Posts tagged ‘Daniel Defoe’

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.

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…)

09/02/2011

Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 7)

“Some bills Philander left her, and was so plain with her, and open-hearted, he told her that he went indeed with Cesario, but it was in order to serve the King; that he was weary of their actions, and foresaw nothing but ruin would attend them; that he never repented him of any thing so much, as his being drawn in to that faction; in which he found himself so greatly involved, he could not retire with any credit…”

The concluding stages of The Amours Of Philander And Sylvia – and of Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister – finds Aphra Behn returning to the roman à clef format of her first volume, in order to deal with the events of June and July, 1685. First, however, like Behn herself, we must consider the fate of Sylvia, deserted once again by Philander who has left her to join Cesario and the other rebels.

In the wake of Philander’s departure, he and she between them having used up the bulk of what they filched from Octavio, Sylvia is thrown back upon her only remaining support: Brilliard, still fixated upon her, still biding his time and waiting for the chance that has finally come. Here we get a perverse kind of inversion of the relationship between Sylvia and Octavio, as now it is Sylvia who tries to create a fantasy world where she is still the great lady, Brilliard still her servant, her tool –  and Brilliard who plays along for his own purposes.

His tactics finally yield the desired result. Alone and with her resources dwindling, Sylvia begins to rely on Brilliard more and more, taking him into her confidence and at length allowing him to become increasing familiar with her, until, “Sylvia no longer resisted, or if she did, it was very feebly, and with a sort of wish that he would pursue his boldness yet farther; which at last he did, from one degree of softness and gentle force to another, and made himself the happiest man in the world.” Sylvia suffers reaction, naturally, but Brilliard has learned how to manage her: “He redoubled his submission in so cunning a manner, that he soon brought her to a good humour; and after that, he used the kind authority of a husband whenever he had an opportunity, and found her not displeased at his services.”

At this point, it seems likely that we are to be witness to Sylvia’s downward spiral; her growing dependence upon Brilliard; her inability to survive without a man; her final, abject destruction. Then something extraordinary happens: Sylvia shakes off her funk and pulls herself together. She cannot indeed survive without a man – in the sense that they have the money she needs – but that’s not to say she must submit to their terms.

The remainder of Sylvia’s story finds her increasingly taking charge of her own life. First she detatches herself temporarily from Brilliard, dons her boy’s clothes, and sets out on adventures of her own. She encounters a Spanish nobleman, Don Alonzo, who is young, handsome and wealthy – and finds herself sharing a bed with him, still in her man’s disguise. She sets herself to win him, and succeeds so well that Alonzo, “…was not seen in Brussels for eight days and nights after.”

Behn’s choice of language here is remarkable. We hear how Sylvia, “…gained that evening a thousand conquests; but those were not the trophies she aimed at, it was Alonzo was the marked-out victim, that she destined for the sacrifice of love.” Conquest…trophies…victim…sacrifice… We’ve heard all this before, but in another context: this is the language of Philander, from the beginning of our story. And most significantly of all, we hear that Sylvia is dying for Alonzo…

In short, Sylvia has become Philander – but a more successful Philander – a Philander who, absorbing the lessons of her botched affair with Octavio, has learned to keep her eyes on the prize. At length we find her juggling four men at once – conducting her affair with Alonzo; from time to time seeing Philander who, smugly convinced she still loves him, gives her money when he can; keeping Brilliard (“…she knew she could make him her slave, her pimp, her anything…”) on a string; and most incredibly of all, taking money from the still besotted Octavio, under promises of reformation and a retired, decent life – and successfully keeping all four balls in the air at once.

It is impossible to read Sylvia’s story and not feel how it influenced Daniel Defoe; but whereas Defoe’s anti-heroines tell their tales from a late-life vantage point of reformation (however unconvincing), Behn saw no need to reform Sylvia. On the contrary: Sylvia’s “reward” at the end of her journey is the profitable ability to keep her emotions in check, and to use and discard other people to her own advantage; in short, to behave like a man. It is a peculiar and disturbing triumph, but a triumph nevertheless. In a world where it is destroy or be destroyed, we know that Sylvia will survive. Our last glimpse of her in the novel is her enforced departure from Brussels, Brilliard in her train and the wreck of Alonzo in her wake: “…of whom they made so considerable advantages, that in a short time they ruined the fortune of that young nobleman and became the talk of the town; insomuch that the Governor not permitting their stay there, she was forced to remove for new prey; and daily makes considerable conquests wherever she shows the charmer…”

And now to Philander…and Cesario.

The last thing I want here (or, I’m sure, you want) is to get lost in a lengthy retelling of the Monmouth Rebellion. So I’ll try to keep this brief, touching only upon the main points, and those moments where our old friend Lord Grey comes to prominence.

After years of vacillation and plots that came to nothing, Monmouth was finally brought to the point of rebellion by the combined efforts of Grey and Robert Ferguson, “the Plotter”. Ferguson was a former Presbyterian minister who was active in pamphleteering and conspiracy all the way through the years of the Exclusion Crisis and, like Grey and Monmouth, implicated in the Rye House Plot. It was Ferguson who drafted Monmouth’s “manifesto”, the document that spelled out the grounds upon which Monmouth rebelled against James, which instead of focusing upon “acceptable” grounds of rebellion such as defence of Protestantism, accused James of every crime imaginable, including murdering his brother. It was probably this document as much as the rebellion itself that sealed Monmouth’s fate.

Monouth and his army landed in Dorset, a Protestant stronghold, and at first many among the local population did flock to him enthusiastically; but an extended period of  fruitless marching and manoeuvring saw the spirits of most begin to evaporate. The failure of a planned simultaneous rebellion in Scotland led by the Earl of Argyle was a severe blow. Indeed, Monmouth was at this point willing to call the whole thing off, and tried to slip away from his forces. He might have done so had he not been dissuaded by a passionate speech from Lord Grey, who convinced him that, “To leave the army now would be an act so base that it would never be forgiven by the people.”

Grey, by necessity, had been put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry – an arrangement on which some historians place much of the blame for the failure of the rebellion. The cavalry was twice completely routed by James’s forces, once literally turning tail and fleeing the battle, leaving Monmouth and the infantry unsupported. While our view of Grey’s conduct is now inevitably coloured by our knowledge of the outcome of his story, whether this was really cowardice or incompetence, as is often asserted, or whether Grey simply wasn’t qualified for the job, it is impossible to say. Only the damage done to Monmouth’s cause is indisputable.

The Monmouth Rebellion ended at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July. Around a thousand men were killed, most of them Monmouth’s, but the leaders of the rebellion survived. Robert Ferguson got away and escaped to Holland, but both Grey and Monmouth were captured. The latter, who had fled the battlefield, was discovered hiding in a ditch disguised as a shepherd. As soon as Monmouth found himself in enemy hands, he went to pieces. Grey, however, remained calm and composed. Possibly he was one of those who are at their best when things are at their worst. Or, possibly, he knew something…

Brought before James, Monmouth literally grovelled, sobbing and pleading for his life, and throwing the blame onto everyone else. He was soon brought to understand he wasn’t facing his soft-hearted father any more: James was inflexible and vengeful even under normal circumstances, and these were not exactly normal circumstances. In his last extemity, Monmouth – defender of the Protestant faith – promised to convert to Catholicism if James would spare his life. James met him halfway – which is to say, he offered to facilitate Monmouth’s conversion. Knowing himself doomed, Monmouth managed to pull himself together. He was comparatively calm during his final moments, making neither the defiant speech James feared, nor the public apology James wanted. “I come to die, not to talk,” was all he said; final words variously reported as stoic or sullen.

Indeed, Monmouth’s last thoughts and last words were not of his ambitions, or his rebellion, but of his mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who he had loved for many years, and whose personal fortune paid for most of Monmouth’s activities. At the last, he handed a gold toothpick-case to one of the witnesses, begging him to give it back to Lady Henrietta, before submitting to his execution – which was, by the way, nightmarishly botched. Legend has it that James made sure the axe was blunt…

Aphra Behn’s account of the rebellion runs in parallel with the ongoing story of Philander and Sylvia throughout the third volume of her novel. She also introduces a new character, Count Tomaso, who is one of the prime movers in the rebellion…and in whom we may recognise the Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury, of course, died in 1683, two years before James’s succession, and so played no part in the real story of Monmouth’s rebellion. However, aside from his role during the Exclusion Crisis, Shaftesbury did spend the final year of his life trying to argue, provoke and cajole Monmouth into revolt against Charles, so Behn’s resurrection of him in her novel isn’t as gratuitous or as spiteful as it might at first appear. (In case anyone was in doubt about Tomaso’s identity, Behn makes use of a piece of embarrassing gossip about Shaftesbury that was popular with his enemies, and has Tomaso avoiding arrest by scrambling naked up onto the canopy of his mistress’s bed and hiding there.)

Shaftesbury, as we may recall, was one of the five ministers forced by Charles to sign the Treaty of Dover. Those five became subsequently known as “the Cabal”, a word constructed from the first initials of their names or titles (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, Lauderdale), with the acronym subsequently entering the vernacular with its current meaning of a secret gathering, or a sinister conspiracy. As with the word “philander”, it was Aphra Behn who popularised the term, via her repeated use of it in her novel to signify the underhanded nature of Cesario’s doings. Cesario and his followers do not  meet to discuss things, they “cabal”; they are “caballists”, who are always “caballing”. The word is used from time to time prior to this point, although always with connection with Cesario; but with the arrival in the story of Tomaso, its use in the novel becomes almost obsessive.

But Tomaso is only a supporting character in Behn’s account of the events of 1685. Her focus is upon Monmouth / Cesario, who she turns into a figure of ridicule, entirely under the control of Robert Ferguson / Fergusano and Lady Henrietta / Hermione, the latter of whom dreams of being queen of “France”. Monmouth was known to be deeply superstitious; when he was caught, he was carrying a notebook full of supposed charms for warding off death in battle and opening prison doors. What’s more, Monmouth’s devotion to his Henrietta, a woman condemned in her day for being “old and ugly” (that is, she was twenty-five and no beauty), was often attributed to his being literally bewitched. The gold toothpick-case, given by Henrietta to Monmouth and which occupied the last thoughts of his life, was supposed to hold the charm by which she controlled him.

Behn, of course, has a field day with all this. Playing on Monmouth’s apparent belief in magic, she casts Robert Ferguson as a literal magician, a master of the dark arts, whose hold over Cesario rests largely on his mysterious powers; as if Monmouth’s rebellion against James could only be explained in terms of black magic. She also makes much of the toothpick-case, having Hermione keep in it a love-philtre received from Fergusano to use against Cesario. Cesario himself emerges as a fool, a buffoon, a puppet – until the moment of his death, when Behn backs off. She doesn’t reference the horrors of Monmouth’s execution, but neither does she ridicule him further; she allows Cesario to die with dignity, even to be mourned. She retreats even further when describing the fate of “Hermione”. Henrietta Wentworth herself died not long after Monmouth. Most commentators greeted the event with sneers and bad jokes; Behn, almost alone, is quite kind with her memory. Perhaps she was startled, even awed, to find that someone actually could “die of love”.

And where, in all this, is Philander? Not where you might expect. Lord Grey’s conduct during the rebellion and afterwards remains a matter for debate. I myself turned for guidance on this point to my dear friend Thomas Macaulay – who I find I prefer as a literary critic than as an historian; the political bias is just a bit too obvious. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, spends much of his detailed and otherwise very interesting account of the rebellion making excuses for Grey.

And oddly, by the end of her novel, Aphra Behn is also making excuses for “Philander”. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. But while Macaulay defended Grey as a Whig, Behn did so for quite opposite reasons. In her view, the rebellion was so entirely wrong and immoral that to desert it for any reason, at any time and under any circumstances, was the right thing to do – even if it meant behaving in a way that by normal standards was disgraceful and cowardly.

As the likelihood of open rebellion grows, so do Philander’s doubts. He confesses to Sylvia his fervent wish he’d never gotten involved, or that he could see a way out. He even speaks publicly against the venture, much to Cesario’s displeasure, and although he finally takes his place on the battlefield, his reluctance is apparent:

“Some Authors in the relation of this Battle affirm, That Philander quitted his Post as soon as the Charge was given, and sheer’d off from that Wing he commanded… He disliked the Cause, disapproved of all their Pretensions, and look’d upon the whole Affair and Proceedings to be most unjust and ungenerous; And all the fault his greatest Enemies could charge him with, was, That he did not deal so gratefully with a Prince that loved him and trusted him…”

Behn’s own discomfort here is evident, even as she tries to whitewash Philander; note the involuntary flicker of sympathy for Cesario, otherwise her whipping-boy. She does succeed somewhat in painting the impossible position of a man who no longer believes in his own cause. The problem is, we know Philander never did believe in the cause; that he was out for himself from the start, using Cesario, whom he despised, to further his own ends. Consequently, his belated moral qualms provoke, not understanding, but a curl of the lip.

In reality, debate about Lord Grey has centred on whether he was incompetent, or a coward – or whether, as Behn almost unconsciously (or even unavoidably) suggests, he was in fact a Quisling within Monmouth’s ranks all along. Whatever the truth, in the end Lord Grey did what Lord Grey always did: he found a way to wriggle out of a tight situation.

Brought before James, Grey was composed. In the wake of Monmouth’s embarrassing self-debasement, his behaviour probably looked more heroic than it was. However, nothing he did from that point on can be remotely classified as “heroic”.

First, he penned a long, rambling, self-exculpatory confession, throwing all the blame of the rebellion onto Ferguson and Shaftesbury, playing down his own influence over Monmouth as much as possible, and painting himself as a poor, lonely, friendless exile from England, who in his desperation fell into bad company, and was led into bad ways. (Not surprisingly, the reason Grey was an exile in the first place isn’t mentioned – and nor, for that matter, is Henrietta Berkeley.) Second, he ratted out his friends, providing voluntary testimony against many others captured after Sedgemoor, many of whom were condemned and executed. And last – yet hardly, one imagines, least – he paid a “fine” of forty thousand pounds into the always ravenous royal coffers.

And on the strength of these three gestures, while others only a fraction as guilty as he, men and women, aristocrat and commoner, were being sentenced to death, Lord Grey was forgiven; and not just forgiven, but eventually welcomed back at court.

There is a limit to everything – even to Aphra Behn’s inclination to make excuses for a man swearing new loyalty to James. When Behn picked up her pen in 1684 to begin what would eventually become Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, not in her very wildest imaginings could she have invented a conclusion to her story such as reality provided. Nevertheless, being given such an opportunity, she made the most of it. This most improbable denouement to a most improbable sequence of events allowed Aphra Behn to write one of English literature’s great closing paragraphs, an ending to her story none the less viciously satirical for being absolutely true:

“Philander lay sometime in the Bastille, visited by all the Persons of great Quality about the Court; he behaved himself very Gallantly all the way he came, after his being taken, and to the last Minute of his Imprisonment; and was at last pardon’d, kiss’d the King’s Hand, and came to Court in as much Splendour as ever, being very well understood by all good Men.”

After a decade of persistent and increasing ill-health, Aphra Behn died at the age of forty-nine on the 16th of April, 1689 – five days after the coronation of William and Mary. Although we must mourn her loss at such a relatively young age, it does seem somehow fitting that this woman so distinctly, so uniquely of the Restoration should not have outlived the age that created her. Then, too, perhaps it’s just as well that she didn’t live to see the “real” end to her novel.

In June of 1688, a group of English noblemen, subsequently dubbed “the Immortal Seven”, sent a formal invitation to William of Orange, requesting his intervention in the English succession: the initial plan was to force James to disinherit his new-born son in favour of his daughter, Mary, William’s wife. It was November when William landed with his army, but his plans to do so had been known for at least two months, forcing not only James to decide upon a course of action, but also the dwindling numbers of statesmen who still publicly supported him – like Lord Grey.

It will come, I am sure, as no great surprise to anyone who has followed this story so far to hear that Grey’s choice was to betray the king to whom he owed his life, and to whom he swore oaths of fidelity after being received at court. His first thought as always his own skin, he abandoned James for William at the first opportunity.

And, sad to say, Grey did not merely survive under William: he thrived. Becoming a fixture at court, he was made Privy Councillor in 1695, the same year he was created Viscount Glendale and Earl of Tankerville. He subsequently served as First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Privy Seal and (in perhaps the sickest irony of all) Lord Justice of the Realm. The successful statesman died in 1701…remaining to the end, no doubt, well understood by all good men.

27/10/2010

The Floating Island

Or, to give it its full title: The Floating Island; or, A new discovery relating the strange adventure on a late voyage from Lambethana to Villa Franca, alias Ramallia, to the eastward of Terra del Templo, by three ships, viz., the Pay-naught, the Excuse, the Least-in-sight, under the conduct of Captain Robert Owe-much, describing the nature of the inhabitants, their religion, laws and customs. Published by Franck Careless, one of the discoverers.

The longevity of satire is by its nature often dependent upon the identity and/or scope of its target. Attacks upon nations and rulers may be understandable decades, even centuries, afterwards; while the more specific a reference to a certain time and a certain place, the more likely it is that a particular work will be of relevance only to that time and place. Thus, while at this distance I was able to grasp a number (although certainly not all!) of the concerns that prompted Henry Neville to write The Isle Of Pines, a perusal of Richard Head’s 1673 pamphlet The Floating Island left me largely baffled. It was certainly set in London, despite its promise of voyages to fabulous lands, and it was certainly satirising something – but what?

Fortunately, help was at hand – a surprising amount of it, actually. I am indebted to the writings of Matthew Steggle (from Notes And Queries) and Nigel Strick (from Social History and the British Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies) for being able to shake a meaning from this faux-travelogue.

The Floating Island, as its extended title indicates, is supposedly an account of a voyage of discovery; although the names of the intrepid explorers and their vessels makes it clear that this is anything other than a serious scientific report. We hear at the outset that, A Council was held of Indigent persons, and such who were both Indebted and Insolvent; these individuals (failed tradesmen, as it turns out) meet to consider, What course might be most expedient, for the present relief, and future prevention of such insufferable mischiefs, which dayly threatened the utter ruine of the poor and distressed Society, called the Owe-much, or Bankrupt. The decision is to mount an expedition to distant shores, seeking new territories to colonise well away from the terrible laws of their own country, where the explorers live in imminent risk of, A dreadful Judgment, and irremediless cruel Execution. Setting out, the voyagers discover a number of exotic new lands – which, according to his or her knowledge of geography, history and literature, the contemporary reader may recognise as various regions and landmarks in London, their names twisted and Latinised. Meanwhile, the costumes and customs of the inhabitants of these strange realms are reported with mock solemnity by our narrator, Captain Owe-Much.

We have already touched upon Richard Head’s life-long battle with gambling and debt, and there’s a nice irony about him using his own difficulties as the basis of an effort to earn a little money via the publication of his pamphlet. However, the purpose of The Floating Island goes far beyond one man’s financial woes, and into an area about which I previously knew very little. Nigel Strick’s papers discuss not only the bizarrely counterintuitive English debtors’ laws (with which anyone who has done any 18th- or 19th-century reading would certainly be familiar), but the co-existence of debtors’ sanctuaries, areas within or near London to which those in debt could flee and live in relative security.

The medieval church had upheld the custom of sanctuary within London, but following the Reformation these traditional areas of protection were progressively undone. Nevertheless, certain regions around London, particularly those on which church buildings had previously stood, such as Whitefriars and the Minories, remained accepted as sanctuaries under common law well into the 17th century; and although protection for criminals ceased to be recognised, protection for debtors remained de facto even after technically outlawed.

The largest and most notorious of these sanctuaries was the Mint, a region in Southwark whose protective properties stemmed from a strangely mixed history that gave it some solid basis for its rejection the jurisdictional laws of the City of London. Its residents, the “Minters”, implemented their own laws and processes, claiming that their protection was only offered to the insolvent and bankrupt, and was exerted to allow those individuals an opportunity to pay their debts, as indefinite imprisonment under the actual laws did not. However, while the Minters certainly made their territory a place that any bailiff would enter at his peril, too often the “protection” turned violent – and far too often serious criminals were also given shelter. These breaches of the tacit agreement between the outside powers and the Minters gave parliament the weapon it needed, and the Mint, the last of London’s sanctuaries, was legally dismantled in 1723.

The Mint features in several well-known literary works, particularly the writings of Daniel Defoe. Despite his own financial woes, Defoe does not seem to have claimed sanctuary himself – but his characters do. It is within the Mint that his Moll takes the name “Mrs Flanders”, while for Roxana the prospect of ending up there was one to be dreaded. Fifty years earlier, however, when Richard Head was writing, the Mint was only one of several sanctuaries in which those in debt could hide from the threat of prison. The “journey” of Captain Owe-much and his crew, then, is in and out of these areas, with the men zig-zagging between these “territories”, where they are made welcome and feel safe amongst the inhabitants, and venturing out into dangerous new realms, such as the Fleta, or that ruled by the terrible King of Marshelsia, where danger and destruction lurk at every turn.

While we can (with expert help) make sense of the bulk of Head’s writing, the purpose of the object to which his pamphlet owes its name is less evident. The “floating island” encountered by Owe-much and his men, Called the Summer Island, or Scoti Moria, is situated in the middle of Golpho de Thame-Isis: the Christian-shore lying to the Norward, and the Turkish-shore to the Southward. This strange land mass appears only in the warmer months, when it becomes the site of a mysterious female ritual, its only means of ingress being, For the more convenient reception of the Christian and Barbarian Amazons, who in the Summer time constantly repair thither, to meet with their Bully-Huffs and Hectors to generate withall. Owe-much makes the acquaintance of one of the “Christian Amazons”, who turns out to be a native of Westmonasteria, a region that, Lyeth to the Westward of Pallatium Regale, which place is too splendent for common eyes to behold, and too virtuous for vulgar breath to prophane. An extended satire on the less-than-virtuous habits of the “Westmonasterians” follows.

Matthew Steggle points out in his article that the emphemeral floating island, which travelled across or even above the surface of the sea, was a potent symbol in these troubled and uncertain times, and had been throughout the 17th century. In 1636, a play called The Floating Island: A Tragi-Comedy, by William Strode, was performed at Oxford University by the students of Christchurch for Charles I and Henrietta Maria; the play was finally published in 1655. Various other works make use of this symbol, which became particularly popular in the period following the financial disaster known as “the South Sea Bubble”. Evidently, none of the emblematic potency of this idea was lost over the succeeding 150 years: Jules Verne eventually used it as the basis for his satire of “the Gilded Age”, The Floating Island: The Pearl Of The Pacific, published in 1895.

Steggle points out a few other things about The Floating Island, too – one of which probably tells us everything about its author that we need to know: namely, that significant portions of it were plagiarised. The source of these passages, which Richard Head barely bothered to alter, was a collection of essays called The Art Of Thriving, published by Thomas Powell in 1636, and in particular the 1623 tract, The Mysterie of Lending and Borrowing. There, we hear of an expedition undertaken by one “Oliver Owe-Much”. Oliver’s ships carry exactly the same designations as his descendant’s do, but he does journey from Ram Alley to Lambeth, instead of the other way around.

It seems that in some academic circles, Head’s plagiarisms are too well-known to attract much attention, or even criticism: the tone of Steggle’s paper is more resigned than outraged; and he moves on to make a cogent point about Head’s “borrowing”, the fact that in spite of England having suffered the upheaval of the execution of a king, a civil war, a Protectorate and the Restoration, the pinched passages, dealing with the unhappy lives of debtors and their necessary manoeuvrings, were still just as valid in 1673 as they were in 1623 – as indeed was London’s geography, even after the Great Fire, a reference to which is almost Head’s only updating of his stolen material.

The Floating Island, like much of the financially desperate writing of the time, is a strange hodge-podge of content, sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling, sometimes crude, sometimes pointless – and then it just stops. I was, I confess, amused to find within it several versions of that eternal legal joke, Who’s to blame? – “…whereupon Jasper had like to have slain Theophilus, which when Edward espied, he made it appear to both Luke and to Francis, that Rowland was the cause of the falling out…” However, I see no reason – no inherent reason – why this should be the one amongst all Richard Head’s pamphlets to be reprinted and propagated (and made available as a free eBook*); but then it isn’t about inherent reasons, is it? I know little more about this than I do about “Lambethana” and “Ramallia”, but my understanding is that, mystifyingly enough, Captain Robert Owe-much is one of the minor players in the world of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where he is celebrated for his discovery of Scoti Moria. I can only suppose that Alan Moore’s research, while impressive, didn’t go far enough to unearth the tales of Robert’s ancestor, Oliver, to whom Robert himself owed so much.

[*For which I’m actually very grateful. Part of my irritation with Sony was that, as with the delay over kicking off the blog properly by refusing to move on from The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, I’d made up my mind that my eReader’s baptism was going to be The Floating Island and was too stubborn to just read it in PDF instead while I was waiting. Besides…the thought of using this piece of 21st century technology to read an obscure pamphlet from 1673 made my brain melt in the nicest way.]

18/08/2010

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 indistinguished 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

15/08/2010

Lennard J. Davis throws down the gauntlet

I’ve mentioned how irritating I find the condescending attitude of many early studies on the rise of the novel towards the reading population of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as I do the insistence that anything not written by Daniel Defoe was not at all important. I’m pleased to find that I’m not alone in that respect. Midway through Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, he begins to consider the many professional writers of that time, and takes exception to the dismissive tone of certain of his fellow analysts. Strong exception.

“…even Ian Watt, whose Rise Of The Novel had done much to place novels in their proper class perspective, begins his book with Robinson Crusoe and dismisses the earlier forms of popular fiction as irrelevant. Watt glides over serialized fiction, which, as we will see, was the predominant reading material for a good deal of the literate public, saying that, The poorer public is not very important*; the novelists with whom we are concerned did not have this form of publication in mind. Watt is wrong on this score, and his decision to begin at the moment when novels began to be more widely accepted by the middle-class reader creates the impression that before Defoe there was not much in the way of prose fiction. Watt barely mentions the novels of Aphra Behn, Mrs Manley, Mary Davys, Ned Ward, Eliza Haywood, and others.

“While it may be true that many of these works are inferior to those of Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding, there is much in them that is essential to understanding the history of the novel. Certainly, Defoe at his worst is not as good as Manley at her best, and the History Of Rivella is as inventive and creative of two-thirds of Defoe’s hack exercises…”

You go, Lennard!

(*!!!!!!!!)

07/08/2010

Lyes, damn’d lyes, and hoaxes

Now, THAT was interesting – if not at all what I expected when I borrowed it. Kate Loveman’s Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English Literary and Political Culture is a fascinating study of a complex and dangerous era in English history. It is, however, far more history-centric than I expected from the title. That’s not a criticism: rather, it’s an admission that I’m weak in history, which is one of the subjects I’m reading for in this course. I didn’t do too badly, overall: I already knew about the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, and even the sham-prince and the warming-pan; but I confess, references to the “Meal Tub Plot” and the “Flower-Pot-Association” (!) sent me scrambling for Google.

Loveman’s book deals initially with the religious and political upheaval of the Restoration, and the battle lines between the various factions: pro- and anti-monarchy; pro- and anti-Stuart; pro- and anti-Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian; and pro- and anti-Tory and Whig. The latter in particular, the rise of party politics, seems to have been key, as it became acceptable (and relatively safe) to be in opposition without necessarily being in opposition to the king. It was a time of plots, false accusations and frame-ups; a time that got a great many innocent people killed, and saw the legitimate heir to the throne forced into exile. There was nothing remotely funny about these particular “shams”.

However, running in parallel with these deadly serious manoeuvrings were three related phenomena: the “bantering” and “raillery” and “biting” that flourished in and around the coffee-houses of London, themselves a relatively new phenomenon; the chroniques scandaleuses and romans à clef that did much to undermine the already-shaky position of James II and Mary of Modena; and the extraordinarily complicated literary hoaxes perpetrated during the same period, some again for political and/or religious purposes, and some, it seems, just for @#$%@ and giggles.

It was the latter that were of the most interest to me, as playing a significant role in the rise of fiction writing. Loveman examines the purpose(s) of these hoaxes; how exactly they were worked; how they exploited the news networks of the day; and most importantly how the reading public reacted to them. What is perhaps most amusing about the whole thing is the way that these hoaxes relied absolutely for their success upon male gossip – the swapping of stories and rumours and theories around the coffee-houses and at the Royal Exchange – although of course it wasn’t called “gossip” then any more than it is now. Women being barred at the time from all of the direct news sources, and largely from acquiring the education required to participate, hoaxing was necessarily a game played exclusively by men.

The most refreshing thing about Loveman’s book is the picture it paints of the reading public of the day. Far too many of these studies dealing with the early days of the novel treat the readers of the time like idiots: “simple” people capable of understanding only “simple” stories. While it is true that a great proportion of the population was only just emerging from illiteracy, it seems also true that the already devoted readers of the day were anything but “simple”: Loveman uses extracts from letters and diaries and reactive publications to demonstrate that the readers at whom the hoaxes were targeted were intelligent, sceptical and capable of intensely analytical scrutiny of the text. Hoaxing, she argues, was a two-way game understood and enjoyed by both parties to it, one in which the authors certainly did not have it all their own way.

The final section of the book looks at how this atmosphere of wary and cynical reading impacted upon the development of the novel in the early 18th century, focusing primarily upon the works of Daniel Defoe. Defoe was known to the public as both a shammer and a party political writer. When Robinson Crusoe was published, a section of the public took its revenge on him for his various deceits by choosing to treat it not as “fiction” but as “a true story” – one therefore demonstrably full of blatant lies. It didn’t matter that Defoe didn’t want to play any more; the public wasn’t done with the game. Loveman goes to to show how the reception of Robinson Crusoe shaped Defoe’s subsequent fiction, with the rapid development of the unreliable narrator; Roxana in particular, who tells lies to the other characters, if not to the reader, withholds information, and sometimes chooses to deceive herself. This approach allowed Defoe to place a critical distance between himself and his creation: it isn’t the author who is lying, it’s the narrator. Finally, Loveman examines Jonathan’s Swift’s “bites” before looking forward to the reaction to Pamela and to Richardson’s pose as merely its “editor”: indicating that the game of hoaxing hadn’t quite run its course even by 1740.

While I heartily recommend this book, it has had the most terrible effect upon my already untenable reading list…

“To read” additions:

The Amours Of Messalina, Late Queen Of Albion – Anonymous
Love-Letters Between A Noble-Man And His Sister – Aphra Behn
The English Rogue Described, In The Life Of Meriton Latroon – Richard Head/Francis Kirkman
O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island – Richard Head
The Western Wonder; or, O Brazeel, An Inchanted Island Discovered – Richard Head
The Isle Of Pines – Henry Neville
The Perplex’d Prince – Anonymous
The Sham Prince Expos’d – Anonymous

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts Of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction – J. Paul Hunter

“To watch” addition:

Gunpowder, Treason And Plot

(This book has given me an odd affection for the concept of “plot” as a discrete entity: not “a plot” or “the plot” or “to plot”; just…”plot”.)