Posts tagged ‘editorial’

13/07/2012

The sensational Miss Braddon

Off-blog, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately; not merely Golden Age, but Silver and Bronze as well. And since I’m apparently genetically incapable of simply reading anything, this side-hobby has turned into an investigation into the evolution of the detective novel. The fact that the majority of mystery novelists took pride in the accuracy of their stories makes these early novels a fascinating repository of information about the process of law and the state of criminal investigation in both Britain and the States at the time of their publication. Did you know, for example, that although the technique was officially adopted at the turn of the century in England, it was well into the 1920s before fingerprints were widely employed as an investigative tool in America?

Inevitably, this course of steady-ish reading has also found me creeping ever further backwards, trying to determine “the first” detective novel on both sides of the Atlantic—an exercise in wading in intriguingly muddy waters. It is evident that the detective story, that is, the short story that dominated this school of fiction through the second half of the 19th century, and the detective novel evolved down two quite distinct pathways; and while the latter was necessarily influenced by the former, it did not grow out of it. Instead, the detective novel was an offshoot of the sensation novel, which appeared as a recognisable genre during the 1850s.

It is easy enough to see how this came about: the sensation novel was often about a central mystery, the unravelling of a dark secret by circumstances; all that was required was for an individual, either amateur or professional, to devote himself—or herself—to the deliberate pursuit of a secret. Understandably, then, in the early days the line between “the mystery novel” and “the detective novel” is drawn in shades of grey. “Detectives”, as a recognisable real-life entity, were still becoming established; and the ambivalence of the public towards these professional investigators is very clear in the literature of the day, where they tend to be viewed as a necessary but distasteful phenomenon. This is particularly reflected in the tendency of early detective novels to be set amongst the middle- and upper-classees, with the investigation itself often regarded as an outrageous invasion of privacy, and in which the identity of the guilty party is as likely to be hushed up to avoid a scandal as exposed in open court. (Climactic suicide is popular.)

In America, the first detective novel was long held to be Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, from 1878, in which a police detective recruits a gentlemanly young lawyer as his assistant specifically because, as a gentleman, he has access to people and places that the working-class policeman does not. However, while it might rightly be regarded as the first modern detective novel, The Leavenworth Case is not the first per se, an honour held by Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter, published in 1866. This murder mystery does indeed feature a professional private detective, who is associated with the police but not of the police, but betrays its sensation novel roots by having the detective assisted by his clairvoyant young daughter. Victor followed The Dead Letter with The Figure Eight, which has a young man turning amateur detective in order to clear his own name, after being accused of the robbery-homicide of his uncle. He eventually succeeds in solving the robbery, while the murderer is exposed in sensation novel terms, via a subplot involving somnambulism.

Meanwhile, over the pond, the dogma is wrong again (as dogma is with remarkable regularity). Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, published in 1868 and featuring Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, has long been considered “the first English detective novel” (even though the detective doesn’t solve the crime). Recently, however, the good people at the British Library have unearthed and reprinted The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (aka Charles Warren Adams), which was serialised in 1862 and then published in book form in 1863, and features a startling number of the features we associate with modern detective fiction, including the use of chemical analysis.

Of course, no sooner was this rediscovered novel trumpeted as “the first” than a number of still earlier contenders for the title were offered up by interested parties—the most cogent challenge, or so it seems to me, coming from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail Of The Serpent, published in 1860.

M. E. Braddon is a novelist for whom I have enormous affection and admiration; a talented novelist whose choice of the sensation novel as her preferred vehicle has tended to overshadow her very real abilities. And while I need another reading-thread like a hole in the head, I have taken her appearance at this critical juncture in my off-blog reading as a sign that I should promote her to Authors In Depth.

So!—I will be starting with The Trail Of The Serpent, before (at some point) stepping back to look at her first, long-forgotten novel, The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana.

Behind the sensation novelist who attracted both praise and outrage for her choice of material was a woman who, in Victorian terms, lived a life still more outrageous and shocking. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s parents separated when she was still a child, she and her brother and sister remaining with their mother. (Braddon’s brother, Edward, who possibly deserves a biography of his own, was Premier of Tasmania from 1894 – 1899.) The separation was amicable, and for some years Henry Braddon continued to support his family; but the Braddon finances had always been rocky, and finally the money stopped coming.

To help support her family, Mary Braddon began to write short stories. At the same time, at the age of only seventeen, she began a career on the stage under the name “Mary Seyton”, and found some success, albeit mostly in provincial companies. While touring, she continued to write and publish, trying her hand at plays and poetry as well as fiction. In 1859, her first attempt at a novel, The Octoroon, was serialised, and she gave up acting to concentrate on writing.

In 1860, a second novel, Three Times Dead, was serialised. It was not a success with the public, but it brought Braddon to the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who had already published several of Braddon’s short stories in his magazines. Inspite of its flaws, in Three Times Dead Maxwell recognised a talent worth cultivating, and he offered to help her revise the text. Reworked as The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon’s second novel found an appreciative audience and some critical attention. She continued with her novel-writing, and 1862 published Lady Audley’s Secret, a cause célèbre of the first order. From that notorious pinnacle, she never looked back. In 1866, using her own profits and with John Maxwell’s encouragement, she founded the Belgravia Magazine, an affordable vehicle for serialised novels, poems, travel narratives, biographies, and essays on fashion, history and science.

Meanwhile, Braddon’s private life was following a path every bit as scandalous as her novels.

The attraction between Mary Elizabeth Braddon and John Maxwell was almost instantaneous, but Maxwell was already married—in a manner of speaking: his first wife (also Mary, uncomfortably enough) had suffered a severe mental breakdown some years earlier, and as a consequence had been institutionalised for a period of time, leaving Maxwell with the care of their six children. Under the laws of the day, a divorce was out of the question. In 1861, Braddon and Maxwell began living together unmarried.

I like to think of Mary Elizabeth Braddon as the sensation novel’s answer to George Eliot. Only George Eliot didn’t write better than eighty novels while raising twelve children.

As soon as she moved into his house, Braddon took over the care of Maxwell’s existing family (disproving all the step-motherly myths in the process, it seems), and over the following years bore seven children of her own, of which six survived. One of them, William Babbington Maxwell, born in 1866, would eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a prolific and popular novelist. In 1874, the tragic Mary Maxwell died in Dublin. As soon as they decently could, Braddon and Maxwell got married—and the former’s novels began to be trumpeted as “—by MRS MAXWELL.” Amusingly, it didn’t stick: Braddon was by then far too famous, not to say infamous, under her maiden name.

For all of her success, there is still some uncertainty over exactly how many novels Braddon did write. Remarkably, in spite of her popular and financial success amongst the middle- and upper-classes, with Maxwell’s encouragement Braddon continued to write (albeit pseudonymously) for magazines aimed at the working-classes. In recent years a great deal of scholarly effort has gone into unearthing and preserving these hitherto unrecognised works, and is still ongoing.

There are, however, plenty of novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon for us to be going on with in the meantime.

31/12/2011

Overweening ambition

It was about this time last year, I believe, when I declared that my ambition for 2011 was to “get the hell out of the 17th century”.

Yes, yes. Feel free to point and laugh.

A number of factors, positive and negative, contributed to my lack of chronological progress this year. On the sad side, 2011 turned out to be (not to put too fine a point upon it) a real crap factory of a year, where between insane work pressures and recurrent illnesses I ended up neglecting all of the things I’d rather be doing. And really, the only reason this blog was able to trundle forward at all is because of thirty minutes each way on the train each work day, which allowed for reading and note scribbling. We’d have been in serious trouble without this time sanctuary, particularly during the last three months of the year when, whenever I sat down to read or watch something, I ended up falling asleep instead.

But—there have been nicer reasons for the slow movement forward. This year the chronobibliography was more frequently interrupted by random novel reading, which brought to light some very interesting (and some hilariously bad) works. If 2011 had a message, it’s that there was really no such thing as “the typical Victorian novel”.

And if I didn’t quite manage to finish writing them up, I did finish reading all four-and-a-bit volumes of The English Rogue, which frankly I consider no mean feat. However, this too seriously interrupted the flow of the chronobibliography, since my cowardly refusal to just read the damn thing volume by volume in the first place, as they were published, meant I then had to backtrack from 1688 to 1665. On a more positive note, that last, spurious, add-on volume handed me one of my biggest laughs for the year, for reasons I’ll eventually get around to sharing.

And now, as we look to a new year and fool ourselves into believing that everything will be magically different as soon as the clock ticks over at midnight—what can we expect – what do we hope for – in 2012?

Well, for one thing, I’ve severely reined in my ambition for the year, which I hereby declare to be—to see the back of James Stuart. In other words, to get the hell out of 1688. This isn’t as small a task as it might initially appear. One of the first signs that James was in real trouble was that the bizarre and outrageous political writing that (as we have seen) had been such a feature of his easy-going brother’s reign, but which had dried up under the dangerously humourless new monarch, suddenly came roaring back. This propaganda attack (some of it orchestrated by William of Orange) dealt James some serious blows in the lead up to the “Glorious Revolution”.

One of the few writers to stay loyal to James was Aphra Behn, who entered the propaganda war on the incumbant side. More importantly, however, 1688 also saw the publication of Oroonoko, a work whose virtues even those people most eager to denigrate its author are usually forced to concede. So one way and the other, we’ll be seeing quite a lot of Aphra this year.

On top of that, we’ll be hearing more from our highlighted authors, as well (I hope) as unearthing still more interesting 18th and 19th century texts.

And as always, my umbrella ambition is to get into a regular rhythm with my reading and writing, but after the slap-down that was 2011, I think I won’t say too much about that…

Finally, I’d like to say a big thank-you to everyone who has taken the time to drop by and read my ramblings, and particularly to those who then stuck around for some conversation. I appreciate your support more than I can say.

Fingers crossed for a much more productive 2012!

28/07/2011

Oops, I did it again

“It” being getting caught in a loop of catching up my outstanding reviews, and then celebrating the fact by plunging into an orgy of reading that leaves me in more of a mess than ever. I did it after Romance Of The Pyrenees, which took us all the way through to Rookwood; and then immediately fell into the same trap, of which the final episode was Joan!!! The gap between the reading and the writing impacts upon my memories of the works and the points I meant to make, which isn’t good for my reviews. It’s a annoying situation none the less exasperating for being entirely self-inflicted.

So, I’ve decided to crack down on myself, and be much more disciplined about my reading; a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that – ulp! – I’ve finally run out of excuses to put off tackling The English Rogue.

As we discussed way back when I first started digging my heels in, The English Rogue is a compilation work with a rather strange history. After being published in 1665 it went on, by all accounts, to become the most popular and successful of all the rogue’s biographies, with which the literary marketplace of the time seems to have been awash. (According to Charles Hinnant, second place was held by The London Jilt.) The story seems to have autobiographical aspects, and Richard Head went out of his way to identify himself with his tale’s anti-hero, Meriton Latroon: a tactic that blew up in his face when the reading public took him at his word and treated him like the scoundrel they assumed he was.

The magnitude of The English Rogue‘s success had its publisher, Francis Kirkman, clamouring for a sequel; but smarting from the backfiring of his plans, Head declined—so Kirkman wrote one himself, publishing it in 1671. By this time, Richard Head’s financial difficulties were urgent enough for him to put aside his hurt feelings, and he and Kirkman subsequently collaborated on two more volumes, published in 1674 and 1680. Then, in 1688, after the death’s of both Head and Kirkman, the rights to The English Rogue fell to another publisher. An anonymous hand wrapped up the project with a brief, epilogue-like “final volume”, and the five parts were reissued as a single work.

So I’ve started on the reading, and I’ve already decided—part of that new discipline, you know—to treat the five volumes as five separate works. To be frank, I can take only so much of this kind of writing at a time. That said, I’ve acquired from my academic library the 1928 (!) edition of The English Rogue, which contains the first three volumes. It also reproduces the figures and has cleaned up the text—typographically, that is, not scatalogically—by correcting the spelling errors, substituting the standard ‘s’ for the long, and providing footnotes: an approach that is facilitating the reading process, in spite of the size and weight of the volume.

Now— You can tell what a mess I’ve gotten myself into with my reviews by the fact that it’s been weeks since I even thought about Reading Roulette. However, I have managed to acquire and read Lily The Lost One; or, The Fatal Effects Of Deception, a piece of hardcore didactic literature that manages to be interesting almost in spite of itself.

I’ve also returned to the random number generator for my next pick: The Gilberts And Their Guests by Julia Day, from 1858. I haven’t been able to find out much about Miss Day. She seems to have been best known as a poet; although she did publish one other novel: The Old Engagement: A Spinster’s Story, in 1852. I guess I’ll let you know.

Elsewhere, Authors In Depth takes us back to Mary Meeke, whose third novel, Palmira And Ermance, was published in 1797. This was also the year that Meeke adopted the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, which she is supposed to have appended to her “racier” novels – gasp! I’m rather looking forward to finding out if that’s true.

Speaking of Meeke, I mentioned at the outset that there is a novel called Madeline Clifford’s School Life that has been attributed to her, but which no-one who has written about her has taken very much notice of. I discovered the other day a second novel bearing the name Mary Meeke that also pre-dates Count St. Blancard, which is called Marion’s Path, Through Shadow To Sunshine. Both of these works appear to be stories for girls, and a much more appropriate field of endeavour for the prim wife of an English minister – wouldn’t you think? Significantly, neither book was published by William Lane; and, I confess, I’m getting a lot of evil enjoyment from the mental picture of Meeke, having tried and failed at writing “proper” novels, then throwing her hands into the air in disgust and starting to write pseudo-Gothic sensation novels instead; a pursuit which, I need hardly remind you, brought her a tidy income over some twenty-five years…

07/05/2011

And she sat back with a sigh of relief…

That sigh of relief is in recognition of the fact that, when I posted my review of Romance Of The Pyrenees, I had finally caught up all of my outstanding reviews: something I’ve been struggling with, and panicking over, since Aphra Behn took over my life at the beginning of the year. It took many library renewels, much scribbling of notes on the train, great cruelty to my poor suffering eyes, and in the case of The London Jilt, having to re-borrow and re-read the whole book, but I finally got myself up to speed.

And having done so, I then proceeded to do what I always seem to do in these situations, which is celebrate by plunging straight back into the mire I’d just fought my way out of. I’ve finished two books since that last post, both of which require a response. Thankfully, they are neither of them major works (or what counts for a “major work” around here, like a convoluted 4-volume Gothic novel), so I’m hopeful this won’t be too much of an issue.

Yeah, I know – Famous Last Words.

In the meantime, here’s what we have by way of Upcoming Attractions:

  • Chronobibliography:  The London Bully – Anonymous (1683)
  • Reading Roulette:  Lily, The Lost One – K.M. Weld (1881)
  • Authors In Depth:  Retribution – E.D.E.N. Southworth (1849)
  • Reading Challenge:  Rookwood – William Harrison Ainsworth (1834)
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02/03/2011

So where were we?

As far as this blog goes, I seem to have been suffering from chronic disorganisation ever since the end of last year. This was partly my own fault, for letting my reading outstrip my writing by too great a distance; but mostly I blame it on that pushy Aphra Behn. Boy, she just moved in and took over for a while there, didn’t she? – and not even in the correct chronological order. Tsk!

But we’re pretty much back on an even keel now, and I’ll be trying to keep things there via a proper rotation of reading categories, and updating the blog on (I hope) a more regular schedule. I need to settle back down into my journey through the literature of the Restoration, but at the same time there will be reading challenges and occasional group reads, along with the ongoing games of Reading Roulette, to help vary the diet. At the moment my planned categorical reads are:

  • Chronobibliography:  Eromena; or, The Noble Stranger by William Chamberlayne (?) (1683)
  • Reading Roulette:  Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power by E.D.E.N. Southworth (1957)
  • Authors In Depth:  The Abbey Of Clugny by Mary Meeke (1796)
  • Reading Challenge:  The Interesting Story Of Edwin And Julia by “A Doctor of Physic” (1788)
  • Group Read:  The Law And The Lady by Wilkie Collins (1875)

In other news…GoogleBooks has officially made my Enemies List. I was annoyed enough with the discovery that only three out of the four volumes of Nella Stephens’ The Robber Chieftain were available. I honestly don’t understand why you would make an incomplete novel available for download—it’s not, after all, a textbook, where readers might still get some value out of an incomplete work. The only reason I can think of to do that would be if the novel only survived in an incomplete state, and even it that case the posting should be accompanied by an explanation of the circumstances.

But even posting incomplete novels pales beside posting a complete novel in such bad condition that you may as well not have bothered. Such is the case with the GoogleBooks version of Vivia, as I belatedly discovered to my cost. From about halfway through the novel, only a portion of every second page of the novel is present, and so it goes on for the next 150 pages, as shown:

Surely there must be somebody who can check the quality of a piece of scanning before a digitalised book is made available? It could even be a volunteer service: there must be more readers than I who would gladly give a few minutes a day to prevent this frustrating and disappointing experience from being repeated. At the moment, these “available” books are just so much wasted effort; while the assertion that opens every one of Google’s scanned books – “This is a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before it was carefully scanned by Google…” – feels like a taunt. 

Anyway—I did eventually find another copy of Vivia online, but only online: it is available through the Wright American Fiction Collection 1851 – 1875, a digitising project based at Indiana University (although with many other participants) that draws upon the bibliographical work of Lyle H. Wright from the Huntington Library in California. While I can only applaud this wonderful undertaking, my heart did drop when I realised I’d have to finish reading Vivia on my computer. The inconvenience I can put up with, but—oh, my eyes. My poor, poor eyes…

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31/12/2010

And so to 2011

Given that neither my “reading course” nor this blog turned out remotely as I envisioned beforehand, it’s probably foolish to make statements about what next year will bring. However, a few definite things will be going on, whatever else gets out of hand.

My overriding ambition for 2011 is to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE 17TH CENTURY…but somehow The List just keeps creeping up. My main encouragement here is the fact that once William and Mary were safely installed, the political stuff mostly died away – at least until Delariviere Manley showed up. Hopefully, then, the majority of the remaining texts will simply need to be assessed in their own right, rather than requiring a week’s research before I can even understand what I’m reading. I’ve still got five years of throne-wrestling to deal with first, though.

Otherwise, I’ll be keeping the pattern of alternating my chronological reading with random novel selections via Reading Roulette and Authors In Depth. I’ve also signed myself up over at LibraryThing for a number of the challenges, in the hope of randoming things up even more. (Although at the moment I’m having a good run of what I planned to read anyway fitting into existing challenges, so that’s not really working yet.)

I had a lot of trouble this year finding a comfortable reading / writing / real world rhythm, which either led me to overcommit to certain texts, or (more frequently – and right now) allowed my reading to outstrip my writing to an extent that made me panicky, and resulted in a lot of wasted time going over texts I’d already read trying to remember what I’d meant to say about them. So as a kind of “stopper”, I’ve decided to bring more non-fiction back into the mix, and also to move outside my self-imposed reading goalposts into 1931 and beyond, and picking up those books when I feel things getting out of control. I won’t be blogging on these texts (which would rather defeat the purpose!), but I may do a “Books In Brief” post about them if the spirit moves me.

In conclusion, I’d like to say a big thank you to my blog visitors, and particularly those of you who took the time to comment. It’s nice to have some reassurance that I’m not just shouting into the void…not entirely. 🙂

See you next year!

12/12/2010

Thomas Shadwell, superstar

I wonder what odds the Las Vegas bookies were offering last January, about there being two unrelated blog-posts on Thomas Shadwell during the same calendar year?

I suppose that’s unfair. There’s no more reason why people shouldn’t write about Shadwell than that they should write about, oh, I don’t know –  Alexander Oldys? –  to whose legacy I have just contributed 3000 words. Still, I couldn’t suppress a surprised yelp of laughter when I stumbled across this post…nor a sigh of admiration as I explored more thoroughly the blog that contained it.

As you might recall, my own mention of Thomas Shadwell was a rumination over whether he might have been the author of The Perplex’d Prince. Professor Robin Bates, blog-master of Better Living Through Beowulf, chose to draw comparisons between Shadwell and today’s more irresponsible political commentators, making outrageous remarks merely to get themselves noticed. Both of us alluded to John Dryden’s attack on Shadwell in the satirical smackdown, Mac Flecknoe. Shadwell may at length have won the political war against Dryden, but in the artistic one he crashed to bloody, humiliating defeat:

      Now Empress Fame had published the renown,

      Of Sh——’s coronation through the town.
      Roused by report of fame, the nations meet,
      From near Bun-Hill, and distant Watling Street.

      No Persian Carpets spread th’imperial way,

      But scattered limbs of mangled poets lay:
      From dusty shops neglected authors come,
      Martyrs of Pies, and Relics of the Bum.
      Much Heywood, Shirly, Ogleby there lay,

      But loads of Sh—— almost choked the way.

As for Better Living Through Beowulf, it’s a heady mixture of literature, film, poetry, politics, religion and social issues. And if that doesn’t grab you, there’s tennis, ice hockey and (American) football. Off you go.

08/11/2010

Speedbumps

I’ve been having a problem settling into a reading pattern lately, with each aspect of my reading program running into difficulties. And, yes, I’m well aware that most of those difficulties are self-inflicted, so you needn’t bother pointing that out.

My suprising success rate in accessing obscure, late 17th century texts must have lulled me into a false sense of security, because my first serious failure in that respect came as a real shock. I became aware of The English Monsieur, A Comical Novel, by James Howard, courtesy of an interesting article by Nicholas Hudson published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, entitled, Social Rank, ‘The Rise Of The Novel,’ and Whig Histories of Eighteenth-Century Fiction, which goes against many of the “rise of the novel” studies with their paradigm of the parallel “rise of the middle class” and an assumption of increasing liberalism, domestic values and social levelling.

Hudson argues instead for an even longer history of what we might call Tory novel-writing, beginning in the late 17th century and continuing at least into the early 19th century, that was concerned with maintaining a social hierarchy headed by an exclusive and self-contained aristocracy, and discouraged social aspiration and the mingling of the classes. The final author considered in this respect is Jane Austen. Hudson concedes that while her novels display a belief in the traditional Tory values, there has been a considerable softening of the 18th-century stance that shows itself in both an expressed disapproval of the aristocracy, along with an admission that the gentry is all the better for an injection of middle class values. Some of the barricades, at least, had been torn down.

The English Monsieur is cited by Hudson as an early example of his own paradigm of Tory novel-writing – and onto The List it went, despite having been published in 1679, earlier than the works I’d progressed to. (Just when I thought I was out of the 17th century, it pulls me back in.) And yes, I located and downloaded a copy, and off I went…until I got to the final page of what I had and found the ominous announcent, END OF PART ONE.

What the – !?

I subsequently had no luck finding a complete version. Admittedly, this was disappointing more from an historical point of view than a literary one. Whatever else it might have proven to be (and I might say that by the end of Part 1, I’d seen little to support Hudson’s theory), The English Monsieur was the first work I’d come across that used the word “novel” in the sense that we might use it today. Extrapolating from Part 1, it must have been a work of some length, certainly the longest piece of straightforward fiction I’ve encountered so far from this period; although a significant portion of the first volume is given over to a common tendency at the time, the interpolation of side-stories into the main one, usually in the form of one or other of the supporting characters relating their “history”. Still, there was a reasonable amount of movement and plotting, too; and that, along with the amorous adventures of the title character, made it strike me (and without wanting to get too carried away) as a sort of embryonic Tom Jones.

But, in the absence of Parts 2 – 4, it was back to the bad jokes and plagiarisms of Richard Head. Groan.

Well, I’ve made it over that speedbump now, although of course there’s a much bigger one to come. Anyway, I can’t be sorry I found out about O-Brazile, because apart from being mercifully short, it turns out (like most of Richard Head’s work, it seems) to be interesting for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the writing. But we’ll deal with that presently.

Elsewhere, with Philip And Philippa out of the way, I was up for another game of Reading Roulette. This time around, the Reading Gods smiled: my visit to the random number generator gave me an excitingly low number – which turned out to be connected to exactly the kind of novel I had in mind at the outset of this ridiculous project: The Mysterious Wife by Mary Meeke, from 1797.

Yes, it was perfect. A little too perfect… So perfect, I decided to make it, or rather its author, the focus of a third reading thread: Authors In Depth.

Mary Meeke was one of the mainstays of the notorious Minerva Press. Between 1795 and 1823, she wrote more than 30 novels, most under her own name, but some (evidently the more “daring” ones) under the pseudonym “Gabrielli”, while some were published anonymously. She also translated several European works, including Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s The Messiah. Too prolific and popular ever to find much favour with the critics, Meeke essentially cut her own throat by admitting publicly that before starting a novel, she always consulted with her publisher to see what was selling. Her early novels had received some positive reviews, but from that moment onwards Meeke was regarded as the worst exemplar of the “scribbling woman”, and attracted nothing but scornful dismissal – the assumption being, as always, that you cannot both write to please an audience, and write good novels.

Whatever we make today of Mary Meeke’s professional pragmatism, her willingness to act as a literary weather vane makes her novels a remarkable window into shifting public taste over a full quarter of a century. Unfortunately, however, Meeke finally suffered the fate of many popular but critically dismissed novelists of the time: her works were never reprinted. Consequently, a number of them are today unobtainable. Others are available electronically (although I can’t currently swear to their condition); while back in 1977, her first novel*, Count St. Blancard; or, The Prejudiced Judge, was reproduced as a three-volume set by the Arno Press, God love ’em – and as it turns out, my academic library has a copy – God love them. However, right now, the third volume – just the third volume – is out on loan…which somehow is much more annoying than the whole book being unavailable. Anyway, when I get my hands on it, Authors In Depth will begin – and we’ll find out for ourselves just what kind of novels Mary Meeke wrote.

(*There’s a 1783 novel out there in eBook world called Madeline Clifford’s School Life, which is attributed to Meeke. It may represent an early effort, before she hooked up with the Minerva Press. However, none of the articles on Meeke that I’ve read – and I’m pleased to find that there have been a few recent efforts made to rehabilitate her reputation as a novelist – mention it, so I’m going with Count St. Blancard.)

So then it was back to the random number generator, where I landed upon Money To Loan, On All Collaterals: A Tale Of The Times by Minnie Lawson, from 1895. Alas, this one was obscure to the point of being unobtainable. (American novels are, generally, much harder to get hold of than British ones.) All I’ve been able to find out is that it expressed Lawson’s concerns about the state of public finance and the conduct of the banks and Wall Street (and plus ça change once again), that it contained an unflattering portrait of J.P. Morgan (although whether in person or under a pseudonym, I can’t say), and that Lawson wrote at least two other “social issues” novels under her married name of Minnie L. Armstrong.

Third spin, third time lucky? Yes, I guess so. This time I hit 1903’s The Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard. Not only did Gerard live an intriguing personal life, but like Mary Meeke, she wrote prolifically and over a period of many years, her career extending from the early 1880s to the time of WWI, with her novels featuring a wide variety of settings and subject matter. (Her first novels were written in collaboration with her sister, Emily, who was the collector of the Transylvanian folklore that Bram Stoker drew upon when writing Dracula.) And in fact, my moment of hesitation after landing on The Eternal Woman was due to an uneasy feeling that Gerard, too, really deserved to be the subject of Authors In Depth…

…but finally I decided that this business was getting out of hand even by my ridiculous standards. And so—

Chronobibliography:  it’s an Exclusion Crisis smackdown, with The Perplex’d Prince vs The Fugitive Statesman
Reading RouletteThe Eternal Woman by Dorothea Gerard – a “New Woman” novel, I gather, although not an approving one
Authors In DepthCount St. Blancard by Mary Meeke, which based upon its Arno Press revival, may be a Gothic novel…I hope

For the benefit of those of you playing along at home, I can’t see that Count St. Blancard is available electronically, but a good academic library might do the trick. The Eternal Woman is available through the Internet Archive, but I strongly recommend the PDF version rather than the ePUB one, which has some serious formatting issues.

13/10/2010

Too much smutty

Between a work crisis and some access issues, I’m currently a bit behind on my reading / writing. I’m just drawing near the end of a marathon work of non-fiction, which I’ll probably post about on the weekend; Agatha hasn’t arrived yet, although she’s cetainly imminent; and I’m holding off on beginning the next step along my Chronobibliographical road for reasons I’ll get into when they’re no longer relevant. If that makes sense.

What I will do in the meantime is say a little about my next scheduled author, the apparently aptly named Richard Head (which, nota bene, is as much as I’m going to allow myself in the “stooping to the obvious joke” department). Head was Irish by birth, but spent much of his life in London, scratching a living as a writer and bookseller, although a lifelong gambling addiction meant that his income rarely exceeded his expenditure even when he found success, as he did in 1665.

Head’s most successful work, indeed, one of the most successful works of this period, and one of the few English publications to be successful across Europe, was The English Rogue Described In The Life Of Meriton Latroon, a satirical account of the criminal and sexual escapades of its title character. Notoriously, when the first version of Head’s tale was submitted to the censor in 1664, it was rejected for being “too much smutty”. A bowdlerised edition was resubmitted successfully the following year.

I may say that I am yet to find anyone who has read The English Rogue who doesn’t react by exclaiming, “If this is the bowdlerised version – !?”

(More 17th-century pornography? You betcha.)

We have touched already about the English habit at this time of claiming even obvious works of fiction to be true stories. Head’s approach with The English Rogue was to hint, not merely that it was true, but that it was autobiographical. Scholars today agree that certain aspects of Latroon’s life do coincide with that of Head, particularly the account of the early years of his life; but beyond this there is little evidence that it is not a work of fiction. Be this as it may, Head’s intimations that he and Latroon were one and the same backfired spectacularly when the readers of The English Rogue took him at his word. Deciding that Head was an unmitigated scoundrel, they treated him accordingly.

Thoroughly exasperated by this outcome, and in spite of his perpetual financial difficulties, Head turned a deaf ear to the pleadings for a second volume of Latroon’s life from the publisher / bookseller Francis Kirkman, to whom the rights to The English Rogue had passed upon the death of Head’s original publisher. Kirkman’s response was to cash in on the situation by writing a second volume himself, which was published in 1671. It is generally agreed to be an inferior work to the original, and was not as successful. Whether Head was irritated by what Kirkman had done to his story, or whether it was simply a matter of financial necessity, it seems that in time he gave in and collaborated with Kirkman on two further volumes, published in 1674 and 1680. Head and Kirkman then had a falling out, with Head declaring publicly that he had had no hand in writing the third and fourth volumes, although surviving documentation suggests otherwise.

The end of the fourth volume of the life of Meriton Latroon promised a fifth, which never eventuated – or at least not as planned. In 1688, an abridged edition of the four volumes was released “to which is added a fifth part”. However, by 1688 Francis Kirkman and Richard Head were both dead. There is no record of who wrote this belated sequel, which is short, a mere tying up of loose ends; an obvious cash-in by whoever had acquired the rights to the whole.

The difficulty with The English Rogue, then, is deciding just “when” it was published. If we take only the first volume as the “true” edition, its publication date of 1665 puts it beyond my self-imposed cut-off. (Which I’ve already violated once, but never mind.) If we accept the Head / Kirkman volumes as part of the whole, then we go with 1680; while a one in, all in attitude lands us in 1688…which is what I’ve decided to go with, despite my discovery – made with a mixture of horror and delight – that the academic library I frequent has a copy of 1928 Routledge edition of The English Rogue, which contains the first three volumes of the story, for open borrowing.

Anyway…in the meantime, next on my reading list are two other works by Richard Head, which finds him entering into the popular 17th-century game of shamming with two pamphlets, published in 1673 and 1674: The Floating Island  (reprinted as O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island) and The Western Wonder; or, O-Brazeel. Those of you reading along can go ahead. I’ll…catch you up.

30/09/2010

Reading Roulette; or, Varying The Diet

Okay – here’s how this is going to work. (“Work”, she said, optimistically.)

While I intend to keep on with my ordered journey through the early years of the (mostly English) novel, it seems to me that doing that and nothing else might make it all a bit of a chore rather than a pleasure, both for myself and for anyone stopping by. In addition, there are literally thousands of other things I want to read – so many that simply choosing a book is almost impossible. (Am I the only one who finds a long wish-list paralysing? As some wise men once said, Freedom from choice is what we want.)

So, while I continue with my chronological stroll, I intend to break things up by randomly choosing a novel from my reading list, with the cut-offs set at 1751 – 1930. (I originally had the cut-off at 1900, but there are a whole bunch of Viragos and Persephones that I’ve never read from between 1900 and 1930, so I moved the goalposts.) Not everything I hit on this way will be immediately available, of course: some books may need to be purchased, some may need an eReader; some might be simply impossible to get. Conversely, if I hit upon an author in whom I have an interest, I might choose to read an earlier/earliest work instead. As you’ve probably already gathered, I like doing things in order.

Hopefully in this way, I will have the chance both to finally tackle those authors who have eluded me up until now, and to stumble over some obscure but interesting works that deserve to be better known.

On the other hand— Well, if you’re going to play a game like this, I guess there’s always the chance that there’ll be a bullet in the chamber.