Related ramblings

A while ago, in the comments thread for The Adventures Of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, we were discussing the short fictions published posthumously under Aphra Behn’s name, and whether they were in fact written by her. I’ve finally managed to track down a copy of A Genius For Letters: Booksellers And Bookselling From The 16th To The 20th Century, edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris, which contains an essay by Germaine Greer which touches upon this subject.

Greer’s essay, ironically titled Honest Sam. Briscoe, opens by saying:

Among the many problems confronting the student of women’s literature the sheer difficulty of establishing the provenance, authenticity and reliability of the texts has not been sufficiently emphasised. The shakiness of the Aphra Behn canon, to cite the best-known example, is in a large measure due to the role played by the mysterious collapsing bookseller, Samuel Briscoe.

Greer’s tracing of the ups and downs – mostly down – of Honest Sam’s publishing career concerns us only as far as he played a part in the posthumous career of Aphra Behn.

In 1696, Charles Gildon edited and provided a dedication for a compilation work that Briscoe released under the title The Histories And Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn. This volume contained Oroonoko, The Fair Jilt, Agnes de Castro, The Lover’s Watch, The Ladies Looking-Glass and The Lucky Mistake, works all written or translated and previously published before Behn’s death. In addition, it offered Love Letters To A Gentleman: Never Before Printed, written to “Lycidas” from “Astrea” (Behn’s well-known code-name), and purporting to be genuine letters from Behn to John Hoyle, who according to gossip was at one time her lover and possibly her “keeper”. (That Hoyle was bisexual at least, and at one time stood trial accused of homosexual acts, seems to have had no impact upon this particular rumour.)

By 1696, letters, and the more salacious the better, were Sam Briscoe’s stock-in-trade. One of his early publishing successes was Letters Of Love And Gallantry And Several Other Subjects. All Written By Ladies by “Olinda” (Catherine Trotter), and from that time Briscoe persistently advertised for correspondence to publish—writing it himself, or hiring others to do so, if none was forthcoming. He became notorious for the bait-and-switch, promising the public the full correspondence of a celebrity and then padding out a handful of previously published letters with new ones by no-one in particular. The authenticity of the Lycidas / Astrea correspondence is therefore doubtful; although a number of scholars have been beguiled into analysing them as if their authorship was certain. Furthermore, whatever its significance, several analysts have pointed out the similarity in tone between these letters and The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun.

Like Letters Of Love And Gallantry, Histories And Novels was a financial success for Sam Briscoe; and again, we find him following up with a second release of far more dubious provenance. In 1698, he published All The Histories And Novels Written By The Late Ingenious Mrs Behn, also edited by Charles Gildon. This volume reproduced the earlier collection but added to it three more, previously unpublished short fictions: Memoirs Of The Court Of The King Of Bantam, The Nun and The Adventure Of The Black Lady. Then, in 1700, Briscoe issued a second volume called Histories, Novels And Translations, which bragged “the greatest part never before printed“, and added three more translations and five more pieces of short fiction: The Blind Lady A Beauty, The Dumb Virgin, The Unhappy Fortunate Lady, The Wand’ring Beauty and The Unhappy Mistake.

The authenticity of these posthumous works have been challenged since the time of their publication, although no-one has a definitive answer one way or another. Sam Briscoe himself seems to have been aware that people were likely to be sceptical: to the 1698 volume he appended an “Advertisement to the Reader”, which declared:

The stile of the Court of the King of Bantam being so very different from Mrs. Behn’s usual way of Writing it may perhaps call its being genuine into Question; to obviate which Objection, I must inform the Reader, That it was a Trial of Skill, upon a Wager, to shew that she was able to write in the Style of the celebrated Scarron, in imitation of whom ’tis writ, tho’ the Story be true. I need not say anything of the other Two, they evidently confessing their admirable Author.

Unfortunately, though she makes her own scepticism clear in her essay in A Genius For Letters, Germaine Greer has no more solid information for us touching the authenticity or otherwise of these posthumous works. She does, however, give more credence to The Court Of The King Of Bantam than to the other works, on the grounds that if it were a forgery, it would certainly be more in Behn’s usual style. Her main objection to the claim of Behn’s authorship is a purely pragmatic one: if two eternally cash-strapped individuals like Sam Briscoe and Charles Gildon had possession of Aphra’s Behn’s unpublished writings, why did it take them eight, ten and even twelve years to publish them?

Then, of course, there’s the question of how they would have come into possession. Charles Gildon, who we’ve met before at this blog (albeit playing the unlikely role of the denouncer of dishonesty), is another of the anomalous literary figures that proliferated in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, working variously as an editor, a publisher and a hack-for hire, his name cropping up again and again with reference to scams and cheats of all kinds. (He was also another of the coffee-house crowd, which is where Briscoe met him.) He was a friend of Behn’s, and is often referred to vaguely as her ” literary executor”, which really does nothing to answer the overriding questions. Over the decades that followed, Gildon made a steady income re-issuing Behn’s works – and “works” – at regular intervals.

Gildon’s most important historical role is not as Behn’s executor, nor even as her editor, but as her biographer. In 1696 (there’s that year again!), Gildon staged a previously unperformed play of Behn’s, The Younger Brother. It was not a success. Nevertheless, Gildon published the text – “with some alterations” – and prefixed to it a short memoir of Behn, An Account Of The Brief Life Of The Incomparable Mrs. Behn, in which he gives her maiden name as Johnson, her birth-place as Canterbury, asserts that her husband was “an eminent merchant” and makes mention of both the journey to Surinam and the spying in Flanders.

The 1696 release of Histories And Novels carries, in addition to the works purportedly by Behn, a biographical sketch called The History Of The Life And Memoirs Of Mrs. Behn, Written By One Of The Fair Sex. This elaborates but essentially repeats the earlier information, and it is generally believed that Gildon wrote it himself. So far the underlying details are only what a friend of Behn’s might have known; but it is presented here like one of Behn’s own tales, while exaggeration and misinformation are rife. The emphasis is very much upon Oroonoko, here reissued for the first time since its initial publication: Aphra is given a gentleman-father who was “governor of Surinam”, and Oroonoko is asserted to be a true story. There are even hints of a scandalous relationship between Behn and her slave-hero, with the author indignantly refuting “some unjust aspersions” that have allegedly been made—which of course had the effect of establishing the relationship as fact in many readers’ minds. There are many allusions to Behn’s beauty and charm, and the section dealing with her visit to Antwerp suggests amorous adventures rather than espionage. This “biography” was reissued with each reissuing of Behn’s works, undergoing expansion and elaboration until it became quite a lengthy tale; although it is noticeable that it gains most details at those points where Behn’s fiction and her life are supposed to be in parallel.

Whatever his motive, Gildon’s biographical accounts of Behn’s life did her no favours in the long run. Firstly, as Gildon’s own reputation sank, the association dragged Behn down, too. Secondly, these sketches are the origin of Behn as “the passionate Astrea”, a woman dominated by her emotions, who wrote purely to express them. In the various responses to her memoirs we see Behn’s reputation as a writer being overtaken by her reputation as a scandalous woman: the first stirrings of the moral condemnation that was to bury her for literally centuries, and remove her from the literary timeline. And finally, when it was belatedly realised that certain “biographical” details of Behn’s life and various narrative assertions in Behn’s fiction were virtually indistinguishable, it had the peculiar effect of seeing Behn condemned as a shameless liar. As a result, they effectively threw out the baby with the bath-water, with both the journey to Surinam and the mission to Flanders for many years dismissed as just more fiction; and it is only recent scholarship that has managed to extract the real Aphra from behind the fictionalised “Astrea”.

Which is a great deal more than I intended to say upon this subject. Just for a change.

Another essay in A Genius For Letters that caught my eye was From the warehouse to the counting-house: booksellers and bookshops in late 17th-century London by Giles Mandelbrote. Not only does this piece obviously deal with matters pertinent to this blog’s pursuit of the rise of the novel, but we find within its pages a couple of old friends:

Contemporary satire was not kind to shopkeepers. Some of the most lively descriptions of bookselling in the later 17th century come from the pens of two writers who themselves had chequered careers as booksellers. Richard Head (1637? – 1686?), after apprenticeship in the book trade, set up as a bookseller in his own right in the 1660s, but was soon ruined by gambling debts and earned a living thereafter as a hack writer. Francis Kirkman (1632 – 1683?), who was a member of the Blacksmiths’ Company, had a bookshop in various parts of London between about 1657 and 1680, was an active publisher of plays and light literature, and published his own fictionalised memoirs, The Unlucky Citizen, in 1673. Kirkman is usually credited with writing, as well as publishing, the continuation to Head’s The English Rogue (1668), which includes several chapters where the narrator is a bookseller’s apprentice.

Several lengthy quotes of the relevant passages of The English Rogue and The Unlucky Citizen then follow. Hilariously, however, even while using Francis Kirkman so extensively as a source, Mandelbrote adds a footnote in which the reader is warned to treat the veracity of anything said by Kirkman with “extreme caution”.

The other relevant essay in A Genius For Letters is Simon Elliot’s Bookselling by the backdoor: circulating libraries, booksellers and book clubs 1876 – 1966, which traces the history of the book trade during the demise of the circulating libraries in the late 19th century and the rise of various new entities that competed with the full-time booksellers during the early 20th century, including public libraries and book clubs. While the essay is wide-ranging, the section most relevant here deals with the collapse of the “three-volume novel” and of the two great competitive circulating libraries, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, towards the end of the 19th century. 

Before this time, the libraries were already struggling, under threat from inexpensive reissues of novels too close to the original release date of the first edition (a situation comparable to the cinema / DVD release dichotomy for new movies today). Consequently, on 27th June 1894, Mudie’s and Smith issued a joint declaration, in which they demanded that the price of three-volume novels be reduced to no more than four shillings per volume, and that there be a gap of at least a year between the publishing of first editions and the appearance of cheaper reprints. The publishing houses’ response was effectively to stop issuing multi-volume novels at all, experimenting instead with single-volume editions that cost less than the combined-volume prices of the multi-volume works. They also began to rely less upon the circulating libraries as an outlet for their books, and more upon advertising directly to the public, who at the new, reduced priced were willing to buy rather than borrow first editions. Effectively, the long-standing publishing approach of small editions at high prices had been replaced by large editions at low prices; while from an artistic viewpoint, authors were no longer constrained to produce works of a pre-defined length, and the circulating libraries’ long-standing threat of censorship was gone for good.

Finally—yes, finally, I promise—I have yet again stumbled over those blasted Stuarts in my off-blog reading, and the same person is to blame. Following on from the part played by a portrait of James II in R. Austin Freeman’s short story, The Great Portrait Mystery, his 1923 novel The Cat’s Eye features an extensive subplot about a boy who has been excluded from the inheritance of the family property because the marriage of a direct ancestor cannot be proved. Certain documents from the 18th century dealing with the situation are still extant, however, from which we learn the following:

Like his father, Percival Blake was an ardent supporter of the Stuarts, and it is believed that he took an active part in the various Jacobite plots that were heard of about this time; and when, in 1745, the great rising took place, Percival was one of those who hastened to join the forces of the young Pretender, a disastrous act, to which all the subsequent misfortunes of the family are due…

Sounds about right.

Later in the novel, John Thorndyke and his sidekick-narrator du jour, the lawyer Robert Anstey, pay a visit to the ancestral halls of the Blake family, and find in the local village an ancient pub:

    But the most singular feature of the house was the sign, which swung at the top of a tall post by a horse-trough in the little forecourt, on which was the head of a gentleman wearing a crown and a full-bottomed wig, apparently suspended in mid-air over a brown stone pitcher.
    “It seems to me,” said I, as we approached the inn, “that the sign needs an explanatory inscription. The association of a king and a brown jug may be natural enough, but it is unusual as an inn-sign.”
    “Now, Anstey,” Thorndyke exclaimed protestingly, “don’t tell me that that ancient joke has missed its mark on your superlative intellect. The inscription on the parlour window tells us that the sign is the King’s Head, and the pitcher under the portrait explains that the king is James the Second or Third—His Majesty over the water.”

I have no idea whether this recurrence of Stuart themes in Freeman’s writing indicates a particular historical interest or political sympathy (as the reference to “James the Third” might suggest), or whether it is simply that the machinations and conflicts of the era provide a delightfully wide scope for stories involving long-standing family secrets, hidden documents, and houses full of concealed passage-ways and priest-holes.

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10 Responses to “Related ramblings”

  1. This is still the age of claiming that fiction isn’t fiction – dressing it up as a traveller’s tale, an old French boke, a story heard from someone else, anything rather than admit “I made this up”. Through this lens, Behn as a writer of “other people’s” stories was fine; Behn as a liar about her own life was beyond the pale. (And while being blatantly scandalous worked well enough for Manley, she was able to live off Barbara Villiers, at least for a while.)

    Ah, yes, attempts to defend an outdated business model by throwing one’s weight around. That always works so well. (See also, most recently, http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/013973.html .)

  2. It’s strange how many people, and over how long a stretch of time, seem to have struggled with the idea that Aphra may have visited Surinam and yet Oroonoko was a fiction. The all-or-nothing impulse seems amazingly strong.

    The cruel thing is that Aphra really never was scandalous; there was very little gossip about her, which might in itself explain the persistence of the John Hoyle rumour – they had nothing else to talk about. What was said was non-specific, “Oh, she’s a playwright / poet, she must be a whore.” What Charles Gildon did was give that viewpoint currency.

  3. Just in case you run out of books to read, you might enjoy Gillian Bradshaw’s “London in Chains”, set in 1647. A young woman moves to London and ends up running a printing press (legal and illegal varieties). Ms. Bradshaw has written several historical novels, normally 1400-1500 years before this time frame. It’s a fairly short book, so it shouldn’t take too long.

  4. a quote from the book, “A woman should be humble, modest, and obedient, and if she wasn’t, she should at least pretend to be.” The heroine has some difficulty in pretending.

  5. This is giving me ideas for a TV series about a time traveler, in which the recurring villains of the series are the Stuarts.

  6. I’m thinking what a shame it is we never got Restoration Blackadder – Hugh Laurie as Charles, Tim McInnerny as James…complete with eye-twitch.

    Rik Mayall as William of Orange.

    • Oh, my goodness, yes! Victoria Wood as Catherine of Braganza, opposite Pamela Stephenson as all the mistresses.

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