Posts tagged ‘literary criticism’


Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose

















To date we have seen the various tropes that would finally come together to form the Gothic novel appear in fits and starts, usually putting in only brief appearances within the framework of the sentimental novel. The next fictional step in the process was a mere fragment of prose, an experimental piece of writing that appeared amongst a number of non-fiction essays and critical writings that comprise 1773’s Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose.

John Aikin was a qualified doctor who practised for some years in the north of England before relocating to Norfolk and finally to London, where he gave up his medical career to concentrate on writing. Initially Aikin was known for his pamphlets of social criticism and his views on the liberty of the conscience, but later he became the first editor of The Monthly Magazine.

Anna Laetitia Aikin, now better known by her married name of Barbauld, was an important figure in late 18th century literature, until her political opinions (viewed as “radical” and “unpatriotic”) killed her popularity in the early 19th century, and saw her largely expunged from the record; although various feminist writers are now attempting to re-establish her. At the outset of her career, Anna Laetitia worked as a teacher while publishing treatises on childhood education and stories for children; her theories on education were widely adopted. She was one of the first female literary critics, and later the editor of an anthology of 18th century British novels; she was also a poet and essayist of note. In conjunction with her brother, John, across 1792-1795 she wrote and published Evenings At Home, a set of writings intended to encourage family readings, particularly amongst the newly literate, which were hugely popular all over Europe.

However, John and Anna Laetitia Aikin first published together in 1773. Their Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose is exactly what its title suggests, a collection of writings of various themes and approaches, but mostly focused upon how art and literature achieve their effects. It has been asserted that Anna Laetitia wrote the bulk of these pieces, and while no justification for this view has been forthcoming, I’m inclined to agree with it for reasons of my own. Reading these essays close together, it is evident that there are two different voices within the writings, and that the major contributor (i) is familiar with the state of English popular fiction; and (ii) has a sense of humour.

Though only a sliver of this volume is relevant to our purposes, here is a brief overview of the rest of the contents:

On The Province Of Comedy: – an essay describing the functioning of “the ludicrous” in plays, and distinguishing between the effects achieved through character, and those achieved through incident.

The Hill Of Science, A Vision: – an allegorical sketch (populated with symbolic characters, a la John Bunyan) differentiating the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of happiness.

Seláma; An Imitation Of Ossian: – a florid tale of medieval conflict and doomed love. Although this passage doesn’t get highlighted in discussions of this collection (possibly because of the still-ongoing debate about “Ossian”), it too presents a number of the themes and situations that would later sustain the Gothic novel.

Against Inconsistency In Our Expectations: – a philosophical essay arguing for reasonable expectations and ambitions as the basis of happiness and content (and warning about the reverse).

The Canal And The Brook. A Reverie: – a romantic piece defending the irregular beauty of the brook against the sterile utility of the canal (with both bodies of water speaking for themselves).

On Monastic Institutions: – an essay arguing that despite the inherent failings of the whole Catholics-and-monks arrangement (the Aikins were Nonconformists), monasteries played an important role in education and the preservation and propagation of fine literature and art; and were also important in a broad moral sense.

On The Heroic Poem Of ‘Gondibert’: – the toughest piece of the lot, an overlong examination of the criticisms made of William Davenant’s epic poem, Gondibert, and an equally overlong defence of it.

A Tale: – another allegorical story, about the coming to earth of the children of the gods: Love, Joy, Hope, Sorrow, etc., etc.


The remaining three pieces need to be examined in more detail, as they both shed some light on the peculiar mindset which we have noticed in many of the novels of this period, and point forward to the further development of this branch of writing.

On Romances, An Imitation is an essay commenting upon the peculiar place occupied in society by the writer of popular fiction, pointing out that while the products of most professions (concrete or theoretical) reach only a limited and pre-defined audience, the writer of fiction can reach almost everyone. It then segues into the question (so very pertinent in the second half of the 18th century, when the sentimental novel was at its peak and the Gothic novel on the horizon) of why reading about other people’s miseries should be so attractive to so many:

It is, indeed, no ways extraordinary that the mind should be charmed by fancy, and attracted by pleasure; but that we should listen to the groans of misery, and delight to view the exacerbations of complicated anguish, that we should chuse to chill the bosom with imaginary fears, and dim the eyes with fictitious sorrow, seems a kind of paradox of the heart…

(“Complicated anguish”—goodness me, what a perfect summation of 18th century fiction!)

An Enquiry Into Those Kinds Of Distresses Which Excite Agreeable Sensations is an examination of a phenomenon which we have noticed often enough at this blog: the tendency of sentimental novels to pile on the misery, not infrequently to the extent of a thoroughly unhappy ending, and featuring scenes wherein other people’s sufferings are not only treated as a kind of performance art, a perverse “entertainment”, but as a source of empathetic emotion so strong that it can induce crying and fainting in the other characters: which is, however, tacitly viewed as a desirable, even pleasurable, outcome. The underlying implication is that readers would, likewise, find scenes of misery pleasurable:

It is undoubtedly true, though a phenomenon of the human mind difficult to account for, that the representation of distress frequently gives pleasure; from which general observation many of our modern writers of tragedy and romance seem to have drawn this inference, that in order to please they have nothing to do than paint distress in natural and striking colours. With this view, they heap together all the afflicting events and dismal accidents their imagination can furnish; and when they have half broke the reader’s heart, they expect he should thank them for his agreeable entertainment…

(“Afflicting events and dismal accidents”— Note to self: write an analysis of 18th century sentimental literature and publish it under that title.)

Anna Laetitia (and I’m quite sure this is Anna Laetitia talking) goes on to reprove contemporary authors for overdoing it; or at least, for being indiscriminate in the kinds and degrees of miseries that they pile into their novels:

The view or relation of mere misery can never be pleasing. We have, indeed, a strong sympathy with all kinds of misery; but it is a feeling of pure unmixed pain, similar in kind, though not equal in degree to what we feel for ourselves on the like occasion; and never produces that melting sorrow, that thrill of tenderness, to which we give the name of pity. There are two different sensations, marked by very different external expression. One causes the nerves to tingle, the flesh to to shudder, and the whole countenance to be thrown into strong contractions; the other relaxes the frame, opens the features, and produces tears…

Of the latter she then goes on to add:

…there must be some other sentiment combined with this kind of instinctive sympathy, before it becomes in any degree pleasing, or produces the sweet emotion of pity. This sentiment is love, esteem, the complacency we take in the contemplation of beauty, of mental or moral excellence, called forth and rendered more interesting, by circumstances of pain and danger. Tenderness is, much more properly than sorrow, the spring of tears; for it affects us in that manner whether combined with joy or grief; perhaps more in the former case than the latter. And I believe we may venture to assert that no distress which produces tears is wholly without a mixture of pleasure…

While she is speaking in the context of the novel, we note that Anna Laetitia is here referring to the social theories expounded by the Deists (which we considered in detail with respect to James R. Foster’s History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England), who contended that the indulgence of positive emotions – those name-checked here, love, esteem, pity, tenderness – made the individual a better, a more moral person. (The downside of this is that the pursuit of “sensibility” produced a lot of ridiculous posturing, both fictional and in reality.)

The essay then goes on to argue that in this arena, the novel has a great advantage over the drama, because it is able to focus upon the small and the delicate, whereas plays have to strive for big effects. Yet it is the following criticism of where novels tend to get it wrong that really grabs the attention:

Tragedy and romance-writers are likewise apt to make too free with the more violent expressions of passion and distress, by which means they lose their effect. Thus an ordinary author does not know how to express any strong emotion otherwise than by swooning or death; so that a person experienced in this kind of reading, when a girl faints away at parting with her lover, or a hero kills himself for the loss of his mistress, considers it as the established etiquette upon such occasion, and turns over the pages with the utmost coolness and unconcern…

More ‘Advice To Aspiring Writers’ follows:

Scenes of distress should not be too long continued… It is…highly necessary in a long work to relieve the mind by scenes of pleasure and gaiety; and I cannot think it so absurd a practice as our modern delicacy has represented it, to intermix wit and fancy with the pathetic, provided care be taken not to check the passions while they are flowing… Those who have touched the strings of pity with the finest hand have mingled light strokes of pleasantry and mirth in their most pathetic passages. Very different is the conduct of many novel writers, who by plunging us into scenes of distress without end or limit, exhaust the powers, and before the conclusion either renders us insensible to every thing, or fix a real sadness upon the mind…

…or induce uncontrollable giggling, as the case might be.

Interestingly enough, the essay concludes by suggesting that the over-indulgence of “sensibility” tends to blunt the capacity for sympathy and pity, rather than augment it—as was contended by many of the Deists, who viewed the novel as a sort of training exercise, to be used to keep the emotions flexible when no real circumstances of misery were available. Specifically, it is argued, novels raise virtuous emotions without offering an outlet for them in action, and this in turn blunts and inhibits those emotions. Furthermore, by making misery too “pretty”, novels tend to give people a disgust of the real thing, killing the charitable impulse.

But the best novels do exactly what they are intended to do, make people better for reading them:

Yet there is a species of this kind of writing which must ever afford an exquisite pleasure to persons of taste and sensibility; where noble sentiments are mixed with well fancied incidents, pathetic touches with dignity and grace, and invention with chaste correctness.

Alas! – no examples are offered. Instead, the allegorical A Tale follows.

But while these views on the state of literature, circa 1770, are fascinating, what we’re really here for is a related essay.

One of the most influential pieces of writing published during the 18th century was Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay, A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful, which first insisted upon the inherent pleasure of apparently negative situations and emotions. Burke’s arguments, though much more thoroughly and emphatically presented, are generally those we have just seen used by Anna Laetitia in her contention that, No distress which produces tears is wholly without a mixture of pleasure. Burke is likewise the origin of the argument for two different physical reactions to different kinds or degrees of misery: One causes the nerves to tingle, the flesh to to shudder, and the whole countenance to be thrown into strong contractions; the other relaxes the frame, opens the features, and produces tears.

Here, however, we are concerned with the first reaction. It was Burke’s belief that:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is Astonishment; and Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Critically in respect of the development of the Gothic novel, which seized this idea and ran with it, Burke further contended that the ruling principle of the sublime was terror—that is, the sublime could be so overwhelming as to induce a fear that was nevertheless pleasurable.

This is the point picked up in On The Pleasures Derived From Objects Of Terror. Having considered in the previous essay the pleasures of misery, this one considers the still more perverse pleasures of terror, at least in the realm of literature. An argument is made here that the power of the tale of terror—one shared by all fiction, to a greater or lesser extent–is its capacity to create suspense and raise curiosity:

We rather chuse to suffer the smart pain of a violent emotion than the uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire. That this principle, in many instances, may involuntarily carry us through what we dislike, I am convinced from experience. This is the impulse which renders the poorest and most insipid narrative interesting when we once get fairly into it; and I have frequently felt it with regard to our modern novels, which, if lying on my table, and taken up in an idle hour, have led me through the most tedious and disgusting pages, while, like Pistol eating his leek, I have swallowed and execrated to the end. And it will not only force us through dullness, but through actual torture…

(Hey, we’ve all been there!)

But is this really sufficient to account for the willingness, eagerness, of readers to be scared?

    This solution, however, does not satisfy me with respect to the well-wrought scenes of artificial terror which are formed by a sublime and vigorous imagination. Here, though we know before-hand, what to expect, we enter into them with eagerness, in quest of a pleasure already experienced. This is the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects. A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps it on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we”, our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.
    Hence, the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it…

(So the next time someone asks me why I like horror movies, I’ll have an answer.)

In this context, we are given some examples—One Thousand And One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights), in particular the stories of Aladdin and Sinbad; The Castle Of Otranto (naturally); and a particular segment of Tobias Smollett’s Ferdinand, Count Fathom:

…where the hero, entertained in a lone house in a forest, finds a corpse just slaughtered in the room where he is sent to sleep, and the door of which is locked upon him…

But is not this essay in itself which qualifies Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose for a place in the timeline of the Gothic Novel, but the fact that it is appended by an attempt at the sort of writing just described.

Sir Betrand, A Fragment finds its eponymous hero lost on the moors with night closing in. He is close to despair when he hears a tolling bell, and sees too a distant light. He follows these welcome signals to the edge of a moat surrounding a desolate and crumbling castle. He ventures across the draw-bridge into the courtyard, and finally works up the courage to knock upon the massive doors of the castle proper; even as the faint light comes and goes, sometimes plunging him into total darkness:

A third time he knocked, and a third time all was still. He then fell back to some distance that he might discern whether any light could be seen in the whole front—It again appeared in the same place and quickly glided away as before—at the same instant a deep sullen toll sounded from the turret. Sir Bertrand’s heart made a fearful stop—He was a while motionless; then terror impelled him to make some hasty steps towards his steed—but shame stopt his flight; and urged by honour, and a resistless desire of finishing the adventure, he returned to the porch; and working up his soul to a full steadiness of resolution, he drew forth his sword with one hand, and with the other lifted up the latch of the gate. The heavy door, creaking upon its hinges, reluctantly yielded to his hand—he applied his shoulder to it and forced it open—he quitted it and stept forward—the door instantly shut with a thundering clap. Sir Bertrand’s blood was chilled—he turned back to find the door, and it was long ere his trembling hands could seize it—but his utmost strength could not open it again…

Forced to go onwards, Sir Bertrand finds more strange and terrifying adventures awaiting him, including an encounter with a ghostly figure with a bloody stump instead of a hand. He makes his way into a huge room occupied only by a coffin:

At the same moment the lid of the coffin flew open, and the bell tolled. The flame still glided forwards, and Sir Bertrand resolutely followed, till he arrived within six paces of the coffin. Suddenly, a lady in a shrowd and black veil rose up in it, and stretched out her arms towards him…

And so on…but, critically, to no conclusion. Sir Bertrand, A Fragment is just a fragment, with no beginning or end, and no explanation of its events—and it is precisely this, the context-free and therefore disorientating nature of Sir Bertrand’s adventures, that gives it its power. (Whereas the later Gothic novels, feeling obliged to explain themselves, very often fall apart at the last.) This piece of short fiction, only 1500 words long, packing into its narrow confines an amusing plethora of touches later to become tropes, has long been recognised as an important step in the evolution of literary horror in Britain: no other piece of writing at this time is so intent upon horrors for their own sake.

We should note too that Sir Bertrand’s behaviour mirrors that attributed to readers by the author when explaining the attractions of the horror story, wherein he chooses to enter the castle rather than flee by, A resistless desire of finishing the adventure. Knowing, however terrifying, is better than not knowing.



Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 1)

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or to put it another way—she wrote fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, my God.

Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God…

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

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

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

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

[To be continued]