Posts tagged ‘Jane Austen’

22/02/2014

Everything’s relative

I said at the outset of my posts on Munster Abbey that I wasn’t able to find out much about the short life of Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh, and while that’s true, one or two factoids did emerge while I was digging into the background of his novel.

One point that came up in a number of contexts is that Sir Samuel was related by marriage to the famous actor-producer-playwright, David Garrick: his sister, Martha, became the wife of Garrick’s nephew, Nathan.

Another, which came up far less frequently – one might even say astonishingly less frequently – is that Sir Samuel was distantly related to Jane Austen through her mother, Cassandra Leigh.

I have been unable to determine the exact degree of connectedness between the two. The Leighs were one of those sprawling, multi-foci aristocratic families, wherein determining who belongs to which branch is next to impossible for anyone but a professional genealogist with a lot of time on their hands. It doesn’t help that the Leighs managed to acquire both a barony and two different baronetcies, including the one inherited by our friend, Sir Samuel, all under the name of “Leigh”; nor that the clan had a habit of reiterating family names, hyphenated or otherwise. Thus in addition to the Austen-Leighs and the Egerton Leighs, there were also the Egerton Brydges-es, who were connections of the Dukes of Chandros, the first holder of that title being Mrs Austen’s great-uncle, James Brydges.

(There is neither an Austen nor a Leigh on the list of subscribers attached to Munster Abbey, although curiously there are three Austin-s. We do, however, find on the list (separately) Egerton Brydges Esq. and Mrs Brydges, of Wootten-court, near Canterbury, Miss Brydges of Canterbury, Mrs Charles Egerton of Bath, and John Egerton Esq. of Wellbeck-street; while the ‘C’ list is topped by the Dowager Duchess of Chandros.)

Be all that as it may—I think it may be fairly observed that all the writing talent in this extended family concentrated itself in one area.

More immediately to the point, however, it is delicious to reflect that while Sir Samuel Egerton Leigh was churning out the most deliriously over-the-top example of literary sentimentalism that I have yet come across, his distant cousin Jane was honing her own writing skills by mocking that very form of novel-writing. More than ever now do I want to believe that Sir Samuel was the anonymous author of Valentine: that novel was published in 1790, the same year that the fourteen-year-old Austen wrote Love And Freindship, her brilliantly funny deconstruction of the excesses of the genre. It amuses me no end to consider that one may even have provoked the other.

I’ve quoted from Love And Freindship before, when I was making the argument that in the final draft of Northanger Abbey, Austen was poking fun at fellow-novelist Catherine Cuthbertson. (And in fairness to Cuthbertson, gigglesome as her novels frequently are, she was a better writer than Sir Samuel, and never went quite so ludicrously far with her sentiment.) Here are a few more quotes from Austen’s burlesque: for extra enjoyment, put them side-by-side with the quotes from Munster Abbey:

    But lovely as I was the Graces of my Person were the least of my Perfections. Of every accomplishment accustomary to my sex, I was Mistress. When in the Convent, my progress had always exceeded my instructions, my Acquirements had been wonderfull for my age, and I had shortly surpassed my Masters.
    In my Mind, every Virtue that could adorn it was centered; it was the Rendez-vous of every good Quality and of every noble sentiment.
    A sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my Freinds, my Acquaintance and particularly to every affliction of my own, was my only fault, if a fault it could be called…

    I soon perceived that tho’ Lovely and Elegant in her Person and tho’ Easy and Polite in her Address, she was of that inferior order of Beings with regard to Delicate Feeling, tender Sentiments, and refined Sensibility, of which Augusta was one.
    She staid but half an hour and neither in the Course of her Visit, confided to me any of her secret thoughts, nor requested me to confide in her, any of Mine. You will easily imagine therefore my Dear Marianne that I could not feel any ardent affection or very sincere Attachment for Lady Dorothea…

“Where am I to drive?” said the Postilion. “To Newgate Gentle Youth (replied I), to see Augustus.” “Oh! no, no, (exclaimed Sophia) I cannot go to Newgate; I shall not be able to support the sight of my Augustus in so cruel a confinement—my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the RECITAL, of his Distress, but to behold it will overpower my Sensibility.” As I perfectly agreed with her in the Justice of her Sentiments the Postilion was instantly directed to return into the Country…

I was determined to speak with Philander and Gustavus, and to that purpose as soon as I left the Carriage, I went to the Basket and tenderly enquired after their Health, expressing my fears of the uneasiness of their situation. At first they seemed rather confused at my appearance dreading no doubt that I might call them to account for the money which our Grandfather had left me and which they had unjustly deprived me of, but finding that I mentioned nothing of the Matter, they desired me to step into the Basket as we might there converse with greater ease. Accordingly I entered and whilst the rest of the party were devouring green tea and buttered toast, we feasted ourselves in a more refined and sentimental Manner by a confidential Conversation. I informed them of every thing which had befallen me during the course of my life, and at my request they related to me every incident of theirs…

Footnote: Now, here’s a curiously suggestive thing: as I say, there’s no “Austen” on that list of subscribers to Munster Abbey, but amongst the list of surnames, we do find people called Elliot, Ferrars, Dashwood and Bennet. Hmm…

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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.

16/02/2011

Masterclass with Miss Austen

Okay, time to come clean.

I spoke at length about my enjoyment of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Rosabella; but while it’s true enough that I enjoyed the book on its own merits, as I was reading it I began to enjoy it simultaneously on a different level entirely; because the further I read, the more I became convinced that when Jane Austen was making her various comic attacks upon the excesses of the popular novel, Catherine Cuthbertson was one of the authors she had in mind.

Granted, at first glance this may seem unlikely – the writing and publication dates of the ladies’ respective efforts, for one thing, would seem to rule this possibility out. So perhaps it’s all just a coincidence. I did, after all, describe Rosabella as “a typical 19th-century sentimental novel”; if Miss Cuthbertson was, likewise, a typical 19th-century sentimental novelist, she may have been only one of many guilty of the transgressions which Miss Austen mocks.

And some of the issues in question are certainly generic. Pardon me for quoting this passage from Love And Freindship in full, but it cracks me up every time:

A Gentleman considerably advanced in years descended from it. At his first Appearance my Sensibility was wonderfully affected and e’er I had gazed at him a 2d time, an instinctive sympathy whispered to my Heart, that he was my Grandfather. Convinced that I could not be mistaken in my conjecture I instantly sprang from the Carriage I had just entered, and following the Venerable Stranger into the Room he had been shewn to, I threw myself on my knees before him and besought him to acknowledge me as his Grand Child. He started, and having attentively examined my features, raised me from the Ground and throwing his Grand-fatherly arms around my Neck, exclaimed, “Acknowledge thee! Yes dear resemblance of my Laurina and Laurina’s Daughter, sweet image of my Claudia and my Claudia’s Mother, I do acknowledge thee as the Daughter of the one and the Grandaughter of the other.” While he was thus tenderly embracing me, Sophia astonished at my precipitate Departure, entered the Room in search of me. No sooner had she caught the eye of the venerable Peer, than he exclaimed with every mark of Astonishment –“Another Grandaughter! Yes, yes, I see you are the Daughter of my Laurina’s eldest Girl; your resemblance to the beauteous Matilda sufficiently proclaims it. “Oh!” replied Sophia, “when I first beheld you the instinct of Nature whispered me that we were in some degree related–But whether Grandfathers, or Grandmothers, I could not pretend to determine.” He folded her in his arms, and whilst they were tenderly embracing, the Door of the Apartment opened and a most beautifull young Man appeared. On perceiving him Lord St. Clair started and retreating back a few paces, with uplifted Hands, said, “Another Grand-child! What an unexpected Happiness is this! to discover in the space of 3 minutes, as many of my Descendants! This I am certain is Philander the son of my Laurina’s 3d girl the amiable Bertha; there wants now but the presence of Gustavus to compleat the Union of my Laurina’s Grand-Children.” “And here he is; (said a Gracefull Youth who that instant entered the room) here is the Gustavus you desire to see. I am the son of Agatha your Laurina’s 4th and youngest Daughter…”

The sentimental novel is notorious for its belief in this kind of sympathetic recognition, of course, and was so long before Catherine Cuthbertson ever picked up a pen. Just the same, it is an indisputable fact that, almost thirty years after Jane Austen wrote her burlesque of the genre, the same sins were still being committed in the same sorts of novels. Rosabella does not have an outright “Gustavus scene”, as I like to call them, but its heroine spends the whole five volumes being “drawn” to particular people, to whom she is at length revealed to be related (one at a time, though, not all at once); and the girl who starts out as a destitute orphan ends up at the centre of an extended family of quite remarkable proportions.

Then there’s the fainting. We recall Thomas Macaulay keeping a tally of the fainting in Miss Cuthbertson’s Santo Sebastiano, published in 1814, and we certainly know that her taste for fainting scenes hadn’t dissipated at all by 1817. Miss Austen’s own opinion of fainting was also made clear in Love And Freindship, wherein the characters spend an inordinate proportion of their time indulging in that particular pastime, to their ultimate cost:

It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself —We fainted alternately on a sofa…

“Beware of fainting-fits… Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreable yet beleive me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution… One fatal swoon has cost me my Life… Beware of swoons Dear Laura… A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequences—Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint—“ 

Miss Cuthbertson’s faints, on the other hand, are executed with great gravity. What’s more, her men faint, too. Here, for example, is Egremont hearing Rosabella’s story:

As she proceeded, his sympathizing and attentive preceptor beheld horror and despair diffusing itself overy every line of his expressive countenance; and when Rosabella came to her final close of all she yet knew of her sad history, he fell on the sofa beside her in a death resembling swoon…

What would they do without sofas? 

Much as I wanted to believe that this was not a coincidence, that it was not simply a case of Miss Cuthbertson being a sufficiently generic novelist to commit all of the revelevant crimes against literature, I didn’t see at first how a more direct relationship between the two women was possible. But then two points occurred to me: firstly, that Miss Cuthbertson may have maintained the same style of writing all throughout her career, which began in 1803; and secondly, that the main source of my suspicions, Northanger Abbey, while mostly written as we know around 1798, was revised twice before it was published, the first time also in 1803, the final time as late as 1817 – the year of Rosabella‘s publication.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen repeatedly draws a contrast between behaviour that is “natural” and behaviour that is “heroic” – that is, the behaviour of a heroine. No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine, Austen remarks at the outset, then goes on to tell us why. It is the entire lack of heroine in her composition that first attracts, then captivates Henry Tilney: “You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature.” When the odious John Thorpe manoeuvres Catherine into what seems like an an act of great rudeness towards the Tilneys, who are subsequently cool towards her:

Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.

In other words, Catherine doesn’t create trouble by dramatising everything, least of all herself. This is most significantly illustrated when after her first enjoyable encounter with Henry Tilney, she sees him a second time, but in company with another young woman:

He looked as handsome and lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasant-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already. But guided only by what was simple and probable, it had never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married… And therefore, instead of turning of a deathlike paleness, and falling in a fit on Mrs Allen’s bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses…

It was this specific passage that anchored my suspicions about Miss Austen and Miss Cuthbertson, because Rosabella (and for all I know, Miss Cuthbertson’s other heroines) is repeatedly guilty of exactly this kind of melodramatic misinterpretation. Compare the language of this following passage to that in which we hear of Catherine Morland’s “simple and probable” reaction, and you’ll see what I mean:

…for in that very chaise Rosa beheld Lord Montalbert performing a têteà-tête journey with Lady Meliora Monson! Could Rosa doubt what sanctioned this? No, she could not; and in heart-rending agony poor Rosabella fainted.

And okay, maybe seeing a young man and woman alone together might lead you to assume an intimate relationship; but there’s no excuse whatsoever for this:

    But instead of these eager glances encountering her whom they sought, or any of the fugitive party, she suddenly beheld those whom of all the world she expected least to see there—Mr Trench and Egremont—not the Egremont overpowered by horror and distress she had last beheld him, but in all the brilliant bloom and animation of health and happiness; on whose arm familiarly hung a young female of uncommon loveliness, elegantly attired, and to whom his attention was wholly devoted at the moment, listening to what she was uttering with the most intense interest and a countenance beaming with affectionate admiration.
    To the prompt apprehension of the dismayed Rosabella this lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation; and with this belief a pang, stunning to every faculty, shot through her anguished bosom; and whilst endeavouring at articulation, to inform her companion she was not well, she fell, bereft of sense and power…

And the young woman on Egremont’s arm? His friend’s wife, who he has been asked to escort. Bereft of sense, indeed…

Just look at the parallels between this passage and that describing Henry Tilney escorting his sister: parallels that last right up to the denouement of each, when they abruptly part company. Amusingly, although the satire is Miss Austen’s, the exaggeration is all Miss Cuthbertson’s. Thus, for Catherine, It never entered her head that Mr Tilney could be married, while to Rosabella, with her “prompt apprehension”, This lady stood confessed as the mysterious cause of their sudden heart-rending separation. You’ll never find a better illustration of the difference between “natural” and “heroic” behaviour.

I could go on – and on. There are plenty of other specific examples I could quote – like the fact that when Rosabella’s motives are misunderstood, instead of trying to fix things regardless of who is at fault, like Catherine Morland, she stays silent, In the pride of conscious rectitude… – but in the end it’s not the details themselves which are convincing so much as the cumulative effect of, as it were, reading this novel through the prism of Jane Austen’s teasing.

I might also add that while I believe that Miss Austen read Miss Cuthbertson’s novels, Miss Cuthbertson apparently did not return the favour; or at least, she couldn’t have read Emma. I refuse to believe that if she had done so, she could possibly go on to write a novel wherein all the married people are referred to as cara sposa / caro sposo – and with a straight face:

“…which, I trust, may prove a happy one,” said Lady Derville; “and that Mrs. Dolittle will, by the safe convoy of your treasure home, restore you to yourself; as I very much wish my old cheerful friend, Mrs. O’Dowd, and her gallant caro sposo, to give me the pleasure of their company this day at dinner…”

“…my head was so empty of mundane knowledge, that, had you managed me, instead of turning me out of doors, I would have flown with you from the aforesaid Myrtle’s Town to the land of uncontrolled marriage. So, rely upon it, child, it was all your own romantic sentimentalities, that alone prevented your being now my cara sposa…”

“You could not have a better counsellor than my sposa,” said Lord Flowerdew; “adopt her plans, and the pelf will fly. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, liberate the debtor from prison, visit the sick, comfort old age, and provide refuge for the destitute for that is the way my cara spends her sposo’s money in the country…”

Unbelievable.

Now…although through reading Rosabella I became convinced in my own mind that I was on the right track here, I might have kept all this to myself if it were not for one final touch – not the last straw so much as the cherry on the sundae. I’ve gone on trying to dig up some biographical information about Catherine Cuthbertson, although with no success. However, it did occur to me that while I call her, and was searching for her, under the name “Catherine”, her contemporary readers tended to refer to her as “Kitty”. And it was when I was searching for “Kitty Cuthbertson” that I came across this, in an essay by Martin Steinmann Jr, one of the editors of the book From Jane Austen To Joseph Conrad:

There was only one novel-reading public, and every novelist had this public in mind. Today the publics of Dr Cronin and Joyce are quite discrete (how odd it would be to find that Kingsley Amis reads Faith Baldwin, as Jane Austen did Kitty Cuthbertson, with pleasure)…

My friends…I could not even BEGIN to tell you how utterly full of myself I felt, when I came across that passage.

Mind you, that remark of Steinmann’s comes completely unsupported; no source is given for his assertion. However, its very matter-of-factness gives me confidence in its accuracy. I’m guessing that Miss Cuthbertson is discussed somewhere within Jane’s letters, which shame on me, I’ve never read. Does anyone out there know for certain?

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.