Posts tagged ‘Charles Gildon’


Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 1)

       I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet’s pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him: and it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues, there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention.
       I was myself an eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down, and what I could not be witness of I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself…

During the second half of 1688, when Aphra Behn was seriously ill, in debt, and desperately needing her work to find favour with the reading public, she published a short piece of prose – a novella, in today’s language; only 67 pages in my Oxford University Press edition – that would suffer the unhappy fate of becoming ultimately one of the most misunderstood works in the history of English literature. The debate that has raged for literally centuries over the origins of Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave has sometimes almost managed to obscure both the historical importance and the literary virtues of this unprecedented piece of writing.

Of all the forms of literature, including the varieties of light literature, “fiction” was always the one that was most looked at askance. Many cultures had profound objections to what they viewed as simply another form of lying; while others found something disreputable in this particular form that was mysteriously absent from other kinds of story-telling: no-one worried over whether a play was “a true story”, but when it came to prose, somehow it was different. Perhaps the immediacy of the text, the sense that the author was speaking directly to the reader, seemed to create a bond between them that demanded honest communication.

In any event, it is not surprising that many early exponents of this new form of professional writing quickly learned the advantages of asserting that their stories were true, or at least “based upon a true story”. What is surprising, even bewildering, is that hundreds of years after the publication of Aphra Behn’s last major work – inevitably, in 1688, subtitled “A True History” – we should find serious literary critics up in arms over the fact that a work of fiction was a work of fiction.

There is, and always has been, something about Aphra Behn that seems to cloud the judgement of ordinarily sensible people. Perhaps it’s simply because she was, in so many ways, the first: the first fully professional female writer, the first to show herself equally proficient as a poet, a playwright, a novelist and a translator; or perhaps it was the way that she effectively managed to reinvent herself in the 1670s, suddenly appearing in Restoration London with the freedoms of widowhood upon her and her murky origins firmly behind her, a new persona to go with her new profession, and only the most tantalising details – a spy in Antwerp, a traveller to the Americas – allowed to emerge from the carefully guarded mists of her real past.

So was Aphra in life; after her death she became something else again when, as we have seen, the literary reputation she fought so hard to earn and maintain was superseded by another reinvention of her character, this one perpetrated by the notorious Charles Gildon, who tore down Aphra Behn the writer and replaced her with “the passionate Astrea”, a construct as fictional as any by Behn herself. Through a series of increasingly lengthy “biographies”, Gildon implied that all of Behn’s prose writing was based upon passages in her life; he repeatedly rewrote his “memories” of her to increase the parallel between the female characters in her writing and her own “adventures”. Through Gildon’s intervention, Behn ceased to be an author, and became merely the recorder of her own life, a diarist at best, who committed her own love affairs to paper and sold them to the public. Most scandalously of all, at least according to Gildon, Behn had been romantically involved with the subject of her last major work of prose – Oroonoko, “the royal slave”.

In spite of Gildon’s misappropriation of her character, Aphra Behn’s writings maintained much of their popularity throughout the 18th century; but in time, as tastes changed and morals tightened, her work became increasingly unacceptable, until at length she was considered persona non grata in both the literary and the personal sense, and essentially dismissed from the literary canon. It was not until the early 20th century that any serious attempt was made to rehabilitate her – as an important historical figure, by Virginia Woolf, and as an important writer, by Montague Summers – and these efforts ran up against a critical brick wall of the most bizarre and inexplicable nature.

In short—it wasn’t Aphra Behn’s immorality, personal or literary, that was bothering people any more; it was, rather, that she had claimed that some of her stories were true when they were not.

It seems incredible to contemplate, but the fact that Aphra Behn’s fiction was fiction was offered up in all seriousness as a reason why she should be dismissed as an artist and refused any place at all in the literary timeline – let alone any position so exalted as “the Mother of the Novel”, which a few brave souls were demanding for her. And much as it pains me to have to admit this, this bewildingly ludicrous assault upon Aphra Behn’s credentials was headed by no less a person than Ernest Bernbaum, then Instructor in English at Harvard University, who in 1913 published an essay entitled Mrs. Behn’s Biography A Fiction, in which he argues that many of the details in Oroonoko that are supposed to support Behn’s contention that she was an eye-witness of the events she describes could have been taken from contemporary accounts of Surinam published in England from the mid-1660s onward, before concluding, “Mrs Behn in Oroonoko deliberately and circumstantially lied.”

Or to put it another way—she wrote fiction.

I suppose if this was an isolated piece of idiocy we could content ourselves with rolling our eyes and uttering a hearty, “Well, duh” before moving on, but there’s more to this than immediately meets the eye. The year after writing his essay in condemnation of Aphra Behn, Ernest Bernbaum published The Mary Carleton Narratives 1663 – 1673: A Missing Chapter In The History Of The English Novelan entire book devoted to praising Francis Kirkman for doing exactly what he condemns Aphra Behn for doing – which is to say:

  1. Writing fiction based upon, but not an accurate account of, real events.
  2. Adapting the writings of other people into his own narrative.
  3. Inserting himself as first-person narrator into his own fictional text.
  4. Repeatedly (and falsely) swearing to the truth of his version of events.

So there you have it, folks: men write fiction; women tell lies. If anyone ever asks you to define “gender bias”, you can point them in this direction.

Honestly… You can understand, can’t you? – why people like Dale Spender sometimes go so ballistic.

But it doesn’t stop there! No! – it gets even stupider. Because in response to Ernest Bernbaum’s criticisms of Aphra Behn, a small band rose up to defend the lady’s honour – but instead of doing so by retorting sensibly, “Yes, that’s right, Ernest, she was a very good writer of fiction”, they “defended” her by trying to prove that she hadn’t been lying at all – that Oroonoko was after all a true story – and in doing so, managed to undermine even more profoundly Aphra Behn’s claims to be taken seriously as an artist and an important literary figure.

Oh, my God.

Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God…

And while I know this is a big statement, I am prepared to go out on a limb here and declare this to be – the single stupidest passage in the history of literary criticism.

I’m sorry. You’re going to have to bear with me for a few moments here. I’m having trouble moving past this. I mean— You can imagine that, in 1688, most people would have accepted the assertion that Oroonoko was a true story, or at least been unsure whether it was or not; but in 1913 – !? After 250 years of writers claiming their works were “a true story” when they patently weren’t!?

But clearly, there was something else going on here. You don’t, after all, find scandalised essays from the same period excoriating Horace Walpole because The Castle Of Otranto was not, in fact, “translated from an ancient Italian manuscript”. So what was the problem with this one piece of writing? – that it was by a woman? – or that it was by Aphra Behn?

Anyway— In the end the anti-Behn-ites had their way, and Aphra was discarded from the timeline, dismissed as a curiosity rather than respected as a writer; which among many other injustices had the effect of disguising for many decades the qualities of Oroonoko, not as “A True History”, but as a remarkable and important work of fiction.

[To be continued]


Related ramblings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds about right.

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

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

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


Fiction factions

I’ve found Factual Fictions a very useful addition to this course of historical / social reading: it has, for the most part, quite a different focus from most other studies looking at “the rise of the novel”, concentrating its first half upon print media generally, the evolution of news, and – even as early as mid-16th century – social concerns over the truth, or otherwise, of printed material and its possibly corrupt effects. (Looking at this through contemporary eyes, we see that the concern was indeed focused upon the truthiness of news.) Lennard Davis’s study is wide-ranging, and addresses any number of critical watersheds, among them:

    • the infinite definitions of “novel” that existed across the 17th and 18th centuries
    • not just the development of printing, but the lessening of its cost during the 17th century, which put the dissemination of information within the reach of many, and took this prerogative away from church and state
    • the founding of regularly published journals during the conflict between the Royalists and the Roundheads for purely political reasons, which saw “truth” redefined in terms of political truth, party truth, and a shift in attitude by the ruling classes towards the population in general, which ceased to be viewed merely as a mob to be repressed and controlled, and became instead a force to be appealed to for support
    • the attempt to control the press in the early 18th century by taxing the publication of news, which forced a separation between “news” and “fiction” (which until then had generally been co-published if not blended, and were frequently both undistinguished and indistinguishable), and sent each entity on its own distinct evolutionary journey

Factual Fictions then considers the widespread and lingering habit of claiming a fictional work to be true, and the question of why, more than fifty years after Aphra Behn and with “the novel” an accepted and recognised form of writing, we still find Samuel Richardson insisting upon the literal truth of Pamela. The gradual shift towards a distinction between moral truth and literal truth that became the justification of the novel is examined, as well as the way this led to the eventual pruning away of the political / amatory writings of Behn, Manley and Haywood from the novel’s history.

At the climax of his study, Davis tags as the key work, the first real novel, Tom Jones – citing Fielding’s habit of repeatedly reminding his readers that the work is entirely fictional (something that profoundly disturbed the critics of the day), his chatty, omniscient narrator, and the artistic breakthrough that saw real-life events threaded into a self-declared fictional narrative, with the closing stages of the story running in parallel with, and occasionally crossing paths with, the Jacobite Rebellion of November and December 1745.

The jewel in the crown here, however, is Davis’s chapter on Daniel Defoe, in which he highlights not only the incredible manoeuvrings to which Defoe resorted in order to avoid ever having to admit anything he wrote was fiction, but links this with Defoe’s, shall we say, malleability of political conviction, which saw him working for both parties simultaneously while repeatedly denying that he was working for either, and even uttering those denials to the people who were paying him to work for them! So convoluted were Defoe’s actions in this respect that I think I cannot do better than simply quote Lennard Davis’s summation of the situation, in which he declares—

…the frames that are involved here are almost mind-boggling. Defoe, originally a Whig writer, was persuaded to write from the Tory point of view for Harley by insinuating himself into the control of a Whig paper. However, Defoe then secretly agreed to push the original Whig position while pretending to write as a Tory infiltrator… As if this were not enough, Defoe also agreed to infiltrate Dormer’s Newsletter, which was a Tory opposition paper, and to cause, “The sting of that mischievous paper to be entirely taken out, though it was granted that the style should continue Tory, as it was, that the party might be amused and not set up another, which would have destroyed the design.” One has only to imagine the subtlety of style required to produce the Whig Flying Post that would allow the Tories to think they had infiltrated it while at the same time expressing the Whig hard-line point of view. And Defoe did all this while writing Dormer’s Newsletter in such a way that the Tories would believe he was writing from their viewpoint while in reality he was infusing Whig ideology…

But he never wrote fiction! Let’s be quite clear about that!

Davis takes at face value the attack upon Defoe and Robinson Crusoe by his contemporary, the author, playwright and critic Charles Gildon (as Kate Loveman does not, arguing instead that Gildon’s response was an example of the faux-outrage with which Defoe’s various shams were punished), and in doing so highlights the fact that, whatever the motive for his outburst, Gildon may have stumbled onto a critical insight about Defoe: that he did, indeed, Think, that the manner of your telling a lie will make it a truth…

“To read” addition:

The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 – Lawrence Stone