Archive for ‘Non-fiction’

10/01/2016

Search Your Soul, Eustace

maison1bSo valuable seem these novels as powerfully revealing searchlights focused upon the Victorian spiritual scene, and as sensitive seismographic recordings of the cracks and upheavals in the accepted religious tradition, that they deserve a better fate than the neglect accorded to them by the mid-twentieth century. For, despite the advance of modern scholarship towards a reinterpretation of Victorian literature, our rich and abundant heritage of religious novels remains largely untouched. Its very abundance is probably a drawback, for the reader is presented with such an overwhelming embarrass de richesse that he scarcely knows where to begin. Our own very different religious climate also puts these novels at a disadvantage; so many of the stories run counter to the trend of modern taste and may inspire the reader of today with little more than boredom, revulsion or irreverent amusement. But there are splendid treasures among the huge dust-heaps and even those novels most sadly lacking in literary talent or spiritual profundity still remain for us as precious clues to the understanding of the Victorian march of mind. They are worth at least a glance or two, and, using for the sake of clarity the denominational framework of Christian belief in Victorian England, this survey will attempt to give the modern reader a glimpse, swift and superficial though it may be, into some of the many religious novels that so affected his Victorian forefathers, shaking or strengthening them in their beliefs, moving them to tears or paroxysms of rage, filling them with doubt and despair or bringing them to repentance and conversion.

As this quote rightly points out, the Victorian religious novel is one of the most important but least studied subgenres of 19th century literature—probably less because of subsequent shifts in beliefs, attitudes and interests than (as this quote also suggests) the gruelling nature of the material to be worked through. Still—a few brave academics have made the journey. We have already considered Joseph Ellis Baker’s 1932 study, The Novel And The Oxford Movement; the next notable work in this area was Search Your Soul, Eustace: A Survey Of The Religious Novel In The Victorian Age by Margaret Maison, published in 1961.

This later study differs from its predecessor in three important ways. Firstly – or so it seems to me – Dr Maison has less of a personal axe to grind: whereas Joseph Baker both admitted a bias in his views, in that he was a practising Catholic, and consequently omitted any notice in his work of the pro- and anti-Catholic wrangling that forms a significant aspect of the Victorian religious novel, Maison displays no personal bent, but examines each branch of this subgenre with interest. Secondly, as the title of her study indicates, Maison is detached enough to be fully alive to the inadvertent humour of this form of writing, which makes this a much easier work to read and enjoy. And thirdly, a related point, Maison understands (ii) that a bad novel is not necessarily an unentertaining novel, and (ii) that a bad novel can tell its reader just as much, if not more, about the society that produced it than a good one. She also has a keen eye for those works which are worth reading, as novels.

Maison begins by outlining the prevailing conditions at the time of the Oxford Movement, a period which saw the birth of the Victorian religious novel. It can be difficult these days to imagine the deadly seriousness of this conflict, and to grasp that it expressed itself not just in literary sniping, but in book-burning, attacks on churches, and violence in the streets:

    If England escaped the horrors of a revolution in the Victorian age her National Church did not. The history of the Church of England during this time is a stirring record of warfare, struggle, persecution, agonised secession and fiercest conflict, differences in religious belief causing hostilities not merely confined to verbal clashes, lawsuits and imprisonments but extending to the level of actual physical fighting…
    The Anglican Church had indeed awakened from her eighteenth century slumbers to become a real Church Militant. It was unfortunate, however, that so much of her war was internal, that the enemy was within as well as without, and that, in addition to the attacks of scientists and biblical critics, rationalists and agnostics, the hostilities of Dissent and the audacities of “papal aggression”, she had to contend with innumerable battles among her own ranks. The three principal groups in the Church of England, High, Low and Broad, were frequently at daggers drawn, and controversy raged throughout most of Victoria’s reign, the ritualism that marked the second phase of the Oxford Movement causing even greater uproars and the growth of religious liberalism provoking the increasing wrath of its opponents as the century progressed. High attacked Low and Broad, Low and Broad attacked High, Broad attacked Low, Low attacked Broad, confusions within the parties themselves making matters worse, for each group had its moderates, its extremists and various divergences, giving every appearance of a reign of anarchy within the one Church…

It was the Tractarians – in particular, William Gresley and Francis Paget – who first realised the potential of the novel as propaganda for their cause. However, it is important that we realise how much resistance there was at first to this form of writing: using religion as the basis of a novel, turning it into a form of mere entertainment, was considered by many people to be the height of disrespect. The early novelists were very mindful of this—with the result that you can search some of their works with the proverbial fine-tooth comb and not find anything that resembles “entertainment”:

    …”red-hot Puseyite stories” and “Oxford Movement tales”…flourished considerably in the eighteen-forties and fifties and were enthusiastically welcomed by keen Tractarians.
    Today, however, even the most devout High Anglican would survey these novels with a more critical eye. Their faults are glaring. Clumsy in technique, clumsy in construction, they are deficient in plot, characterisation and entertainment value. In general they conform to two set patterns and describe two imaginary types of lives—either the history of a chastened penitent or the life and opinions of a kind of propaganda prig.

Maison’s opening chapter proper, dealing with Tractarian fiction, is in fact entitled “Prigs, Pews And Penitents“: much to my delight, she tends to refer to the lead character of these tales not as “the hero”, but as “the prig”; a habit that almost leads me to forgive her for the fact that it was, almost certainly, as a result of my first reading of Search Your Soul, Eustace some years back that both the rabidly Tractarian Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years and its equally rabid factional enemy, Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church, found their way onto The List.

But apparently I haven’t yet learned my lesson, because Maison’s comments about Gresley’s 1841 novel, Charles Lever; or, The Man Of The Nineteenth Century, really make me want to read it. After dismissing the “prig” novels as simply “monologue and disputation”, and noting with amusement the Tractarian fixation upon church restoration and pew-building – to which subjects, entire books were devoted – she moves onto the generally more interesting “penitent fiction”:

The lives of the penitents are slightly more colourful, and in describing the temptations into which the erring heroes are led the authors had more scope both for narrative and for imaginative writing, although they are somewhat hampered by early Victorian moral and literary conventions, as Gresley’s Charles Lever shows. Charles is the victim of Satanic influences, a Dissenting father and a Latitudinarian schoolmaster who teaches him “a sort of general religion”… Poor Charles inevitably becomes a Liberal, then a Socialist and then apparently something too dreadful to mention. “We must draw a veil over some portion of our hero’s life,” says the author discreetly.

Most of the early religious novels are painful, slogging affairs, dogmatic lectures thinly disguised as fiction. In their terror of being accused of denigrating religion, the novelists of this time – Tractarian or Evangelical, but exclusively male – shied away from including any recognised fiction conventions in their books, evincing a particular terror of the love-plot.

Ironically enough, we may say that it was the female novelists who “saved” the religious novel; or at least who, for better or worse, extended its lifespan for decades by showing how it should be written. On the whole women were very hesitant to get involved in this area: feeling that religious practice and church dogma were matters beyond their understanding, and that to speak of them was to step outside their proper sphere, they looked around for other ways of supporting and promoting their religious beliefs in their novels—and began to write stories of how religious faith impacted ordinary daily life. Nor did these women see any reason to avoid a love story, often describing marriages built upon a shared faith and practice (or the catastrophe of the reverse). Consequently, the religious novels written by women are real novels, with plots and characters as well as religious propaganda; and unsurprisingly, they are usually far easier to digest than those of their male counterparts.

However—this does not mean that they are not sometimes just as terrible…

One of the most misunderstood pieces of 19th century writing is George Eliot’s essay, Silly Novels By Scribbling Women, which far too many people interpret as a bit of arrogance on Eliot’s part, dismissive of all female writers but herself. This is because they haven’t read it. In fact, Eliot’s essay is chiefly focused upon the religious novel: it does not really address the authors in question – though she is very critical of those novels which went too far in the opposite direction, forcing a church-plot upon a conventional love story and then preening themselves upon being “religious” – but rather criticises the publishers who encouraged this sort of nonsense, and were thus, in her opinion, responsible for the very denigration of religion that the early novelists had feared. We should also note that is was the Evangelical novel that Eliot was particularly attacking.

The specific novel that provoked Eliot was The Old Grey Church by Caroline Lucy Scott (aka Lady Scott), from 1856:

…the heroine’s father, a banker, cannot resist temptation and commits the crime of forgery. This unfortunate man, the author tells us, “was by birth, education and manners quite what is termed a gentleman; but the horrid trade in which he was engaged—that of money-making—had by degrees hardened and even vulgarised both his mind and feelings.” This sinner, as we might expect, is hanged at Newgate, after a last minute repentance and conversion when, we are told, “his prison-house became to him a passage,—an entry into the gates of heaven.” This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero…who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness, from opera tickets to frivolous fiancées, and ends up as a missionary in India (that country being the favourite missionary field for the Evangelicals).

Shortly afterwards, Eliot herself began writing fiction – Evangelical fiction, which is why she was so sensitive to bad writing in this area. Maison treats these writings with the proper respect, both for their moral and literary qualities, and most closely analyses Scenes From Clerical Life.

However, Eliot was not the only good female novelist in this area; and Maison highlights and praises three High Church ladies: Charlotte Yonge, Elizabeth Sewell and Felicia Skene. Yonge and Sewell can be a bit of a challenge these days, between the former’s rabid anti-feminism and the latter’s philosophy of complete female subjugation. The wild card here is Felicia Skene who, after an attempt to subjugate herself in the manner recommended by Sewell, broke free and began a new life as a social reformer, also boldly writing novels with daring subject matter such as prison conditions and prostitution.

On the other side of the fence, Eliot excepted, Maison struggles to find praiseworthy female authors, at least in the sense of quality:

    …from the eighteen-fifties onwards Evangelical writers busied themselves with sensational rather than psychological fiction and produced some very trashy tales of murders, hangings, elopements, shipwrecks, deathbeds full of unutterable agony, and dozens of wildly improbable conversions, all conveniently attributed to divine grace. In vain did the Pure Literature Society (founded in 1854 with three archbishops and sixteen bishops on the committee) rail against contemporary taste—the rising tide of sensationalism was too powerful to control. In 1863 the Religious Tract Society felt itself bound to lay down “the essential rules for healthful fiction”, insisting that it should be moral (not investing vice with interest), natural (not exaggerating its characters) and unexciting (not arousing the passions). But the rules were frequently broken by Evangelicals and although writers like Miss Fanny Mayne (a stalwart denouncer of sensationalism and champion of “a purified penny press”) kept within the prescribed limits and wrote about good working-class heroines who cooked their fathers’ dinners and did needlework for ladies and clung tenaciously to their Bibles, such stories did not please the public nearly as much as the more eventful and exciting ones.
    Hence the secret of Miss Worboise’s popularity. Emma Jane Worboise (Mrs Guyton) was a zealous Low Church writer who produced nearly fifty novels in which religious, domestic and sensational elements are all judiciously blended. She tells her stories well, and her portrayals of domestic life are not without psychological skill; indeed; she has left us several quite penetrating studies of the husband-wife relationship…

On the religious side, however:

Miss Worboise’s main interest…is in showing how people are brought to God… But her characters are always converted after some highly dramatic event, some bereavement or great shock or tragic calamity. It is no doubt a well-attested truth that God does draw many souls to Him through profoundly shattering experiences of this kind, but the frequency with which Miss Worboise employs this method of making conversions in her novels suggests that in her conception of the Divine Plan she attached an exaggerated importance to shock-tactics.

Before you ask—yes of course Miss Worboise is on The List; while I can’t leave this section of Search Your Soul, Eustace without quoting this passing observation from Dr Maison:

In minor Victorian fiction, governesses who are disguised wives are nearly as common as clergymen who are disguised Jesuits.

(We’ll get to the Jesuits in a minute…)

While the 19th century religious novel was thematically dominated by High Church / Low Church brawling, the Broad Church faction also weighed in on the conflict, in novels that appear to differ from their fellows chiefly in the occasional display of a sense of humour! Maison singles out F. W. Robinson in this respect, praising him for “satire without bitterness”. Furthermore:

Ridicule is indeed a weapon that Broad Church novelists use with considerable success, and it is not surprising that the most amusing religious novel of the century should come from a Liberal pen. The Reverend W. J. Conybeare’s Perversion (1856) is a neglected masterpiece of humorous fiction. (Lest the title might appear misleading, it should be noticed that the word “perversion” in popular Victorian usage had a religious and not a sexual significance, and to pervert or ‘vert meant to apostatise.) This book is written with the excellent purpose of showing how “the inconsistency, extravagance or hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians” has the effect of driving the young into infidelity, and it tells the story of a young man’s quest for faith and his wanderings in the mazes of ecclesiastic conflict and labyrinths of scepticism that characterise the mid-Victorian spiritual scene… Conybeare’s clerical portraits, his descriptions of the free-thinkers’ club at Oxford, and, mirabile dictu, life among the Mormons in America, are some of the funniest pieces of writing in all religious fiction…

Having devoted approximately half her text to this mainstream in-fighting, Maison then looks outwards, devoting a chapter each to the minority religions, and to those novels dealing with the loss of, or lack of, religious faith.

Though Catholicism appears most frequently in the 19th century novel in the form of anti-Catholicism, Catholic novelists also had plenty to say. First and foremost amongst them, of course, was John Henry Newman, whose conversion to Roman Catholicism was to the Tractarians like a bomb going off in their midst. (While we can easily imagine the astonished glee of the Evangelicals: “We warned you! We warned you, but you wouldn’t listen!”) After the event, Newman provided an account of his experiences in Loss And Gain, one of the most important Catholic novels.

But as Maison points out, nearly all the Catholic novels dealt with a conversion, and many of them were written by converts: this branch of religious fiction seems almost entirely driven by the need to explain the irresistible pull of faith. A particularly interesting novelist is Lady Georgiana Fullerton, who began to write novels at a time when her she was questioning her own faith, and did so throughout the process of her conversion to Catholicism and beyond. We should also note the sad case of Elizabeth Harris, who converted to Catholicism and then regretted it. She stayed within her new church, however—and began writing novels that warned people off converting!

Most of the Catholic novels are serious and well-intentioned, whatever their literary qualities. The same cannot be said for the anti-Catholic novel, however, nor for its perpetual villain, The Wicked Jesuit (who was sometimes granted a side-kick in the form of The Wicked She-Jesuit):

    Few modern horror comics could equal in crudity, sadism, hysteria and blood-curdling violence the story of Jesuits in popular Victorian fiction. From the best-selling literature of the day we see that the Jesuit loomed large in Protestant imagination as a villain of the blackest dye, a spy, a secret agent, suave, supercilious and satanically unscrupulous, laying his cunning plots for the submission of England to “Jesuit-ocracy”, wheedling rich widows, forcing his converts to change their wills in favour of his Order, or kneel in penitence almost naked for hours through chilly winter nights and to leave their families for life at a minute’s notice. When frustrated in his knavish tricks he would frequently gnash his teeth, foam at the mouth and write frantic letters in cypher…
    For the Jesuits were, to the average Englishman, objects of suspicion, fear and hatred throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, and the disguised Jesuit (sometimes referred to as a “crypto-Jesuit”) occupied the same place in popular fiction of the nineteenth century as the Communist spy in the fiction of today. The Oxford Movement, of course, increased the fear and hatred enormously, Tractarianism being considered by many Protestants as part of a devilish Jesuit plot to convert England—Puseyism, Popery and Jesuitism being to many unenlightened minds synonymous terms…

After noting the hysterical anti-Catholic fictions of Mary Martha Sherwood (best known for her hair-raising Evangelical children’s tale, The History Of The Fairchild Family), Maison becomes one of several academics to single out Hawkstone by William Sewell (brother of Elizabeth Sewell) as the very worst of the bunch:

Intending to show the British public what a ghastly mistake Newman had made in embracing the Scarlet Woman earlier that year, Sewell paints an abominable picture of Catholicism and makes his Jesuit villain a most loathsome character who foams at the mouth even more horribly than Mrs Sherwood’s Jesuits, and meets his death by being eaten alive by rats (full details given).

This branch of fiction also threw up another example of the kind of thing that made George Eliot tear her hair, with a number of female writers producing novels that posed as “religious” but were really about the thwarted agonies of Jesuits in love:

…in Miss Worboise’s Father Fabian (1875), a novel permitted for Sunday reading in many Protestant households, the hero, who has “a noble nature, warped and vitiated, forced…into uncongenial basesness”, falls in love with the governess in the wealthy household into which he has insinuated himself. To him too is meted out an untimely and repentant deathbed. (He also has a female accomplice, a “Jesuitess” with false curls, a “horrid little laugh” and a habit of putting emetic in people’s cough-mixtures.)

Catholic writers tried to push back against these two tides of nonsense—Maison particularly notes Grace Kennedy’s Father Oswald, A Genuine Catholic Story—but only succeeded in resembling the boy with his finger in the dyke.

When they weren’t having a go at the Catholics, Protestant authors of this ilk might be found having a go at the Dissenters:

If the Jesuit was only too often a nasty piece of work in Victorian fiction, so also was the Dissenter. But whereas the Jesuit and his intrigues were at least clever, exotic and exciting, the Dissenter was usually shown as ignorant, drab, provincial and depressing…

And while the Catholics were able to fight their own battle in this respect, the Dissenters faced an almost insuperable barrier:

    We have scores of satirical and hostile sketches and unfortunately, to offset them, we have very few religious novels describing the inner life of characters who find true faith in Dissent or who deepen and enrich their belief in any of the Free Churches…
    One reason for this is clear—the novel was not, among avowed Free Churchmen, the accepted medium for describing the life of the spirit Like some of the stricter Evangelicals in the Church of England, they considered the novel to be the Devil’s Bible, and the puritan conscience classed novel-reading with theatre-going and card-playing as worldly amusements sent by Satan to ensnare the soul…

Though a few Dissenters did defy this tacit ban in defence of their faith—the Methodist Hocking family prominent amongst them—they were often held by their fellows to have done more harm than good. The Dissenting minister, George MacDonald, who lost his job after antagonising his flock, turned to the novel in place of his pulpit, and found success with the general public, if not his own people. Elizabeth Gaskell, a Unitarian, dared to make a Nonconformist minister the effective hero of her controversial novel, Ruth, and to contrast him with him with his distinctly un-Christian Anglican counterpart.

More outside views, such as those presented by George Eliot in Adam Bede and Margaret Oliphant in Salem Chapel, were popular, but the most successful pro-Dissent novels were, curiously, usually imports from America, where the ban does not seem to have been interpreted so strictly (or maybe it was a Presbyterian thing):

Heroines of tender years were popular too, and several little girls exemplifying Nonconformist virtue in America crossed the Atlantic to invade the Victorian nursery. The most famous of these was Ellen in The Wide, Wide World (1851), a best-seller by the Presbyterian writer Elizabeth Wetherell (Susan Warner). Victorian maidens lapped up the story of Ellen’s trials and temptations, but amongst little boys it was not quite so welcome. Lord Frederick Hamilton tells us that, “In my early youth I was given a book to read about a tiresome little girl called Ellen Montgomery, who apparently divided her time between reading her pocket Bible and indulging in paroxysms of tears.” This tale, with its lively scenes of American life and its continual exhortations to remember “our dear Saviour”, “our best Friend”, “our Physician”, was approved by thousands of Protestant mothers, and Ellen’s popularity has survived to the extent of having her story serialised on BBC Children’s Television a hundred years later…

But while all might have been serene in the average Victorian nursery, the greater world outside was gripped by an unprecedented upheaval. Consequently, in the second half of the 19th century the religious novel found itself sitting side-by-side by something equally powerful and for many people much more emotionally true and moving, the novel of doubt:

For, although scepticism and unbelief have always existed and found a voice in literature, the dethronement of orthodoxy in the Victorian age was a major event of far-reaching consequences, and the reverberations from this mighty crash were minutely and accurately recorded in contemporary writings. Never has any age in history produced such a detailed literature of lost faith…
The Oxford Movement, by not letting sleeping clergy lie, and by showing that simple faith was not as simple as the ordinary Anglican imagined, raised a spectre of doubt, and although it quickened the faith of some to a new birth it almost completely destroyed the faith of others, while the conflicts that arose between science and orthodoxy, geology and Genesis, evolutionary theories and accepted beliefs, caused those warriors whose shield of faith was not very stout to find themselves miserably defeated… It would be interesting to compile a list of eminent Victorians who lost their faith in the fray, or to enumerate well-known figures who, having contemplated or been destined for a career in the ministry, were forced by their changing convictions to renounce it. (This latter group would include men so diverse as Carlyle, Clough, Ruskin, Morris, Butler, Pater, Hardy, Burne-Jones, Alfred Tennyson and his brother Frederick, J. A. Froude, Hale White and even Charles Darwin himself.)

In the middle of the century, doubters and free-thinkers were invariably either converted or killed off. While such themes remained in the later decades of the century (conversion became the more popular option), there arose a significant body of work in which such men – almost always men – were being treated as heroes by the novels that described them, and were as likely to convert someone else as be converted themselves.

Nevertheless, the main reason that the novel of doubt so captured the popular imagination was that they did not hesitate to depict all the pain and uncertainty associated with a change in belief: as Newman had admitted in 1844, there was loss as well as gain; and a shift in faith that might alienate an individual from all they had previously held dear was something to be treated with respect. It was this emotional and spiritual environment that gave birth to the era’s overwhelming best-seller, Mary Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere, the story of a young minister who loses his faith, not in God, but in Christianity (this was a distinction often made). Ward was drawing upon her own crises of faith, and she returned to the same theme in her 1898 novel, Helbeck Of Bannisdale, which most unusually and daringly is the story of a female sceptic.

But in spite of the predominance of pain, there were those novelists who depicted a loss of faith as a new kind of freedom, a throwing off of weighty shackles. Those who felt that this in itself constituted sufficient material for a novel often made their central character a doctor: dedicated, hard-working, self-sacrificing—and faith-free. Other novelists, however, spoke for those who felt a void where their religion used to be, and sought to fill it with—well, what?

The fin-de-siècle aesthetes and decadents notoriously replaced it with the worship of beauty; others promoted what in an earlier time would have been called “good works”, and argued that religion had no monopoly on morality, charity and goodness; others again, though setting aside conventional worship, sought eagerly for what we might call “the historical Jesus”: trying, in effect, to wipe the slate and start over.

It is with a variation upon this final theme that Maison leaves us:

    …Marie Corelli saved the situation by rushing in where more learned novelists feared to tread. Not only did she popularise New Testament fiction in England, but she rescued the religious novel from the somewhat depressing rut of practical rationalism and pessimism into which it had fallen and exalted it into the glorious, miraculous and often very dizzy heights of a most vivid and extraordinary  Christocentric supernaturalism… No religious novel from this amazing pen is complete without a series of swoons, trances, psychic experiences, visitations of angels and aerial spirits, and generally an ecstatic vision of Christ himself to crown the day.
    In spite of the very glaring defects and limitations of Marie Corelli’s style it is an undeniable fact that she brought zest, vitality vision and imagination to the Victorian religious fiction at a time when it most needed them…

Religious novels, yes; novels of faith, certainly; but of a kind so bizarre and unique, readers of fifty years earlier would probably have added them to the bonfire, while even some contemporary readers were shocked and horrified:

    Thus the reign of Queen Victoria drew to its close, with Christianity being aestheticised, extroverted and even “electrified”, and Marie Corelli and Mrs Humphry Ward in undisputed sway as rulers of the religious novel, both commanding an enormous reading public and sales beyond the dreams of earlier novelists… Gresley and Paget, the fathers of Victorian theological fiction, would have been extremely shocked at the thought of such staggering influence allied to such staggering doctrines, for Miss Corelli’s eccentric revellings in supernatural fantasy and Mrs Ward’s earnest efforts on the other side to cope with “the crumbling of the Christian mythology” testify alike to the dissolution of traditional belief. The nemesis of a faith had at last received its popular recognition and acclamation, and the religious novel, the most influential ethical teacher of the time, fed the hungry sheep of late Victorian England with spiritual fare that differed considerably from the popular brands of nourishment offered fifty years earlier…
    The sixty or more years that separate us from the end of Queen Victoria’s reign have witnessed such great changes in literary taste and religious atmosphere that the majority of Victorian fictional sources of spiritual illumination, whether orthodox or unorthodox, Puseyite or Corellian, “infidel” or “perverted”, are now condemned to oblivion by the common reader of today, who neither understands nor appreciates the complicated theological traditions of his forefathers, and who generally finds crime more exciting than religion in fiction.
    But to the Victorian common reader, as we have seen, religion was an intensely exciting and absorbing affair. Even the religious novels least capable of communicating that excitement, three-deckers full of heavy didactic stodge with leading characters that are mere insipid “moral portraitures”, stiff, clumsy and lifeless (Paget’s pew was not the only “wooden hero” of a Victorian tale)—even these novels partly atone for their failure as fiction by demonstrating their authors’ deep concern with the Christian faith and by helping us to untangle some of the complex skeins of thought and belief in the Victorian age.

So I’m an “uncommon reader”? Cool!

One curious point about Search Your Soul, Eustace: Margaret Maison does not reveal within its pages the source of her title. (I should note that some territories found that title too facetious: this book was also published as The Victorian Vision: Studies in the Religious Novel.) But she does leave us a clue.

We have already met The Old Grey Church, the novel that provoked George Eliot. Allow me to reveal what was previously hidden under an ellipse:

This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero named Eustace who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness…

24/01/2015

A Forger’s Tale

savery4b    Most Australians would struggle to name the country’s first published novelist. Prior to researching this book that number would have included its author. While other literary pioneers are luxuriantly memorialised, Henry Savery seemed destined to dwell in obscurity – an author lost in the literary backstreets. Not for our Henry the glory of Henry Lawson Drive, with its postcard-perfect views over Sydney Harbour from McMahon’s Point. Nor anything approaching the mass adulation and leafy avenues accorded a whole anthology of English poets that can be found in Melbourne’s bayside ‘burb of Elwood.
    No, our writer’s name is cemented in history by an entirely nondescript street on the urban fringes of Canberra – and even this is a mere tributary of a larger road commemorating that more sentimental literary bloke, the poet CJ Dennis. At Point Cook in Victoria a tiny cul-de-sac bearing the maverick’s moniker pales into insignificance beside its more glamorously named neighbour, Miles Franklin Boulevard. But at least some history-savvy surveyor appears to have had the wit to call this little dead-end a court, a place in which our unhappy first novelist spent much time…

It turned out that one of my libraries held a copy of Rod Howard’s 2011 publication, A Forger’s Tale: The Extraordinary Story Of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist, so I thought before moving on in my overview of Australia fiction I would take a look at this non-fiction work to see if the representation of Henry Savery in my examination of Quintus Servinton was accurate, and if any more information on his life had come to light since the publication of Cecil Hadgraft’s biography of Savery in 1962.

In some ways, A Forger’s Tale is rather an odd piece of writing. It is biography, but told very much from Henry Savery’s own point of view; and it draws very heavily upon Quintus Servinton—to the point of taking various passages in the life of “Quintus”, which were of course based upon passages in Henry Savery’s own life, and turning them back into passages from Henry Savery’s life. In fact, for a few horrid moments at the outset I really thought I was going to be reading Quintus Servinton all over again (and I may say that Rod Howard seems to take it for granted, perhaps not unreasonably, that the reader of A Forger’s Tale has not read Quintus Servinton); but at length these fears were relieved. What Howard does here is call upon the historical record where there is an historical record, but where there is not, he allows Henry Savery to speak for himself.

Overall, A Forger’s Tale does three crucial things: it reveals the real people and places hidden behind Quintus Servinton‘s pseudonyms and fudging; it clears up the business of the guilty plea; and it offers an explanation for the persecution of Henry Savery following his arrival in Tasmania, which – much to my surprise, I admit – turns out to have been every bit as unjust and brutal as represented; although Henry himself was not (as he suggests in his novel) the real target: he simply had the misfortune to get caught in the middle of a political shitstorm.

As a consequence of these revelations, A Forger’s Tale offers a far more sympathetic portrait of Henry Savery than Cecil Hadgraft’s rather snippy biography; in some ways, perhaps too much so…

Understandably, A Forger’s Tale skips fairly quickly over the early years of Henry Savery’s life—that is, the first two volumes of Quintus Servinton. (There seems to be consensus on that point: Rod Howard quotes the review of the novel that appeared in the English magazine, The Athenaeum, which declared that only the third volume was worth reading, “…and even that might have been infinitely better.”) The story picks up at the point of Henry’s near fatal decision, in the wake of having been financially burned himself, to pass a forged bill; it reproduces the dinner-table conversation in which the horrified Henry learns that putting imaginary names on a bill is the same under the law as literal forgery. The person making this unwelcome revelation was an attorney named Watson, a colleague of Henry’s brother.

Two things are emphasised at this point: the amount of publicity given the arrest, trial and execution of “celebrity forger”, Henry Fauntleroy, and the attitude of Robert Peel. The newspapers did so well out of the Fauntleroy case that, it seems, they tried to exploit Henry Savery in the same way, turning his false £500 bill into merely the tip of a forgery iceberg and insisting that he spent the proceeds of his untold crimes on wine, women and song. Meanwhile, we learn that two years previously, Robert Peel himself had been the victim of a forger, who managed to elude the law and skip the country; it is suggested that he was particularly harsh upon forgers as a consequence, in addition to his loathing of “gentleman-criminals”. Evidently the judges of the time understood what Peel wanted in forgery cases and usually gave it to him; Quintus Servinton indirectly cites the case of John Wait, who was executed in spite of his jury’s recommendation to mercy.

Indeed, the more we learn about the circumstances, the more miraculous it seems that Henry did escape with his life.

The first suggestion of a guilty plea, introduced by Edward Protheroe (“Mr Rothero”), the former mayor of Bristol and a partner in the defrauded Copper Company, seems to have emanated from John Kaye, the solicitor for the Bank of England who was responsible for the bank’s forgery prosecutions, including that of John Wait. Kaye evidently told an associate of Protheroe, Levi Ames, that Wait should have entered a guilty plea.

Furthermore, Ames and his business partner, Stephen Cave, met with Protheroe and pressed upon him the wisdom of Henry Savery pleading guilty, citing not only the condemnation of Wait (who pleaded not guilty) but the case of Francis Greenway, who was told by his judge that he would have been hanged if he had not admitted his guilt. (Greenway, ironically, became a convict success story, gaining both reputation and wealth as a designer of public buildings in New South Wales.) Cave – who was a friend of Eliza Savery’s family, the Olivers – then called upon Henry and urged him likewise. He added that a certain Alderman Daniel had told him that, “Since Bristol was made a city there has been no occasion when the recommendation of the aldermen has been ignored.”

There are still some mysteries in this part of Henry Savery’s story, in particular this business of the aldermen being consulted (Ames and Cave were both aldermen, as well as Daniel), which simply seems not to have happened. Neither Cave nor Daniel had attended the trial, and afterwards Cave denied he had advised Henry to plead guilty: an assertion contradicted by Henry’s jailer, who had overheard their conversation. It also came to light that before the trial, Cave had confronted a solicitor called Bigg, a cousin of Eliza Savery, over the letter written by Henry to his father-in-law, Lionel Oliver, in which he summed up the pros and cons of the advice he was given: after reading the letter, Cave did not repudiate any of its contents.

Charles Savery petitioned Lord Gifford, the judge, but he was unmoved. Charles then undertook the thankless task of petitioning Robert Peel, only too well aware of how slender Henry’s chances were in that quarter. By then the part played by Stephen Cave had been exposed: Charles emphasised both this and, conversely, the grounds for acquittal, backing his legal petition with an actual petition for clemency carrying over two thousand signatures – including those of Henry’s plaintiffs. Henry’s great-uncle, Lord Manvers, also intervened. Finally – and very reluctantly – Robert Peel gave in, commuting Henry’s death sentence to transportation for life. But the whole business infuriated him, so that he never forgot the name “Henry Savery”…

An explanation is also provided in A Forger’s Tale for Henry’s preferential treatment before and during his journey to Australia—a rare instance in this story of someone paying his debts. While Henry was the proprietor of the newspaper, the Bristol Observer, he had dabbled in politics, coming out in strong support of a campaigning politician called Richard Hart Davis, who was duly elected. It was Hart Davis who used his influence to get Henry removed from the hulks to the hospital ship prior to his transportation, and saw that he was permitted to retain his ordinary clothing and mingle with the paying passengers, rather than being confined below decks with his fellow-convicts, during the journey to Tasmania. He also wrote to a friend, Major-General Ralph Darling, asking him to look after Henry following his arrival. However, Darling either forgot or couldn’t be bothered.

Despite this, Henry’s business and financial skills helped him land on his feet. He was immediately seconded for government duty, and devoted his leisure time to quietly doing work “off the books” for various local businessmen, earning a great deal more in that way than he did via his official employment. Eventually he entered into a business partnership with one Bartholomew Thomas, whose Cressy Company had won the exclusive contract to supply “the colony” with horses.  He also leased himself a small cottage, and started getting his life in order generally. So when Henry wrote to his wife, Eliza, talking up his position and urging her to join him, he wasn’t just blowing hot air.

With the shifting of the scene to Tasmania, the story told in A Forger’s Tale takes on a new air of confidence, for obvious reasons. From this point onwards Henry Savery’s own account of events is supported by a written record – newspapers, letters and journals that throw light on his numerous travails. In particular, we have the personal papers of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, to whom Rod Howard devotes a chapter of his book. Though Arthur’s full story need not concern us, he arrived in Tasmania in 1824 a deeply disgruntled man, with enemies slandering his name in England and a hostile reception waiting for him. His predecessor, William Sorell, was popular locally – chiefly due to his complete failure to actually do his job – and Arthur’s arrival was greeted with anything but an outpouring of joy. Disgusted by the state of the sloppily run penal colony, the puritanical, hard-line Arthur landed on Hobart Town like a ton of bricks.

And Hobart Town – led by Andrew Bent, proprietor of the Hobart Town Gazette (a convicted thief), his offsider, Robert Murray (a convicted bigamist), and local businessman, Anthony Kemp (a former soldier and habitual mutineer) – fought back.

For a variety of reasons – predominantly politics, profit, and sheer bastardry – these three men waged a destructive campaign against George Arthur; one which, in the long run, crippled him. The war was at its height in December of 1825, when Henry Savery arrived in Hobart Town—and found himself caught in the crossfire.

Henry’s very sensible plan for working through his sentence was to pull his head in, keep his mouth shut and stay not only out of trouble, but out of the public eye. He was assisted by his own snobbery: the “upper classes” of Hobart, who he thought of as his social equals, would have nothing to do with him, a convict, and he wanted nothing to do with his fellow-transportees. When he wasn’t working, he kept to himself. Consequently, his dismay upon opening the Colonial Times (renamed after George Arthur founded a government-sponsored newspaper and also called it the Hobart Town Gazette) and finding himself mentioned in a hostile – and largely inaccurate – article may well be imagined. Drawing parallels between him and the much more famous Henry Fauntleroy, the article highlighted Henry’s preferential shipboard treatment, drew attention to George Arthur’s appropriation of his skills, and claimed (wrongly) that Arthur had arranged another “soft berth” for him, in the shape of a superintendentship at the Colonial Hospital.

We need not follow the entire campaign that ensued. Suffice it to say that the account of Henry Savery’s persecution in Quintus Servinton is accurate—except that Henry saw himself as the target, whereas in reality he was just a stick to beat George Arthur with; but in any event, the two men’s names became inescapably linked. Arthur’s appropriation of Henry’s particular skill-set, which was at a premium in the struggling colony, infuriated its embryo business community and seems to have been the catalyst for much of what followed. Again and again, Henry was represented in the press as doing George Arthur’s dirty work, while a variety of false claims were made as to the nature of his government appointment(s)—it was reported, for instance, that he was the editor of Arthur’s version of the Hobart Town Gazette. In reality he was doing straightforward accounting and clerical work, first in the Colonial Secretary’s office, then at the Treasury.

In time the constant slanders had the inevitable effect: people began to look askance at Henry Savery and assume him to be in the wrong. In particular, when the Cressy Company failed – mostly due to Bartholomew Thomas’s mismanagement – it was assumed that Henry was really to blame; that in short, he’d been cooking the books. Finally Henry acquired a real and dangerous personal enemy in the shape of local solicitor, Gamaliel Butler, who was eventually responsible for his imprisonment for debt.

But always George Arthur was the real target. The accusations made against him were transmitted to England, with articles originating in the Colonial Times reprinted in the London papers and constant written complaints directed to the Home Secretary, Lord Bathurst. For reasons that are unclear (beyond Arthur’s personal unpopularity), these reports were accepted at face value. A disbelieving Arthur received letters from Bathurst angrily rebuking him for his conduct, and in particular for his promotion of Henry Savery; an activity in which Lord Bathurst was joined by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, to whom the thought of Henry Savery receiving privileges was anathema.

Meanwhile, Eliza Savery was on her way to Tasmania. When Henry wrote encouraging her to come, he was gainfully employed, had saved quite a sum of money, and was busy turning his little cottage into a home. By the time she arrived he was destitute, unemployed, and on the verge of a prison sentence.

I have a bit of a problem with A Forger’s Tale‘s attitude to Eliza Savery, wherein Rod Howard takes it for granted that Eliza had an affair with Algernon Montagu. Obviously I don’t believe Henry Savery’s romanticised depiction of his wife as an angel upon earth in Quintus Servinton; but there seems to reason to assume the worst, either. Certainly Montagu had an agenda, and interfered disastrously between Henry and Eliza; but he might well have done that to leave Eliza with no-one else to turn to, rather than because she was his mistress. There is no actual evidence of an affair, only a lot of gossip; yet Howard refers to Henry as “the cuckolded convict” and Eliza as “the adulterous wife”. It seems rather unfair, particularly given the fact that Howard just takes Henry Savery’s word for his own fidelity.

On the other hand, A Forger’s Tale gives an excellent and interesting account of the writing of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, Henry’s first venture into print. Since I will be examining this earlier publication in due course, we will not touch that part of the story now. I may say that The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land sounds altogether a more interesting work than Quintus Servinton turned out to be, and apparently includes all the local colour that the novel conspicuously lacks.

The final section of A Forger’s Tale deals with the sad conclusion of Henry Savery’s life. After he emerged from prison in 1831, things went better for Henry—for a time. He was employed as a private tutor in the New Norfolk district, and in 1832 he won his ticket of leave; although it was later rescinded for reasons that really weren’t his fault. Eventually he tried farming; but here he began to get back into financial difficulties. That said, his eventual conviction for passing forged notes seems to have been on pretty flimsy evidence. But perhaps the evidence had less to do with it than the fact that the judge before Henry appeared was none other than Algernon Montagu—while on the jury were two individuals who had been skewered in The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that his sentence was that, “…you be transported beyond the seas for the term of your natural life.”

The final mystery of Henry Savery’s life concerns his death. Decades after the event, Henry Melville, the printer who saw to the publication of Quintus Servinton, called Henry’s death suicide; while David Burn, a Scottish poet and journalist, in the course of a bizarre, tourist-brochure-like piece of writing called An Excursion To Port Arthur, describes his encounter with a physically shattered Henry Savery, making reference to “the scarce-healed wound of his attenuated throat”.

Rod Howard accepts this as evidence that Henry Savery died, eventually, after cutting his own throat a second time. Cecil Hadgraft, conversely, in his biographical sketch in the 1962 edition of Quintus Servinton, dismisses Melville’s assertion as the effect of confused memories so many years later, and thinks David Burn was referring to the scar from Henry’s first suicide attempt: he concludes from the description of his general condition that Henry had suffered a stroke.

Either way, Henry Savery died from the complications of something, on the 6th February 1842, and two days later was buried in an unmarked grave on The Isle Of The Dead. His fate is known because the minister who oversaw his interment made a note of it in his journal; the minister’s rider, “His end was without honour”, tends to support the suicide theory.

So—there turns out to be far more truth in Quintus Servinton than we initially supposed; the only real fudging comes with Henry’s description of his relationship with Eliza, and in his parallel efforts to praise George Arthur, and make excuses for Algernon Montagu; none of which we can blame him for—and none of which did him the slightest bit of good. Given the extent to which Savery was in reality a victim, his critical self-analysis in his novel takes on an extra, and most interesting, dimension.

The pity of Quintus Servinton is that it is just not a well-written book; in spite of its importance you can’t really recommend it. However, even if his novel will never be more than a footnote in literary terms, at least Henry Savery’s place in the timeline of Australian literature has, albeit belatedly, been recognised and acknowledged.

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An excerpt from the preface of Quintus Servinton; and the official commutation of Henry Savery’s death sentence (both scanned from A Forger’s Tale, no specific sources given).

29/08/2014

Pamela’s Daughters

PamelasDaughters1bThus for nearly two hundred years Pamela has been all things to all men: an innocent child, a case for the psychiatrist, a noble woman, a Shavian superman, the glory of her sex, a disgrace to womanhood, a saint, a pervert, a martyr, an entirely normal girl. In so far as she is human and normal, she is so because she has many traits and qualities, no one of which adequately represents her without the others. Her daughters, the heroines of later fiction, too often have to get along with one trait apiece—as if the heritage had to be divided among the heiresses. Hence come the type-form heroines who may be more or less safely classified according to the traits they inherit, and we have the Prude, the Weeper, the Fainter, “The Lass With The Delicate Air” , the “fallen” heroine and the poor working girl. One or two others there are who show relationship in collateral branches. Without defining here the exact degree of cousinship we may claim them as members of the family, include them in the sorority, and discuss them all as Pamela’s daughters.

I mentioned while reviewing Munster Abbey that it had been brought to my attention in the first place by a study of the English novel, which held it up as an example of the heights of absurdity reached by the 18th century sentimental novel—and which supported its argument by quoting the marvellous passage in which a character almost drowns because all the other characters are too busy demonstrating their “sensibility” by fainting to help her. I also mentioned that I had forgotten the title of the book in question, but expected, given my predilection for books-on-books, that I would sooner or later encounter it again.

I can now tell you that the book in question, to which I am deeply indebted, is Pamela’s Daughters by Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham. The explanation for this work’s genesis is amusing, though its conclusion is very sad. This impressive work, over 500 pages in length, began life in 1920 as an idea for a magazine article—in fact, as an article for the Women’s Home Companion—on “Fashions in Heroines”. Almost immediately, however, the project got out of hand. Robert Utter, an academic at the University of California, worked at it on and off for the next eight years, at which point he began collaborating with Gwendolyn Needham. The two of them carried on the enterprise for a further eight years, trying to mould their exponentially multiplying and unwieldy material into a coherent volume. Sixteen years after its conception, the manuscript of Pamela’s Daughters was handed to the publisher…and a month later, Robert Utter was killed in a freak accident.

It’s been mentioned before, but—you bite, Reality.

The 1930s was an interesting period in literary scholarship; quite a number of studies published during that time show an admirable willingness to get off the beaten path and to use “lesser” literature as a reflection of the times that produced it. (Sadly, over the three subsequent decades academic research focused upon anything other than a short list of canonical works was sternly discouraged.) Pamela’s Daughters is an excellent example of this variety of study. Unhindered by academic expectation, this examination of the development of the English heroine from the mid-18th century into the 1920s is solid and insightful, yet also freewheeling and good-humoured; though that said, Robert Utter’s 1930s-ish views with respect to “correct” female behaviour do occasionally intrude.

Pamela’s Daughters starts, of course, with Pamela herself, discussing the reception of Richardson’s novel and the widely varying reactions to the fifteen-year-old girl who would become the progenitor-figure of generations of sentimental heroines.

Utter and Needham then briefly outline the changing position of women over the course of the 18th century, during which time, due to increasing industrialisation and its consequent financial and social alterations, women were progressively stripped of their autonomy, rendered entirely financially dependent, and even relieved of their domestic duties—with the leisured woman becoming increasingly a status symbol, a reflection of the success of her husband or father. Financial dependency made marriage the only acceptable way of life for a woman, whose single imperative duty was to free her family of her support by securing a husband. At the same time, autonomy of thought and action were not merely discouraged but prevented by a relentless narrowing of the definition of proper conduct. The literature of the late 18th century illustrates the irreconcilable outcome of these pressures:

The Helpless Female was shaped by the forces that were shaping civilisation. Just as inevitably as selection and environment mould biological characteristics, so the forces we have been tracing moulded the legacy of Pamela to her daughters and granddaughters, the sentimental heroines of the eighteenth century, and the Victorian ones of the nineteenth. Certain physical, mental and moral traits become artificially female, others, more or less antithetical, are male. Delicacy, sensibility, chastity, these three (and the greatest of these is chastity), such are the canonical virtues of Pamela’s daughter for a century and a half after Pamela… Delicacy, physical, mental and moral, becomes so essentially female that it develops into feebleness in all three categories. Mental delicacy points to spelling and punctuation as intellectual achievement and dictates the concealment of any higher powers if they exist. Moral delicacy prevents a girl from receiving money if she has so far transgressed as to earn it. With this powerful equipment of feebleness she must defend her priceless chastity. If the villain tries to violate it, she must not violate her delicacy by slapping his face; if the villain pursues her, she must not show either speed or endurance in her flight. Delicacy holds her helpless; chastity must be defended. It is an unfailing dilemma, good for five volumes of sorrows in the hands of any delicate authoress…

In “The Importance Of Being A Prude”, Utter and Needham devote a chapter to a consideration of “delicacy”, its false twin, “prudery”, and all the shadings of behaviour in between, arguing that many of the behaviours usually summed up under the heading of “Victorianism” were in fact alive and thriving a hundred years earlier. In particular, authors (usually female, but not always) devoted pages to stressing that their heroines had not just delicacy, but true delicacy.

But if this heroine was born in the 18th century, she reached her apotheosis in the 19th:

Of all Pamela’s daughters, the one most moulded by prudery is the god-daughter of Victoria… In the beginning, before her lover comes, she is unawakened, virginal as virginity itself. She is at one and the same time as sexless as a china doll and as feminine as a practised coquette. Her innocence is really abysmal ignorance, but the effect of it is the same as that of the completest sophistication and circumspection. She is perpetually on guard against evils of which she cannot know anything, alertly sensitive to acts, words, implications which could not conceivably have any significance to her; their danger she is supposed to recognise by instinct… There is no evidence that she is anything but a head and a pair of hands attached to a costume… In her ball dress she may show us that her “bosom is faultlessly moulded”, but the rest is silence. We infer that she might nourish children, but know no possibility of her conceiving or bearing them. That she might have any sexual feeling is unthinkable. That even in married life she has any sexual experience is not hinted. It is true that between the last two chapters she has managed to produce three or four fine children, but no-one could guess how she did it…

Intriguingly, though the authors are discussing heroines rather than real women, what the find in the novels they are examining reflects the real-world pressures that we examined in Martha Vicinus’s Suffer And Be Still (rendered most vividly in Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s hair-raising contention that a truly “good” girl was one with the capacity to sense evil without recognising it):

Nothing illustrates this fact better than the history in the novel of the first principle of prudery, that where innocence is ignorance ’tis criminal to be wise, or what you don’t know won’t hurt you. When this was the guiding principle, the best armour for the protection of maiden purity was supposed to be a stout pair of stays and complete ignorance of the nature of chastity and its enemies. Virginity seemed no less of the mind than of the body. Its delicacy was such that if a girl so much as knew she had it, it was tarnished, and if she knew more, it was gone…

In “Liquid Sorrow”, Utter and Needham trace the rise of the cult of “sensibility” in the 18th century, examining its birth and evolution as a counter-force to the cool, emotionless tenets of the Age of Reason in the broader context of the historical significance of emotion in the development of European literature. They point out that tears have held an important place in literature since its very inception, and that for centuries it was male tears that directed the reader’s response; a man crying was a shorthand signifier of extreme circumstances. However, male crying went out of fashion during the pragmatic age that followed the Glorious Revolution. When tears returned as an important literary signifier, it was in an entirely different social context.

The evolution of the sentimental novel is then examined, from the earliest appearances of those definitive counterforces, corrupting civilisation and the untouched natural world populated by noble savages. By the 1740s, sentiment had taken root in the English novel, and the crying hero made a reappearance. For those who like to make a simple, masculine / feminine divide between the novels of Fielding and Richardson, it is pointed out that Fielding’s heroes are some of the most persistent criers of the era. Novels became less about the hero’s adventures, and more about his feelings, with Henry Brooke’s The Fool Of Quality and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It was at this time that the heroine came into her own: with the focus on feelings rather than events, a woman’s heart became sufficient subject matter for an entire novel. New ideas about “nature” also became an important aspect of literature. Eventually these various threads were melded into a new literary form called the Gothic novel.

The sentimental novel is treated fairly here. It is pointed out, for example, that these books were an important vehicle for concepts like sympathy, compassion, and charity, and played a part in instigating reforms in both prison conditions and the treatment of the mentally ill. However, in the long run this variety of novel became exaggerated beyond the point when anything about them could be taken seriously. What in the 1740s was an expression of honest emotion became, by the 1770s, a perverse variety of performance art, with crying, fainting and even dying of grief intended as a measure of an individual’s “sensibility”; while by the 1790s, expressing the appropriate emotion was all but a fulltime occupation.

The authors spend some considerable time gleefully attacking the absurdities of this literary era—and lo! – if the novel most held up for ridicule is not our old friend, Munster Abbey!!

AND—a second masterpiece of sentimentality is also brought to our attention:

In sentimental fiction, tears are by this time a bottomless ocean raging with storms of passion… On it we ship with Charlotte Palmer in Female Stability, 1780, five volumes of unmitigated misery whence comes the pearl of price which adorns the head of this chapter. (“She stopped and wiped her gentle eyes, that swam with liquid sorrow.”) We have met the heroine, Adeline, who exhibits female stability by a ceaseless flow of tears for a dead lover and unwavering refusal of a series of high-voltage suitors. The plot of this thanatopsis is contrived for the sole purpose of turning up tearful situations in rapid succession… [Tears] flow on and on, from page to page, from paroxysm to paroxysm, from volume to volume. At the end Adeline subsides into a middle-aged routine of weeping, a mere daily dozen at the tomb of the lost Augustus, which we may imagine keeps her happy for the rest of her life…

Naturally enough, this chapter on crying is followed by one on fainting (“Cut My Lace, Charmian”), which in turn yields to a consideration of evolving female fashion, and from there to a much more detailed examination of physical fashions—that is, of how woman were depicted in both word-pictures and visually, in novels and in art (“The Lass With The Delicate Air”). The traditional dichotomies are examined – blonde / brunette, Snow White / Rose Red – as are the seemingly limitless examples of stories featuring physically contrasting heroines, who meet contrasting fates apparently pre-determined by nature. Walter Scott, a leading exponent of this trope (Rebecca / Rowena, Rose Bradwardine / Flora MacIvor), is given a thorough airing—as is George Eliot’s passionate cry, courtesy of Maggie Tulliver, in defence of “the dark, unhappy ones”.

(My own observation here is to note the significance of Rebecca being invariably listed first—the only instance I know of in this context, of the brunette being given “billing”.)

A prime example of the kind of unexpected digressions that punctuate Pamela’s Daughters appears in “The Lass With The Delicate Air”, wherein the authors suddenly divert from the their consideration of the female body in art to give a brief history of depilation—offering such factoids as that the so-called “Brazilian” has a much longer history than we might imagine, and that leg-shaving was a consequence of a push-back against stockings, which in turn was linked to a greater emphasis on female exercise, and therefore upon clothing facilitating freedom of movement, and the rise of the “beach culture”. I was mildly disappointed that not much was said about underarm shaving; I often find myself, while watching period dramas, wondering to what degree modern fashions are incorrectly imposed upon the characters.

A consideration of women who never married (“Aunt Tabitha”) segues into one of those novels dealing with women who decided that marriage wasn’t necessary and the consequences (almost invariably disastrous) of that decision (“Some Do”); and from there into an examination of the endless depictions of young women staunchly defending their virtue against wicked men of all descriptions (“Some Don’t”). The shifting view of female virginity over the centuries, from a mere accident of nature not important in itself, to the be-all and end-all of female existence, is examined, as is the changing face of “the woman who did”. It is stressed that during the 18th century, virginity became a commodity to be sold—in marriage as well as in brothels; a woman who “did” on her own account, robbed not herself but her family or her pimp, and that in the crudest financial sense. By the 19th century, however, these bald economic facts had become obscured by a dense mist of sentimentality and pseudo-moral hand-wringing. By the end of the 19th century, although the burgeoning women’s rights movement was making all sorts of previously unthinkable suggestions, for the most part novels remained strictly conservative; it was a rare and brave novelist indeed who suggested that a girl’s loss of virginity might not be the end of the world.

Most novelists went to the other extreme, showing how it was absolutely the end of the world, or near enough. The 19th century’s prevailing view on the issue is illustrated via reference to its very first work on the subject: Amelia Opie’s Father And Daughter, published in 1800, which features in its opening paragraph the primal scene of the erring daughter, illegitimate baby in arms, fighting her way through a storm back to the parental home from which she was seduced:

If this is, as it seems to be, the first appearance of this famous necessary scene, Mrs Opie deserves a monument from the writers of melodrama of the nineteenth century. We who were brought up on it scarcely need, as Mrs Opie’s readers perhaps did, to read the next seventy pages in order to learn that “Agnes Fitzhenry was the only child of a respectable merchant in a country town…” and so on to page seventy where we read, “But to return to Agnes, who, when she beheld in her insane companion her injured father, the victim probably of her guilt, let fall her sleeping child, and, sinking on the ground, extended her arms towards Fitzhenry, articulating in a faint voice, “O God! My father!” then prostrating herself at his feet, she clasped his knees in an agony too great for utterance.” This tale is worth citing because it is true melodrama growing directly out of Puritan moralising… It is melodrama because the author is bold enough to impose a major catastrophe on her heroine, but not brave enough to enforce the full penalty. It shows the weakening of tragedy by sentimentality…

Conversely, girls defending their virginity until marriage remained a perennially popular novel-plot, and by the end of the century they were even defending it actively, and not passively through sheer ignorance. In fact, this plot became more popular as options for women opened up and they began to venture out into the world on their own account, into colleges and into the workforce. Very little had changed is essence, however: merely, marauding rakes had been replaced by marauding employers.

The highlight of this section of Pamela’s Daughters is its examination of “working girl” fiction. The heroines of these novels, Utter and Needham contend, were in truth “Pamela’s daughters”, since just like Pamela herself they were virtuous working girls clinging to a moral code in a world full of dangers and temptations. In most (again like Pamela), it was economic necessity rather than choice than launched the heroine into the world, and by the end of the novel she was relieved and happy to surrender all ideas of autonomy and make a conventional marriage. And most like Pamela of all, many of these heroines were truly working-class, not the “distressed gentlewomen” who populated the progenitor of this form of literature, the “governess novel”. In this branch of popular fiction, “mill girls” and “shop girls” abound; “office girls” came a little later. George Gissing’s Thyrza is the most serious and literary example of this sort of fiction, though the sub-genre is better represented by Geraldine Fleming’s Only A Working Girl. The danger of physical attractiveness in a working girl is a recurrent, even obsessive, theme:

Pamela’s father and mother feared lest Pamela’s beauty should lead to her downfall. So in the nineteenth century it is less often the heroine herself who thinks of beauty as a curse than her family and friends. The sister of “the little beauty of the Passaic Cotton Mills”, Hazel Easterbrook, had “one earnest prayer to Heaven”; it was that “little Gay’s rare beauty would not prove a curse to her, for no man ever looked twice at that saucy, roguish, irresistible face whose heart was not conquered by it She was only sixteen, yet she could count admirers by the score.” Only by the score? There must have been hundreds, then, who looked but once. The mother and sister of Elsie Brandon “prayed fervently that her beauty would not be a curse to her”. The idea is explicit in the title of The Curse Of Beauty; or, The Cloakmaker’s Model.

As early as the late 19th century there were books in which the heroine was allowed to enjoy her work, and even to display a degree of ambition. However, in most cases this ambition fulfilled itself via marriage to the boss. Alternatively, the working-class heroine improves herself through her aspirations to be “a lady”; although sometimes her efforts in this respect also pave the way for a rapid rise up the social ladder via marriage. In light of all this, a special mention should be given to The Typewriter Girl by Grant Allen (the progressive, not to say radical, author of the scandalous – and hugely popular – The Woman Who Did), which concludes with its Girton Girl heroine stepping out of a love triangle (involving, yup, her boss) and devoting herself to her career instead: she does so partly because her romantic rival, in stark contrast to her intelligent, competent self, is traditionally “feminine” to the point of being completely helpless. It is wryly noted that Juliet, Allen’s heroine, is a brunette, her romantic rival a blonde:

The authors of these novels think that their readers prefer blondes. A check of many working-girl novels of the nineteenth century indicates that in every hundred heroines we have eighty blondes, ten brunes, and ten red-heads. The authors have little skill [and] for the most part their heroines appear only through raptures and ravings… In general, too, these authors follow the age-old tradition of behaviour patterns, at least to the extent that the brunettes take a more active part in the action of the tale…

Though Pamela’s Daughters has by now wended its way well into the 20th century, at this point its authors step back to take a look at the changing face of the heroine across the 19th century (“New Girls For Old”). On the whole the trend is positive: “the lass with the delicate air” with her crying and fainting begins to give way to a more grounded type of girl; physical fragility is no longer so prized; and though there is still plenty of sentimentality around, displays of strong emotion are now indicative of a lack of well-bred self-control, and frowned upon accordingly. But alas, few novelists are capable of giving the reader a thoroughly nice, thoroughly believable heroine. We are not exactly surprised when Utter and Needham jump back across the century for a visit with Jane Austen:

It is this refusal of Jane Austen to go to extremes in either direction that brings her to her supreme achievement. The best of heroines before her time, Clarissa Harlowe, Sophia Western, Emilia Gauntlet, are fine upstanding girls of whom any age might be proud, but their main attraction is that of their sex; they are men’s women, created to express the charm that women have for men. They do not exhibit what Jane Austen seems to give us for the first time, the best of womanhood, as endearing to women as to men, shining through any and all colours of fashion and undimmed by the changes of time… Meredith shows this figure at its best. Dickens was not up to it. Scott and Thackeray show it, but not until Jane Austen had shown it to them. Trollope has it more often than any other.

Heroines, like the young women who inspired them, became more active over the 19th century—and here the chapter diverts into a consideration of the changing silhouette, in a discussion of the battles waged progressively over stays, corsets, and eventually bloomers and bathing-suits. From this distance it can be hard to grasp just how deadly seriously these matters were taken, and the degree of outrage that attempts to popularise women’s clothes that allowed for greater freedom of movement provoked: the battle raged both in the streets themselves, and even more so in the letters pages of the daily newspapers. Ludicrous as this fashion war now seems, make no mistake: the battle over women’s clothing was a hugely important aspect of female emancipation. In fact, as the authors point out, underwear in novels becomes a marker of passing time:

In the novel we see in retrospect a girl’s graduation from waists to girdles in Ruth Suckow’s Odyssey Of A Nice Girl, 1926, and in Una Hunt’s Young In The Nineties, 1927, though in the novels of the nineties underclothes were kept out of sight. In these books also we see the reaction toward lighter clothing on the part of women who were forced as girls to wear prickly flannels and starched drawers, heavy waterproofs and winter coats, rubbers and galoshes…

By now, we are well into the 20th century. Victoria is long gone, and so is much of what she represented (justly or otherwise). The final chapter of Pamela’s Daughters, “Victoria, Where Is Thy Victory?”, considers how novelists dealt with rapid shifts in social mores and the dreaded topic of S-E-X. I may say that I was quite startled to learn that during the 1920s there was a significant sub-genre of novels dealing bluntly with, ahem, “girls who did”; although we should note that these books were more common in the US than in Britain. Shedding both their corsets and the expectation of ignorance, the heroines of these novels were only too eager to experiment with sexual experience – and perhaps most surprisingly of all, this experimentation does not always end in death or even in pregnancy. Quite often, having found out what she wanted to know, and learned to give sex its proper weight, the heroine settles down with an equally advanced young man, who is sometimes her erstwhile lover, sometimes not, but who either way considers her neither “sinful” nor “damaged”.

It is, by the way, quite clear from the tone of Pamela’s Daughters at this point that Robert Utter (if not necessarily Gwendolyn Needham) did not entirely approve of this particular turn in the history of heroines—and of real girls—though the role of WWI in bringing about this drastic shift is given fair weight. Another swing of the pendulum was in progress, however, by the time Utter and Needham drew a line under their history of heroines; and they close with some reflections upon what they consider this particular era’s exemplar novel, Nalbro Bartley’s The Premeditated Virgin, and by comparing Bartley’s Mary Ann Plowden with her great-great-great-grandmother, Pamela:

Pamela and Mary Ann Plowden are both premeditated virgins, but they wear their premeditation with a difference, and we may gauge the difference as a measure of progress. Pamela’s choice was a narrow one; she was held pretty helpless by the society of her time. In her game against fate her scope is restricted, her moves are sharply limited. She wins not only because she moves shrewdly but because luck is with her. Hers is a sort of poker game in which all the skill and intelligence she can bring to bear are, when the game is legitimately played, subordinate to luck. Mary Ann Plowden plays a different game, one in which skill, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, may have much more scope… Mary Ann does not lean on authority, on social order, or on God. She does not seek a verdict from society. She does not pray, or “invoke the protection of Heaven” for herself or her virginity. For any protection that she must have she invokes her own brain and summons her own powers. She “stands unshook” upon such truth as she can find, and she finds it in herself…

30/03/2014

Suffer And Be Still: Women In The Victorian Age

vicinus2bHow then could a Victorian woman break away from imitation – or guilty aberration – of the model of the perfect lady? The full answer is surely subject to interpretation, and far more research is necessary, but the new woman was in part a product of changed social and economic conditions, and in part the result of the courageous efforts of individual women who suffered social ostracism for their beliefs. The suffrage movement, educational reform, the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts and the fight to distribute birth control information all contributed to the downfall of hypocrisy and rigidity. By the 1880’s the perfect lady could no longer hold her own unchallenged. Women increasingly demanded and gained constructive and useful roles in society. Job opportunities were opening to every class, making it possible for women to achieve economic independence (though often at great psychological cost. as George Gissing’s The Odd Women [1892] illustrates). Social attitudes were also changing… In popular literature independent women became heroines for the first time. Sexual attitudes also changed; the most consistent tenet of the women’s movement was the application of female sexual standards to all of society. Only a few advanced thinkers recognised that equality would not lead to male continence, but female indulgence. The women and men of the late nineteenth century were never so Victorian as when they insisted upon radical economic and social change within the context of stern Victorian sexual mores.

The 19th century gave birth to many sad statements on the “natural” position of women in society, but one of the saddest, given that it appeared in a conduct manual widely read and followed, Sarah Stickney Ellis’s 1845 publication, The Daughters Of England, is surely the following:

If, then, for man it be absolutely necessary that he should sacrifice the poetry of his nature for the realities of material and animal existence, for woman there is no excuse—for woman, whose whole life, from the cradle to the grave, is one of feeling, rather than of action; whose highest duty is so often to suffer, and be still; whose deepest enjoyments are all relative; who has nothing, and is nothing, of herself…

From this chilling passage comes the title of Suffer And Be Still: Women In The Victorian Age, a collection of essays addressing the Victorian woman edited by Martha Vicinus and published in 1972—a time when the idea that “women’s studies” might be a legitimate field of research was still fairly new, rather ridiculous, and yet somehow threatening, as is evident in the tone of Vicinus’s introduction:

…there has been a widespread distrust in the new field of women studies. Some argue that it lacks academic depth and rigor, or that there is not enough material to study, while others say that we must maintain our loyalty to a particular discipline lest we lose ourselves in an ill-defined area without “acceptable” criteria of research or clear academic standards. The most common criticism has been against research has been against research that might be biased, trivial or, worst of all, trendy. The simplest answer to such critics is that the failure to study the position of women in society and history is equally biased—and to date no standard nineteenth-century history text gives the women’s movement more than token space. With the widespread publication of books about women, past and present, and the growing acceptance of courses on women, many of these fears will be silenced. Nevertheless, the financing of women studies and research remains minimal—in part because of financial cutbacks in higher education, but primarily because of the continued refusal to take seriously the study of women as a paramount, and not merely legitimate, field of study.

With this background, it is comforting to know that Suffer And Be Still grew out of a situation of demand. A 1970 issue of the journal Victorian Studies with the theme “Victorian woman” was so successful that a second round of essays were commissioned, eventually resulting in the publication of this book. The ten essays cover a variety of aspects of Victorian life, though necessarily the topics are fragmented and unconnected, and much remains unaddressed. Among the contributors are some important Victorianists including M. Jeanne Peterson and Helene E. Roberts, as well as the feminist authors Elaine Showalter and Kate Millet, who coincidentally (or not?) co-author and author two of the essays I found most compelling and wish to consider in the most detail.

M. Jeanne Peterson’s The Victorian Governess considers the anomalous position of its title figure, a lady but not a lady, a servant but not a servant, occupying a kind of twilight zone between “upstairs” and “downstairs”. It also examines the contradictory system wherein a man’s status was indicated by how thoroughly his wife was a lady of leisure, this in turn requiring that some other woman, born in the same sphere but faced with financial necessity, give up her own claim to be a lady of any kind by finding paid employment. Peterson also makes a case that the attraction of foreign-born governesses was not the advantage of language lessons for the children but that, existing outside English society in any case, these women did not bring with them the same awkward sense of class dislocation.

In From Dame To Woman, Jane W. Stedman examines cross-dressing stage actresses in the Victorian era, but her focus is on the handling of unmarried women on the stage generally, and by Gilbert and Sullivan in particular – Gilbert being a common (and in her opinion, unjust) target of criticism for his work in this area. She demonstrates the extent to which the old maid was a figure of ridicule and opprobrium, equally for being unmarried and for wanting to get married at an “advanced” age. However, she also shows that over the latter decades of the century there was a softening of attitude, with spinsters more frequently allowed a romance and a happy ending, a greater tendency to cast unmarried women in the role of fairy godmother, and a willingness to admit that there might be female qualities of more value than the external.

One of the two slightly “cheaty” essays in this volume is Peter N. Stearns’ Working-Class Women In Britain, 1890-1914, which goes beyond the bounds of “Victorianism” in order to draw upon the increasing availability of demographic data for the first decades of the 20th century in its discussion of changing financial, social and medical conditions for working-class women during this period. This essay considers shifting patterns of residence, employment, marriage and child-bearing – noting the decrease in average family size as understanding of birth control spread, and also the increasing tendency for married women with children to nevertheless find employment, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by choice. (I find myself thoroughly in sympathy with the woman who, questioned as to her choice to work instead of confining her activities to the home, responded: “It’ud give me the bloomin’ ‘ump.”) Overall, Stearns contends, the lot of the single woman improved during this time, with greater freedom, employment opportunities and recreational options, but that of her married sister deteriorated as ages fell, prices rose, and the economic partnership that had traditionally existed in working-class homes increasingly broke down under a variety of pressures.

Marriage, Redundancy Or Sin is Helene E. Roberts’ examination of women as depicted by artists during the early Victorian age, the vast majority of renderings falling, as she notes, into one of three categories, and too often functioning as a form of propaganda or a shying away from reality—although this was in keeping with the prevailing view of the function of art: a reviewer in the Art Journal of 1852 criticised those artists who used their work to draw attention to the darker side of life: “It is not the office of Art to present to us truths of an offensive kind; these are abundant in every-day life and it is in Art that we seek a refuge from them.” Though a few artists chose to ignore this stern warning, many took the hint and produced idealised portraits of fulfilling middle-class domesticity or, alternatively, happy cottagers living a life so increasingly far from the reality of industrialising 19th century England as to be pure fantasy. Alternatively, they produced cautionary tales showing the inevitable fate of any woman who strayed off the narrow beaten path – the most famous example being perhaps Augustus Egg’s triptych Past And Present, which centres upon an adulterous wife. A few artists did buck the system, doggedly producing confrontational pictures of either “redundant” or “fallen” women, though not without encountering resistance: when Richard Redgrave painted The Poor Teacher, showing the miseries of a governess’s life, his patron made him re-do it with happy children playing in the background, to lighten its mood (though they were by definition not the subject’s children). Other artists stuck to their guns, including George Frederic Watts, whose The Seamstress gives Suffer And Be Still its cover image.

From the idealisation of women in Victorian art we jump to a particularly grim Victorian reality in Eric M. Sigsworth and Terence J. Wyke’s essay, A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease, which offers wide-ranging statistics on both of these aspects of life, and covers the introduction of, and the battle against, the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed for the forcible detention, medical examination and virtual imprisonment of prostitutes. This area of study repeatedly highlights the tacit acceptance of prostitution as the “maintainer” of polite society, freeing “good” women from the vile necessity of submitting to their husbands’ carnal lusts and retaining marital sex as merely for procreation. The Contagious Diseases Acts were introduced in response to the skyrocketing levels of venereal disease amongst the armed forces, yet no attempt was made to alter the behaviour of the men, merely to render the prostitutes “safer”. Similarly, those pressing for the legal power to detain prostitutes in order to prevent the infection of married women and their babies managed to leave the erring husband almost entirely out of the equation, treating the prostitute as directly responsible for the transmission of disease to the wife. A bizarre sidelight of this area of research is the related argument over whether prostitutes experienced sexual pleasure, or whether they merely “simulated” it to heighten male passion; it was believed by some that sexual desire was dormant in women until they had “fallen”; though few seemed to join Point A and Point B, namely, that married men turned to prostitutes for the enthusiasm (simulated or otherwise) they were by definition not finding at home. Resorting to prostitution was also considered less transgressive and damaging than masturbation—or as it was discreetly called (in The Lancet, of all places!), “Another evil resulting in the abomination of prematurely exhausted powers.” This article quotes copiously from William Acton’s Prostitution, Considered In Its Moral, Social, And Sanitary Aspects (1857):

    Later, Acton echoed: “I should say that the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”, and, allowing for aberrant exceptions (“nymphomania, a form of insanity”), had no doubt, “That sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance…and even if roused, which in many instances it can never be, is very moderate compared with that of the male.
    “Many of the best mothers, wives and managers of households, know little of or are careless about sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel.
    “As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him; and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions…”

(Yeah, baby… Nothing gets me hot and bothered like “domestic duties”…)

Much of the rest of Suffer And Be Still is devoted to the profoundly contradictory Victorian views on the nature of women and the relations of the sexes. The question of female sexuality was obviously a deeply troubling one, informing a set of life-rules for young women that were simultaneously hilarious, bewildering, and just plain cruel. Even supposedly scientifically-based studies of biology managed to conclude in justifications of a social system that confined women to the home and severely limited their activities and opportunities. Again and again academic studies showed signs of insight and advanced thinking, only suddenly to contract upon themselves in an explanation of why the existing social arrangements were biologically pre-determined.

Jill Conway’s Stereotypes Of Femininity In A Theory Of Sexual Evolution examines the work of some of the leading figures in sociology during the late Victorian period. At this time physiology and genetics were imperfectly understood, allowing academics to fill out the interstices in general knowledge with their own particular prejudices. Biological explanations for the “natural” inferiority of women were sought, and the idea that a woman’s primary function was reproduction, and that all her other functions, mental and physical, were subservient to the development and maintenance of her reproductive organs, recurs again and again. According to Herbert Spencer in his The Study Of Sociology, for instance, sex differences were the result of, “A somewhat earlier arrest of individual evolution in women than in men, necessitated by the reservation of vital power to meet the cost of reproduction.” In The Evolution Of Sex, Patrick Geddes argued for distinct metabolic processes between the sexes, “katabolic” in the male and “anabolic” in the female: the former transmitting or dissipating energy, that latter conserving and storing it. Under this theory, “The hungry, active cell becomes flagellate sperm, while the quiescent, well-fed one becomes an ovum.” In the developed human, men were necessarily active, and women passive. Social structures which kept women in the home were an evolutionary determinant geared towards ensuring that women conserved the energy necessary to reproduce. A few years later, Leonard T. Hobhouse rejected many of Geddes’ arguments in Morals In Evolution, yet managed to come up with a competing theory that still kept women in the home, namely, the necessity of “reconciling” them to their fate by convincing them that, “Motherhood of the healthy and capable [was] a form of social service.” Pre-determination had been ceded, but women still weren’t making it out the front door…

The desire to stop women expanding their lives also fuelled one of the most peculiar Victorian arguments about female biology, as is considered in this volume’s second “cheaty” essay— “cheaty” because although it stays within the broader boundaries of Victorianism, it finds it necessary to cross from England to America in order to gather some of its materials. Co-authored by Elaine Showalter and her husband English, Victorian Women And Menstruation examines the co-opting of female biology by male doctors as part of the effort to prevent women having access to higher education. The early stages of the essay are devoted to emphasising just how little was understood about the process in question, and how long a variety of bizarre myths were believed and propagated. Like “wet dreams”, menstruation was regarded as a disease and treated accordingly; as the century wore on, there was greater and greater insistence upon regarding it as a debilitating condition. In 1869, addressing the Anthopological Society of London, James MacGrigor Allan, an author and prominent antifeminist, had this to say upon the subject:

At such times, women are unfit for any great mental or physical labour. They suffer under a languor and depression that disqualify them for thought or action, and render it extremely doubtful how far they can be responsible beings while the crisis lasts. Much of the inconsequent conduct of women, their petulance, caprice, and irritability, may be traced directly to this cause… Michelet defines woman as an invalid; such she emphatically is, as compared with man. In intellectual labour, man has surpassed, does now, and always will surpass woman, for the obvious reason that nature does not periodically interrupt his thought and application.

And as the century wore on, the clamour grew ever louder—not without an underlying agenda. As women agitated for change, demanding greater access to education and even to careers, the medical profession fought back with lengthy treatises explaining why their own biology made it impossible.

The main focus of this essay is the publication in 1873 of a book called Sex In Education, which was devoted to arguing that higher education for women destroyed their reproductive capacity—if not their entire lives. The author of this remarkable work was Dr Edward Clarke, a professor at Harvard; his argument (by no means unique to himself, astonishingly) was that education – too much thinking, in other words – “diverted” the blood flow from the reproductive organs to the brain, causing the former to shrivel and die.

(There were a variety of reactions to Dr Clarke’s treatise, as we shall see. Disappointingly, no-one seems to have inquired into whether higher education for men led to an epidemic of “shrinkage”.)

Clarke’s book was leapt upon by others with a similar agenda. Henry Maudsley, a leading British psychiatrist, used it to attack female aspirations across the board—for women’s own good, of course: “Women are marked out by nature for very different offices in life from those of men, and that the healthy performance of her special functions renders it improbable she will succeed, and unwise for her to persevere, in running over the same course at the same pace with him,” he wrote in 1874, adding that this was true even if women never married or had children. Their physiology was a fundamental, inescapable handicap: “[Women are] for one quarter of each month during the best years of life…more or less sick and unfit for hard work.”

But the barriers that these men were so desperate to keep in place were already crumbling. There were already female doctors and social scientists, and a number of them made sharp attacks upon the arguments of Clarke, Maudsley and their ilk—in the process dragging menstruation out of the mire of myth and into the light of common knowledge.

The ongoing argument was mostly confined to the predominantly masculine world of medical and scientific journals and societies – menstruation being regarded, of course, as a subject unfit for women – but Henry Maudsley made the tactical error of publishing his thoughts in the Fortnightly Review, thus opening it up to public debate. A doctor called Elizabeth Garrett Anderson published a rebuttal of Maudsley in the next issue of the magazine, contending both from personal and professional experience that the debilitating effects of menstruation were “much exaggerated” by male doctors. In particular, she pounced upon the blatant class bias inherent in their arguments, pointing out that working-class women were hardly known for taking “complete bed rest” for a week each month, as was often prescribed as necessary for their middle-class sisters. Nor were female servants in those very same middle-class households generally given any dispensation from their duties (which presumably included waiting on their incapacitated employers) at that time. Meanwhile, back in America, a women’s health manual called Eve’s Daughters by Marion Harland countered the “bed rest” brigade with admirable common sense, prescribing instead ginger tea and hot water bottles if necessary, backed up by warm encouragement to go on with life as normally as possible.

Yet Clarke’s book threw a long shadow. In 1908, M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr, reflected upon her own encounter with it in her youth:

“We did not know when we began whether women’s health could stand the strain of college education. We were haunted in those days by the clanging chains of that gloomy little spectre, Dr Edward H. Clarke’s Sex In Education. With trepidation of spirit I made my mother read it, and was much cheered by her remark that, as neither she nor any of the women she knew, had ever seen girls or women of the kind described in Dr Clarke’s book, we might as well act as if they did not exist.”

As with this debate over menstruation, much Victorian thought on the subject of female sexuality was a matter of trying to reconcile reassuring theory with upsetting practice. Various sociological models at the time centred around the constructs known as Homo Economicus and Homo Sensualis and the tensions between these two “sides” to human – meaning male – nature. In Innocent Femina Sensualis In Unconscious Conflict, however, Peter T. Cominos is concerned with the female counterparts of these constructs, Femina Domesticus and Femina Sensualis. In both sexes, in addition to the overt conflict between Economicus / Domesticus and Sensualis, the Sensualis construct was also divided and in conflict, with tension between the “higher” part of human nature – reason, conscience, duty – and the “lower” – bodily appetites, including sexual desire. The very idea that women had bodily appetites was disturbing to many Victorians, and much effort was put into reconciling this distasteful idea with the prevailing belief in “natural” female innocence. Innocence itself was almost a tangible thing, to be preserved at all cost. Once it was lost – and at this time, “loss of innocence” meant not loss of virginity, but simply the acquisition of certain knowledge – purity was gone forever and corruption the inevitable consequence. But what of that troubling Femina Sensualis? Nature, it was argued, protected girls from their “animal” natures by making them ignorant that they existed in the first place; unaware that there was such a thing as desire, they surely could not feel it. Here we have the most consoling answer to the troubling questions highlighted in A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease: namely, that women could experience sexual desire, but as long as they did not know they could, they were safe.

Ridiculous as all this might seem to us, it wasn’t funny for the frightened and mortified girls who found themselves experiencing feelings which, it had been drummed into them, were low, shameful and corrupting. Really good girls, it was contended, though not of course recognising evil of their own knowledge, had an instinct which intervened in time to prevent them from gaining such knowledge. If you did not have such an instinct, if certain thoughts and feelings made their way into your consciousness, you were “soiled” forever.

We have met Elizabeth Missing Sewell at this blog before, in my consideration of the 19th century religious novel: you might recall her as a proponent of the theory that the best way for young women to live was to submit themselves utterly to the authority of fathers, husbands and/or brothers, immerse themselves in religious practice, and never, ever think or act for themselves. This being the case, it is hardly unexpected to find her also weighing in on the subject of the “protective instinct”: Cominos quotes from her Principles Of Education (1865), which has a chapter titled “Purity”:

“If a girl’s mind is not pure,—if her own instincts are so blunted that she cannot feel evil before she can explain it,—if she cannot shrink from it without knowing why she does so,—may God help her! for the wisest safeguards which the best friends may provide for her will never be sufficient to secure her from danger.”

We are not much surprised when Peter Cominos also starts quoting William Acton in this context, nor to find that he was a believer in the desexualised “angel in the house”. According to Acton, a “good” woman’s lack of desire was intended to help men control their own, more “animalistic” natures. The problem was that too many boys got their ideas about sex from “loose” women: “Any susceptible boy is easily led to believe, whether he is altogether overcome by the siren or not, that she, and therefore all women, must have at least as strong passions as himself.” Acton goes on to excoriate prostitutes for “simulating” sexual feelings, thus further propagating “false” ideas of female nature which were carried into the marital bed with tragic consequences. Remarkably, it seems that Acton was so set against the notion of women being capable of sexual pleasure that he was reluctant to concede that even prostitutes might experience it: one of his main purposes in writing on the subject, he explains, was to, “Vindicate female nature from the vile aspersions cast on it by the abandoned conduct and ungoverned lusts of a few of its worst examples.”

Comments Cominos wryly:

The contrast with ladies is simply marvellous. They were alleged to have no physical desire to control so long as their innate “island of innocence” was kept pure by the proper surveillance of mothers and chaperones and by the sense of shame which every manifestation of their own erotic desire aroused. Theoretically and ideally, gentlemen were to be masters of themselves, responsible and self-controlled; ladies had nothing to master or to be responsible for and were to be controlled or “protected” by others. Thus, in the Victorian battle of the sexes, women were disarmed of the weapon of their sexuality. Gentlemen imposed unilateral disarmament upon them which they simultaneously denied doing through the theory of female sexual anaesthesia.

Over the course of the 19th century, arguments over the “true” nature of women became more and more public; the two extremes of the conflict are the subject of Kate Millet’s essay, The Debate Over Women: Ruskin vs Mill, in which she considers the irreconcilably polarised views of women to be found in their definitive publications on the subject, John Ruskin’s own essay, Of Queen’s Gardens, and John Stuart Mill’s ground-breaking The Subjection Of Women.

Of course, given what we know these days about the ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—or rather, the lack of ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—the idea of John Ruskin setting himself up as an expert on women seems rather ludicrous; though of course, in his writings he was very much concerned with theories of the ideal woman.

Ruskin was a profound believer in “separate spheres”: he was in favour of female subjection, denial of education, and of an existence confined entirely to the home; not that he phrased it quite as bluntly of that. Instead he dresses it all up in the language of fairy-tale and chivalry – every woman is a “queen”, every man her loyal subject; instead of pernicious “rights”, she has “a natural power” – her innate moral superiority acted as a guide and an inspiration for men; her duty was to build, less a mere home, more a magical fairy-bower, which could act as an impenetrable barrier against harsh reality, and into which men could retreat. Where this system failed, it was because women did not appreciate the power they wielded over men, which was nothing less than “royal” in its extent; her home was not merely a home, but a “realm” which she “ruled”. If only women realised this and were content, instead of striving for empty acquisitions which could only breed dissension and cause unhappiness – !

Each [sex] has what the other has not; each completes the other. They are nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give… The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war and for conquest… But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle and her intellect is not for invention or recreation, but sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the quality of things, their claims and their places. Her great function is praise; she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation…

Ah, yes— “temptation”—that spectre lurking just outside the door, which threatened to destroy any woman foolhardy enough to step over her own threshold, in spite of that moral superiority of which we hear so much… It is, in fact, painfully evident that John Ruskin had bought into the most fundamental contradiction of Victorian life: the belief that men were crude, animalistic, and irreversibly soiled by being forced to contend with the world—yet at the same time inherently superior and in a position of natural authority; whereas women were pure, spiritual, strong and superior in their innate morality—yet at the same time weak, vulnerable and liable to instant and profound corruption, and so in need of constant supervision.

In the course of his own comprehensive examination of the position of women in society, John Stuart Mill has a few choice words to say about this paradox:

[Women] are declared to be better than men; an empty compliment which must provoke a bitter smile from every woman of spirit, since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order, and considered natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse…

The Subjection Of Women is a sweeping denunciation of the beliefs and practices most cherished by the Victorians. Mill attacks on every front: the law, education, home life, religion, finance, social theory; everything that contributed to a power imbalance between the sexes that, he contends, was not only unjust and brutalising in itself – to both sexes – but which was preventing society as a whole from achieving its potential. The “natural” differences between men and women, on which the “necessary” subjection of the latter is generally predicated, are a particular bugbear:

Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, so long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another… What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others…

All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite of that of men: not self will, and government by self control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others…

Mill sums up his thesis as follows:

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on one side, nor disability on the other…

Comparing Of Queen’s Gardens and The Subjection Of Women, it is almost impossible to grasp that they were the work of men exposed to essentially the same experiences and influences. Reading John Stuart Mill, the lasting impression one gains of him is not merely that he was ahead of his time, but that he was from another planet.

Which is also – more or less – the conclusion reached by Kate Millet:

It is hard to believe that Mill and Ruskin are discussing the same subject—or, that since each claims to have the best interests of womanhood at heart—that one of the two does not prevaricate.

She then pens three words that very nearly manage to sum up the bewildering and contradictory views of the Victorians on that most difficult of subjects, Woman:

Both are sincere.

30/03/2012

Critic on the couch

So few people are really acquainted with the whole range of Romance (even in English), or with any large part of it, that one may without undue presumption set down in part, if not in whole, to ignorance, a doctrine and position which we must now attack. This is that romance and novel are widely separated from each other; and that the historian of the novel is really straying out of his ground if he meddles with Romance. These are they who would make our subject proper begin with Marivaux and Richardson, or at earliest with Madame de La Fayette, who exclude Bunyan altogether, and sometimes go so far as to question the right of entry to Defoe. But the counter-arguments are numerous; and any one of them would amost suffice by itself. In the first place the idea of the novel arising so late is unnatural and unhistorical. In the second place a pedantic insistence on the exclusive definition of the novel involves one practical inconvenience which no one, even among those who believe in it, has yet dared to face. You must carry your wall of partition along the road as well as across it; and write separate histories of the Novel and the Romance.

I spent some considerable time pondering the best way to attack The English Novel by George Saintsbury for this blog – and must finally confess that the word “attack” may be more apt than I’m quite comfortable with. There is, to be fair, a great deal to enjoy in this 1913 study of that much-cherished subject, “the rise of the novel”, and at first I thought that I was going to get along with Professor Saintsbury almost as well as I did with James R. Foster. And why not?—after all, he refuses to separate “the novel” and “the romance”; he doesn’t think the novel started with Daniel Defoe; and he despises Richard Head.

But finally there was a point where Professor Saintsbury and I parted company—and I need to be very clear about the nature of that point, so as not to end up being guilty of doing exactly what I’m about to criticise Saintsbury for doing.

Fairly late in his text, Professor Saintsbury confesses to being a political conservative—in fact, he prefers to call himself a Tory. I may say that by the time of this admission, it was entirely unnecessary, since the bent of his beliefs had been quite evident for some time. Now—those of you who have been regular visitors to this blog would not, I imagine, need telling that my own tendencies (I prefer not to regard them as “political”) lie in the other direction. Nevertheless, I do try not to let ideological differences intrude upon my assessment of the works I examine here, although obviously I’m going to end up more in sympathy with some than with others.

My objection to the tenor of The English Novel is that George Saintsbury does let his ideology intrude upon his literary analysis—and he’s not shy about it, either. The clearest illustration of this comes, not surprisingly, when Saintsbury considers the radical novelists of the late 18th century, to whom, since he disapproves of them as radicals, he gives extremely short shrift as novelists—refusing to look past the politics to the writing.

And this becomes increasingly Saintsbury’s approach to his criticism as he moves through the literature of the 19th century and into the publications of his own lifetime, to an extent that is both exasperating and disappointing; disappointing in particular, since the early stages of this study, dealing with times in the safely distant past, are both informative and entertaining; while Saintsbury’s idiosyncratic writing style, with its bizarre mix of the chatty and the lofty, and its habit of slipping into the first person, is an entertainment unto itself.

Here are a couple of early quotes, just to give you a taste. That passage quoted up above, arguing the impossibility of dividing the romance and the novel, concludes as follows:

The present writer can only say that, although he has dared some tough adventures in literary history, he would altogether decline this. Without the help of the ants that succoured Psyche against Venus, that heap would indeed be ill to sort.

Still more typical is an early statement bringing the argument into more modern times (and, by the way, giving an example of Saintsbury’s tendency to literary jingoism):

The separation of romance and novel—of the story of incident and the story of character and motive—is a mistake logically and psychologically. It is a very old mistake, and it has deceived some of the elect: but a mistake it is. It made even Dr Johnson think Fielding shallower than Richardson; and it has made people very different from Dr Johnson think that Count Tolstoi is a greater analyst and master of a more developed humanity than Fielding. As a matter of fact, when you have excogitated two or more human beings out of your own head and have set them to work in the narrative (not the dramatic) way, you have made the novel in posse, if not in esse, from its apparently simplest development, such as Daphne And Chloe, to its apparently most complex, such as the Kreutzer Sonata or the triumphs of Mr Meredith. You have started the “Imitation”—the “fiction”—and tout est là.

Yet for all its ability to amuse – and to bewilder – it must be said that George Saintsbury’s writing style has a tendency to distract from and even to overwhelm his content, to the point where I finally came away from this study feeling that I had learned infinitely more about “George Saintsbury” than I had about “the English novel”.

At the outset, The English Novel seems like the rise-of-the-novel study to beat all rise-of-the-novel studies. Most of these works, as we have seen, open with a debate over where to draw their line in the sand—Richardson? Defoe? Behn? Not for George Saintsbury such timid stuff: his study plunges straight back into antiquity:

One of the best known, and one of the least intelligible, facts of literary history is the lateness, in Western European Literature at any rate, of prose fiction, and the comparative absence, in the two grwat classical languages, of what we call by that name. It might be an accident, though a rather improbable one, that we have no Greek prose fiction to a time long subsequent to the Christian era, and nothing in Latin at all except the fragments of Petronius and the romance of Apuleisus. But it can be no accident, and it is a very momentous fact, that, from the foundation of Greek criticism, “Imitation”, that is to say “Fiction” (for it is neither more nor less), was regarded as not merely the inseparable but the constituent property of poetry, even though those who held this were doubtful whether poetry must necessarily be in verse. It is another fact of the greatest importance that the ancients who, in other forms than deliberate prose fiction, try to “tell a story”, do not seem to know very well how to do it.

From here Saintsbury jumps from Apollonius Of Tye to The Vision Of St. Paul, and from there makes a series of leaps that take in Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval tales, the Arthurian legends and Malory’s choices, the rise of prose in Italy and Spain, and finally the Elizabethan romances of Philip Sidney and his ilk, and their 17th century descendents—eventually running up against the eternal question of where and when, exactly, “the novel” may be said to have begun. Saintsbury digresses here slightly in order to mention Henry Neville, and be nice to Aphra Behn and rude to Richard Head, then makes a strong case for John Bunyan’s place in the novel’s timeline, while classing him with Swift and Cervantes as an allegorist rather than a novelist per se. The most unexpected stroke here, however, is the introduction of a new player into the age-old debate, as he argues for the influence of the early 18th century periodicals, and the writing of Steele and Addison, over the subsequent development of English prose.

Saintsbury’s study of the novel proper starts with a consideration of Defoe (and he gets irritated with those who pass him over in the timeline and start with Richardson in exactly the same way that I get irritated with those who start with Defoe and pass over Aphra Behn [and, ahem, Francis Kirkman]). He concedes the ongoing difficulty of deciding how much of Defoe’s fiction actually is “fiction”; finally concluding that it doesn’t matter—and in my opinion, making a stronger case for Defoe than many of those who have written entire books on the subject:

But, apart from all these things, there abides the fact that you can read the books—read them again and again—enjoy them most keenly at first and hardly less keenly afterwards, however often you repeat the reading.

It is this re-readability that inclines Saintsbury to position Defoe as, sigh, “the father of the novel”; arguing that the art of the novel lies very much in its capacity to yield repeated pleasure, in spite of the reader’s familiarity with the text; that is, its ability to entertain in more than one way.

From here The English Novel plays out in a conventional manner, if not always a conventional style—though we must of course acknowledge that what we recognise here as “conventional” is a measure of how far Saintsbury’s approach was later copied. He was certainly the model for those critics who later chose to select a “Big Four” amongst the English novelists – in tandem with paying scant heed to those who didn’t make the cut; an approach to literary criticism that would dominate the field until late in the 20th century. For the rest, Saintsbury starts with The Usual Suspects – Fielding, Richardson, Smollet, Sterne – and also divvies them up in the usual way, tagging Fielding and Smollet as “masculine” and Richardson and Sterne as “feminine”, or at least “feminised”, and offering the latter two as the models for the later hordes of “scribbling women”. A note that will recur through much of the rest of this book begins to emerge here, which is something I shall return to shortly.

I’ve said before that my interest these days in the history of the novel lies in its black holes – the writers before Defoe, and those that lie between Defoe and Richardson, and between Sterne and Austen. Not surprisingly, then, I began to part company with George Saintsbury at this point in his study, as he gives a quick overview of quite a number of writers of the second half of the 18th century, but very much in the spirit of, I’m telling you this so you don’t have to bother with them. It is in this stretch that the radicals get their comprehensive dismissal, with Saintsbury obviously feeling than he has said all that needs to be said to turn us away from the works of Robert Bage and Thomas Holcroft when he tells us that they were not gentlemen. (So they weren’t; but on the other hand, they weren’t snobs, either.)

It soon becomes evident that Saintsbury’s eagerness to get out of the 18th century lies in the fact that two of the writers he considers the all-time greatest belong to the early 19th. We are probably not surprised to find Jane Austen on Saintsbury’s personal “Big Four” list, nor do I have the least inclination to argue with his analysis of her myriad perfections as a novelist:

It is the absolute triumph of that reliance on the strictly ordinary which has been indicated as Miss Austen’s title to pre-eminence in the history of the novel. Not an event, not a circumstance, not a detail, is carried out of “the daily round, the common task” of average English middle-class humanity, upper and lower. Yet every event, every circumstance, every detail, is put sub specie eternitatis by the sorcery of art. Few things could be more terrible—nothing more tiresome—than to hear the garrulous Miss Bates talk in actual life; few things are more delightful than to read her speeches as they occur here. An aspiring soul might feel disposed to “take and drown itself in a pail” (as one of Dickens’s characters says) if it had to live the life which the inhabitants of Highbury are represented as living; to read about that life—to read about it over and over—has been and is always likely to be one of the chosen delights of some of the best wits of our race. This is one of the paradoxes or art: and perhaps it is the most wonderful of them…

But the problem with this positioning of Jane is that it sets the tone for the next sixty or seventy years of English literary criticism—during which time the majority of critics seem to have concluded that, having said nice things about Austen, there was no need for them, and certainly no obligation upon them, to admire or even acknowledge any other female writer.

And indeed, Saintsbury himself finds precious little of merit in the works of Austen’s literary sisters either before her or after her – not even in those whom she admitted as an influence. He is extremely and, in my opinion, unjustly harsh about Frances Burney, who is dismissed as a mere mimic rather than a novelist, and not a very good one. He manages some tepid praise for Maria Edgeworth and Mary Brunton, while dwelling on their faults, and is kind to Ann Radcliffe (while misspelling her name) because she was obviously “a lady”. More typical of this section are his comments on popular novelists like Regina Maria Roche, second in success only to Radcliffe herself as a Gothic novelist, whose novels, “Should probably be read …in late childhood or early youth. Even then an intelligent boy or girl would perceive some of their absurdity…” Likewise, of Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan), we hear that, “Nothing she wrote can really be ranked as literature, save on the most indiscriminate and uncritical estimate“, while the works of Harriet and Sophia Lee, “Are not exactly bad; but also as far from possible from consummateness.” Furthermore, while explaining to us exactly what was wrong with novel-writing during the second half of the 18th century, he repeatedly illustrates his argument with reference to female writers, finally bookending this unsatisfactory era as running from, “The Female Quixote to Discipline” – or to put it another way, from Charlotte Lennox to Mary Brunton. Admittedly, Saintsbury does find plenty to criticise in most of the male writers of this era, too, but he doesn’t dwell in the same way, and generally the note of contempt is missing.

(I suppose I should be grateful that Saintsbury seems never to have come across Catherine Cuthbertson.)

But it is when Saintsbury begins to deal with women writers post-Austen that he really makes us open our eyes. First of all, he dismisses the Brontes collectively as just too weird; he struggles with Elizabeth Gaskell, and clearly thinks she should have stuck to domestic themes rather than venturing into social reform (although he doesn’t much care for her work even when she does); and then, in what from a modern perspective is probably this study’s most startling moment, he reveals an entire lack of enthusiasm for George Eliot—who he criticises roundly for, of all things, taking novel-writing too seriously. Indeed, Saintsbury passes over Eliot so swiftly that he offers little chance to come to grips with any specific objections to her writing – and finally we’re left with the uncomfortable sense that his personal conservatism may again have been intruding upon his literary judgement. For one thing, Saintsbury insists on using inverted commas all the way through this brief section – “George Eliot” – and at one point he refers to her as Mrs Cross, which is just spiteful. My impression here is that while Saintsbury may have been able to treat the misbehaviour of, say, Aphra Behn with indulgence, as being a safe two hundred and fifty years in the past, he was unable to overlook the transgressions of Mary Ann Evans, which must have been ongoing in his lifetime.

Anyway—you can probably appreciate that by this point in The English Novel, I was starting to feel a slow burn creeping up the back of my neck. This is not to say I ever lost interest in it, though, since its very iconclasm keeps you hanging on—and shows itself again in Saintsbury’s revelation of Fielding and Austen’s companions in his Big Four: Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray, neither of whom have figured very prominently in any of these “ranking” contests since Saintsbury put pen to paper. Of Scott, indeed, Saintsbury is almost unstinting in his praise, and he has very little time for those who find fault with him:

    Not here, unfortunately, can we allow ourselves even a space proportionate to that given above in Miss Austen’s case to the criticism of the individual novels… The brilliant overture of Waverley as such, with its entirely novel combination of the historical and the “national” elements upon the still more novel background of Highland scenery; the equally vivid and vigorous narrative and more interesting personages of Old Mortality and Rob Roy; the domestic tragedy, with the historical element for little more than a framework, of The Heart Of Midlothian and The  Bride Of Lammermoor; the little Masterpiece of A Legend Of Montrose; the fresh departure, with purely English subject, of Ivanhoe and its triumphant sequels in Kenilworth, Quentin Durward, and others; the striking utilisation of literary assistance in The Fortunes Of Nigel; and the wonderful blending of autobiographic, historical, and romantic interest in Redgauntlet
    That he knew what he was doing and what he had to do is thus certain; that he did it to an astounding extent is still more certain; but it would not skill much to deny that he did not always give himself time to do it perfectly in every respect, though it is perhaps not mere paradox or mere partisanship to suggest that if he had given himself more time, he would hardly have done better, and might have done worse. The accusation of superficiality has already been glanced at: and it is pretty certain that it argues superficiality, of a much more hopeless kind, in those who make it…

Between Scott and Thackeray, Saintsbury spends a little time with the likes of Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, before offering up a peculiar analysis of Charles Dickens, in which he seems unable to make up his mind whether he considers Dickens a genius or a mountebank. (Both, would be the short answer.) The overriding sense here, however, is that it is not Dickens himself who is the problem, but rather that Saintsbury grew up having Dickens’ genius dinned into his ears until he was sick and tired of it. But there may have been another factor in his dislike:

The remarkable originality and idiosyncrasy of Dickens have perhaps, to some extent and from not a few persons, concealed the fact that he was not, any more than other people, an earth-born wonder… There is probably no author of whom really critical estimates are so rare. He has given so much pleasure to so many people…that to mention any faults in him is upbraided as a sort of personal and detestable ingratitude and treachery. If you say he cannot draw a gentleman, you are told you are a parrot and a snob, who repeats what other snobs have told you; that gentlemen are not worth drawing; that he can draw them; and so forth… If you intimate small affection for Little Nell and Little Paul, you are a brute; if you hint that his social crusades were quite often irrational, and sometimes at least as michievous as they were beneficial, you are a parasite of aristocracy and a foe of “the people”…

We have, of course, learned enough of George Saintsbury by this time to suspect that his views on “gentlemen” and “the people” may indeed have coloured his opinion of Dickens; although that said, I confess I’m in sympathy with his stance on “Little Paul and Little Nell”…

However, Saintsbury’s consideration of the “unrealistic” Dickens is merely his way of paving the way for his section on Thackeray, who he considers the true heir of Fielding, a novelist in whose works:

…the problem of “reality, the whole reality, and nothing but reality” is faced and grasped and solved—with, of course, the addition to the “nothing but” of “except art”… [It is] the scheme of the realist novel in the best sense of the term—the novel rebuilt and refashioned on the lines of Fielding, but with modern manners, relying on the variety of life, and relying on these only. There is thus something of similarity (though with attendant differences, of the most important kind) between the joint position of Dickens and Thackeray… Both wrote historical novels: it is indeed Thackeray’s unique distinction that he was equally master of the historical novel and of the novel of pure modern society… Thackeray takes sixteen years of experimentation before he trusts his genius, boldly and on the great scale, to reveal itself in its own way, and in the straight way of the novel.

In the last section of his study, Saintsbury focuses on the mid- and late-Victorian novel. It is here that George Eliot – sorry, “George Eliot” – receives her congé, although on the whole Saintsbury is more indulgent with the writers of this period, perhaps because he is dealing with the books that were so important in his own formative years. Anthony Trollope is kindly treated (though generally viewed as a Thackeray wannabe), and Elizabeth Missing Sewell and Charlotte Yonge are actually the recipients of a few kind words, although chiefly the latter (probably because her conservatism makes Saintsbury look like a radical). 

A plethora of minor novelists then flit past our consciousness before  Saintsbury steps back to consider the changing world of writing and publishing in the late 19th century, and indeed the changing face of literary criticism, prior to wrapping things up with a look at the two most determinedly original novelists of the time—George Meredith and Thomas Hardy:

The chorus of praise, ever since it made itself heard, has not been quite quite unchequered. It has been objected both to Mr Meredith and Mr Hardy that there is in them a note, perhaps to be detected also generally in the later fiction which they have so powerfully influenced—the note of a certain perversity—of an endeavour to be peculiar in thought, in style, in choice of subject, in handling of it; in short in general attitude… There is truth in this, but it damages neither Mr Meredith nor Mr Hardy on the whole; though it may supply a not altogether wholesome temptation to some readers to admire them for the wrong things…

Translation: they both wrote about sex.

George Meredith, whom Saintsbury obviously admired greatly in spite of, or because of, his “peculiarities”, died while this book was being prepared for publication; and here Saintsbury segues into an odd sort of obituary in which praise and exasperation struggle for supremacy.

(Since our mutual opinion of George Meredith is one of those rare points at which Saintsbury and I are in agreement, I’d like to be able to say that this is a typical reaction to Meredith, but the truth is that these days, exasperation tends to reign unchallenged. I regret it, but I’m hardly surprised.)

Saintsbury is unwontedly gentle during this stretch of his writing. However, he recovers his spirits at the end, when he reflects on what he views as the inverse relationship between novel quality and novel sales:

Yet whatever faults there might be in the supply there could be no doubt about the demand when it was once started. It was indeed almost entirely independent of the goodness or badness of the average supply itself. Allowing for the smaller population and the much smaller proportion of the population who were likely to—or indeed could—read, and for the inferior means of distribution, it may be doubted whether the largest sales of novels recorded in the last century have surpassed those of the most trumpery trash of the “Minerva Press” period—the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth century. For the main novel-public is quite omnivorous, and absolutely uncritical of what it devours. The admirable though certainly fortunate Scot who “could never remember drinking bad whisky” might be echoed, if they had the wit, by not a few persons who never seem to read a bad novel, or at least to be aware that they are reading one.

There’s more—but the tone of that is so entirely representative, I think we’ll leave things here.

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.

14/12/2011

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.

11/05/2011

The church in a state

The Victorian English left us, in the form of fiction, a picture of themselves more complete than any we possess for other nations or other generations. But historians have almost ignored this vast mine of humane knowledge, a source of insight, if not indeed of fact. The view of the intellectual movement presented by men of unquestioned honesty to a public too well acquainted with the subject to accept obvious misrepresentation, should be valuable—not only for what is stated, but also for what is unconsciously revealed of bias, assumption, of the spiritual atmosphere of the time. Moreover, the Victorians were tremendously concerned with religion, lest it vanish, and their chief instrument of propaganda (in fact, their favorite means of presenting serious psychological or social study) was the novel.

Those of us who love the Victorian novel nevertheless face certain challenges in absorbing from it all that it has to offer. For the modern reader, one of the greatest of these may well be coming to terms with not merely the religious content, which is almost ubiquitous, but the terminology that goes along with it. In Victorian Britain, religion was a very public thing: this was a time of strife, not only between the church and its enemies – or at least its disputants – but between the various factions within the church itself. One of the pleasures for me of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement is that it allowed me finally, seriously, to begin to get my head around the vocabulary of the age, and to understand the allusions that for the Victorian reader were clear and self-explanatory: High Church, Low Church, Evangelicalism, Tractarianism, Puseyism, High Anglicanism, High And Dry, Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism— AAACCKK!!!!

Grateful as I am to Joseph Ellis Baker, I have, nevertheless, certain qualms about trying to review this book. As he declares in his preface, Baker was himself Catholic – or as I should say in this context, Roman Catholic – and even with my limited knowledge, I can see how this tends to skews his presentation of his material. Another issue is that, writing in 1932, Baker makes certain assumptions, and takes certain things for granted, that some eighty-odd years later we might not be inclined to accept. This presents a problem – one I don’t intend to try and overcome. Call it tolerance or call it cowardice, but I’ve decided not to engage with Baker at that level.

Instead, I’ll stick to talking about what I most took out of this book, a better understanding of the various religious movements of 19th-century Britain, and an awareness of some now extremely obscure novelists. And,  well, you know me: obscure novels, and obscure novelists, are my stock-in-trade; and I confess that these peculiar, clumsy, ponderously sincere, ephemeral texts hold a strange fascination for me.

(While I can say I have a better understanding of this subject, that’s certainly not to say it’s flawless. So if I get anything wrong here, or misuse any of the terminology, please feel free to set me straight.)

By Baker’s account, the so-called Oxford Movement grew out of a backlash against the liberalism of the 1830s, which saw various reforms passed giving greater rights and opportunities to the lower and middle classes, and an increasing distance placed between Church and State. A key moment came in 1833, with a Bill introduced in parliament to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland. Although this was part of a reform under which the money saved would be applied to other church business, the Bill was preceived in some quarters as an outrageous secular meddling in religious matters. The most notable reaction came from John Keble, the author of The Christian Year and, from 1831, the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. In 1833, Keble’s Assize Sermon was entitled “National Apostasy”. In it he denounced both the Irish Bill and the interference by the state in church affairs. This sermon is now generally regarded as the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Following Keble’s sermon, a group of English clerics banded together and produced a series of papers that they called Tracts For Our Times, which expounded upon the principles of what they called “the English branch of the Holy Catholic Church”. These Tracts became the focus of a move away from the Low Church, or Evangelical, form of worship, which then dominated England, and towards what would be known as Anglo-Catholicism: a stricter, more traditional approach that, while not recognising the authority of the Pope or the Catholic hierarchy, or incorporating confession and absolution, adopted Catholic procedures and rituals. It was Anglican, but not Protestant.

This movement was and for a decade remained based around Oxford. In the first instance it was often called “Tractarianism”, in reference to the publications which the Anglo-Catholics used to fire the first barrages in what would become a decades-long conflict. In line with their horror of liberalism and reform, the Tractarians advocated a return to an England under the joint paternalistic rule of the church and the aristocracy: a realm where everyone was content to stay where God had seen fit to place them; where the poor were  “looked after”, in the feudal sense, and thus kept passive and obedient, and where an uppity middle-class was to learn submission to God’s will whether it liked it or not.

Even as it is generally accepted that civil war is the most internecine, this battle not between different religions, but between degrees of the same religion, was a bitter if bloodless conflict, a war fought from the pulpit, and in the newspapers – and in the novel. By the time of the birth of the Oxford Movement, the novel was an accepted although not entirely approved form of recreation. While in general novels were still held to be a threat to the weak-minded of society – women, servants, the working-class – it was nevertheless recognised that if written with strict purpose, the novel could be a powerful weapon. So it was that during the 1840s, the religious novel was born, as each of the various factions tried to reach, to educate, to sway the English public through its favourite form of entertainment – not, however, without certain qualms.

It is to these qualms that we owe the most peculiar characteristics of the novels of this time. Many writers, uneasy at adopting a form often denounced for its pernicious influence to favour their cause, actually took pains to make their novels as unentertaining as possible. (Or at least, that’s the story they’re sticking with.) It became a matter of pride, for instance, not to include anything resembling a love-story: a convention perhaps easier for the Anglo-Catholics, one of whose tenets was the celibacy of the ministry. Indeed, many of the earliest religious novels are essentially sermons in prose. But over time, it was conceded that the power of the novel lay in its ability to engage the imagination and the emotions; that soapbox shouting defeated its own purpose. Finally, the more talented of the religious novelists began weaving their themes and their arguments into stories that carried conviction through their grounding in a recognisable reality.

Most readers today, I imagine, if asked to name a religious 19th century English novelist, would probably nominate Anthony Trollope, specifically his Barchester books. Ironically, although he gives Trollope his own section in his book, Joseph Ellis Baker essentially dismisses him as a religious novelist, arguing that his clergymen are predominantly creatures of society and not the church. This is, of course, to a large extent true, as Trollope himself admitted; it is not private religion but public duty with which he mostly concerned himself. Baker also points out that in Trollope’s novels, the Oxford Movement seems almost not to have happened – that he spends most of his time satirising the Evangelicals from a High (but not too High) Church perspective, exactly as his mother, Frances Trollope, was doing in her novels of the 1830s. This, however, Baker subscribes largely to the fact that Trollope was writing his novels after the first great wave of religious controversy had subsided, during a period of greater tolerance and reduced disputation.

Nevertheless, for the modern reader, Trollope is still a good place to start – and quite complicated enough, with his Proudie / Grantley – Low Church / High Church brawling. We do in fact find in his novels a few references to the earlier religious controversies, including the unanticipated and most unwanted climax of the Oxford Movement, which saw several of its leading exponents, most notoriously John Henry Newman, convert to Roman Catholicism: exactly what the Movement’s Lower Church enemies had warned would be its natural consequence.

Thus in Barchester Towers, Francis Arabin is described as “an ardent disciple” of Newman, and, So high, indeed, that at one period of his career, he had all but toppled over into the cesspool of Rome. In Doctor Thorne we have Caleb Oriel, who represents a mild form of another frequent accusation made against Catholicism: that it was a religion of the senses and not of the spirit. Caleb’s initial calling was, we learn, Rather to the outward and visible signs of religion than to its inward and spiritual graces. He is also an advocate of celibacy in the church: a belief which scarcely outlasts his first meeting with Beatrice Gresham. Trollope is indulgent with those who go a little too “High”, believing that this is something they will simply grow out of; but he has little patience with those who go Low. For Trollope, Evangelicalism is the refuge of the ungentlemanly.

That Anthony Trollope is an enduringly popular novelist, and that Anthony Trollope was not, in Joseph Ellis Baker’s opinion, a religious novelist, are probably not unrelated. Most of the propagandistic novels produced during this time were so narrow in scope, so humourless in execution, so specific in respect to time and place – and, let’s face it, so poor in quality – that very few of them outlived the brief period of their initial release.

A few good – or at least, interesting – novelists, albeit ones not much read these days, did emerge from this controversy. Benjamin Disraeli’s works reflect his “Young Englishism”, a form of Toryism than looked yearningly back at the forms of Old English tradition, and thus found some parallels with the conservatism of the Oxford Movement. Significantly, Disraeli’s novels came in two waves, matching the two great outbreaks of religious controversy, during the 1840s and the 1870s.

On the other side of the fence, Charles Kingsley used the novel to launch scathing attacks upon the Tractarians, but from a rather unique perspective. Kingsley took issue with the notion that human nature was inherently sinful, believing that what was “natural” was “good” – including sex. While decrying celibacy and asceticism, Kingsley finds God equally in nature and in science. On the other hand, he held grave views about the possibility of rebellion by the lower classes, which like his religious enemies, the Anglo-Catholics, he viewed as defiance of God’s will.

But it was the Anglo-Catholics who first seized upon the novel as a means of propaganda, their leading lights in this respect during the 1840s being William Gresley and Francis Edward Paget. Both of these men were exponents of the dissertation school of novel-writing, avoiding love interest and concentrating instead on topics such as church restoration and the removal of pews. Stories of individuals who inherit estates and make them over in religious / feudal terms were also popular.

Another recurrent theme was the pernicious influence of the Mechanics’ Institutes and the like, which not only educated the poor and the working-class, but educated them in science; thus moving from being merely foolish to the outright sinful. In her 1855 novel, S. Alban’s; or, The Prisoners Of Hope, Felicia Skene offers a dire warning about what was going on in these Institutes, giving an example of the kind of lecture the lower classes were listening to: They were all equal, and men were not to be bought and sold like slaves, whose labour was to be made use of; and all this wicked sophistry [was] remarkably palatable to the proud unchastened spirit of the man…

But as the fight heated up, the novels became more and more thunderous against democracy or liberalism in any form; against reform; against social progress; and above all against anything that questioned the “natural authority” of the church in the first instance, but also of the aristocracy. This attitude is illustrated in William Gresley’s Clement Walton, wherein the English Church – i.e. the Anglo-Catholic Church – is praised for producing men who are “loyal, faithful, peaceable, and intelligent”; while conversely, in those who follow other tenets there is, An absence of that humble submission to authority, which is so amiable a feature of the Christian character… Corresponding with this spiritual defect there is a political disaffection to civil government; a democratic, arrogant temper; an anxiety to maintain rights rather than to perform duties.

Most of the early Tractarian novels were written by men about men; but later in the century, the novel of domestic manners became prominent, and gave women writers an acceptable framework within which to tackle religious matters. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these novels is their profound anti-intellectualism. The same advocacy of submission is present in these novels, but it goes hand-in-hand with an overt suspicion of the intellect. “Thinking”, generally, is viewed as a form of wicked wilfullness that will inevitable lead to sin: to think is to question; to question is to doubt; to doubt is to disbelieve. And “thinking” is doubly sinful when it is done by women, who along with the church will usually have an array of fathers, brothers and husbands to whom they should be submitting without hesitation or reflection.

Perhaps the most well-known, and indeed the most talented, of this particular school of novel-writing is Charlotte Yonge. The Clever Woman Of The Family, as we might guess from its title – the 19th century produced no more damning term for a woman than “clever” – is the story of a woman who has the temerity to think for herself, and who must suffer a proper and thorough humiliation as a consequence and thus learn her place. Meanwhile, Yonge’s Hopes And Fears has a young woman who has learned to be deeply suspicious of her own intelligence, which she fears will lead her into sin, looking wistfully at her mentally disabled sister and praying to be, As silly as she.

It is, however, Elizabeth Missing Sewell who represents the most extreme form of this stance, embracing a creed of absolute, unthinking obedience to authority. Obstacles are sent by God not to be striven against, but as a sign that we should stop whatever it is that we are doing and sit still: in Margaret Percival, when a character cannot afford to go to university and become a clergyman because of his brother’s gambling debts, it does not mean that he should work and strive and overcome these difficulties, but a sign that God does not want him to be a clergyman.

Also in Margaret Percival, we find the heroine hesitating over donating money for church restoration, as to do so would give her pleasure and is thus in all likelihood a sin. When she wavers towards Rome she is lectured bluntly about, “The duty of remaining where God has placed you, unless you have absolute demonstration, which you never can have, that the English Church is no true Church…” – and further warned that doing what is right “in her own eyes” will likely land her in Hell. “Thinking” is a form of self-will, and therefore a sin. “Conscience”, likewise, is setting our own judgement against that of a proper authority and a sin of pride. Acts such as these are dangerous for anyone, but unforgiveable in a woman, for whom the safest way is to fill her life entirely with religion – the right religion – so that she is in no danger of thinking about anything else, and therefore in no danger of thinking at all. In Ursula, a woman who has suffered an illness that leaves her “weak-minded” finds that obedience to authority now comes much more easily to her, and recognises that what she at first viewed as an affliction is a gift from God.

After all this, it was, I confess, with some relief that I turned to Baker’s account of the opposing Evangelical novels. It is a given in these novels that Anglo-Catholicism is all about the externals – of the senses, not the spirit, as we have said. As a religion, it leads people away from inner grace to a fixation on forms and ceremonies; while the decoration of churches reflects a sinful adherence to worldly pleasures. Evangelical novels do not generally express the same kind of suspicion of the intellect per se as the Tractarian novels, but what we find instead is a dismissal of art and literature as having any value in and of themselves.

That the Tractarians are, one way or another, deluded is the catch-cry of these novels. Girls are shown to be at particular risk of being drawn in: it is, we are told gravely, a short step from embroidering an altar-cloth to “going over to Rome”. Unlike the Anglo-Catholics, the Evangelicals tended to make a point of including a love-story in their novels. A number of Evangelical novels, including Emma Jane Worboise’s Overdale; or, The Story Of A Pervert, suggest that the attraction of Catholicism (Anglo or Roman) to young women is that its public display affords them – ahem – an outlet for their emotions. Once a nice young man turns up, all that nonsense is quickly forgotten. Another danger is celibate churchmen, who amusingly enough are sketched as being like catnip for their female parishioners. Celibacy is viewed with great suspicion, as evidence of the fundamental “unnaturalness” of Catholicism; and as it leads women away from love and marriage, it becomes not just wrong but wicked.

Despite all this, however, the Evangelical novels tend to be more generous to the Anglo-Catholics than vice-versa: they admit the good intentions of their spiritual enemies, even that they do much good amongst the poor; but all of this is as nothing beside such transgressions as encouraging amusements on Sundays – or frequenting theatres and other such places at any time. Thus, in Experience; or, The Young Church-Woman, an anonymous novel from 1854, we have the heroine refusing an invitation to the opera, her rule being, “Never to go anywhere to which I would not take my Saviour.”

The controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement died away during the 1850s, giving us a period of comparative calm and tolerance in the 1860s, in which religious novelists of all camps, although holding their ground, became more willing to present both sides of an argument, and to allow that their enemies, however misguided, were sincere. It was during this period that Anthony Trollope flourished. Things changed during the 1870s, however, on the back of a severe agricultural depression that put enormous pressure on the traditional landowners and brought about widespread unemployment. Life was hard for many, and it is perhaps because of this that the second wave of the Oxford Movement manifested itself as Ritualism, with an emphasis not only on ceremony, but on the emotional aspects of worship, including belief in supernatural manifestations and an embrace of mysticism.

When the Evangelicals hit back, as they inevitably did, against these “Catholic extravagances”, their retaliation was in its own way just as extravagant: whereas once religious novelists had shied away from the conventions of the form, this second wave found them using the scandalous framework of the sensation novel to make their case, telling lurid stories about religiously mixed marriages and scheming priests. Oddly, this movement produced, or at least attracted, a talented novelist in the form of Eliza Linn Lynton; perhaps she was just glad of an excuse to write a sensation novel. In any case, her Under Which Lord? is the definitive study of an Anglo-Catholic wife torn between her duty to her husband and her duty to her church. The scheming priest in this case is an advanced Ritualist, and condemned by the narrator as, A Roman Catholic in all save name and obedience…one who was contemptuous of modern science, sceptical of modern progress, and opposed to all forms of mental freedom. The distance between Lynton’s creed and that of Elizabeth Missing Sewell is staggering to contemplate.

Amusingly, this new form of Evangelical attack brought the Victorian religious novel full circle, as Francis Edward Paget, one of the pioneering Tracterian novelists of the 1840s, reacted by publishing in 1868 Lucretia; or, The Heroine Of The Nineteenth Century, a bitter and heavy-handed satire of the sensation novel, which is accused of not merely exploiting, but actively promoting all manner of sin – chiefly adultery and murder. Paget has no doubt where this novelistic trend was leading: France is not the only country in the annals of the world in which a reign of lust has been followed by a reign of terror.

The most horrifying aspect of the sensation novel, however, is that so many of them are written by – gasp! – women:

—and the worst of them, UNMARRIED WOMEN!

Emphasis his.

But this wave, too, died away. In the 1880s, novels were still dealing with religious matters, but those themes were being woven into the story instead of being the story: the era of the overt propaganda vehicle was gone. Not surprisingly, many of the novelists who had entered this particular battle subsequently sank into oblivion. Their works, equally crude and sincere, are the very definition of “an acquired taste”…yet some of us have acquired it. I shudder to reflect what The Novel And The Oxford Movement – in combination with Margaret Maison’s Search Your Soul, Eustace, which I read shortly pre-blog – has done to my wishlist. All the novels mentioned here are in there, people – it’s only a matter of time…

13/03/2011

Friend or Defoe?

“What makes Robinson Crusoe so monumental is the moment of hesitation – brief for some readers, longer for others – during which the horizon of expectations definitively shifted and adjustments were made that ultimately forced such ‘historical’ narratives to be read as works of fiction. Defoe’s importance to the history of the novel lies principally in the fact that his narratives were a key part of the process in the course of which readers created a new narrative category, eventually labeled ‘novel’.”

In History And The Early English Novel: Matters Of Fact From Bacon To Defoe, Robert Mayer contends that the novel as we know it evolved out of historical writing, and his study makes a case for Daniel Defoe as the critical figure in the development of the novel, based upon Defoe’s unique melding of history and fiction in those works which we now call his “novels” – but which were not generally recognised as novels at the time.

The first half of this book traces “the history of history”, the development of historical writing in England and the different forms in which it appeared before what we might now consider “proper” historical writing emerged, including history with a frank political or religious agenda, or history that was also autobiography, such as the Earl Of Clarendon’s History Of The Rebellion.

Although it covers a great deal of ground, Mayer’s main thrust here is his examination of how legendary or fantastic material, most notably the stories of King Arthur, was handled over the years by various categories of historians. He shows that even with a strong push towards factual and unbiased history, the old stories continued to be included and treated with respect. It was the attitude of the historian that changed, from one of declared belief to an acknowledgement that the stories were just stories. Many historians took the view that a respect for tradition demanded the inclusion of these tales; others recognised that a fabulous beginning was better than no beginning at all (harder-line historians tended to begin their work with the first Roman invasion); while others still, significantly, simply recognised that their readers liked stories.

The upshot of all of this, according to Mayer, is that the English people were not merely used to having, but happy to have, “fabulous” material included in their history; that they were accustomed to a little fiction mixed into their facts. And this, he contends, paved the way for the idiosyncratic writings of Daniel Defoe, who took the opposite tack of producing fictions that read like histories, and that challenged the reading public to categorise them correctly – and indeed, do so to this day.

Mayer uses Robinson Crusoe and The Journal Of The Plague Years as the basis of his argument, examing the puzzlement, the confusion and the outrage that greeted the former, and the way in which history and fiction are blended in the latter. Some of this we have glanced at before, courtesy of Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, which Mayer references here, but which is considerably more critical of Defoe’s manoevrings than this study. Mayer makes a strong case, but a highly selective one; and the more I thought about his assertions the more I felt inclined to argue.

Mayer’s stance – and he uses the word repeatedly – is that Defoe’s writing is “revolutionary”; that it literally changed the landscape and determined the course of the development of the novel. There are, of course, quite a number of studies of the history of the novel that make a case for a single critical figure, an ur-figure, as Mayer puts it; and while I do not dispute the importance of Defoe or the uniqueness of his writing, my issue with this approach to literary history is that by definition it requires an accompanying argument as to why other writers are not important…and that’s where I start to get uncomfortable.

In fact, the main case that Mayer makes against Defoe’s “rivals” – and we are, of course, talking mainly about Aphra Behn, but also Eliza Haywood – is that their writings were not “revolutionary”; that readers were not confused and uncertain about them, as they were about the status of Defoe’s “histories”; that they didn’t change anything, or not immediately. This seems to me an odd sort of argument, but I suppose it is an unavoidable one once you start insisting upon a single writer, a single work, as responsible for the rise of the novel. In making this assertion, and dismissing Aphra Behn and her followers from the history of the novel, Mayer makes use of what seems to me some fairly specious arguments, which confuse the writings themselves with their changing public reception.

“The inescapable fact of the history of the English novel is that the so-called “novel of amorous intrigue” has been marginalized for two-and-a-half centuries, and no amount of criticism will change that.”

One immediate problem I have here is the snarkiness of that final clause. I would argue, on the contrary, that criticism has changed everything: that thanks to the hard work of some very determined academics, we have not only witnessed the rehabilitation of the personal and professional reputations of Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, but seen, not just Behn and Haywood, but other writers like Delariviere Manley, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, among others, take their rightful places in the timeline of the novel’s development.

But if we’re only arguing the immediate effect of  the works in question, well, I feel inclined to dispute that point, too. Mayer seems to be suggesting here that the “marginalising” of certain writers meant that they could not be an influence upon the course of the development of the novel. If that is his contention, he’s rearranging the facts to suit himself. The marginalisation to which Mayer refers happened well subsequent to the original publication dates of the works in question, which were successful and popular to a degree that should not be underestimated. For example, Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister ran through something like eighteen editions between the time of its publication and the turn of the century, that is, better than one a year: hardly evidence of “marginalisation”. It was years, in some cases decades, before the writings of Behn and Haywood did fall out of favour, and then it was the result of shifting social mores, that is, a judgement made not upon the quality of the writing, but upon its content.

I also take issue with the implication that these writers wrote only “novels of amorous intrigue”. This may or may not be true of Eliza Haywood, or true of the first phase of her career – I haven’t examined her writing closely yet, so I can’t at the moment say – but you can hardly call Oroonoko a “novel of amorous intrigue”. Nor, in spite of its sex and manoeuvring, can Love Letters… possibly be dismissed as nothing more than a cheap thrill, as we have seen. What’s more, having now really sat and studied Behn’s first attempt at fiction, it seems to me Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana owe more than a little to the character of Sylvia, but there’s no consideration here of any such possible influence.

More importantly, however, at least to my mind, is the fact that if you dismiss Aphra Behn from the novel’s timeline, you lose along with her a proper understanding of the development of the epistolary novel, so dominant a form all the way through the 18th century, and so critical a factor in the emergence of true psychological writing. Here, too, Mayer strikes me as disingenuous: while arguing for Defoe’s creation of a new form of writing, he takes no notice of the fact that Behn did the same; his account of the novel, as all these “single figure” studies do, then jumps from Daniel Defoe to Samuel Richardson, where we find him simultaneously admitting Aphra Behn’s influence upon Richardson while dismissing her as an important influence. He also skates over the fact that Richardson plundered Behn’s work while leading the growing wave of criticism, moral rather than literary, against her.

(While I wouldn’t call Pamela “a novel of amorous intrigue”, exactly, I do find its prurience much more offensive than Behn or Haywood’s frank approach to sex.)

I suppose  in the end it comes down to whether you want to posit the history of the novel in terms of a single individual, or whether you prefer see it as a stepwise process involving any number of writers. Mayer argues strenuously for Defoe’s writing as causing a “literary revolution” that expanded the “horizon of expectatations” for the early 18th-century reader. The trouble is, having made this assertion, and having dismissed Behn and Haywood for their failure significantly to alter the literary landscape, he then makes little effort to show how Defoe’s “revolutionary” writing actually changed anything, either for the contemporary reader or for contemporary and subsequent writers.

And while Robert Mayer makes his case here by talking in historical terms, I feel compelled finally to answer him biologically, and to say with respect to his vision of a single progenitor, an ur-figure, that evolution really doesn’t work that way. It is true that nature sometimes throws up a spectacular mutation, a sport. However, these dramatically different entities rarely lead to anything, but are, on the contrary, usually sterile. Most of the time change occurs, not instantaneously, but gradually, by a process of action and reaction, with the individual, or the individual species, pushing against the prevailing environment, which pushes right back.

We can illustrate this in a literary context. We’ve seen already how Aphra Behn’s move to fiction writing was shaped both by her knowledge of pre-existing texts (chiefly Love Letters From A Portuguese Nun) and by political and economic factors (no new plays being commissioned): the result was Love Letters…, which in turn inspired Delariviere Manley, who was simultaneously influenced by the nature of the text and by her environment, in which politics were dominated by the Whigs she so despised. Eliza Haywood, noting the ephemeral nature of Manley’s texts, so much a product of a single time and place and milieu, shed the literal politics but kept the sexual kind; while Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin, strongly disapproving of the earlier publications but nevertheless adopting their forms, began to strive for the novel as a moral influence… And so on, to Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Edgeworth, to Scott, and Austen, and beyond… All important figures, some truly great figures…but no ur-figures, if you please.

And now, to change the subject somewhat— Thinking over my reaction to History And The Early English Novel, and trying to articulate it, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, feeling somewhat reassured about this ridiculous blog project of mine*. Mayer, like many literary historians, simply steps over the intervening years between Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson…which are precisely the years that most interest me.

This may, at first glance, seem somewhat perverse. Off the top of my head, I can name only a couple of writers who worked during this time: Penelope Aubin, who certainly was influenced by Defoe (but perhaps that’s not considered anything to boast about?), but whose career ended in the 1720s; and of course Eliza Haywood – and the first part of her fiction-writing career came to a shuddering halt during the first part of this period, too, thanks largely to the limitless bile of Alexander Pope. So who else was publishing in the years before Richardson? Was it a wasteland, as most literary histories would suggest? – or were still further novelistic developments going on there in the shadows, in works perhaps more important than worthy? Do any forgotten gems lurk there? I don’t know…but it is these historical black holes that I’m finding increasingly fascinating…

(*Call it Robert Mayer’s revenge. I’ve come away from History And The Early English Novel with yet more additions to my wishlist, this time a set of publications that are for the most part either apologies for “the Glorious Revolution”, or reactions to those apologies. Never mind my hope of “getting the hell out of the 17th century“: at this rate I’m never going to make it out of the 1680s…)