerpts of the earlier Mary Carleton works, in particular her (ghost-written) autobiography from 1663, and the other significant releases of 1673, The Memories… and The Life and Character of Mrs Mary Moders, alias Mary Stedman, alias Mary Carleton, alias Mary —– the famous German Princess, which is actually the second part of Mary’s own autobiography, The Case Of Madam Mary Carleton, with an appendix attached repudiating her own version of the story and adding an alternative account of her youth, plus her supposed confession that she was indeed the bigamous Mary Moders.

What matters here, however, is what Kirkman does with these appropriations. While all of the earlier narratives, as we have already observed with respect to a number of the rogue’s biographies we have studied, including The English Rogue, are content with a superficial, “this happened, then that happened” style of marration, in The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled that isn’t good enough for Francis Kirkman. Instead, after lifting passages from the earlier works, he proceeds to weave them together into a credible story, in which, in addition to continually embellishing the tale with convincing details, he adds passages where Mary Carleton’s motives, actions and thoughts are explained to us and analysed, while including on his own account various pieces of editorialisation in which he gives his opinion of actions that he himself invented.

Ernest Bernbaum devotes some pages to identifying passages that Kirkman lifted out of the earlier works, and then placing them side by side with Kirkman’s interpretation of them. Here is one example:

From the Appendix to The Case:

The landlady readily granted the use of her best chamber, whither the corpse was brought, and a topping undertaker in Leadenhall Street laid hold of the job, who, having received an unlimited commission to perform the funeral, resolved that nothing should be wanting to make the bill as complete as possible.

From The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled:

The landlady, hearing of profit, soon consented; and that evening the corpse in a very handsome coffin was brought in a coach and placed in the chamber, which was the room one pair of stairs next the street, and had a balcony. The coffin being covered only with an ordinary black cloth, our Counterfeit seems much to dislike it. The landlady tells her that for twenty shillings she might have the use of a pall of velvet, and for as much more some scutcheons of the gentleman’s arms. Our lady was well pleased with the pall, but for the scutcheons she said they would be useless in regard the deceased gentleman was unknown.

In the earlier works, it is simply a matter of “Mary fooled this person, then she fooled that person”; but Francis Kirkman repeatedly shows us how, with descriptions of Mary’s ingenuity. We are shown her skill in manipulation. Here, Bernbaum points out the touch about, The landlady, hearing of profit and also the mention of the balcony: the funeral is, of course, a fake; Mary robs the household of its silver and some of its furniture, as well as appropriating the velvet pall, lowering the loot over the balcony to some confederates in the street before making her own, unladen way out of the house—leaving behind a coffin filled with “brickbats and hay”.

This is a minor example. Again and again, Francis Kirkman takes the bald statements of Mary’s actions from the earlier accounts and turns them into lengthy, vivid, and often suspenseful descriptions of the manoeuvring between herself and her potential marks; while even the minor characters are given credible motives for their actions, and for their falling victim to Mary’s wiles. The result is a surprisingly gripping and coherent narrative that offers something that none of its competitors does—that very few 17th century narratives do—a glimpse into the psychology of of its central character.

Yet the importance of The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled goes beyond its literary credibility. One of the most remarkable things about it is the lengths to which Kirkman goes to win the trust of the reader. For one thing, he bookends his work with a pair of moral disclaimers:

He begins: Let nature be never so liberal to us in the complete forming of our bodies after the most exact copies of perfection, and let us be never so well accomplished in all our outward qualities, so that we may imagine ourselves to be complete; yet if grace be not implanted in our hearts, whereby to guide us in all our actions, we are like a fair vessel at sea which is sufficiently furnished with all her sails and tackling but yet wants the only thing to guide and steer her by, her rudder…

And, likewise, concludes: But if we give ourselves over to ill company, or our own wicked inclinations, we are infallibly led to the practice of those crimes which, although they may be pleasing at the present, yet they have a sting behind. And we shall be sensible thereof when we shall be hurried to an untimely end, as you have seen in the vicious life and untimely death of this our Counterfeit Lady.

We’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course; and while we may not sneer at these passages as we do when we find them coming from the pen of Richard Head, nor do we necessarily take them at face value.

However, Kirkman follows up on his moral premising by assuring us of his trustworthiness as a narrator—going so far as to tell us that not only did he interview Mary before her execution (and he certainly may have seen her in prison, since visiting the condemned was an accepted pastime), but that he tracked down John Carleton, also; while two of Mary’s late career victims were both relatives of his own, and hence he knows details that others do not. He therefore insists upon the reliability of his information—most amusingly, when he rewrites Mary’s own account of being “Maria van Wolway”, while simultaneously puncturing this version of events by stating, in effect, well, that’s what she says, but I don’t believe it:

…but although I shall contradict the opinion of many and what she declared of herself, yet I tell you that according to my best intelligence, which I think is sufficiently authentic, she was no German, but an absolute (I will not say true) Englishwoman…

In addition to these reassurances—and in context, most intriguingly of all—Kirkman makes a point of telling us what he does not know. There are gaps in his narrative where he admits ignorance, and other points where he offers two alternative possibilities before adding, But how it might have been, I know not.

Significantly, as Ernest Bernbaum highlights, these comments die away over the course of the narrative, as if Kirkman felt that he had said enough to convince the reader of his trustworthiness, so that his later assertions would be accepted unsupported. And in fact, between its detail, its offered motivations and its careful disclaimers, the whole of the narrative of The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled is constructed with the clear aim of luring the reader into accepting Francis Kirkman’s veracity even when he is lying.

Eat your heart out, Daniel Defoe.

The weaknesses and limitations of The Counterfeit Lady are obvious. Its diction is faulty, its style slipshod, and its construction without subtle refinements. Measured by the standard of a good modern novel, it is a crude performance. Those elementary principles of good narration which today a mere tyro, taught by great examples, may practice with facility, Kirkman applied with conscious and painful effort. He was doing no conventional thing, yet he succeeded surprisingly well in making both the action and the characterization in his story clear, lively, and so plausible as to compel belief. The Counterfeit Lady, ethically an indefensible fabrication, is to the historian of literature, considering that it was published in 1673, an admirable work; for it treats a story of common life in a serious tone, and makes the imaginary seem real.

I know that it must sometimes seem that I have a set against Daniel Defore. I don’t; truly I don’t. I dispute neither his importance in the time-line, nor that he was a far better writer than almost anyone who came before him; but when people try to tell me that he was, in any capacity, “the first”—well, then we’ve got a fight on our hands; a fight in which, in my very wildest imaginings, I never once envisaged being able to call Francis Kirkman—FRANCIS KIRKMAN!!??—as a witness for the prosecution.

But let’s leave the final word to Ernest Bernbaum, on the back of a consideration of several works, potential “early novels”, that preceded this one:

    …undoubtedly each of these works contributed something to the coming novel; but of none of them can we say, what is precisely true of The Counterfeit Lady, that it closely resembles the novels of Daniel Defoe in both subject matter and composition.
    What The Counterfeit Lady exhibits is, of course, an early phase of the realistic novel, and not the full development. It is considerably shorter than the average length of the novels of Defoe. Perhaps it contains a proportionally larger amount of true incident than they do, though this cannot be confidently asserted until they have been more thoroughly studied. Undoubtedly it is inferior to those admirably written works in style. Even making due allowance for the remarkable and general improvement in prose style that took place after 1673, we must judge the author of The Counterfeit Lady a writer whose diction is crude and whose interminable sentences are often incorrect. Such short-comings will, however, not surprise anyone who understands how slowly, as a rule, a literary type develops. What to him will seem really astonishing is that Kirkman managed to anticipate in so many particulars the ways of his great successor.

06/02/2012

Isn’t it romantic?

    There are faults in the sentimental novel other than the lack of variety and depth in characterization. The poorer sort of author catered to the tastes of the circulating-library reader and to hold her attention he pandered to her yearning for excitement by providing material that grew more and more stimulating, and so ran the scale from the pathetic through the journalistic, the bizarre, the pathological, and finally, after jettisoning almost all intellectual cargo, arrived at melodrama. And he used stock themes and situations, such as the prodigal’s return, the benevolent tableau, the call of the blood, the tearful farewell, the fainting fit, and tear tracking.
    However, not all of the sentimental novelists were mediocre. Some had remarkable ability, and nearly all of them are still interesting. Their novels picture the life of the eighteenth century as seen from the point of view of writers whose estimate of man was generous—too generous, as it proved—and are significant because in them there was a notable development of the sensitiveness which is essential to progress in narrative fiction.

From the openmindedness and willingness to engage with minor novelists expressed in his introduction, I was prepared to enjoy James R. Foster’s work, History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England – but I was not necessarily expecting to find it perhaps the most unusual “rise of the novel” study I’ve ever encountered. Almost all such studies go to immense pains to draw distinctions between the English “novel” and the European “romance”, and are predicated upon the assumption that it is possible – indeed, necessary – to define the former in terms of its difference from the latter. James Foster, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that far from being separate forms with nothing in common, the novel and the romance were inexorably linked, and that the influence of each upon the other zig-zagged back and forth for some 150 years.

It is in this context that Foster takes his study far beyond the narrow bounds of those novels and novelists generally taken these days to properly represent the 18th century. The usual suspects – Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, Burney – are given their due here, but are presented as standing shoulder to shoulder with now-forgotten writers whose works did not outlive their day. Foster contends that, during the second half of the 18th century in particular, sentimental novels dominated the English literary scene, and that the few, more realist works now accepted as “classics” give a skewed impression of what people were reading. While the more romantic works have not survived the way their realistic brethren have, in Foster’s opinion they nevertheless better reflect the contradictory and warring attitudes of their time.

Another unusual and interesting thing about this book is the way that Foster organises his study. After a background section (to which we will frequently refer) discussing sentimentality as a backlash against the perceived coldness and calculation of the Age of Reason, and related factors such as the rise of Deism, Foster works chronologically through the 18th century, nominating what he considers to be the most influential work of each time and type, and then discussing the novels they influenced. Writing in the dim, distant, pre-electronic access days of 1949, Foster not only assumes that his readers will not have read most of the works he is analysing, but that they will never have a chance to do so. Consequently, he pauses frequently in this book to provide lengthy summaries of various novels so that the reader can follow his analyses. Personally, I chose to skip over most of these synopses, because of course I’m eventually going to read EVERY SINGLE NOVEL discussed in this book—right??

Although we have already discussed the pros and cons of the sentimental novel at this blog, and will doubtless do so again, Deism as such is not something we’ve yet encountered. Briefly (I hope not too inaccurately), Deism is a form of religion that finds its faith through a combination of reason and appreciation of the natural world, and which rejects the idea of man as inherently corrupt; believing, rather, than man is corrupted by society and its institutions. It can be imagined how in the 18th century Deism stood in opposition to many of the tenets of the Age of Reason, and that it attracted scorn and criticism as a consequence. Furthermore, since the established church was one of the institutions considering corrupt and corrupting by Deists, denouncing from the pulpit was common. While the principles of Deism were increasingly disseminated during the 18th century, it was never an accepted viewpoint, but rather one to be espoused with caution. James Foster makes the amusing point here that many novels of the time derided Deism, even while their characters were clearly embracing its beliefs.

Foster begins his study of the novel with a brief overview of pre-18th century literature, which he designates likewise “pre-sentimental”. The focus here is upon the French romances of the time, those by Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame de La Fayette, and others, and their influence upon English writers – the most important of whom he considers to be Aphra Behn. Although in Foster’s opinion Behn was not herself a sentimentalist (he’s right!!), he shows both how her Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister paved the way for the sentimentalists’ main vehicle, the epistolary novel, and how in Oroonoko she crystalised the idea of what would become one of the sentimentalists’ most cherished icons, the “noble savage”.

When I reviewed History And The Early English Novel, I objected to Robert Mayer’s attempt to position Daniel Defoe as the ur-figure in the history of the English novel on the grounds that, among other things, he failed to demonstrate Defoe’s influence upon subsequent novelists. But perhaps there was a reason for that failure; not that it didn’t happen, but that it took an unfortunate form. Here, James Foster wraps up the introductory phase of his work by nominating two authors who clearly were influenced by Defoe: Penelope Aubin in England, and the Abbé Prévost in France – neither one of whom showed the slightest interest in copying Defoe’s harsh realism, but instead lifted a variety of incidents from his works, chiefly the shipwrecks, and wove around them extravagant romances.

In time, as Foster demonstrates, Prévost’s tales circled back and influenced a number of English novelists including Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke and, perhaps above all, Henry Mackenzie, whose The Man Of Feeling represents the ne plus ultra of the sentimentalism movement. Hardly the effect Defoe was striving for, one imagines. Foster suggests that the overriding sense of inescapable destiny in Prévost’s tales appealed to the English sentimentalists, particularly those fond of an unhappy ending.

However, it is another writer upon whom Prévost  modelled his writing that Foster tags as the most critical influence upon the early English sentimental novel: Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, author of the unfinished novels  La Vie de Marianne and Le Paysan Parvenu:

    …he was not much of a philosopher. In Marianne he wrote that the intellect was too much of a fanciful dreamer to be depended on in learning about ourselves. The real clue to human nature was sentiment. His point of view was conditioned by deistic ideas, yet in his novels these were pushed into the background by the all-absorbing interest which he took in human conduct. Doubtless his insistent disapproval of authoritarian ethics and religion derived from deistic anti-clericalism, as did also the large number of false devotees and selfish and stupid spiritual directors in his novels. But there was no bitter hate…
    He was interested in the common people; his sympathy for them was genuine. Because all men are interdependent, he thought the rich under an obligation to relieve the poor. The rich man or the aristocrat who had nothing to recommend him but power or rank disgusted him. Marianne is partly an attack on the privileges of birth. Portions of this novel reveal a surprising interest in domestic life and its problems… In Marianne he gave realistic pictures of the social conditions of the poor and studies of the mentalities of the common people…

La Vie de Marianne, known in its English translation as The Virtuous Orphan, was published in eleven volumes across eleven years, 1731 – 1741, and in fact was never officially “finished”. The story of an orphan of uncertain birth, whose nobility therefore lies in her conduct rather than her family, Marianne embraces two of the sentimentalists’ most cherished beliefs, the lack of connection between “virtue” and “rank”, and the moral superiority of the country over the city. However, the most significant aspect of this novel, which came over time to be referred to (not always with kindly intention) as “marivaudage” was the characters’ tendency to analyse in the most minute detail their thoughts, feelings and motivations. Marivaux displays similar attention to detail in his presentation of domestic, chiefly middle-class, life.

An argument begun in 1740 and still flaring up from time to time in academic circles to this day is the influence of Marivaux upon Richardson—something that Richardson himself always denied, and a number of critics have likewise disputed. However, it is hard not to see something of Marianne in Richardson’s virtuous servant, Pamela, and more than a little of his style in the circumstantial accounts of themselves given by the characters of Sir Charles Grandison and Clarissa.

But whether we consider them one influence or two, Marivaux and Richardson were  largely responsible for the direction subsequently taken by one significant stream of English novel-writing. While many of the important English writers of the time, chiefly Fielding and Smollet, were turning the picaresque tale to their own purposes, others were drawing upon the detailed accounts of day-to-day life of the two arch-sentimentalists to give new power and interest to the female-focused, domestic novel. Fanny Burney, whose Evelina and Cecilia, in particular, won new respectability and admiration for this brand of writing and paved the way for both Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, did not hesitate to acknowledge her profound indebtedness to Marivaux; a fact that highlights the fundamental difficulty of trying to separate (surgically, as it were) the English realist novel and the French romance.

James Foster’s main interest, however, lies less with these these well-known, acceptable writers, as with the second tier that flourished during the second half of the 18th century, when the novel came into its own as England’s dominant literary form. In a chapter rather charmingly titled “Some Early English Sentimentalists And Some Odd Ones”, Foster takes a running look at the works of Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, and Mary Collyer, who “wrote the first out-and-out deistic novel in the English language”.

Collyer in fact published one of the first English translation of Marianne, a free adaptation in which, according to Foster, “She omitted some of the marivaudage, added reflections of her own which are an interesting blend of Richardsonian and deistic moralizing, and furnished a happy ending.” Collyer’s deistic work is Letters From Felicia To Charlotte, an epistolary novel published in 1744. Collyer herself draws a distinction between “romances” and her work, emphasising her devotion to “truth and nature”; and this would be the line of argument used by most subsequent writers and critics. The subtitle of the novel declares: Containing a series of the most interesting events, interspersed with moral reflections: chiefly tending to prove that the seeds of virtue are implanted in the mind of every reasonable being. The moral reflections, observes Foster, which are:

…usually put in the mouth of the hero Lucius, constitute a complete handbook of deism. Indeed, the discussion of ideas often weighs down the story part of the novel…The Letters From Felicia is notable chiefly for its oriiginality, yet it should also be remembered for its unassuming modesty and its keeping within the bounds of ordinary life… Her novel demonstrates how the head and the heart function in perfect harmony. The villain, as is usual in a deistic novel, is a religious hypocrite. The praise of Nature, “equally lovely in all her works,” disquisitions on the moral sense, tolerance, providence and similar topics, interest in the child and education, and a belief in the dignity and essential goodness of man—all these are deistic.

Foster’s “odd ones”, by the way, are John Shebbeare, Thomas Amory and William Dodd, “the macaroni parson”, all of whom deserve more space than I can give them here.

In “The Great And Near-Great”, Foster considers Richardson – Grandison and Clarissa, rather than Pamela – Fielding, Goldsmith, Smollet and Sterne. On a personal note, I don’t thank him at all for this chapter, which has almost persuaded me that I need to take another look at Smollet, who I hated with a passion during my first sweep through “the history of the Englih novel” some twenty-odd years ago. (Here I will pause to make the exception that everyone always makes about Smollet—except for Humphry Clinker.) Foster makes a persuasive case here for the influence of Smollet upon a range of interesting second-tier novelists—although seeing his virtues requires the reader to look past his misanthropy and tendency to wallow in nastiness, no easy task, as Foster admits. (These days, I tend to look upon Smollet as a descendent of Richard Head.)

In respect of Sterne, it his not his Tristram Shandy that Foster highlights here, although he draws attention to the influence of its generous humanism, but rather A Sentimental Journey. The former was inimitable, but the latter provoked an explosion of imitations, and was indirectly responsible for the tear-soaked school of sentimental writing headed by The Man Of Feeling. Sterne, says Foster:

 …wished to make his audience cry and then laugh, for he thought life without the spirit of humour intolerable, just as without feeling it was cold and empty… The man without a sense of the ridiculous is to be pitied as much as the man without a feeling heart. 

Unfortunately, most of Sterne’s imitators disagreed with his opinion of the importance of humour, or perhaps lacked the necessary literary skills. During the following decades, even the better writers tended towards unhappy tales of afflicted heroines; while less talented one produced tales so exaggeratedly lachrymous and full of death and disaster that they very often became inadvertently funny. Of the more respectable imitators of Sterne, Foster highlights Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Susannah Minifie, Elizabeth Griffith, Hugh Kelly, Edward Bancroft, Arthur Young and Henry Brooke, before paying some reluctant but necessary attention to Henry Mackenzie:

he was all for seemliness, propriety, verbal delicacy, piety, and decorum. But he did not have a tenth part of Sterne’s sprightliness or a sign of his wit. He was a solemn, stuffy person, precisely the type Sterne most detested. He allowed but one indulgence—luxuriating in tears and the damp atmosphere of lachrymous effusion… In The Man Of Feeling the author asks the reader to pity a hero whose feelings are so intense and delicate that they devitalize his will… He really prefers having the odds against himself heavy, for then his self-esteem will suffer less if he loses. His are not the pleasures of success but of resignation…

Foster describes The Man Of Feeling‘s infamous closing scene, in which the emotion of finding out that the woman he loves returns his affections kills the delicate Harley, as:

…the apotheosis of sentimental passivity and so forced that it seems almost farcial to the modern reader. Sentimentalists of that day, however, revelled in its semi-morbid emotionalism.

Indeed. The Man Of Feeling ran through no less than forty-six editions (!?). Foster goes on to point out a number of novels inspired by Harley and his determination to finish last at every possible opportunity:  John Chater’s The History Of Tom Rigby, John Heriot’s Sorrows Of The Heart, William Hutchinson’s The Doubtful Marriage, Edward Davies’ Elisa Powell; or, The Trials Of Sensibility and the anonymous Wanley Penson; or, The Melancholy Man and The Amiable Quixote. And while no-one, to my knowledge, had ever made a claim for these books in terms of their literary merit, I must say that I find it fascinating that this particular sub-branch of the sentimental novel, in which the most extreme and exaggerated emotionalism is lauded, is almost exclusively the work of men.

In parallel with these nakedly emotional works, another important form of the sentimental novel was beginning to develop, in response to startling world events and the increasing demands of the reading public for fuel for their imaginations as well as their emotions:

In the seventeen-eighties there appeared still more signs indicating how far the drift away from Augustan serenity, restraint, and disposition to preserve what was established had borne the minds of man. As classical ideals receded, emotional temperatures rose and imaginations soared. The atmosphere was charged with the expectation of great ansd sweeping changes soon to come. The hopes of the deists and other liberals in sympathy with French reform movements were raised by the train of exciting events climaxed by the fall of the Bastille. This decade and the next marked the heyday of the ultra-sentimental novel and the romain noir or “Gothic” romance…

Here, in contrast to what we might call the “realist” sentimental novel, we find the ladies almost entirely in charge – at least in England. Here again the French romance intrudes, in the shape of the influential works of Baculard D’Arnaud, “the French Mackenzie”. Foster quotes the European Magazine, which described D’Arnaud’s works as, Characterized by their moral tendency as well as for the energy and beauty of his diction. His colouring is frequently tinged with melancholy; a melancholy, however, that makes the deepest impression on the reader’s feelings. Foster follows this by giving an overview of those English writers who he believes were most strongly influenced by D’Arnaud—our old friend Clara Reeve, Sophia and Harriet Lee, Anna Maria Mackenzie, and Elizabeth Blower, whose novels constitute a sliding-scale from genuine historical novels, to heavily romanticised works in which “history” is merely an excuse, to the Gothic novels set in an entirely imaginary past.

The third significant branch of late 18th century novels come under the simple chapter heading, “Liberal Opinions”—the works of the so-called “radicals”. Of course, like most labels, the term “radical” ending up embracing a wide spectrum of beliefs, from a forthright embrace of revolutionary principles to a patient conviction of the eventual triumph of the better side of man. What these works do have in common, however, is that they are works of ideas—sometimes to the detriment of their ability to entertain. Invariably, they express a philosophy of the interconnectedness of man, and man’s responsibility to man, while scorning the notion that virtue is a function of birth or wealth. There is often a generosity of spirit about these works that is unexpected and appealing, particularly in their expression of views that were perceived at the time as genuinely radical and dangerous, such as the equality of the sexes. While they rarely espouse mainstream Christianity, these novels do evince a deistic view of God in nature; their leading belief is “benevolence”.

These “radical” novels were, as you might imagine, not always well received. Three writers who did find literary success, or at least notoriety, are considered here: Robert Bage, Charlotte Smith, and Thomas Holcroft—all of whom, I am happy to admit, I enjoy very much; call me a revolutionary. What the three had most in common was not their specific beliefs, but their appropriation of the sentimental novel as a vehicle for their political views.

Thomas Holcroft’s novels suffer from his inability successfully to translate his theories into convincing stories, but his Anna St Ives is a curiously compelling work in which the upper-class heroine prefers a well-educated farmer’s son to the local rake-aristocrat, who takes the situation as an unforgiveable personal affront.

(What I always remember most about Anna St Ives, however, is that it is the only—and I mean the ONLY—English novel I have ever read that has its hero refuse to fight a duel on principle, and then stand firm in the face of scorn and ostracism. Most of them – including Sir Charles Grandison chicken out of taking a moral stand on the subject, out of fear of their hero looking “unmanly”: “Duelling is wrong! – but if you insist…” )  

Robert Bage’s novels, on the other hand, although wordy and rambling and over-reliant on coincidence, are readable and often startlingly progressive. Moreover, Bage clearly liked women, and his heroines are flesh-and-blood people, not mere moral constucts. Though he disapproved of many aspects of society, Bage was a peaceful man who also disapproved of violence. His tales often involve a self-contained community operating on principles of equality and mutual support.

The one genuine radical to be found in this crowd is Charlotte Smith, who despised the English class system and imperialism, and openly supported the American and French Revolutions. Smith got away with her extreme views chiefly because most of the time she was forced to subsume them in novels written almost entirely for financial gain: she was a victim of the 18th century marriage laws, who took up novel-writing to support herself and her twelve children after she was deserted by her husband – who nevertheless turned up from time to time to demand she hand over her earnings, as he was legally entitled to do. (Smith’s first publication, a volume of poetry, was written while she and Benjamin Smith were confined in a debtor’s prison.) While Smith’s larger beliefs are on display more openly that you might anticipate, given her need to appeal to a broad public, her novels most often deal with what Fanny Burney called “female difficulties”—the struggle of women to maintain themselves and their self-respect in a harsh and predatory world.

Smith’s novels were also a way for her to channel her “unwomanly” anger with her husband and his family, against whom she fought for countless years a lawsuit over a property that she believed hers by marriage settlement, and which would have given her both a home for her children and an income. Says Foster with wry sympathy:

Perhaps Charlotte Smith…could have borne in decent silence the burden of bringing up her dozen children under the untoward conditions caused by their father’s proclivities for squandering his money, getting into debtor’s prison, or flying to France to escape prosecution, had it not been for lawyers. Very likely the lawyers received some of the blows she would gladly have bestowed on her husband and his relatives could she have done so without stepping out of her role of the exemplary wife. Yet she did not spare her spouse entirely as she put him in many of her novels as the hare-brained, selfish husband of a long-suffering, clever, sweet and saintly wife—that is, herself. To her mind lawyers were legalized ruffians who deprived her of what was rightfully hers—vampires who sucked the blood of her children. There is no fury like a woman trying to collect, and she was that woman during most of her writing years.

Lawyers do NOT fare well in Charlotte Smith’s novels.

The final novelist considered in this study, who gets a chapter all to herself—and rightly so—is Ann Radcliffe, who across the 1790s made the Gothic novel her own. Foster spends some time analysing the Gothic as a uniquely exaggerated offshoot of the sentimental novel:

    Of course, one can find moral instruction in Mrs Radcliffe’s pages, but she dared to give up pretending that each page was written for edification. Although she did not wish to encourage superstition, she played such a convincing game of “Wolf-Wolf” that she made the hair stand on end and the goose pimples come out. And citing Burke’s Inquiry, she pretended to believe that the effects of such strenuous emotional exercises were beneficial because they expanded the soul and stimulated all the faculties… But she was not really much of a philosopher. Her forte was the imagination. She was the inventor of melodrama in technicolor, the great impresario of beauty, wonder, and terror.
    Her novel stems from the line of Richardson, Prévost, D’Arnaud, Mackenzie, Clara Reeve, the Lee sisters, and Charlotte Smith. It is a special development of the sentimental novel and retains its main features… The atmosphere of her novel is more melodramatic and “wondrous strange” than in the regular type of sentimental narrative. Her heroine, instead of dwelling in a modest cottage in Surrey or Dorset, spends nights of insomnia and nightmare in a Gothic castle in the Apennines or Pyrenees. Strange lands and unfamiliar things take the place of the old familiar surroundings of London and Bath. The heroine who used to have desperate trouble with obdurate papas and mammas whose worst threats were to send her to a convent or to confine her to her room and take away all her writing materials now finds herself menaced by dangers so terrible that the mere thought of them brings on fainting fits. Instead of macaronis and young men about town, sinister villains with sin and despair written on their faces plot her undoing… It is a world of the romantic imagination and one that is most effective at twilight and after dark…

Radcliffe, too, had her copyists, of course; and Foster concludes his study with a brief look at the most successful of them: Elizabeth Helme and Regina Maria Roche.

The French Revolution, which began with such high hopes and ended in a bloody nightmare, was a shattering blow to the sentimentalists and their desire to think well of all mankind. Most of them retreated, mortally wounded, and so left the field clear for the cynics and the misanthropes. Yet the sentimental novel did not entirely go away, even as satirical portraits of a corrupt society grew in popularity. Many domestic novelists still embraced elevated principles and high-flown emotions, although they tended to integrate them into tales of young ladies fording the shoals of London society, rather than living in isolation in “Surrey or Dorset”. The Victorian era preached self-control and restraint, but it also embraced the extravagances of Charles Dickens, who managed to turn the sentimental novel into a weapon. “Sentiment”, as a genre, may have died under the guillotine, but “sentiment”, as an abstract, continued to be cherished throughout the 19th century—

—at least until Oscar Wilde had the final word on Little Nell.