Ubinam gentium sumus? Quonam eamus abhinc?


One little detail I forgot to mention while reviewing The English Novel, perhaps the only thing I could have said but didn’t (I really need to work on that logorrhoea), is that upon posting that review, I was officially all caught up.

I don’t know why I feel I have to review something, just because I read it. It’s a particularly noxious form of OCD, which I have tried and failed to overcome. The only possible solution I can come up with is to be rather more selective in my reading.

By way of which, I think I’ll be giving the non-fiction a rest for a while – it slows me down far too much; although that said, I’m certainly not sorry to have tackled either The History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England or The Mary Carleton Narratives.

On the other hand,  I will – finally – be getting back on track with my Chronobibliography, from which The English Rogue so painfully derailed me last year. To facilitate this, I’ll be doing a background post to remind us all where we were up to when we were so rudely interrupted, and highlighting the salient points of the historical period we’re about to enter. We’re going to be back in the realm of the roman à clef, and it’s important that we have a good grasp on what was really going on.

As part of being all caught up, I also allowed myself a game of Random Roulette – although not without some trepidation, after the horrors of Bartholomew Sapskull. This time the Reading Gods decided to treat me gently, and I landed upon:

  • Lady Patty: A Sketch by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (1892)

Hungerford was a prolific and popular novelist, who in America published under the sobriquet “the Duchess”. She was twice married and had eight children, but managed to juggle her domestic obligations with a lengthy and successful writing career. Hungerford’s novels are best known for their witty dialogue, and have a reputation for being light and entertaining without rocking the moral boat. Lady Patty is that seeming contradiction, a one-volume Victorian novel; a reminder that towards the end of the 19th century, the power of the circulating libraries was on the wane. Hopefully I can imitate Hungerford’s restraint, and refrain from writing a review longer than the novel itself.

Another long-neglected project is Authors In Depth. This time around we’ll be back with E.D.E.N. Southworth, and her second novel, The Deserted Wife.

(Hmm… So in her first novel, a young wife is betrayed by her husband and her best friend, and her second is called “The Deserted Wife“? Call me crazy, but I think I’m sensing a theme here…)

And finally—although goodness knows I need another reading thread like a hole in the head—lately I’ve been introducing some friends to the delights of the Gothic novel. (The usual thing: Northanger Abbey –> The Castle Of Otranto –> ????) This in turn has led me to re-read Devendra P. Varma’s The Gothic Flame and Montague Summers’ The Gothic Quest (which, nota bene, I WILL NOT be reviewing here), and to ponder the fact that it’s been a good twenty years since I really indulged my taste for Gothics…

15 Comments to “Ubinam gentium sumus? Quonam eamus abhinc?”

  1. Congratulations on having caught up!

    Does the end of the 19th century also see an end to the once-off-per-volume payment of authors which surely prompted many of those multi-volume works?

    Northanger Abbey was my gateway into the world of the Gothic, too. (One of the bits of English literature we did at school – the only one that survived being Done At School to emerge as something I actually enjoyed – was Pride and Prejudice.)

  2. Thank you!

    They did pay authors by the volume – but the overriding pressure was the demand from the circulating libraries for multi-volume works, as they rented and charged by the volume. You can’t really blame writers for “padding” in response to the combination of carrot-and-stick. (And really, it was no worse in outcome than people having to write for serialisation.) But all of those things died away from the 1880s onwards.

    Maybe it was just me – I’m almost sure it was just me – but school never ruined anything for me. I even have fond memories of English class. Of course, it probably helped that I’d usually read whatever-it-was by the time I got to it officially.

  3. I am looking forward to the gothics, because this is a very noticeable and inexplicable gap in my own reading. If I can make the time I’d like to try to read along.

  4. Lovely! It won’t be starting immediately, but when it does it will be with Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron aka The Champion Of Virtue, which is the bridge work between The Castle Of Otranto and the genuine Gothic novels.

    • The bridge work? That’s certainly an appropriate angle for this blog to come at the topic from, but since it’s clear that everything references Otranto, that’s what I’ve got to read.

      Just the prefaces make it clear how important it is. This might be the first time anyone ever consciously created a piece of “fantastic” fiction, intentionally set apart from realistic storytelling as a distinct genre. Which makes it ancestral to all modern fantasy, SF, and horror. What surprised me was how clearly Walpole understood that this was exactly what he was doing. He even seems to have half expected to start a new school of literature with it.

      I’m about forty pages in, in a free edition that unfortunately ufes old-ftyle typography. Oroonoko will have to wait.

  5. If you perfift with your reading feffions, you’ll adjuft to it.

    Walpole was right, but not the way he expected: his followers universally rejected the genuine supernatural (although I believe there’s a single unalarming ghost in The Old English Baron). There was a great deal of angst about “encouraging superstitition” (superstition being a Catholic thing), so most of them went the explained-away-horrors route, much to Walpole’s disgust. The Gothics with real manifestations were usually influenced by the German horror stories of the time (or by The Monk, which amounts to the same thing).

    The reason I skipped Otranto is that it is NOT a Gothic novel; it accidentally spawned the Gothic, but it really isn’t one itself. However, you’re right inasmuch as that is where it all started, and I find people appreciate the Gothics more if they have that familiarity.

  6. I know what you mean about your OCD. I finally realised that if I get a book from the library and don’t enjoy it, I don’t HAVE to finish it before I return it – the librarians don’t check up on you. It was a liberating feeling.

  7. But it says “a gothic story” right on the box!

    I’m sure it does – and it suckered you right in, didn’t it?? 🙂

    Drawing a line in the sand is a very tricky business. Elsewhere I’m doing “sensation novels that are almost detective stories” and “detective stories that can’t shake off the sensation novel”, and fretting over exactly the same things.

    I ALWAYS finish the book – but I’m a fast enough reader that it’s generally at worst a case of short-term unpleasantness. It’s the compulsion to then dwell on it for hours or even days that’s killing me!

  8. It was – he called it a “Gothic tale” after the design of his villa, Strawberry Hill, which was done in “the Gothic style” – and a dream of which had supposedly inspired the story in the first place. Later writers used “Gothic” to mean the kind of story defined by Ann Radcliffe (castles, dungeons, banditti, monks, “sublime” scenery, explained-away terrors), while these days its more likely to refer to the mood or psychology of a piece. It’s a very elusive term. 🙂

    • I’ll say it’s an elusive term… What possible common ground is there between Theodoric the Great, the Reims cathedral, blackletter typefaces, and Siouxsie and the Banshees?

  9. People’s lack of imagination?

    • The other day I read somewhere that the word “gothic” was first applied to medieval architecture during the renaissance as an insult that meant barbarian or primitive. So by Walpole’s time it meant medieval.

      I just finished Otranto. It’s a blast. Though it does suffer from a rushed ending.

  10. It’s an inverse fairy-tale ending – “And they all lived unhappily ever after.”

    The Gothic Quest has an interesting piece on the term “Gothic”, showing how during the 18th century it went from being an insult, to being an expression of praise, and then to being a sniff.

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