Early…English…novels?

Having finally gotten James out of England, I find myself a bit indecisive about how to proceed with the Chronobibliography. Though we have necessarily turned again and again to the political writing of this period, the original idea here was to look at the development of the English novel – fiction, in other words. However, although plenty of novels were being published in England at this time, the vast majority of them were translations of French novels; and in fact, the French were streets ahead of the English at this point in the development of their fiction. English writers, meanwhile, were apparently too intent upon rationalising the events of 1688 by fictionalising them to bother with actual fiction: political writing continued to dominate the scene right through 1689, and the only person I can identify as publishing genuine English novels at this time was Aphra Behn…and she, tragically, was not going to be doing it for very much longer.

So the question becomes, do I skip rather hurriedly through 1689, or do I fill in the gap with some of those translations just to give an idea of the popular fiction of the time? I’m inclining to the former; particularly since that phrase “skip rather hurriedly” does still encompass Aphra’s last works of fiction and, unavoidably, a bit more politics.

Besides—it turns out that at this time, the French too were very much given to writing slanderous versions of the recent political turmoil, and during 1689 produced any number of romans à clef along the lines of The Amours Of Messalina—but much, much longer than the typical English ones. At the moment, I confess, I’m feeling disinclined to tackle any more versions of what went on at the Stuart court than I absolutely have to.

(For some reason I have yet to determine, Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, became a popular target for attack during this period, taking her lumps from both sides of the Channel.)

Anyway—I am able to say definitely that from 1690 onwards, the English people settled down enough to start demanding a supply of light entertainment, and for actual fiction to start appearing on a more regular basis. Though of course, “settled down” is a relative term, since 1690 brought the Battle of the Boyne. (And the Battle of Beachy Head, but that’s another story…)

Having had my focus for so long upon getting James off the throne, I hadn’t actually given much thought until very recently to what happened to him afterwards—beyond being generally aware that there was a Battle of the Boyne and that sooner or later I’d probably have to deal with it. But as so often happens, my off-blog reading conspired to bring me back to the point. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been looking into the roots of detective fiction lately, and so was reading The Purcell Papers by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, chiefly for his story Passages From The Secret History Of An Irish Countess. (Long story short: it turns out Le Fanu, not Poe, invented the “locked room” mystery. However, the former wrote it as a Gothic while the latter made a detective story out of it.) In the same collection of stories is An Adventure Of Hardress Fitzgerald, A Royalist Captain, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Boyne, and offers an intriguingly ambivalent, Irish-Catholic view of the events. Not that it’s ambivalent about James:

Some said that the king still lay in Ireland; others, that he had crossed over to Scotland, to encourage the Highlanders, who, with Dundee at their head, had been stirring in his behoof; others, again, said that he had taken ship for France, leaving his followers to shift for themselves, and regarding his kingdom as wholly lost, which last was the true version, as I afterwards learned…

Later, by then a fugitive, Hardress has the misfortune to encounter a Williamite camp follower intent upon forcing everyone to publicly declare their loyalties:

“Then drink the honest man’s toast,” said he. “Damnation to the pope, and confusion to skulking Jimmy and his runaway crew.”

At the Boyne, James, an inexperienced general (and, moreover, navy not army), failed to anticipate William’s strategy and held back a majority of his troops for what he wrongly assumed would be the main area of assault. He never deployed those troops: when word came that William’s forces were pressing on both Jacobite flanks James saw the possibility of escape slipping away and ordered a hasty retreat that was more about securing his personal safety than the consequences for his followers. James nevertheless tried to put the blame for the outcome of the battle on his Irish troops, saying bitterly to Lady Tyrconnel, “Your countrymen can run well.” “I see Your Majesty has won the race,” she retorted, unimpressed.

The rapidity with which James gathered up his court and fled Ireland for France did not exactly endear him to the men who were left in the field, and who fought on even in the absence of their commanding officer, extending the conflict into 1691 and to the signing of the Treaty of Limerick. Sheridan Le Fanu, via his Captain Fitzgerald, cleaned up the local vernacular when he referred to “skulking Jimmy”: the actual nickname James earned for himself with his flight from the battlefield and the country was Seamus a’ chaca—“James the Shit”.

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4 Responses to “Early…English…novels?”

  1. James is shat out of England!

  2. Seems to me that as long as you don’t mind giving any necessary background in your actual reviews there is no problem with moving on to the non-translated stuff.

    That’s James, a Stuart to the end.

    Something I’m interested in is the influence of Dutch immigration in the years you’re looking at now. I’ve heard that quite a lot of younger sons of merchant and crafting families came over behind William to make their fortunes, and I wonder how that may have affected the fiction…

  3. Rest assured, whichever direction you go, we will be here reading it eagerly.

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