Posts tagged ‘non-fiction’

12/01/2017

Miscellaneous Pieces, In Prose

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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, is 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, she 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.

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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 argued for the inherent pleasure of apparently negative situations and emotions. His arguments, much more thoroughly and emphatically argued, 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, too, is 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.

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10/01/2016

Search Your Soul, Eustace

maison1bSo valuable seem these novels as powerfully revealing searchlights focused upon the Victorian spiritual scene, and as sensitive seismographic recordings of the cracks and upheavals in the accepted religious tradition, that they deserve a better fate than the neglect accorded to them by the mid-twentieth century. For, despite the advance of modern scholarship towards a reinterpretation of Victorian literature, our rich and abundant heritage of religious novels remains largely untouched. Its very abundance is probably a drawback, for the reader is presented with such an overwhelming embarrass de richesse that he scarcely knows where to begin. Our own very different religious climate also puts these novels at a disadvantage; so many of the stories run counter to the trend of modern taste and may inspire the reader of today with little more than boredom, revulsion or irreverent amusement. But there are splendid treasures among the huge dust-heaps and even those novels most sadly lacking in literary talent or spiritual profundity still remain for us as precious clues to the understanding of the Victorian march of mind. They are worth at least a glance or two, and, using for the sake of clarity the denominational framework of Christian belief in Victorian England, this survey will attempt to give the modern reader a glimpse, swift and superficial though it may be, into some of the many religious novels that so affected his Victorian forefathers, shaking or strengthening them in their beliefs, moving them to tears or paroxysms of rage, filling them with doubt and despair or bringing them to repentance and conversion.

As this quote rightly points out, the Victorian religious novel is one of the most important but least studied subgenres of 19th century literature—probably less because of subsequent shifts in beliefs, attitudes and interests than (as this quote also suggests) the gruelling nature of the material to be worked through. Still—a few brave academics have made the journey. We have already considered Joseph Ellis Baker’s 1932 study, The Novel And The Oxford Movement; the next notable work in this area was Search Your Soul, Eustace: A Survey Of The Religious Novel In The Victorian Age by Margaret Maison, published in 1961.

This later study differs from its predecessor in three important ways. Firstly – or so it seems to me – Dr Maison has less of a personal axe to grind: whereas Joseph Baker both admitted a bias in his views, in that he was a practising Catholic, and consequently omitted any notice in his work of the pro- and anti-Catholic wrangling that forms a significant aspect of the Victorian religious novel, Maison displays no personal bent, but examines each branch of this subgenre with interest. Secondly, as the title of her study indicates, Maison is detached enough to be fully alive to the inadvertent humour of this form of writing, which makes this a much easier work to read and enjoy. And thirdly, a related point, Maison understands (ii) that a bad novel is not necessarily an unentertaining novel, and (ii) that a bad novel can tell its reader just as much, if not more, about the society that produced it than a good one. She also has a keen eye for those works which are worth reading, as novels.

Maison begins by outlining the prevailing conditions at the time of the Oxford Movement, a period which saw the birth of the Victorian religious novel. It can be difficult these days to imagine the deadly seriousness of this conflict, and to grasp that it expressed itself not just in literary sniping, but in book-burning, attacks on churches, and violence in the streets:

    If England escaped the horrors of a revolution in the Victorian age her National Church did not. The history of the Church of England during this time is a stirring record of warfare, struggle, persecution, agonised secession and fiercest conflict, differences in religious belief causing hostilities not merely confined to verbal clashes, lawsuits and imprisonments but extending to the level of actual physical fighting…
    The Anglican Church had indeed awakened from her eighteenth century slumbers to become a real Church Militant. It was unfortunate, however, that so much of her war was internal, that the enemy was within as well as without, and that, in addition to the attacks of scientists and biblical critics, rationalists and agnostics, the hostilities of Dissent and the audacities of “papal aggression”, she had to contend with innumerable battles among her own ranks. The three principal groups in the Church of England, High, Low and Broad, were frequently at daggers drawn, and controversy raged throughout most of Victoria’s reign, the ritualism that marked the second phase of the Oxford Movement causing even greater uproars and the growth of religious liberalism provoking the increasing wrath of its opponents as the century progressed. High attacked Low and Broad, Low and Broad attacked High, Broad attacked Low, Low attacked Broad, confusions within the parties themselves making matters worse, for each group had its moderates, its extremists and various divergences, giving every appearance of a reign of anarchy within the one Church…

It was the Tractarians – in particular, William Gresley and Francis Paget – who first realised the potential of the novel as propaganda for their cause. However, it is important that we realise how much resistance there was at first to this form of writing: using religion as the basis of a novel, turning it into a form of mere entertainment, was considered by many people to be the height of disrespect. The early novelists were very mindful of this—with the result that you can search some of their works with the proverbial fine-tooth comb and not find anything that resembles “entertainment”:

    …”red-hot Puseyite stories” and “Oxford Movement tales”…flourished considerably in the eighteen-forties and fifties and were enthusiastically welcomed by keen Tractarians.
    Today, however, even the most devout High Anglican would survey these novels with a more critical eye. Their faults are glaring. Clumsy in technique, clumsy in construction, they are deficient in plot, characterisation and entertainment value. In general they conform to two set patterns and describe two imaginary types of lives—either the history of a chastened penitent or the life and opinions of a kind of propaganda prig.

Maison’s opening chapter proper, dealing with Tractarian fiction, is in fact entitled “Prigs, Pews And Penitents“: much to my delight, she tends to refer to the lead character of these tales not as “the hero”, but as “the prig”; a habit that almost leads me to forgive her for the fact that it was, almost certainly, as a result of my first reading of Search Your Soul, Eustace some years back that both the rabidly Tractarian Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years and its equally rabid factional enemy, Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church, found their way onto The List.

But apparently I haven’t yet learned my lesson, because Maison’s comments about Gresley’s 1841 novel, Charles Lever; or, The Man Of The Nineteenth Century, really make me want to read it. After dismissing the “prig” novels as simply “monologue and disputation”, and noting with amusement the Tractarian fixation upon church restoration and pew-building – to which subjects, entire books were devoted – she moves onto the generally more interesting “penitent fiction”:

The lives of the penitents are slightly more colourful, and in describing the temptations into which the erring heroes are led the authors had more scope both for narrative and for imaginative writing, although they are somewhat hampered by early Victorian moral and literary conventions, as Gresley’s Charles Lever shows. Charles is the victim of Satanic influences, a Dissenting father and a Latitudinarian schoolmaster who teaches him “a sort of general religion”… Poor Charles inevitably becomes a Liberal, then a Socialist and then apparently something too dreadful to mention. “We must draw a veil over some portion of our hero’s life,” says the author discreetly.

Most of the early religious novels are painful, slogging affairs, dogmatic lectures thinly disguised as fiction. In their terror of being accused of denigrating religion, the novelists of this time – Tractarian or Evangelical, but exclusively male – shied away from including any recognised fiction conventions in their books, evincing a particular terror of the love-plot.

Ironically enough, we may say that it was the female novelists who “saved” the religious novel; or at least who, for better or worse, extended its lifespan for decades by showing how it should be written. On the whole women were very hesitant to get involved in this area: feeling that religious practice and church dogma were matters beyond their understanding, and that to speak of them was to step outside their proper sphere, they looked around for other ways of supporting and promoting their religious beliefs in their novels—and began to write stories of how religious faith impacted ordinary daily life. Nor did these women see any reason to avoid a love story, often describing marriages built upon a shared faith and practice (or the catastrophe of the reverse). Consequently, the religious novels written by women are real novels, with plots and characters as well as religious propaganda; and unsurprisingly, they are usually far easier to digest than those of their male counterparts.

However—this does not mean that they are not sometimes just as terrible…

One of the most misunderstood pieces of 19th century writing is George Eliot’s essay, Silly Novels By Scribbling Women, which far too many people interpret as a bit of arrogance on Eliot’s part, dismissive of all female writers but herself. This is because they haven’t read it. In fact, Eliot’s essay is chiefly focused upon the religious novel: it does not really address the authors in question – though she is very critical of those novels which went too far in the opposite direction, forcing a church-plot upon a conventional love story and then preening themselves upon being “religious” – but rather criticises the publishers who encouraged this sort of nonsense, and were thus, in her opinion, responsible for the very denigration of religion that the early novelists had feared. We should also note that is was the Evangelical novel that Eliot was particularly attacking.

The specific novel that provoked Eliot was The Old Grey Church by Caroline Lucy Scott (aka Lady Scott), from 1856:

…the heroine’s father, a banker, cannot resist temptation and commits the crime of forgery. This unfortunate man, the author tells us, “was by birth, education and manners quite what is termed a gentleman; but the horrid trade in which he was engaged—that of money-making—had by degrees hardened and even vulgarised both his mind and feelings.” This sinner, as we might expect, is hanged at Newgate, after a last minute repentance and conversion when, we are told, “his prison-house became to him a passage,—an entry into the gates of heaven.” This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero…who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness, from opera tickets to frivolous fiancées, and ends up as a missionary in India (that country being the favourite missionary field for the Evangelicals).

Shortly afterwards, Eliot herself began writing fiction – Evangelical fiction, which is why she was so sensitive to bad writing in this area. Maison treats these writings with the proper respect, both for their moral and literary qualities, and most closely analyses Scenes From Clerical Life.

However, Eliot was not the only good female novelist in this area; and Maison highlights and praises three High Church ladies: Charlotte Yonge, Elizabeth Sewell and Felicia Skene. Yonge and Sewell can be a bit of a challenge these days, between the former’s rabid anti-feminism and the latter’s philosophy of complete female subjugation. The wild card here is Felicia Skene who, after an attempt to subjugate herself in the manner recommended by Sewell, broke free and began a new life as a social reformer, also boldly writing novels with daring subject matter such as prison conditions and prostitution.

On the other side of the fence, Eliot excepted, Maison struggles to find praiseworthy female authors, at least in the sense of quality:

    …from the eighteen-fifties onwards Evangelical writers busied themselves with sensational rather than psychological fiction and produced some very trashy tales of murders, hangings, elopements, shipwrecks, deathbeds full of unutterable agony, and dozens of wildly improbable conversions, all conveniently attributed to divine grace. In vain did the Pure Literature Society (founded in 1854 with three archbishops and sixteen bishops on the committee) rail against contemporary taste—the rising tide of sensationalism was too powerful to control. In 1863 the Religious Tract Society felt itself bound to lay down “the essential rules for healthful fiction”, insisting that it should be moral (not investing vice with interest), natural (not exaggerating its characters) and unexciting (not arousing the passions). But the rules were frequently broken by Evangelicals and although writers like Miss Fanny Mayne (a stalwart denouncer of sensationalism and champion of “a purified penny press”) kept within the prescribed limits and wrote about good working-class heroines who cooked their fathers’ dinners and did needlework for ladies and clung tenaciously to their Bibles, such stories did not please the public nearly as much as the more eventful and exciting ones.
    Hence the secret of Miss Worboise’s popularity. Emma Jane Worboise (Mrs Guyton) was a zealous Low Church writer who produced nearly fifty novels in which religious, domestic and sensational elements are all judiciously blended. She tells her stories well, and her portrayals of domestic life are not without psychological skill; indeed; she has left us several quite penetrating studies of the husband-wife relationship…

On the religious side, however:

Miss Worboise’s main interest…is in showing how people are brought to God… But her characters are always converted after some highly dramatic event, some bereavement or great shock or tragic calamity. It is no doubt a well-attested truth that God does draw many souls to Him through profoundly shattering experiences of this kind, but the frequency with which Miss Worboise employs this method of making conversions in her novels suggests that in her conception of the Divine Plan she attached an exaggerated importance to shock-tactics.

Before you ask—yes of course Miss Worboise is on The List; while I can’t leave this section of Search Your Soul, Eustace without quoting this passing observation from Dr Maison:

In minor Victorian fiction, governesses who are disguised wives are nearly as common as clergymen who are disguised Jesuits.

(We’ll get to the Jesuits in a minute…)

While the 19th century religious novel was thematically dominated by High Church / Low Church brawling, the Broad Church faction also weighed in on the conflict, in novels that appear to differ from their fellows chiefly in the occasional display of a sense of humour! Maison singles out F. W. Robinson in this respect, praising him for “satire without bitterness”. Furthermore:

Ridicule is indeed a weapon that Broad Church novelists use with considerable success, and it is not surprising that the most amusing religious novel of the century should come from a Liberal pen. The Reverend W. J. Conybeare’s Perversion (1856) is a neglected masterpiece of humorous fiction. (Lest the title might appear misleading, it should be noticed that the word “perversion” in popular Victorian usage had a religious and not a sexual significance, and to pervert or ‘vert meant to apostatise.) This book is written with the excellent purpose of showing how “the inconsistency, extravagance or hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians” has the effect of driving the young into infidelity, and it tells the story of a young man’s quest for faith and his wanderings in the mazes of ecclesiastic conflict and labyrinths of scepticism that characterise the mid-Victorian spiritual scene… Conybeare’s clerical portraits, his descriptions of the free-thinkers’ club at Oxford, and, mirabile dictu, life among the Mormons in America, are some of the funniest pieces of writing in all religious fiction…

Having devoted approximately half her text to this mainstream in-fighting, Maison then looks outwards, devoting a chapter each to the minority religions, and to those novels dealing with the loss of, or lack of, religious faith.

Though Catholicism appears most frequently in the 19th century novel in the form of anti-Catholicism, Catholic novelists also had plenty to say. First and foremost amongst them, of course, was John Henry Newman, whose conversion to Roman Catholicism was to the Tractarians like a bomb going off in their midst. (While we can easily imagine the astonished glee of the Evangelicals: “We warned you! We warned you, but you wouldn’t listen!”) After the event, Newman provided an account of his experiences in Loss And Gain, one of the most important Catholic novels.

But as Maison points out, nearly all the Catholic novels dealt with a conversion, and many of them were written by converts: this branch of religious fiction seems almost entirely driven by the need to explain the irresistible pull of faith. A particularly interesting novelist is Lady Georgiana Fullerton, who began to write novels at a time when her she was questioning her own faith, and did so throughout the process of her conversion to Catholicism and beyond. We should also note the sad case of Elizabeth Harris, who converted to Catholicism and then regretted it. She stayed within her new church, however—and began writing novels that warned people off converting!

Most of the Catholic novels are serious and well-intentioned, whatever their literary qualities. The same cannot be said for the anti-Catholic novel, however, nor for its perpetual villain, The Wicked Jesuit (who was sometimes granted a side-kick in the form of The Wicked She-Jesuit):

    Few modern horror comics could equal in crudity, sadism, hysteria and blood-curdling violence the story of Jesuits in popular Victorian fiction. From the best-selling literature of the day we see that the Jesuit loomed large in Protestant imagination as a villain of the blackest dye, a spy, a secret agent, suave, supercilious and satanically unscrupulous, laying his cunning plots for the submission of England to “Jesuit-ocracy”, wheedling rich widows, forcing his converts to change their wills in favour of his Order, or kneel in penitence almost naked for hours through chilly winter nights and to leave their families for life at a minute’s notice. When frustrated in his knavish tricks he would frequently gnash his teeth, foam at the mouth and write frantic letters in cypher…
    For the Jesuits were, to the average Englishman, objects of suspicion, fear and hatred throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, and the disguised Jesuit (sometimes referred to as a “crypto-Jesuit”) occupied the same place in popular fiction of the nineteenth century as the Communist spy in the fiction of today. The Oxford Movement, of course, increased the fear and hatred enormously, Tractarianism being considered by many Protestants as part of a devilish Jesuit plot to convert England—Puseyism, Popery and Jesuitism being to many unenlightened minds synonymous terms…

After noting the hysterical anti-Catholic fictions of Mary Martha Sherwood (best known for her hair-raising Evangelical children’s tale, The History Of The Fairchild Family), Maison becomes one of several academics to single out Hawkstone by William Sewell (brother of Elizabeth Sewell) as the very worst of the bunch:

Intending to show the British public what a ghastly mistake Newman had made in embracing the Scarlet Woman earlier that year, Sewell paints an abominable picture of Catholicism and makes his Jesuit villain a most loathsome character who foams at the mouth even more horribly than Mrs Sherwood’s Jesuits, and meets his death by being eaten alive by rats (full details given).

This branch of fiction also threw up another example of the kind of thing that made George Eliot tear her hair, with a number of female writers producing novels that posed as “religious” but were really about the thwarted agonies of Jesuits in love:

…in Miss Worboise’s Father Fabian (1875), a novel permitted for Sunday reading in many Protestant households, the hero, who has “a noble nature, warped and vitiated, forced…into uncongenial basesness”, falls in love with the governess in the wealthy household into which he has insinuated himself. To him too is meted out an untimely and repentant deathbed. (He also has a female accomplice, a “Jesuitess” with false curls, a “horrid little laugh” and a habit of putting emetic in people’s cough-mixtures.)

Catholic writers tried to push back against these two tides of nonsense—Maison particularly notes Grace Kennedy’s Father Oswald, A Genuine Catholic Story—but only succeeded in resembling the boy with his finger in the dyke.

When they weren’t having a go at the Catholics, Protestant authors of this ilk might be found having a go at the Dissenters:

If the Jesuit was only too often a nasty piece of work in Victorian fiction, so also was the Dissenter. But whereas the Jesuit and his intrigues were at least clever, exotic and exciting, the Dissenter was usually shown as ignorant, drab, provincial and depressing…

And while the Catholics were able to fight their own battle in this respect, the Dissenters faced an almost insuperable barrier:

    We have scores of satirical and hostile sketches and unfortunately, to offset them, we have very few religious novels describing the inner life of characters who find true faith in Dissent or who deepen and enrich their belief in any of the Free Churches…
    One reason for this is clear—the novel was not, among avowed Free Churchmen, the accepted medium for describing the life of the spirit Like some of the stricter Evangelicals in the Church of England, they considered the novel to be the Devil’s Bible, and the puritan conscience classed novel-reading with theatre-going and card-playing as worldly amusements sent by Satan to ensnare the soul…

Though a few Dissenters did defy this tacit ban in defence of their faith—the Methodist Hocking family prominent amongst them—they were often held by their fellows to have done more harm than good. The Dissenting minister, George MacDonald, who lost his job after antagonising his flock, turned to the novel in place of his pulpit, and found success with the general public, if not his own people. Elizabeth Gaskell, a Unitarian, dared to make a Nonconformist minister the effective hero of her controversial novel, Ruth, and to contrast him with him with his distinctly un-Christian Anglican counterpart.

More outside views, such as those presented by George Eliot in Adam Bede and Margaret Oliphant in Salem Chapel, were popular, but the most successful pro-Dissent novels were, curiously, usually imports from America, where the ban does not seem to have been interpreted so strictly (or maybe it was a Presbyterian thing):

Heroines of tender years were popular too, and several little girls exemplifying Nonconformist virtue in America crossed the Atlantic to invade the Victorian nursery. The most famous of these was Ellen in The Wide, Wide World (1851), a best-seller by the Presbyterian writer Elizabeth Wetherell (Susan Warner). Victorian maidens lapped up the story of Ellen’s trials and temptations, but amongst little boys it was not quite so welcome. Lord Frederick Hamilton tells us that, “In my early youth I was given a book to read about a tiresome little girl called Ellen Montgomery, who apparently divided her time between reading her pocket Bible and indulging in paroxysms of tears.” This tale, with its lively scenes of American life and its continual exhortations to remember “our dear Saviour”, “our best Friend”, “our Physician”, was approved by thousands of Protestant mothers, and Ellen’s popularity has survived to the extent of having her story serialised on BBC Children’s Television a hundred years later…

But while all might have been serene in the average Victorian nursery, the greater world outside was gripped by an unprecedented upheaval. Consequently, in the second half of the 19th century the religious novel found itself sitting side-by-side by something equally powerful and for many people much more emotionally true and moving, the novel of doubt:

For, although scepticism and unbelief have always existed and found a voice in literature, the dethronement of orthodoxy in the Victorian age was a major event of far-reaching consequences, and the reverberations from this mighty crash were minutely and accurately recorded in contemporary writings. Never has any age in history produced such a detailed literature of lost faith…
The Oxford Movement, by not letting sleeping clergy lie, and by showing that simple faith was not as simple as the ordinary Anglican imagined, raised a spectre of doubt, and although it quickened the faith of some to a new birth it almost completely destroyed the faith of others, while the conflicts that arose between science and orthodoxy, geology and Genesis, evolutionary theories and accepted beliefs, caused those warriors whose shield of faith was not very stout to find themselves miserably defeated… It would be interesting to compile a list of eminent Victorians who lost their faith in the fray, or to enumerate well-known figures who, having contemplated or been destined for a career in the ministry, were forced by their changing convictions to renounce it. (This latter group would include men so diverse as Carlyle, Clough, Ruskin, Morris, Butler, Pater, Hardy, Burne-Jones, Alfred Tennyson and his brother Frederick, J. A. Froude, Hale White and even Charles Darwin himself.)

In the middle of the century, doubters and free-thinkers were invariably either converted or killed off. While such themes remained in the later decades of the century (conversion became the more popular option), there arose a significant body of work in which such men – almost always men – were being treated as heroes by the novels that described them, and were as likely to convert someone else as be converted themselves.

Nevertheless, the main reason that the novel of doubt so captured the popular imagination was that they did not hesitate to depict all the pain and uncertainty associated with a change in belief: as Newman had admitted in 1844, there was loss as well as gain; and a shift in faith that might alienate an individual from all they had previously held dear was something to be treated with respect. It was this emotional and spiritual environment that gave birth to the era’s overwhelming best-seller, Mary Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere, the story of a young minister who loses his faith, not in God, but in Christianity (this was a distinction often made). Ward was drawing upon her own crises of faith, and she returned to the same theme in her 1898 novel, Helbeck Of Bannisdale, which most unusually and daringly is the story of a female sceptic.

But in spite of the predominance of pain, there were those novelists who depicted a loss of faith as a new kind of freedom, a throwing off of weighty shackles. Those who felt that this in itself constituted sufficient material for a novel often made their central character a doctor: dedicated, hard-working, self-sacrificing—and faith-free. Other novelists, however, spoke for those who felt a void where their religion used to be, and sought to fill it with—well, what?

The fin-de-siècle aesthetes and decadents notoriously replaced it with the worship of beauty; others promoted what in an earlier time would have been called “good works”, and argued that religion had no monopoly on morality, charity and goodness; others again, though setting aside conventional worship, sought eagerly for what we might call “the historical Jesus”: trying, in effect, to wipe the slate and start over.

It is with a variation upon this final theme that Maison leaves us:

    …Marie Corelli saved the situation by rushing in where more learned novelists feared to tread. Not only did she popularise New Testament fiction in England, but she rescued the religious novel from the somewhat depressing rut of practical rationalism and pessimism into which it had fallen and exalted it into the glorious, miraculous and often very dizzy heights of a most vivid and extraordinary  Christocentric supernaturalism… No religious novel from this amazing pen is complete without a series of swoons, trances, psychic experiences, visitations of angels and aerial spirits, and generally an ecstatic vision of Christ himself to crown the day.
    In spite of the very glaring defects and limitations of Marie Corelli’s style it is an undeniable fact that she brought zest, vitality vision and imagination to the Victorian religious fiction at a time when it most needed them…

Religious novels, yes; novels of faith, certainly; but of a kind so bizarre and unique, readers of fifty years earlier would probably have added them to the bonfire, while even some contemporary readers were shocked and horrified:

    Thus the reign of Queen Victoria drew to its close, with Christianity being aestheticised, extroverted and even “electrified”, and Marie Corelli and Mrs Humphry Ward in undisputed sway as rulers of the religious novel, both commanding an enormous reading public and sales beyond the dreams of earlier novelists… Gresley and Paget, the fathers of Victorian theological fiction, would have been extremely shocked at the thought of such staggering influence allied to such staggering doctrines, for Miss Corelli’s eccentric revellings in supernatural fantasy and Mrs Ward’s earnest efforts on the other side to cope with “the crumbling of the Christian mythology” testify alike to the dissolution of traditional belief. The nemesis of a faith had at last received its popular recognition and acclamation, and the religious novel, the most influential ethical teacher of the time, fed the hungry sheep of late Victorian England with spiritual fare that differed considerably from the popular brands of nourishment offered fifty years earlier…
    The sixty or more years that separate us from the end of Queen Victoria’s reign have witnessed such great changes in literary taste and religious atmosphere that the majority of Victorian fictional sources of spiritual illumination, whether orthodox or unorthodox, Puseyite or Corellian, “infidel” or “perverted”, are now condemned to oblivion by the common reader of today, who neither understands nor appreciates the complicated theological traditions of his forefathers, and who generally finds crime more exciting than religion in fiction.
    But to the Victorian common reader, as we have seen, religion was an intensely exciting and absorbing affair. Even the religious novels least capable of communicating that excitement, three-deckers full of heavy didactic stodge with leading characters that are mere insipid “moral portraitures”, stiff, clumsy and lifeless (Paget’s pew was not the only “wooden hero” of a Victorian tale)—even these novels partly atone for their failure as fiction by demonstrating their authors’ deep concern with the Christian faith and by helping us to untangle some of the complex skeins of thought and belief in the Victorian age.

So I’m an “uncommon reader”? Cool!

One curious point about Search Your Soul, Eustace: Margaret Maison does not reveal within its pages the source of her title. (I should note that some territories found that title too facetious: this book was also published as The Victorian Vision: Studies in the Religious Novel.) But she does leave us a clue.

We have already met The Old Grey Church, the novel that provoked George Eliot. Allow me to reveal what was previously hidden under an ellipse:

This story also boasts a very coy heroine, always blushing and swooning, and a smug clerical hero named Eustace who sternly rejects anything savouring of worldliness…

24/01/2015

A Forger’s Tale

savery4b    Most Australians would struggle to name the country’s first published novelist. Prior to researching this book that number would have included its author. While other literary pioneers are luxuriantly memorialised, Henry Savery seemed destined to dwell in obscurity – an author lost in the literary backstreets. Not for our Henry the glory of Henry Lawson Drive, with its postcard-perfect views over Sydney Harbour from McMahon’s Point. Nor anything approaching the mass adulation and leafy avenues accorded a whole anthology of English poets that can be found in Melbourne’s bayside ‘burb of Elwood.
    No, our writer’s name is cemented in history by an entirely nondescript street on the urban fringes of Canberra – and even this is a mere tributary of a larger road commemorating that more sentimental literary bloke, the poet CJ Dennis. At Point Cook in Victoria a tiny cul-de-sac bearing the maverick’s moniker pales into insignificance beside its more glamorously named neighbour, Miles Franklin Boulevard. But at least some history-savvy surveyor appears to have had the wit to call this little dead-end a court, a place in which our unhappy first novelist spent much time…

It turned out that one of my libraries held a copy of Rod Howard’s 2011 publication, A Forger’s Tale: The Extraordinary Story Of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist, so I thought before moving on in my overview of Australia fiction I would take a look at this non-fiction work to see if the representation of Henry Savery in my examination of Quintus Servinton was accurate, and if any more information on his life had come to light since the publication of Cecil Hadgraft’s biography of Savery in 1962.

In some ways, A Forger’s Tale is rather an odd piece of writing. It is biography, but told very much from Henry Savery’s own point of view; and it draws very heavily upon Quintus Servinton—to the point of taking various passages in the life of “Quintus”, which were of course based upon passages in Henry Savery’s own life, and turning them back into passages from Henry Savery’s life. In fact, for a few horrid moments at the outset I really thought I was going to be reading Quintus Servinton all over again (and I may say that Rod Howard seems to take it for granted, perhaps not unreasonably, that the reader of A Forger’s Tale has not read Quintus Servinton); but at length these fears were relieved. What Howard does here is call upon the historical record where there is an historical record, but where there is not, he allows Henry Savery to speak for himself.

Overall, A Forger’s Tale does three crucial things: it reveals the real people and places hidden behind Quintus Servinton‘s pseudonyms and fudging; it clears up the business of the guilty plea; and it offers an explanation for the persecution of Henry Savery following his arrival in Tasmania, which – much to my surprise, I admit – turns out to have been every bit as unjust and brutal as represented; although Henry himself was not (as he suggests in his novel) the real target: he simply had the misfortune to get caught in the middle of a political shitstorm.

As a consequence of these revelations, A Forger’s Tale offers a far more sympathetic portrait of Henry Savery than Cecil Hadgraft’s rather snippy biography; in some ways, perhaps too much so…

Understandably, A Forger’s Tale skips fairly quickly over the early years of Henry Savery’s life—that is, the first two volumes of Quintus Servinton. (There seems to be consensus on that point: Rod Howard quotes the review of the novel that appeared in the English magazine, The Athenaeum, which declared that only the third volume was worth reading, “…and even that might have been infinitely better.”) The story picks up at the point of Henry’s near fatal decision, in the wake of having been financially burned himself, to pass a forged bill; it reproduces the dinner-table conversation in which the horrified Henry learns that putting imaginary names on a bill is the same under the law as literal forgery. The person making this unwelcome revelation was an attorney named Watson, a colleague of Henry’s brother.

Two things are emphasised at this point: the amount of publicity given the arrest, trial and execution of “celebrity forger”, Henry Fauntleroy, and the attitude of Robert Peel. The newspapers did so well out of the Fauntleroy case that, it seems, they tried to exploit Henry Savery in the same way, turning his false £500 bill into merely the tip of a forgery iceberg and insisting that he spent the proceeds of his untold crimes on wine, women and song. Meanwhile, we learn that two years previously, Robert Peel himself had been the victim of a forger, who managed to elude the law and skip the country; it is suggested that he was particularly harsh upon forgers as a consequence, in addition to his loathing of “gentleman-criminals”. Evidently the judges of the time understood what Peel wanted in forgery cases and usually gave it to him; Quintus Servinton indirectly cites the case of John Wait, who was executed in spite of his jury’s recommendation to mercy.

Indeed, the more we learn about the circumstances, the more miraculous it seems that Henry did escape with his life.

The first suggestion of a guilty plea, introduced by Edward Protheroe (“Mr Rothero”), the former mayor of Bristol and a partner in the defrauded Copper Company, seems to have emanated from John Kaye, the solicitor for the Bank of England who was responsible for the bank’s forgery prosecutions, including that of John Wait. Kaye evidently told an associate of Protheroe, Levi Ames, that Wait should have entered a guilty plea.

Furthermore, Ames and his business partner, Stephen Cave, met with Protheroe and pressed upon him the wisdom of Henry Savery pleading guilty, citing not only the condemnation of Wait (who pleaded not guilty) but the case of Francis Greenway, who was told by his judge that he would have been hanged if he had not admitted his guilt. (Greenway, ironically, became a convict success story, gaining both reputation and wealth as a designer of public buildings in New South Wales.) Cave – who was a friend of Eliza Savery’s family, the Olivers – then called upon Henry and urged him likewise. He added that a certain Alderman Daniel had told him that, “Since Bristol was made a city there has been no occasion when the recommendation of the aldermen has been ignored.”

There are still some mysteries in this part of Henry Savery’s story, in particular this business of the aldermen being consulted (Ames and Cave were both aldermen, as well as Daniel), which simply seems not to have happened. Neither Cave nor Daniel had attended the trial, and afterwards Cave denied he had advised Henry to plead guilty: an assertion contradicted by Henry’s jailer, who had overheard their conversation. It also came to light that before the trial, Cave had confronted a solicitor called Bigg, a cousin of Eliza Savery, over the letter written by Henry to his father-in-law, Lionel Oliver, in which he summed up the pros and cons of the advice he was given: after reading the letter, Cave did not repudiate any of its contents.

Charles Savery petitioned Lord Gifford, the judge, but he was unmoved. Charles then undertook the thankless task of petitioning Robert Peel, only too well aware of how slender Henry’s chances were in that quarter. By then the part played by Stephen Cave had been exposed: Charles emphasised both this and, conversely, the grounds for acquittal, backing his legal petition with an actual petition for clemency carrying over two thousand signatures – including those of Henry’s plaintiffs. Henry’s great-uncle, Lord Manvers, also intervened. Finally – and very reluctantly – Robert Peel gave in, commuting Henry’s death sentence to transportation for life. But the whole business infuriated him, so that he never forgot the name “Henry Savery”…

An explanation is also provided in A Forger’s Tale for Henry’s preferential treatment before and during his journey to Australia—a rare instance in this story of someone paying his debts. While Henry was the proprietor of the newspaper, the Bristol Observer, he had dabbled in politics, coming out in strong support of a campaigning politician called Richard Hart Davis, who was duly elected. It was Hart Davis who used his influence to get Henry removed from the hulks to the hospital ship prior to his transportation, and saw that he was permitted to retain his ordinary clothing and mingle with the paying passengers, rather than being confined below decks with his fellow-convicts, during the journey to Tasmania. He also wrote to a friend, Major-General Ralph Darling, asking him to look after Henry following his arrival. However, Darling either forgot or couldn’t be bothered.

Despite this, Henry’s business and financial skills helped him land on his feet. He was immediately seconded for government duty, and devoted his leisure time to quietly doing work “off the books” for various local businessmen, earning a great deal more in that way than he did via his official employment. Eventually he entered into a business partnership with one Bartholomew Thomas, whose Cressy Company had won the exclusive contract to supply “the colony” with horses.  He also leased himself a small cottage, and started getting his life in order generally. So when Henry wrote to his wife, Eliza, talking up his position and urging her to join him, he wasn’t just blowing hot air.

With the shifting of the scene to Tasmania, the story told in A Forger’s Tale takes on a new air of confidence, for obvious reasons. From this point onwards Henry Savery’s own account of events is supported by a written record – newspapers, letters and journals that throw light on his numerous travails. In particular, we have the personal papers of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, to whom Rod Howard devotes a chapter of his book. Though Arthur’s full story need not concern us, he arrived in Tasmania in 1824 a deeply disgruntled man, with enemies slandering his name in England and a hostile reception waiting for him. His predecessor, William Sorell, was popular locally – chiefly due to his complete failure to actually do his job – and Arthur’s arrival was greeted with anything but an outpouring of joy. Disgusted by the state of the sloppily run penal colony, the puritanical, hard-line Arthur landed on Hobart Town like a ton of bricks.

And Hobart Town – led by Andrew Bent, proprietor of the Hobart Town Gazette (a convicted thief), his offsider, Robert Murray (a convicted bigamist), and local businessman, Anthony Kemp (a former soldier and habitual mutineer) – fought back.

For a variety of reasons – predominantly politics, profit, and sheer bastardry – these three men waged a destructive campaign against George Arthur; one which, in the long run, crippled him. The war was at its height in December of 1825, when Henry Savery arrived in Hobart Town—and found himself caught in the crossfire.

Henry’s very sensible plan for working through his sentence was to pull his head in, keep his mouth shut and stay not only out of trouble, but out of the public eye. He was assisted by his own snobbery: the “upper classes” of Hobart, who he thought of as his social equals, would have nothing to do with him, a convict, and he wanted nothing to do with his fellow-transportees. When he wasn’t working, he kept to himself. Consequently, his dismay upon opening the Colonial Times (renamed after George Arthur founded a government-sponsored newspaper and also called it the Hobart Town Gazette) and finding himself mentioned in a hostile – and largely inaccurate – article may well be imagined. Drawing parallels between him and the much more famous Henry Fauntleroy, the article highlighted Henry’s preferential shipboard treatment, drew attention to George Arthur’s appropriation of his skills, and claimed (wrongly) that Arthur had arranged another “soft berth” for him, in the shape of a superintendentship at the Colonial Hospital.

We need not follow the entire campaign that ensued. Suffice it to say that the account of Henry Savery’s persecution in Quintus Servinton is accurate—except that Henry saw himself as the target, whereas in reality he was just a stick to beat George Arthur with; but in any event, the two men’s names became inescapably linked. Arthur’s appropriation of Henry’s particular skill-set, which was at a premium in the struggling colony, infuriated its embryo business community and seems to have been the catalyst for much of what followed. Again and again, Henry was represented in the press as doing George Arthur’s dirty work, while a variety of false claims were made as to the nature of his government appointment(s)—it was reported, for instance, that he was the editor of Arthur’s version of the Hobart Town Gazette. In reality he was doing straightforward accounting and clerical work, first in the Colonial Secretary’s office, then at the Treasury.

In time the constant slanders had the inevitable effect: people began to look askance at Henry Savery and assume him to be in the wrong. In particular, when the Cressy Company failed – mostly due to Bartholomew Thomas’s mismanagement – it was assumed that Henry was really to blame; that in short, he’d been cooking the books. Finally Henry acquired a real and dangerous personal enemy in the shape of local solicitor, Gamaliel Butler, who was eventually responsible for his imprisonment for debt.

But always George Arthur was the real target. The accusations made against him were transmitted to England, with articles originating in the Colonial Times reprinted in the London papers and constant written complaints directed to the Home Secretary, Lord Bathurst. For reasons that are unclear (beyond Arthur’s personal unpopularity), these reports were accepted at face value. A disbelieving Arthur received letters from Bathurst angrily rebuking him for his conduct, and in particular for his promotion of Henry Savery; an activity in which Lord Bathurst was joined by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, to whom the thought of Henry Savery receiving privileges was anathema.

Meanwhile, Eliza Savery was on her way to Tasmania. When Henry wrote encouraging her to come, he was gainfully employed, had saved quite a sum of money, and was busy turning his little cottage into a home. By the time she arrived he was destitute, unemployed, and on the verge of a prison sentence.

I have a bit of a problem with A Forger’s Tale‘s attitude to Eliza Savery, wherein Rod Howard takes it for granted that Eliza had an affair with Algernon Montagu. Obviously I don’t believe Henry Savery’s romanticised depiction of his wife as an angel upon earth in Quintus Servinton; but there seems to reason to assume the worst, either. Certainly Montagu had an agenda, and interfered disastrously between Henry and Eliza; but he might well have done that to leave Eliza with no-one else to turn to, rather than because she was his mistress. There is no actual evidence of an affair, only a lot of gossip; yet Howard refers to Henry as “the cuckolded convict” and Eliza as “the adulterous wife”. It seems rather unfair, particularly given the fact that Howard just takes Henry Savery’s word for his own fidelity.

On the other hand, A Forger’s Tale gives an excellent and interesting account of the writing of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, Henry’s first venture into print. Since I will be examining this earlier publication in due course, we will not touch that part of the story now. I may say that The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land sounds altogether a more interesting work than Quintus Servinton turned out to be, and apparently includes all the local colour that the novel conspicuously lacks.

The final section of A Forger’s Tale deals with the sad conclusion of Henry Savery’s life. After he emerged from prison in 1831, things went better for Henry—for a time. He was employed as a private tutor in the New Norfolk district, and in 1832 he won his ticket of leave; although it was later rescinded for reasons that really weren’t his fault. Eventually he tried farming; but here he began to get back into financial difficulties. That said, his eventual conviction for passing forged notes seems to have been on pretty flimsy evidence. But perhaps the evidence had less to do with it than the fact that the judge before Henry appeared was none other than Algernon Montagu—while on the jury were two individuals who had been skewered in The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that his sentence was that, “…you be transported beyond the seas for the term of your natural life.”

The final mystery of Henry Savery’s life concerns his death. Decades after the event, Henry Melville, the printer who saw to the publication of Quintus Servinton, called Henry’s death suicide; while David Burn, a Scottish poet and journalist, in the course of a bizarre, tourist-brochure-like piece of writing called An Excursion To Port Arthur, describes his encounter with a physically shattered Henry Savery, making reference to “the scarce-healed wound of his attenuated throat”.

Rod Howard accepts this as evidence that Henry Savery died, eventually, after cutting his own throat a second time. Cecil Hadgraft, conversely, in his biographical sketch in the 1962 edition of Quintus Servinton, dismisses Melville’s assertion as the effect of confused memories so many years later, and thinks David Burn was referring to the scar from Henry’s first suicide attempt: he concludes from the description of his general condition that Henry had suffered a stroke.

Either way, Henry Savery died from the complications of something, on the 6th February 1842, and two days later was buried in an unmarked grave on The Isle Of The Dead. His fate is known because the minister who oversaw his interment made a note of it in his journal; the minister’s rider, “His end was without honour”, tends to support the suicide theory.

So—there turns out to be far more truth in Quintus Servinton than we initially supposed; the only real fudging comes with Henry’s description of his relationship with Eliza, and in his parallel efforts to praise George Arthur, and make excuses for Algernon Montagu; none of which we can blame him for—and none of which did him the slightest bit of good. Given the extent to which Savery was in reality a victim, his critical self-analysis in his novel takes on an extra, and most interesting, dimension.

The pity of Quintus Servinton is that it is just not a well-written book; in spite of its importance you can’t really recommend it. However, even if his novel will never be more than a footnote in literary terms, at least Henry Savery’s place in the timeline of Australian literature has, albeit belatedly, been recognised and acknowledged.

savery7A

An excerpt from the preface of Quintus Servinton; and the official commutation of Henry Savery’s death sentence (both scanned from A Forger’s Tale, no specific sources given).

29/08/2014

Pamela’s Daughters

PamelasDaughters1bThus for nearly two hundred years Pamela has been all things to all men: an innocent child, a case for the psychiatrist, a noble woman, a Shavian superman, the glory of her sex, a disgrace to womanhood, a saint, a pervert, a martyr, an entirely normal girl. In so far as she is human and normal, she is so because she has many traits and qualities, no one of which adequately represents her without the others. Her daughters, the heroines of later fiction, too often have to get along with one trait apiece—as if the heritage had to be divided among the heiresses. Hence come the type-form heroines who may be more or less safely classified according to the traits they inherit, and we have the Prude, the Weeper, the Fainter, “The Lass With The Delicate Air” , the “fallen” heroine and the poor working girl. One or two others there are who show relationship in collateral branches. Without defining here the exact degree of cousinship we may claim them as members of the family, include them in the sorority, and discuss them all as Pamela’s daughters.

I mentioned while reviewing Munster Abbey that it had been brought to my attention in the first place by a study of the English novel, which held it up as an example of the heights of absurdity reached by the 18th century sentimental novel—and which supported its argument by quoting the marvellous passage in which a character almost drowns because all the other characters are too busy demonstrating their “sensibility” by fainting to help her. I also mentioned that I had forgotten the title of the book in question, but expected, given my predilection for books-on-books, that I would sooner or later encounter it again.

I can now tell you that the book in question, to which I am deeply indebted, is Pamela’s Daughters by Robert Palfrey Utter and Gwendolyn Bridges Needham. The explanation for this work’s genesis is amusing, though its conclusion is very sad. This impressive work, over 500 pages in length, began life in 1920 as an idea for a magazine article—in fact, as an article for the Women’s Home Companion—on “Fashions in Heroines”. Almost immediately, however, the project got out of hand. Robert Utter, an academic at the University of California, worked at it on and off for the next eight years, at which point he began collaborating with Gwendolyn Needham. The two of them carried on the enterprise for a further eight years, trying to mould their exponentially multiplying and unwieldy material into a coherent volume. Sixteen years after its conception, the manuscript of Pamela’s Daughters was handed to the publisher…and a month later, Robert Utter was killed in a freak accident.

It’s been mentioned before, but—you bite, Reality.

The 1930s was an interesting period in literary scholarship; quite a number of studies published during that time show an admirable willingness to get off the beaten path and to use “lesser” literature as a reflection of the times that produced it. (Sadly, over the three subsequent decades academic research focused upon anything other than a short list of canonical works was sternly discouraged.) Pamela’s Daughters is an excellent example of this variety of study. Unhindered by academic expectation, this examination of the development of the English heroine from the mid-18th century into the 1920s is solid and insightful, yet also freewheeling and good-humoured; though that said, Robert Utter’s 1930s-ish views with respect to “correct” female behaviour do occasionally intrude.

Pamela’s Daughters starts, of course, with Pamela herself, discussing the reception of Richardson’s novel and the widely varying reactions to the fifteen-year-old girl who would become the progenitor-figure of generations of sentimental heroines.

Utter and Needham then briefly outline the changing position of women over the course of the 18th century, during which time, due to increasing industrialisation and its consequent financial and social alterations, women were progressively stripped of their autonomy, rendered entirely financially dependent, and even relieved of their domestic duties—with the leisured woman becoming increasingly a status symbol, a reflection of the success of her husband or father. Financial dependency made marriage the only acceptable way of life for a woman, whose single imperative duty was to free her family of her support by securing a husband. At the same time, autonomy of thought and action were not merely discouraged but prevented by a relentless narrowing of the definition of proper conduct. The literature of the late 18th century illustrates the irreconcilable outcome of these pressures:

The Helpless Female was shaped by the forces that were shaping civilisation. Just as inevitably as selection and environment mould biological characteristics, so the forces we have been tracing moulded the legacy of Pamela to her daughters and granddaughters, the sentimental heroines of the eighteenth century, and the Victorian ones of the nineteenth. Certain physical, mental and moral traits become artificially female, others, more or less antithetical, are male. Delicacy, sensibility, chastity, these three (and the greatest of these is chastity), such are the canonical virtues of Pamela’s daughter for a century and a half after Pamela… Delicacy, physical, mental and moral, becomes so essentially female that it develops into feebleness in all three categories. Mental delicacy points to spelling and punctuation as intellectual achievement and dictates the concealment of any higher powers if they exist. Moral delicacy prevents a girl from receiving money if she has so far transgressed as to earn it. With this powerful equipment of feebleness she must defend her priceless chastity. If the villain tries to violate it, she must not violate her delicacy by slapping his face; if the villain pursues her, she must not show either speed or endurance in her flight. Delicacy holds her helpless; chastity must be defended. It is an unfailing dilemma, good for five volumes of sorrows in the hands of any delicate authoress…

In “The Importance Of Being A Prude”, Utter and Needham devote a chapter to a consideration of “delicacy”, its false twin, “prudery”, and all the shadings of behaviour in between, arguing that many of the behaviours usually summed up under the heading of “Victorianism” were in fact alive and thriving a hundred years earlier. In particular, authors (usually female, but not always) devoted pages to stressing that their heroines had not just delicacy, but true delicacy.

But if this heroine was born in the 18th century, she reached her apotheosis in the 19th:

Of all Pamela’s daughters, the one most moulded by prudery is the god-daughter of Victoria… In the beginning, before her lover comes, she is unawakened, virginal as virginity itself. She is at one and the same time as sexless as a china doll and as feminine as a practised coquette. Her innocence is really abysmal ignorance, but the effect of it is the same as that of the completest sophistication and circumspection. She is perpetually on guard against evils of which she cannot know anything, alertly sensitive to acts, words, implications which could not conceivably have any significance to her; their danger she is supposed to recognise by instinct… There is no evidence that she is anything but a head and a pair of hands attached to a costume… In her ball dress she may show us that her “bosom is faultlessly moulded”, but the rest is silence. We infer that she might nourish children, but know no possibility of her conceiving or bearing them. That she might have any sexual feeling is unthinkable. That even in married life she has any sexual experience is not hinted. It is true that between the last two chapters she has managed to produce three or four fine children, but no-one could guess how she did it…

Intriguingly, though the authors are discussing heroines rather than real women, what the find in the novels they are examining reflects the real-world pressures that we examined in Martha Vicinus’s Suffer And Be Still (rendered most vividly in Elizabeth Missing Sewell’s hair-raising contention that a truly “good” girl was one with the capacity to sense evil without recognising it):

Nothing illustrates this fact better than the history in the novel of the first principle of prudery, that where innocence is ignorance ’tis criminal to be wise, or what you don’t know won’t hurt you. When this was the guiding principle, the best armour for the protection of maiden purity was supposed to be a stout pair of stays and complete ignorance of the nature of chastity and its enemies. Virginity seemed no less of the mind than of the body. Its delicacy was such that if a girl so much as knew she had it, it was tarnished, and if she knew more, it was gone…

In “Liquid Sorrow”, Utter and Needham trace the rise of the cult of “sensibility” in the 18th century, examining its birth and evolution as a counter-force to the cool, emotionless tenets of the Age of Reason in the broader context of the historical significance of emotion in the development of European literature. They point out that tears have held an important place in literature since its very inception, and that for centuries it was male tears that directed the reader’s response; a man crying was a shorthand signifier of extreme circumstances. However, male crying went out of fashion during the pragmatic age that followed the Glorious Revolution. When tears returned as an important literary signifier, it was in an entirely different social context.

The evolution of the sentimental novel is then examined, from the earliest appearances of those definitive counterforces, corrupting civilisation and the untouched natural world populated by noble savages. By the 1740s, sentiment had taken root in the English novel, and the crying hero made a reappearance. For those who like to make a simple, masculine / feminine divide between the novels of Fielding and Richardson, it is pointed out that Fielding’s heroes are some of the most persistent criers of the era. Novels became less about the hero’s adventures, and more about his feelings, with Henry Brooke’s The Fool Of Quality and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man Of Feeling. It was at this time that the heroine came into her own: with the focus on feelings rather than events, a woman’s heart became sufficient subject matter for an entire novel. New ideas about “nature” also became an important aspect of literature. Eventually these various threads were melded into a new literary form called the Gothic novel.

The sentimental novel is treated fairly here. It is pointed out, for example, that these books were an important vehicle for concepts like sympathy, compassion, and charity, and played a part in instigating reforms in both prison conditions and the treatment of the mentally ill. However, in the long run this variety of novel became exaggerated beyond the point when anything about them could be taken seriously. What in the 1740s was an expression of honest emotion became, by the 1770s, a perverse variety of performance art, with crying, fainting and even dying of grief intended as a measure of an individual’s “sensibility”; while by the 1790s, expressing the appropriate emotion was all but a fulltime occupation.

The authors spend some considerable time gleefully attacking the absurdities of this literary era—and lo! – if the novel most held up for ridicule is not our old friend, Munster Abbey!!

AND—a second masterpiece of sentimentality is also brought to our attention:

In sentimental fiction, tears are by this time a bottomless ocean raging with storms of passion… On it we ship with Charlotte Palmer in Female Stability, 1780, five volumes of unmitigated misery whence comes the pearl of price which adorns the head of this chapter. (“She stopped and wiped her gentle eyes, that swam with liquid sorrow.”) We have met the heroine, Adeline, who exhibits female stability by a ceaseless flow of tears for a dead lover and unwavering refusal of a series of high-voltage suitors. The plot of this thanatopsis is contrived for the sole purpose of turning up tearful situations in rapid succession… [Tears] flow on and on, from page to page, from paroxysm to paroxysm, from volume to volume. At the end Adeline subsides into a middle-aged routine of weeping, a mere daily dozen at the tomb of the lost Augustus, which we may imagine keeps her happy for the rest of her life…

Naturally enough, this chapter on crying is followed by one on fainting (“Cut My Lace, Charmian”), which in turn yields to a consideration of evolving female fashion, and from there to a much more detailed examination of physical fashions—that is, of how woman were depicted in both word-pictures and visually, in novels and in art (“The Lass With The Delicate Air”). The traditional dichotomies are examined – blonde / brunette, Snow White / Rose Red – as are the seemingly limitless examples of stories featuring physically contrasting heroines, who meet contrasting fates apparently pre-determined by nature. Walter Scott, a leading exponent of this trope (Rebecca / Rowena, Rose Bradwardine / Flora MacIvor), is given a thorough airing—as is George Eliot’s passionate cry, courtesy of Maggie Tulliver, in defence of “the dark, unhappy ones”.

(My own observation here is to note the significance of Rebecca being invariably listed first—the only instance I know of in this context, of the brunette being given “billing”.)

A prime example of the kind of unexpected digressions that punctuate Pamela’s Daughters appears in “The Lass With The Delicate Air”, wherein the authors suddenly divert from the their consideration of the female body in art to give a brief history of depilation—offering such factoids as that the so-called “Brazilian” has a much longer history than we might imagine, and that leg-shaving was a consequence of a push-back against stockings, which in turn was linked to a greater emphasis on female exercise, and therefore upon clothing facilitating freedom of movement, and the rise of the “beach culture”. I was mildly disappointed that not much was said about underarm shaving; I often find myself, while watching period dramas, wondering to what degree modern fashions are incorrectly imposed upon the characters.

A consideration of women who never married (“Aunt Tabitha”) segues into one of those novels dealing with women who decided that marriage wasn’t necessary and the consequences (almost invariably disastrous) of that decision (“Some Do”); and from there into an examination of the endless depictions of young women staunchly defending their virtue against wicked men of all descriptions (“Some Don’t”). The shifting view of female virginity over the centuries, from a mere accident of nature not important in itself, to the be-all and end-all of female existence, is examined, as is the changing face of “the woman who did”. It is stressed that during the 18th century, virginity became a commodity to be sold—in marriage as well as in brothels; a woman who “did” on her own account, robbed not herself but her family or her pimp, and that in the crudest financial sense. By the 19th century, however, these bald economic facts had become obscured by a dense mist of sentimentality and pseudo-moral hand-wringing. By the end of the 19th century, although the burgeoning women’s rights movement was making all sorts of previously unthinkable suggestions, for the most part novels remained strictly conservative; it was a rare and brave novelist indeed who suggested that a girl’s loss of virginity might not be the end of the world.

Most novelists went to the other extreme, showing how it was absolutely the end of the world, or near enough. The 19th century’s prevailing view on the issue is illustrated via reference to its very first work on the subject: Amelia Opie’s Father And Daughter, published in 1800, which features in its opening paragraph the primal scene of the erring daughter, illegitimate baby in arms, fighting her way through a storm back to the parental home from which she was seduced:

If this is, as it seems to be, the first appearance of this famous necessary scene, Mrs Opie deserves a monument from the writers of melodrama of the nineteenth century. We who were brought up on it scarcely need, as Mrs Opie’s readers perhaps did, to read the next seventy pages in order to learn that “Agnes Fitzhenry was the only child of a respectable merchant in a country town…” and so on to page seventy where we read, “But to return to Agnes, who, when she beheld in her insane companion her injured father, the victim probably of her guilt, let fall her sleeping child, and, sinking on the ground, extended her arms towards Fitzhenry, articulating in a faint voice, “O God! My father!” then prostrating herself at his feet, she clasped his knees in an agony too great for utterance.” This tale is worth citing because it is true melodrama growing directly out of Puritan moralising… It is melodrama because the author is bold enough to impose a major catastrophe on her heroine, but not brave enough to enforce the full penalty. It shows the weakening of tragedy by sentimentality…

Conversely, girls defending their virginity until marriage remained a perennially popular novel-plot, and by the end of the century they were even defending it actively, and not passively through sheer ignorance. In fact, this plot became more popular as options for women opened up and they began to venture out into the world on their own account, into colleges and into the workforce. Very little had changed is essence, however: merely, marauding rakes had been replaced by marauding employers.

The highlight of this section of Pamela’s Daughters is its examination of “working girl” fiction. The heroines of these novels, Utter and Needham contend, were in truth “Pamela’s daughters”, since just like Pamela herself they were virtuous working girls clinging to a moral code in a world full of dangers and temptations. In most (again like Pamela), it was economic necessity rather than choice than launched the heroine into the world, and by the end of the novel she was relieved and happy to surrender all ideas of autonomy and make a conventional marriage. And most like Pamela of all, many of these heroines were truly working-class, not the “distressed gentlewomen” who populated the progenitor of this form of literature, the “governess novel”. In this branch of popular fiction, “mill girls” and “shop girls” abound; “office girls” came a little later. George Gissing’s Thyrza is the most serious and literary example of this sort of fiction, though the sub-genre is better represented by Geraldine Fleming’s Only A Working Girl. The danger of physical attractiveness in a working girl is a recurrent, even obsessive, theme:

Pamela’s father and mother feared lest Pamela’s beauty should lead to her downfall. So in the nineteenth century it is less often the heroine herself who thinks of beauty as a curse than her family and friends. The sister of “the little beauty of the Passaic Cotton Mills”, Hazel Easterbrook, had “one earnest prayer to Heaven”; it was that “little Gay’s rare beauty would not prove a curse to her, for no man ever looked twice at that saucy, roguish, irresistible face whose heart was not conquered by it She was only sixteen, yet she could count admirers by the score.” Only by the score? There must have been hundreds, then, who looked but once. The mother and sister of Elsie Brandon “prayed fervently that her beauty would not be a curse to her”. The idea is explicit in the title of The Curse Of Beauty; or, The Cloakmaker’s Model.

As early as the late 19th century there were books in which the heroine was allowed to enjoy her work, and even to display a degree of ambition. However, in most cases this ambition fulfilled itself via marriage to the boss. Alternatively, the working-class heroine improves herself through her aspirations to be “a lady”; although sometimes her efforts in this respect also pave the way for a rapid rise up the social ladder via marriage. In light of all this, a special mention should be given to The Typewriter Girl by Grant Allen (the progressive, not to say radical, author of the scandalous – and hugely popular – The Woman Who Did), which concludes with its Girton Girl heroine stepping out of a love triangle (involving, yup, her boss) and devoting herself to her career instead: she does so partly because her romantic rival, in stark contrast to her intelligent, competent self, is traditionally “feminine” to the point of being completely helpless. It is wryly noted that Juliet, Allen’s heroine, is a brunette, her romantic rival a blonde:

The authors of these novels think that their readers prefer blondes. A check of many working-girl novels of the nineteenth century indicates that in every hundred heroines we have eighty blondes, ten brunes, and ten red-heads. The authors have little skill [and] for the most part their heroines appear only through raptures and ravings… In general, too, these authors follow the age-old tradition of behaviour patterns, at least to the extent that the brunettes take a more active part in the action of the tale…

Though Pamela’s Daughters has by now wended its way well into the 20th century, at this point its authors step back to take a look at the changing face of the heroine across the 19th century (“New Girls For Old”). On the whole the trend is positive: “the lass with the delicate air” with her crying and fainting begins to give way to a more grounded type of girl; physical fragility is no longer so prized; and though there is still plenty of sentimentality around, displays of strong emotion are now indicative of a lack of well-bred self-control, and frowned upon accordingly. But alas, few novelists are capable of giving the reader a thoroughly nice, thoroughly believable heroine. We are not exactly surprised when Utter and Needham jump back across the century for a visit with Jane Austen:

It is this refusal of Jane Austen to go to extremes in either direction that brings her to her supreme achievement. The best of heroines before her time, Clarissa Harlowe, Sophia Western, Emilia Gauntlet, are fine upstanding girls of whom any age might be proud, but their main attraction is that of their sex; they are men’s women, created to express the charm that women have for men. They do not exhibit what Jane Austen seems to give us for the first time, the best of womanhood, as endearing to women as to men, shining through any and all colours of fashion and undimmed by the changes of time… Meredith shows this figure at its best. Dickens was not up to it. Scott and Thackeray show it, but not until Jane Austen had shown it to them. Trollope has it more often than any other.

Heroines, like the young women who inspired them, became more active over the 19th century—and here the chapter diverts into a consideration of the changing silhouette, in a discussion of the battles waged progressively over stays, corsets, and eventually bloomers and bathing-suits. From this distance it can be hard to grasp just how deadly seriously these matters were taken, and the degree of outrage that attempts to popularise women’s clothes that allowed for greater freedom of movement provoked: the battle raged both in the streets themselves, and even more so in the letters pages of the daily newspapers. Ludicrous as this fashion war now seems, make no mistake: the battle over women’s clothing was a hugely important aspect of female emancipation. In fact, as the authors point out, underwear in novels becomes a marker of passing time:

In the novel we see in retrospect a girl’s graduation from waists to girdles in Ruth Suckow’s Odyssey Of A Nice Girl, 1926, and in Una Hunt’s Young In The Nineties, 1927, though in the novels of the nineties underclothes were kept out of sight. In these books also we see the reaction toward lighter clothing on the part of women who were forced as girls to wear prickly flannels and starched drawers, heavy waterproofs and winter coats, rubbers and galoshes…

By now, we are well into the 20th century. Victoria is long gone, and so is much of what she represented (justly or otherwise). The final chapter of Pamela’s Daughters, “Victoria, Where Is Thy Victory?”, considers how novelists dealt with rapid shifts in social mores and the dreaded topic of S-E-X. I may say that I was quite startled to learn that during the 1920s there was a significant sub-genre of novels dealing bluntly with, ahem, “girls who did”; although we should note that these books were more common in the US than in Britain. Shedding both their corsets and the expectation of ignorance, the heroines of these novels were only too eager to experiment with sexual experience – and perhaps most surprisingly of all, this experimentation does not always end in death or even in pregnancy. Quite often, having found out what she wanted to know, and learned to give sex its proper weight, the heroine settles down with an equally advanced young man, who is sometimes her erstwhile lover, sometimes not, but who either way considers her neither “sinful” nor “damaged”.

It is, by the way, quite clear from the tone of Pamela’s Daughters at this point that Robert Utter (if not necessarily Gwendolyn Needham) did not entirely approve of this particular turn in the history of heroines—and of real girls—though the role of WWI in bringing about this drastic shift is given fair weight. Another swing of the pendulum was in progress, however, by the time Utter and Needham drew a line under their history of heroines; and they close with some reflections upon what they consider this particular era’s exemplar novel, Nalbro Bartley’s The Premeditated Virgin, and by comparing Bartley’s Mary Ann Plowden with her great-great-great-grandmother, Pamela:

Pamela and Mary Ann Plowden are both premeditated virgins, but they wear their premeditation with a difference, and we may gauge the difference as a measure of progress. Pamela’s choice was a narrow one; she was held pretty helpless by the society of her time. In her game against fate her scope is restricted, her moves are sharply limited. She wins not only because she moves shrewdly but because luck is with her. Hers is a sort of poker game in which all the skill and intelligence she can bring to bear are, when the game is legitimately played, subordinate to luck. Mary Ann Plowden plays a different game, one in which skill, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, may have much more scope… Mary Ann does not lean on authority, on social order, or on God. She does not seek a verdict from society. She does not pray, or “invoke the protection of Heaven” for herself or her virginity. For any protection that she must have she invokes her own brain and summons her own powers. She “stands unshook” upon such truth as she can find, and she finds it in herself…

30/03/2014

Suffer And Be Still: Women In The Victorian Age

vicinus2bHow then could a Victorian woman break away from imitation – or guilty aberration – of the model of the perfect lady? The full answer is surely subject to interpretation, and far more research is necessary, but the new woman was in part a product of changed social and economic conditions, and in part the result of the courageous efforts of individual women who suffered social ostracism for their beliefs. The suffrage movement, educational reform, the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts and the fight to distribute birth control information all contributed to the downfall of hypocrisy and rigidity. By the 1880’s the perfect lady could no longer hold her own unchallenged. Women increasingly demanded and gained constructive and useful roles in society. Job opportunities were opening to every class, making it possible for women to achieve economic independence (though often at great psychological cost. as George Gissing’s The Odd Women [1892] illustrates). Social attitudes were also changing… In popular literature independent women became heroines for the first time. Sexual attitudes also changed; the most consistent tenet of the women’s movement was the application of female sexual standards to all of society. Only a few advanced thinkers recognised that equality would not lead to male continence, but female indulgence. The women and men of the late nineteenth century were never so Victorian as when they insisted upon radical economic and social change within the context of stern Victorian sexual mores.

The 19th century gave birth to many sad statements on the “natural” position of women in society, but one of the saddest, given that it appeared in a conduct manual widely read and followed, Sarah Stickney Ellis’s 1845 publication, The Daughters Of England, is surely the following:

If, then, for man it be absolutely necessary that he should sacrifice the poetry of his nature for the realities of material and animal existence, for woman there is no excuse—for woman, whose whole life, from the cradle to the grave, is one of feeling, rather than of action; whose highest duty is so often to suffer, and be still; whose deepest enjoyments are all relative; who has nothing, and is nothing, of herself…

From this chilling passage comes the title of Suffer And Be Still: Women In The Victorian Age, a collection of essays addressing the Victorian woman edited by Martha Vicinus and published in 1972—a time when the idea that “women’s studies” might be a legitimate field of research was still fairly new, rather ridiculous, and yet somehow threatening, as is evident in the tone of Vicinus’s introduction:

…there has been a widespread distrust in the new field of women studies. Some argue that it lacks academic depth and rigor, or that there is not enough material to study, while others say that we must maintain our loyalty to a particular discipline lest we lose ourselves in an ill-defined area without “acceptable” criteria of research or clear academic standards. The most common criticism has been against research has been against research that might be biased, trivial or, worst of all, trendy. The simplest answer to such critics is that the failure to study the position of women in society and history is equally biased—and to date no standard nineteenth-century history text gives the women’s movement more than token space. With the widespread publication of books about women, past and present, and the growing acceptance of courses on women, many of these fears will be silenced. Nevertheless, the financing of women studies and research remains minimal—in part because of financial cutbacks in higher education, but primarily because of the continued refusal to take seriously the study of women as a paramount, and not merely legitimate, field of study.

With this background, it is comforting to know that Suffer And Be Still grew out of a situation of demand. A 1970 issue of the journal Victorian Studies with the theme “Victorian woman” was so successful that a second round of essays were commissioned, eventually resulting in the publication of this book. The ten essays cover a variety of aspects of Victorian life, though necessarily the topics are fragmented and unconnected, and much remains unaddressed. Among the contributors are some important Victorianists including M. Jeanne Peterson and Helene E. Roberts, as well as the feminist authors Elaine Showalter and Kate Millet, who coincidentally (or not?) co-author and author two of the essays I found most compelling and wish to consider in the most detail.

M. Jeanne Peterson’s The Victorian Governess considers the anomalous position of its title figure, a lady but not a lady, a servant but not a servant, occupying a kind of twilight zone between “upstairs” and “downstairs”. It also examines the contradictory system wherein a man’s status was indicated by how thoroughly his wife was a lady of leisure, this in turn requiring that some other woman, born in the same sphere but faced with financial necessity, give up her own claim to be a lady of any kind by finding paid employment. Peterson also makes a case that the attraction of foreign-born governesses was not the advantage of language lessons for the children but that, existing outside English society in any case, these women did not bring with them the same awkward sense of class dislocation.

In From Dame To Woman, Jane W. Stedman examines cross-dressing stage actresses in the Victorian era, but her focus is on the handling of unmarried women on the stage generally, and by Gilbert and Sullivan in particular – Gilbert being a common (and in her opinion, unjust) target of criticism for his work in this area. She demonstrates the extent to which the old maid was a figure of ridicule and opprobrium, equally for being unmarried and for wanting to get married at an “advanced” age. However, she also shows that over the latter decades of the century there was a softening of attitude, with spinsters more frequently allowed a romance and a happy ending, a greater tendency to cast unmarried women in the role of fairy godmother, and a willingness to admit that there might be female qualities of more value than the external.

One of the two slightly “cheaty” essays in this volume is Peter N. Stearns’ Working-Class Women In Britain, 1890-1914, which goes beyond the bounds of “Victorianism” in order to draw upon the increasing availability of demographic data for the first decades of the 20th century in its discussion of changing financial, social and medical conditions for working-class women during this period. This essay considers shifting patterns of residence, employment, marriage and child-bearing – noting the decrease in average family size as understanding of birth control spread, and also the increasing tendency for married women with children to nevertheless find employment, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by choice. (I find myself thoroughly in sympathy with the woman who, questioned as to her choice to work instead of confining her activities to the home, responded: “It’ud give me the bloomin’ ‘ump.”) Overall, Stearns contends, the lot of the single woman improved during this time, with greater freedom, employment opportunities and recreational options, but that of her married sister deteriorated as ages fell, prices rose, and the economic partnership that had traditionally existed in working-class homes increasingly broke down under a variety of pressures.

Marriage, Redundancy Or Sin is Helene E. Roberts’ examination of women as depicted by artists during the early Victorian age, the vast majority of renderings falling, as she notes, into one of three categories, and too often functioning as a form of propaganda or a shying away from reality—although this was in keeping with the prevailing view of the function of art: a reviewer in the Art Journal of 1852 criticised those artists who used their work to draw attention to the darker side of life: “It is not the office of Art to present to us truths of an offensive kind; these are abundant in every-day life and it is in Art that we seek a refuge from them.” Though a few artists chose to ignore this stern warning, many took the hint and produced idealised portraits of fulfilling middle-class domesticity or, alternatively, happy cottagers living a life so increasingly far from the reality of industrialising 19th century England as to be pure fantasy. Alternatively, they produced cautionary tales showing the inevitable fate of any woman who strayed off the narrow beaten path – the most famous example being perhaps Augustus Egg’s triptych Past And Present, which centres upon an adulterous wife. A few artists did buck the system, doggedly producing confrontational pictures of either “redundant” or “fallen” women, though not without encountering resistance: when Richard Redgrave painted The Poor Teacher, showing the miseries of a governess’s life, his patron made him re-do it with happy children playing in the background, to lighten its mood (though they were by definition not the subject’s children). Other artists stuck to their guns, including George Frederic Watts, whose The Seamstress gives Suffer And Be Still its cover image.

From the idealisation of women in Victorian art we jump to a particularly grim Victorian reality in Eric M. Sigsworth and Terence J. Wyke’s essay, A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease, which offers wide-ranging statistics on both of these aspects of life, and covers the introduction of, and the battle against, the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed for the forcible detention, medical examination and virtual imprisonment of prostitutes. This area of study repeatedly highlights the tacit acceptance of prostitution as the “maintainer” of polite society, freeing “good” women from the vile necessity of submitting to their husbands’ carnal lusts and retaining marital sex as merely for procreation. The Contagious Diseases Acts were introduced in response to the skyrocketing levels of venereal disease amongst the armed forces, yet no attempt was made to alter the behaviour of the men, merely to render the prostitutes “safer”. Similarly, those pressing for the legal power to detain prostitutes in order to prevent the infection of married women and their babies managed to leave the erring husband almost entirely out of the equation, treating the prostitute as directly responsible for the transmission of disease to the wife. A bizarre sidelight of this area of research is the related argument over whether prostitutes experienced sexual pleasure, or whether they merely “simulated” it to heighten male passion; it was believed by some that sexual desire was dormant in women until they had “fallen”; though few seemed to join Point A and Point B, namely, that married men turned to prostitutes for the enthusiasm (simulated or otherwise) they were by definition not finding at home. Resorting to prostitution was also considered less transgressive and damaging than masturbation—or as it was discreetly called (in The Lancet, of all places!), “Another evil resulting in the abomination of prematurely exhausted powers.” This article quotes copiously from William Acton’s Prostitution, Considered In Its Moral, Social, And Sanitary Aspects (1857):

    Later, Acton echoed: “I should say that the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”, and, allowing for aberrant exceptions (“nymphomania, a form of insanity”), had no doubt, “That sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance…and even if roused, which in many instances it can never be, is very moderate compared with that of the male.
    “Many of the best mothers, wives and managers of households, know little of or are careless about sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel.
    “As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him; and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions…”

(Yeah, baby… Nothing gets me hot and bothered like “domestic duties”…)

Much of the rest of Suffer And Be Still is devoted to the profoundly contradictory Victorian views on the nature of women and the relations of the sexes. The question of female sexuality was obviously a deeply troubling one, informing a set of life-rules for young women that were simultaneously hilarious, bewildering, and just plain cruel. Even supposedly scientifically-based studies of biology managed to conclude in justifications of a social system that confined women to the home and severely limited their activities and opportunities. Again and again academic studies showed signs of insight and advanced thinking, only suddenly to contract upon themselves in an explanation of why the existing social arrangements were biologically pre-determined.

Jill Conway’s Stereotypes Of Femininity In A Theory Of Sexual Evolution examines the work of some of the leading figures in sociology during the late Victorian period. At this time physiology and genetics were imperfectly understood, allowing academics to fill out the interstices in general knowledge with their own particular prejudices. Biological explanations for the “natural” inferiority of women were sought, and the idea that a woman’s primary function was reproduction, and that all her other functions, mental and physical, were subservient to the development and maintenance of her reproductive organs, recurs again and again. According to Herbert Spencer in his The Study Of Sociology, for instance, sex differences were the result of, “A somewhat earlier arrest of individual evolution in women than in men, necessitated by the reservation of vital power to meet the cost of reproduction.” In The Evolution Of Sex, Patrick Geddes argued for distinct metabolic processes between the sexes, “katabolic” in the male and “anabolic” in the female: the former transmitting or dissipating energy, that latter conserving and storing it. Under this theory, “The hungry, active cell becomes flagellate sperm, while the quiescent, well-fed one becomes an ovum.” In the developed human, men were necessarily active, and women passive. Social structures which kept women in the home were an evolutionary determinant geared towards ensuring that women conserved the energy necessary to reproduce. A few years later, Leonard T. Hobhouse rejected many of Geddes’ arguments in Morals In Evolution, yet managed to come up with a competing theory that still kept women in the home, namely, the necessity of “reconciling” them to their fate by convincing them that, “Motherhood of the healthy and capable [was] a form of social service.” Pre-determination had been ceded, but women still weren’t making it out the front door…

The desire to stop women expanding their lives also fuelled one of the most peculiar Victorian arguments about female biology, as is considered in this volume’s second “cheaty” essay— “cheaty” because although it stays within the broader boundaries of Victorianism, it finds it necessary to cross from England to America in order to gather some of its materials. Co-authored by Elaine Showalter and her husband English, Victorian Women And Menstruation examines the co-opting of female biology by male doctors as part of the effort to prevent women having access to higher education. The early stages of the essay are devoted to emphasising just how little was understood about the process in question, and how long a variety of bizarre myths were believed and propagated. Like “wet dreams”, menstruation was regarded as a disease and treated accordingly; as the century wore on, there was greater and greater insistence upon regarding it as a debilitating condition. In 1869, addressing the Anthopological Society of London, James MacGrigor Allan, an author and prominent antifeminist, had this to say upon the subject:

At such times, women are unfit for any great mental or physical labour. They suffer under a languor and depression that disqualify them for thought or action, and render it extremely doubtful how far they can be responsible beings while the crisis lasts. Much of the inconsequent conduct of women, their petulance, caprice, and irritability, may be traced directly to this cause… Michelet defines woman as an invalid; such she emphatically is, as compared with man. In intellectual labour, man has surpassed, does now, and always will surpass woman, for the obvious reason that nature does not periodically interrupt his thought and application.

And as the century wore on, the clamour grew ever louder—not without an underlying agenda. As women agitated for change, demanding greater access to education and even to careers, the medical profession fought back with lengthy treatises explaining why their own biology made it impossible.

The main focus of this essay is the publication in 1873 of a book called Sex In Education, which was devoted to arguing that higher education for women destroyed their reproductive capacity—if not their entire lives. The author of this remarkable work was Dr Edward Clarke, a professor at Harvard; his argument (by no means unique to himself, astonishingly) was that education – too much thinking, in other words – “diverted” the blood flow from the reproductive organs to the brain, causing the former to shrivel and die.

(There were a variety of reactions to Dr Clarke’s treatise, as we shall see. Disappointingly, no-one seems to have inquired into whether higher education for men led to an epidemic of “shrinkage”.)

Clarke’s book was leapt upon by others with a similar agenda. Henry Maudsley, a leading British psychiatrist, used it to attack female aspirations across the board—for women’s own good, of course: “Women are marked out by nature for very different offices in life from those of men, and that the healthy performance of her special functions renders it improbable she will succeed, and unwise for her to persevere, in running over the same course at the same pace with him,” he wrote in 1874, adding that this was true even if women never married or had children. Their physiology was a fundamental, inescapable handicap: “[Women are] for one quarter of each month during the best years of life…more or less sick and unfit for hard work.”

But the barriers that these men were so desperate to keep in place were already crumbling. There were already female doctors and social scientists, and a number of them made sharp attacks upon the arguments of Clarke, Maudsley and their ilk—in the process dragging menstruation out of the mire of myth and into the light of common knowledge.

The ongoing argument was mostly confined to the predominantly masculine world of medical and scientific journals and societies – menstruation being regarded, of course, as a subject unfit for women – but Henry Maudsley made the tactical error of publishing his thoughts in the Fortnightly Review, thus opening it up to public debate. A doctor called Elizabeth Garrett Anderson published a rebuttal of Maudsley in the next issue of the magazine, contending both from personal and professional experience that the debilitating effects of menstruation were “much exaggerated” by male doctors. In particular, she pounced upon the blatant class bias inherent in their arguments, pointing out that working-class women were hardly known for taking “complete bed rest” for a week each month, as was often prescribed as necessary for their middle-class sisters. Nor were female servants in those very same middle-class households generally given any dispensation from their duties (which presumably included waiting on their incapacitated employers) at that time. Meanwhile, back in America, a women’s health manual called Eve’s Daughters by Marion Harland countered the “bed rest” brigade with admirable common sense, prescribing instead ginger tea and hot water bottles if necessary, backed up by warm encouragement to go on with life as normally as possible.

Yet Clarke’s book threw a long shadow. In 1908, M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr, reflected upon her own encounter with it in her youth:

“We did not know when we began whether women’s health could stand the strain of college education. We were haunted in those days by the clanging chains of that gloomy little spectre, Dr Edward H. Clarke’s Sex In Education. With trepidation of spirit I made my mother read it, and was much cheered by her remark that, as neither she nor any of the women she knew, had ever seen girls or women of the kind described in Dr Clarke’s book, we might as well act as if they did not exist.”

As with this debate over menstruation, much Victorian thought on the subject of female sexuality was a matter of trying to reconcile reassuring theory with upsetting practice. Various sociological models at the time centred around the constructs known as Homo Economicus and Homo Sensualis and the tensions between these two “sides” to human – meaning male – nature. In Innocent Femina Sensualis In Unconscious Conflict, however, Peter T. Cominos is concerned with the female counterparts of these constructs, Femina Domesticus and Femina Sensualis. In both sexes, in addition to the overt conflict between Economicus / Domesticus and Sensualis, the Sensualis construct was also divided and in conflict, with tension between the “higher” part of human nature – reason, conscience, duty – and the “lower” – bodily appetites, including sexual desire. The very idea that women had bodily appetites was disturbing to many Victorians, and much effort was put into reconciling this distasteful idea with the prevailing belief in “natural” female innocence. Innocence itself was almost a tangible thing, to be preserved at all cost. Once it was lost – and at this time, “loss of innocence” meant not loss of virginity, but simply the acquisition of certain knowledge – purity was gone forever and corruption the inevitable consequence. But what of that troubling Femina Sensualis? Nature, it was argued, protected girls from their “animal” natures by making them ignorant that they existed in the first place; unaware that there was such a thing as desire, they surely could not feel it. Here we have the most consoling answer to the troubling questions highlighted in A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease: namely, that women could experience sexual desire, but as long as they did not know they could, they were safe.

Ridiculous as all this might seem to us, it wasn’t funny for the frightened and mortified girls who found themselves experiencing feelings which, it had been drummed into them, were low, shameful and corrupting. Really good girls, it was contended, though not of course recognising evil of their own knowledge, had an instinct which intervened in time to prevent them from gaining such knowledge. If you did not have such an instinct, if certain thoughts and feelings made their way into your consciousness, you were “soiled” forever.

We have met Elizabeth Missing Sewell at this blog before, in my consideration of the 19th century religious novel: you might recall her as a proponent of the theory that the best way for young women to live was to submit themselves utterly to the authority of fathers, husbands and/or brothers, immerse themselves in religious practice, and never, ever think or act for themselves. This being the case, it is hardly unexpected to find her also weighing in on the subject of the “protective instinct”: Cominos quotes from her Principles Of Education (1865), which has a chapter titled “Purity”:

“If a girl’s mind is not pure,—if her own instincts are so blunted that she cannot feel evil before she can explain it,—if she cannot shrink from it without knowing why she does so,—may God help her! for the wisest safeguards which the best friends may provide for her will never be sufficient to secure her from danger.”

We are not much surprised when Peter Cominos also starts quoting William Acton in this context, nor to find that he was a believer in the desexualised “angel in the house”. According to Acton, a “good” woman’s lack of desire was intended to help men control their own, more “animalistic” natures. The problem was that too many boys got their ideas about sex from “loose” women: “Any susceptible boy is easily led to believe, whether he is altogether overcome by the siren or not, that she, and therefore all women, must have at least as strong passions as himself.” Acton goes on to excoriate prostitutes for “simulating” sexual feelings, thus further propagating “false” ideas of female nature which were carried into the marital bed with tragic consequences. Remarkably, it seems that Acton was so set against the notion of women being capable of sexual pleasure that he was reluctant to concede that even prostitutes might experience it: one of his main purposes in writing on the subject, he explains, was to, “Vindicate female nature from the vile aspersions cast on it by the abandoned conduct and ungoverned lusts of a few of its worst examples.”

Comments Cominos wryly:

The contrast with ladies is simply marvellous. They were alleged to have no physical desire to control so long as their innate “island of innocence” was kept pure by the proper surveillance of mothers and chaperones and by the sense of shame which every manifestation of their own erotic desire aroused. Theoretically and ideally, gentlemen were to be masters of themselves, responsible and self-controlled; ladies had nothing to master or to be responsible for and were to be controlled or “protected” by others. Thus, in the Victorian battle of the sexes, women were disarmed of the weapon of their sexuality. Gentlemen imposed unilateral disarmament upon them which they simultaneously denied doing through the theory of female sexual anaesthesia.

Over the course of the 19th century, arguments over the “true” nature of women became more and more public; the two extremes of the conflict are the subject of Kate Millet’s essay, The Debate Over Women: Ruskin vs Mill, in which she considers the irreconcilably polarised views of women to be found in their definitive publications on the subject, John Ruskin’s own essay, Of Queen’s Gardens, and John Stuart Mill’s ground-breaking The Subjection Of Women.

Of course, given what we know these days about the ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—or rather, the lack of ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—the idea of John Ruskin setting himself up as an expert on women seems rather ludicrous; though of course, in his writings he was very much concerned with theories of the ideal woman.

Ruskin was a profound believer in “separate spheres”: he was in favour of female subjection, denial of education, and of an existence confined entirely to the home; not that he phrased it quite as bluntly of that. Instead he dresses it all up in the language of fairy-tale and chivalry – every woman is a “queen”, every man her loyal subject; instead of pernicious “rights”, she has “a natural power” – her innate moral superiority acted as a guide and an inspiration for men; her duty was to build, less a mere home, more a magical fairy-bower, which could act as an impenetrable barrier against harsh reality, and into which men could retreat. Where this system failed, it was because women did not appreciate the power they wielded over men, which was nothing less than “royal” in its extent; her home was not merely a home, but a “realm” which she “ruled”. If only women realised this and were content, instead of striving for empty acquisitions which could only breed dissension and cause unhappiness – !

Each [sex] has what the other has not; each completes the other. They are nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give… The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war and for conquest… But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle and her intellect is not for invention or recreation, but sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the quality of things, their claims and their places. Her great function is praise; she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation…

Ah, yes— “temptation”—that spectre lurking just outside the door, which threatened to destroy any woman foolhardy enough to step over her own threshold, in spite of that moral superiority of which we hear so much… It is, in fact, painfully evident that John Ruskin had bought into the most fundamental contradiction of Victorian life: the belief that men were crude, animalistic, and irreversibly soiled by being forced to contend with the world—yet at the same time inherently superior and in a position of natural authority; whereas women were pure, spiritual, strong and superior in their innate morality—yet at the same time weak, vulnerable and liable to instant and profound corruption, and so in need of constant supervision.

In the course of his own comprehensive examination of the position of women in society, John Stuart Mill has a few choice words to say about this paradox:

[Women] are declared to be better than men; an empty compliment which must provoke a bitter smile from every woman of spirit, since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order, and considered natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse…

The Subjection Of Women is a sweeping denunciation of the beliefs and practices most cherished by the Victorians. Mill attacks on every front: the law, education, home life, religion, finance, social theory; everything that contributed to a power imbalance between the sexes that, he contends, was not only unjust and brutalising in itself – to both sexes – but which was preventing society as a whole from achieving its potential. The “natural” differences between men and women, on which the “necessary” subjection of the latter is generally predicated, are a particular bugbear:

Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, so long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another… What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others…

All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite of that of men: not self will, and government by self control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others…

Mill sums up his thesis as follows:

That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on one side, nor disability on the other…

Comparing Of Queen’s Gardens and The Subjection Of Women, it is almost impossible to grasp that they were the work of men exposed to essentially the same experiences and influences. Reading John Stuart Mill, the lasting impression one gains of him is not merely that he was ahead of his time, but that he was from another planet.

Which is also – more or less – the conclusion reached by Kate Millet:

It is hard to believe that Mill and Ruskin are discussing the same subject—or, that since each claims to have the best interests of womanhood at heart—that one of the two does not prevaricate.

She then pens three words that very nearly manage to sum up the bewildering and contradictory views of the Victorians on that most difficult of subjects, Woman:

Both are sincere.

06/12/2013

Haw, haw

conway1I’ve been reading Alison Conway’s The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative And Religious Controversy In England, 1680-1750. The book’s title comes, of course, from the famous anecdote about Nell Gwyn, which tells how she placated an angry mob that attacked her coach in mistake for that of Louise de Kéroualle by calling out, “Good people, pray be civil – I am the Protestant whore!” (We were given a version of this incident in The Power And The Passion.)

Conway’s study traces the history of “courtesan narrative” from the Restoration to the second Jacobite Rebellion, showing the many ways in which the word “whore” was employed in political and religious discourse in relation to the Stuarts. Conway believes the Nell Gwyn story to be apocryphal, because while it was widely repeated no-one ever provided (or has since identified) an original source for it. However, she argues, if the story is fictional, the disclaimer “Protestant” carries even greater weight.

The dismay and anger felt in the face of Charles’ perceived neglect of his duties while he dallied with his mistresses, or worse, the possibility of “petticoat government”, provoked an outpouring of writing that was deeply critical of the amorous monarch, and often frankly obscene. Perhaps the most striking feature of this particular form of literature is the almost invariable distinction drawn between Nell Gwyn and the other mistresses: there is full appreciation of the fact that she was the only one who was neither French nor Catholic; not just a whore, but a Protestant whore. As a consequence the criticism of her is rarely worse than unkind, and in fact most of what looks like an attack upon her is in reality an attack upon Charles.

Take, for example, this extract from Robert Lacy’s 1677 poem, Satyr (the contemporary spelling of “satire”, albeit with an entirely appropriate secondary meaning in context), a lengthy diatribe on Charles’ neglect of his duties and his prodigal sexuality, on which Lacy blames his failure to produce a legitimate heir:

    How poorly squander’st thou thy seed away,
    Which should get Kings for nations to obey;
    But thou, poor Prince, so uselessly hast sown it,
    That the Creation is ashamed to own it:
    Witness the Royal Line sprung from the Belly
    Of the Anointed Princess, Madam Nelly…

In sharp contrast, the attacks made upon the other mistresses are direct and deeply hostile – particularly those aimed at Louise de Kéroualle, who was not only French and Catholic, but widely believed to be a spy in the pay of Louis XIV. The following is from The Whore Of Babylon, a (not surprisingly) unattributed work from 1678:

    You treach’rous Whore of France, may Rabble’s rage
    Seize thee, & not till thou’rt destroy’d aswage.
    The People’s Cross, misfortune, constant Pest,
    The Milstone whelm’d upon this Nation’s breast;
    Brittain’s impairer of her honour & Fame,
    The Festring Soar of Majesty, the Shame
    Of English Councils; the Crowns costly load,
    And Prince’s thriving Infamy abroad;
    The Commons hater, & false France’s friend.
    Lord, from this Basilisk Loyalty defend!
    Permit a change, our ruins to confront,
    Let us be govern’d by an English C–t;
    The kingdom can’t by whoring suffer want
    If princes swives concubines that’s Protestant.

Charming. And yet by no means the nastiest of the anti-de Kéroualle works.

One of the strangest aspects of this period was the emergence in the literature of a wildly idealised Nell Gwyn, who was portrayed of standing up for England’s rights and liberties while Charles was falling down on the job, and who became, perversely enough, a symbol of monarchical and religious loyalty. There is a whole subset of writing that has Nell telling off the other mistresses, usually Louise de Kéroualle, sometimes Barbara de Villiers, in conversations that are really between England and France, Protestantism and Catholicism. And beyond that, there is at least one example of Nell telling off Monmouth, berating him for his disloyalty and ingratitude.

Anyway—

It was my original intention to write a full review of The Protestant Whore, but circumstances have intervened: I have a ‘community borrower’ card at an academic library, one of the conditions of which is that if anyone attached to the university wants a book I have on loan, I have to return it regardless of loan date. So perhaps I’ll return to it at a later date, when my journey meets up with the later subject matter of the book, which includes chapters on Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (though I don’t think I need to say any more on that subject!), the literature dealing with the relationship between Queen Anne and her “favourites”, Sarah Churchill and Mrs Masham, Defoe’s Roxana, and finally Clarissa and Tom Jones. I may say that it warmed my heart to find Alison Conway including Tom Jones in her list of Protestant whores.

Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure that Conway has done me any favours, inasmuch as she has me reconsidering my intention  to skip over the rest of the romans à clef that appeared in the post-James era. I’ve been puzzled by the fact that this period saw yet another set of attacks on Louise de Kéroualle, who by this time, having had much of the property bestowed upon her by Charles confiscated, had returned to France. However, I’ve found a source (emphasis on found: do think I can find it again?) which contends that, in the wake of the Rye House Plot, the formerly easy-going Charles finally did crack down on the print market, and that a great deal of what was written in 1683 and 1684 consequently went unpublished, finally seeing the light of day across 1689 / 1690, when it sat comfortably amongst the various pro-Williamite writing and served to remind people what England had rid itself of, even if the specifics were no longer so relevant.

So I’m currently resigning myself to taking a look at The Court Secret by Peter Belon (who we have met here before, as one of the translators of Agnes de Castro: Nouvelle Portugaise), and The Amours Of The Sultana Of Barbary, by that most prolific of authors, “Anonymous”, both of which are Louise de Kéroualle-focused romans à clef. The latter, in addition, is suggested to have had some influence upon the writings of Delariviere Manley, so it may assume greater importance going forward.

If  I ever get to go forward.

And indeed, James is still clutching at my skirts with exasperating tenacity. (If only he’d held onto the throne that tightly – !) Recently, for instance, I randomly picked up Alicia Deane, by the Australian writer E. V. Timms, only to discover that it is an historical novel dealing with characters caught up in the consequences of the Monmouth Rebellion. The central romantic conflict is between the eponymous heroine, who is a passionate believer in Monmouth (not too bright, in other words), and her would-be lover, who is anti-James, but anti-Monmouth too, remarking presciently that, “‘Tis not Monmouth Englishmen want—’tis William of Orange who be, with Mary his Queen, the King and Queen for us.”

The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of Charles’ death, when England is adjusting itself to James:

The glittering palace of Whitehall was now a house of gloom; no merry, uncaring, pleasure-loving monarch now filled its halls, rooms, and galleries with the laughter of licence and the flippant freedom of unrestrained sensuality. Charles was dead, and dead also was the love, the life, and the laughter that he and his brilliant court had made synonymous with the name of Whitehall. James was King, and over London the dark clouds of distrust and suspicion  were already casting their sable shadows. James! James the stern, the gloomy, the bigot, the cruel! The man whose heart was stony ground, and whose lips were strangers to laughter.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

And in fact, I did once feel sorry for him, not while reading this novel (in which his relationship with George Jeffreys is given full weight), but when I stumbled over the following in my internet wanderings. And since I started this post with a probably-apocryphal anecdote, it seems appropriate to close with another one.

Charles, or so the story goes, was in the habit of going for walks in St James’s Park with what his retinue considered grossly inadequate protection, until James was moved to remonstrate with him for placing himself in danger.

To which Charles responded:

“No man in England will raise a hand to me as long as you are my heir.”

nellgwyn1b

Madam Nelly, by Sir Peter Lely

26/05/2012

Related ramblings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds about right.

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

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

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

06/04/2012

Ubinam gentium sumus? Quonam eamus abhinc?

Well.

One little detail I forgot to mention while reviewing The English Novel, perhaps the only thing I could have said but didn’t (I really need to work on that logorrhoea), is that upon posting that review, I was officially all caught up.

I don’t know why I feel I have to review something, just because I read it. It’s a particularly noxious form of OCD, which I have tried and failed to overcome. The only possible solution I can come up with is to be rather more selective in my reading.

By way of which, I think I’ll be giving the non-fiction a rest for a while – it slows me down far too much; although that said, I’m certainly not sorry to have tackled either The History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England or The Mary Carleton Narratives.

On the other hand,  I will – finally – be getting back on track with my Chronobibliography, from which The English Rogue so painfully derailed me last year. To facilitate this, I’ll be doing a background post to remind us all where we were up to when we were so rudely interrupted, and highlighting the salient points of the historical period we’re about to enter. We’re going to be back in the realm of the roman à clef, and it’s important that we have a good grasp on what was really going on.

As part of being all caught up, I also allowed myself a game of Random Roulette – although not without some trepidation, after the horrors of Bartholomew Sapskull. This time the Reading Gods decided to treat me gently, and I landed upon:

  • Lady Patty: A Sketch by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (1892)

Hungerford was a prolific and popular novelist, who in America published under the sobriquet “the Duchess”. She was twice married and had eight children, but managed to juggle her domestic obligations with a lengthy and successful writing career. Hungerford’s novels are best known for their witty dialogue, and have a reputation for being light and entertaining without rocking the moral boat. Lady Patty is that seeming contradiction, a one-volume Victorian novel; a reminder that towards the end of the 19th century, the power of the circulating libraries was on the wane. Hopefully I can imitate Hungerford’s restraint, and refrain from writing a review longer than the novel itself.

Another long-neglected project is Authors In Depth. This time around we’ll be back with E.D.E.N. Southworth, and her second novel, The Deserted Wife.

(Hmm… So in her first novel, a young wife is betrayed by her husband and her best friend, and her second is called “The Deserted Wife“? Call me crazy, but I think I’m sensing a theme here…)

And finally—although goodness knows I need another reading thread like a hole in the head—lately I’ve been introducing some friends to the delights of the Gothic novel. (The usual thing: Northanger Abbey –> The Castle Of Otranto –> ????) This in turn has led me to re-read Devendra P. Varma’s The Gothic Flame and Montague Summers’ The Gothic Quest (which, nota bene, I WILL NOT be reviewing here), and to ponder the fact that it’s been a good twenty years since I really indulged my taste for Gothics…

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.

06/02/2012

Isn’t it romantic?

    There are faults in the sentimental novel other than the lack of variety and depth in characterization. The poorer sort of author catered to the tastes of the circulating-library reader and to hold her attention he pandered to her yearning for excitement by providing material that grew more and more stimulating, and so ran the scale from the pathetic through the journalistic, the bizarre, the pathological, and finally, after jettisoning almost all intellectual cargo, arrived at melodrama. And he used stock themes and situations, such as the prodigal’s return, the benevolent tableau, the call of the blood, the tearful farewell, the fainting fit, and tear tracking.
    However, not all of the sentimental novelists were mediocre. Some had remarkable ability, and nearly all of them are still interesting. Their novels picture the life of the eighteenth century as seen from the point of view of writers whose estimate of man was generous—too generous, as it proved—and are significant because in them there was a notable development of the sensitiveness which is essential to progress in narrative fiction.

From the openmindedness and willingness to engage with minor novelists expressed in his introduction, I was prepared to enjoy James R. Foster’s work, History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England – but I was not necessarily expecting to find it perhaps the most unusual “rise of the novel” study I’ve ever encountered. Almost all such studies go to immense pains to draw distinctions between the English “novel” and the European “romance”, and are predicated upon the assumption that it is possible – indeed, necessary – to define the former in terms of its difference from the latter. James Foster, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that far from being separate forms with nothing in common, the novel and the romance were inexorably linked, and that the influence of each upon the other zig-zagged back and forth for some 150 years.

It is in this context that Foster takes his study far beyond the narrow bounds of those novels and novelists generally taken these days to properly represent the 18th century. The usual suspects – Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, Burney – are given their due here, but are presented as standing shoulder to shoulder with now-forgotten writers whose works did not outlive their day. Foster contends that, during the second half of the 18th century in particular, sentimental novels dominated the English literary scene, and that the few, more realist works now accepted as “classics” give a skewed impression of what people were reading. While the more romantic works have not survived the way their realistic brethren have, in Foster’s opinion they nevertheless better reflect the contradictory and warring attitudes of their time.

Another unusual and interesting thing about this book is the way that Foster organises his study. After a background section (to which we will frequently refer) discussing sentimentality as a backlash against the perceived coldness and calculation of the Age of Reason, and related factors such as the rise of Deism, Foster works chronologically through the 18th century, nominating what he considers to be the most influential work of each time and type, and then discussing the novels they influenced. Writing in the dim, distant, pre-electronic access days of 1949, Foster not only assumes that his readers will not have read most of the works he is analysing, but that they will never have a chance to do so. Consequently, he pauses frequently in this book to provide lengthy summaries of various novels so that the reader can follow his analyses. Personally, I chose to skip over most of these synopses, because of course I’m eventually going to read EVERY SINGLE NOVEL discussed in this book—right??

Although we have already discussed the pros and cons of the sentimental novel at this blog, and will doubtless do so again, Deism as such is not something we’ve yet encountered. Briefly (I hope not too inaccurately), Deism is a form of religion that finds its faith through a combination of reason and appreciation of the natural world, and which rejects the idea of man as inherently corrupt; believing, rather, than man is corrupted by society and its institutions. It can be imagined how in the 18th century Deism stood in opposition to many of the tenets of the Age of Reason, and that it attracted scorn and criticism as a consequence. Furthermore, since the established church was one of the institutions considering corrupt and corrupting by Deists, denouncing from the pulpit was common. While the principles of Deism were increasingly disseminated during the 18th century, it was never an accepted viewpoint, but rather one to be espoused with caution. James Foster makes the amusing point here that many novels of the time derided Deism, even while their characters were clearly embracing its beliefs.

Foster begins his study of the novel with a brief overview of pre-18th century literature, which he designates likewise “pre-sentimental”. The focus here is upon the French romances of the time, those by Mademoiselle de Scudéry, Madame de La Fayette, and others, and their influence upon English writers – the most important of whom he considers to be Aphra Behn. Although in Foster’s opinion Behn was not herself a sentimentalist (he’s right!!), he shows both how her Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister paved the way for the sentimentalists’ main vehicle, the epistolary novel, and how in Oroonoko she crystalised the idea of what would become one of the sentimentalists’ most cherished icons, the “noble savage”.

When I reviewed History And The Early English Novel, I objected to Robert Mayer’s attempt to position Daniel Defoe as the ur-figure in the history of the English novel on the grounds that, among other things, he failed to demonstrate Defoe’s influence upon subsequent novelists. But perhaps there was a reason for that failure; not that it didn’t happen, but that it took an unfortunate form. Here, James Foster wraps up the introductory phase of his work by nominating two authors who clearly were influenced by Defoe: Penelope Aubin in England, and the Abbé Prévost in France – neither one of whom showed the slightest interest in copying Defoe’s harsh realism, but instead lifted a variety of incidents from his works, chiefly the shipwrecks, and wove around them extravagant romances.

In time, as Foster demonstrates, Prévost’s tales circled back and influenced a number of English novelists including Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke and, perhaps above all, Henry Mackenzie, whose The Man Of Feeling represents the ne plus ultra of the sentimentalism movement. Hardly the effect Defoe was striving for, one imagines. Foster suggests that the overriding sense of inescapable destiny in Prévost’s tales appealed to the English sentimentalists, particularly those fond of an unhappy ending.

However, it is another writer upon whom Prévost  modelled his writing that Foster tags as the most critical influence upon the early English sentimental novel: Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, author of the unfinished novels  La Vie de Marianne and Le Paysan Parvenu:

    …he was not much of a philosopher. In Marianne he wrote that the intellect was too much of a fanciful dreamer to be depended on in learning about ourselves. The real clue to human nature was sentiment. His point of view was conditioned by deistic ideas, yet in his novels these were pushed into the background by the all-absorbing interest which he took in human conduct. Doubtless his insistent disapproval of authoritarian ethics and religion derived from deistic anti-clericalism, as did also the large number of false devotees and selfish and stupid spiritual directors in his novels. But there was no bitter hate…
    He was interested in the common people; his sympathy for them was genuine. Because all men are interdependent, he thought the rich under an obligation to relieve the poor. The rich man or the aristocrat who had nothing to recommend him but power or rank disgusted him. Marianne is partly an attack on the privileges of birth. Portions of this novel reveal a surprising interest in domestic life and its problems… In Marianne he gave realistic pictures of the social conditions of the poor and studies of the mentalities of the common people…

La Vie de Marianne, known in its English translation as The Virtuous Orphan, was published in eleven volumes across eleven years, 1731 – 1741, and in fact was never officially “finished”. The story of an orphan of uncertain birth, whose nobility therefore lies in her conduct rather than her family, Marianne embraces two of the sentimentalists’ most cherished beliefs, the lack of connection between “virtue” and “rank”, and the moral superiority of the country over the city. However, the most significant aspect of this novel, which came over time to be referred to (not always with kindly intention) as “marivaudage” was the characters’ tendency to analyse in the most minute detail their thoughts, feelings and motivations. Marivaux displays similar attention to detail in his presentation of domestic, chiefly middle-class, life.

An argument begun in 1740 and still flaring up from time to time in academic circles to this day is the influence of Marivaux upon Richardson—something that Richardson himself always denied, and a number of critics have likewise disputed. However, it is hard not to see something of Marianne in Richardson’s virtuous servant, Pamela, and more than a little of his style in the circumstantial accounts of themselves given by the characters of Sir Charles Grandison and Clarissa.

But whether we consider them one influence or two, Marivaux and Richardson were  largely responsible for the direction subsequently taken by one significant stream of English novel-writing. While many of the important English writers of the time, chiefly Fielding and Smollet, were turning the picaresque tale to their own purposes, others were drawing upon the detailed accounts of day-to-day life of the two arch-sentimentalists to give new power and interest to the female-focused, domestic novel. Fanny Burney, whose Evelina and Cecilia, in particular, won new respectability and admiration for this brand of writing and paved the way for both Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, did not hesitate to acknowledge her profound indebtedness to Marivaux; a fact that highlights the fundamental difficulty of trying to separate (surgically, as it were) the English realist novel and the French romance.

James Foster’s main interest, however, lies less with these these well-known, acceptable writers, as with the second tier that flourished during the second half of the 18th century, when the novel came into its own as England’s dominant literary form. In a chapter rather charmingly titled “Some Early English Sentimentalists And Some Odd Ones”, Foster takes a running look at the works of Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, and Mary Collyer, who “wrote the first out-and-out deistic novel in the English language”.

Collyer in fact published one of the first English translation of Marianne, a free adaptation in which, according to Foster, “She omitted some of the marivaudage, added reflections of her own which are an interesting blend of Richardsonian and deistic moralizing, and furnished a happy ending.” Collyer’s deistic work is Letters From Felicia To Charlotte, an epistolary novel published in 1744. Collyer herself draws a distinction between “romances” and her work, emphasising her devotion to “truth and nature”; and this would be the line of argument used by most subsequent writers and critics. The subtitle of the novel declares: Containing a series of the most interesting events, interspersed with moral reflections: chiefly tending to prove that the seeds of virtue are implanted in the mind of every reasonable being. The moral reflections, observes Foster, which are:

…usually put in the mouth of the hero Lucius, constitute a complete handbook of deism. Indeed, the discussion of ideas often weighs down the story part of the novel…The Letters From Felicia is notable chiefly for its oriiginality, yet it should also be remembered for its unassuming modesty and its keeping within the bounds of ordinary life… Her novel demonstrates how the head and the heart function in perfect harmony. The villain, as is usual in a deistic novel, is a religious hypocrite. The praise of Nature, “equally lovely in all her works,” disquisitions on the moral sense, tolerance, providence and similar topics, interest in the child and education, and a belief in the dignity and essential goodness of man—all these are deistic.

Foster’s “odd ones”, by the way, are John Shebbeare, Thomas Amory and William Dodd, “the macaroni parson”, all of whom deserve more space than I can give them here.

In “The Great And Near-Great”, Foster considers Richardson – Grandison and Clarissa, rather than Pamela – Fielding, Goldsmith, Smollet and Sterne. On a personal note, I don’t thank him at all for this chapter, which has almost persuaded me that I need to take another look at Smollet, who I hated with a passion during my first sweep through “the history of the Englih novel” some twenty-odd years ago. (Here I will pause to make the exception that everyone always makes about Smollet—except for Humphry Clinker.) Foster makes a persuasive case here for the influence of Smollet upon a range of interesting second-tier novelists—although seeing his virtues requires the reader to look past his misanthropy and tendency to wallow in nastiness, no easy task, as Foster admits. (These days, I tend to look upon Smollet as a descendent of Richard Head.)

In respect of Sterne, it his not his Tristram Shandy that Foster highlights here, although he draws attention to the influence of its generous humanism, but rather A Sentimental Journey. The former was inimitable, but the latter provoked an explosion of imitations, and was indirectly responsible for the tear-soaked school of sentimental writing headed by The Man Of Feeling. Sterne, says Foster:

 …wished to make his audience cry and then laugh, for he thought life without the spirit of humour intolerable, just as without feeling it was cold and empty… The man without a sense of the ridiculous is to be pitied as much as the man without a feeling heart. 

Unfortunately, most of Sterne’s imitators disagreed with his opinion of the importance of humour, or perhaps lacked the necessary literary skills. During the following decades, even the better writers tended towards unhappy tales of afflicted heroines; while less talented one produced tales so exaggeratedly lachrymous and full of death and disaster that they very often became inadvertently funny. Of the more respectable imitators of Sterne, Foster highlights Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Susannah Minifie, Elizabeth Griffith, Hugh Kelly, Edward Bancroft, Arthur Young and Henry Brooke, before paying some reluctant but necessary attention to Henry Mackenzie:

he was all for seemliness, propriety, verbal delicacy, piety, and decorum. But he did not have a tenth part of Sterne’s sprightliness or a sign of his wit. He was a solemn, stuffy person, precisely the type Sterne most detested. He allowed but one indulgence—luxuriating in tears and the damp atmosphere of lachrymous effusion… In The Man Of Feeling the author asks the reader to pity a hero whose feelings are so intense and delicate that they devitalize his will… He really prefers having the odds against himself heavy, for then his self-esteem will suffer less if he loses. His are not the pleasures of success but of resignation…

Foster describes The Man Of Feeling‘s infamous closing scene, in which the emotion of finding out that the woman he loves returns his affections kills the delicate Harley, as:

…the apotheosis of sentimental passivity and so forced that it seems almost farcial to the modern reader. Sentimentalists of that day, however, revelled in its semi-morbid emotionalism.

Indeed. The Man Of Feeling ran through no less than forty-six editions (!?). Foster goes on to point out a number of novels inspired by Harley and his determination to finish last at every possible opportunity:  John Chater’s The History Of Tom Rigby, John Heriot’s Sorrows Of The Heart, William Hutchinson’s The Doubtful Marriage, Edward Davies’ Elisa Powell; or, The Trials Of Sensibility and the anonymous Wanley Penson; or, The Melancholy Man and The Amiable Quixote. And while no-one, to my knowledge, had ever made a claim for these books in terms of their literary merit, I must say that I find it fascinating that this particular sub-branch of the sentimental novel, in which the most extreme and exaggerated emotionalism is lauded, is almost exclusively the work of men.

In parallel with these nakedly emotional works, another important form of the sentimental novel was beginning to develop, in response to startling world events and the increasing demands of the reading public for fuel for their imaginations as well as their emotions:

In the seventeen-eighties there appeared still more signs indicating how far the drift away from Augustan serenity, restraint, and disposition to preserve what was established had borne the minds of man. As classical ideals receded, emotional temperatures rose and imaginations soared. The atmosphere was charged with the expectation of great ansd sweeping changes soon to come. The hopes of the deists and other liberals in sympathy with French reform movements were raised by the train of exciting events climaxed by the fall of the Bastille. This decade and the next marked the heyday of the ultra-sentimental novel and the romain noir or “Gothic” romance…

Here, in contrast to what we might call the “realist” sentimental novel, we find the ladies almost entirely in charge – at least in England. Here again the French romance intrudes, in the shape of the influential works of Baculard D’Arnaud, “the French Mackenzie”. Foster quotes the European Magazine, which described D’Arnaud’s works as, Characterized by their moral tendency as well as for the energy and beauty of his diction. His colouring is frequently tinged with melancholy; a melancholy, however, that makes the deepest impression on the reader’s feelings. Foster follows this by giving an overview of those English writers who he believes were most strongly influenced by D’Arnaud—our old friend Clara Reeve, Sophia and Harriet Lee, Anna Maria Mackenzie, and Elizabeth Blower, whose novels constitute a sliding-scale from genuine historical novels, to heavily romanticised works in which “history” is merely an excuse, to the Gothic novels set in an entirely imaginary past.

The third significant branch of late 18th century novels come under the simple chapter heading, “Liberal Opinions”—the works of the so-called “radicals”. Of course, like most labels, the term “radical” ending up embracing a wide spectrum of beliefs, from a forthright embrace of revolutionary principles to a patient conviction of the eventual triumph of the better side of man. What these works do have in common, however, is that they are works of ideas—sometimes to the detriment of their ability to entertain. Invariably, they express a philosophy of the interconnectedness of man, and man’s responsibility to man, while scorning the notion that virtue is a function of birth or wealth. There is often a generosity of spirit about these works that is unexpected and appealing, particularly in their expression of views that were perceived at the time as genuinely radical and dangerous, such as the equality of the sexes. While they rarely espouse mainstream Christianity, these novels do evince a deistic view of God in nature; their leading belief is “benevolence”.

These “radical” novels were, as you might imagine, not always well received. Three writers who did find literary success, or at least notoriety, are considered here: Robert Bage, Charlotte Smith, and Thomas Holcroft—all of whom, I am happy to admit, I enjoy very much; call me a revolutionary. What the three had most in common was not their specific beliefs, but their appropriation of the sentimental novel as a vehicle for their political views.

Thomas Holcroft’s novels suffer from his inability successfully to translate his theories into convincing stories, but his Anna St Ives is a curiously compelling work in which the upper-class heroine prefers a well-educated farmer’s son to the local rake-aristocrat, who takes the situation as an unforgiveable personal affront.

(What I always remember most about Anna St Ives, however, is that it is the only—and I mean the ONLY—English novel I have ever read that has its hero refuse to fight a duel on principle, and then stand firm in the face of scorn and ostracism. Most of them – including Sir Charles Grandison chicken out of taking a moral stand on the subject, out of fear of their hero looking “unmanly”: “Duelling is wrong! – but if you insist…” )  

Robert Bage’s novels, on the other hand, although wordy and rambling and over-reliant on coincidence, are readable and often startlingly progressive. Moreover, Bage clearly liked women, and his heroines are flesh-and-blood people, not mere moral constucts. Though he disapproved of many aspects of society, Bage was a peaceful man who also disapproved of violence. His tales often involve a self-contained community operating on principles of equality and mutual support.

The one genuine radical to be found in this crowd is Charlotte Smith, who despised the English class system and imperialism, and openly supported the American and French Revolutions. Smith got away with her extreme views chiefly because most of the time she was forced to subsume them in novels written almost entirely for financial gain: she was a victim of the 18th century marriage laws, who took up novel-writing to support herself and her twelve children after she was deserted by her husband – who nevertheless turned up from time to time to demand she hand over her earnings, as he was legally entitled to do. (Smith’s first publication, a volume of poetry, was written while she and Benjamin Smith were confined in a debtor’s prison.) While Smith’s larger beliefs are on display more openly that you might anticipate, given her need to appeal to a broad public, her novels most often deal with what Fanny Burney called “female difficulties”—the struggle of women to maintain themselves and their self-respect in a harsh and predatory world.

Smith’s novels were also a way for her to channel her “unwomanly” anger with her husband and his family, against whom she fought for countless years a lawsuit over a property that she believed hers by marriage settlement, and which would have given her both a home for her children and an income. Says Foster with wry sympathy:

Perhaps Charlotte Smith…could have borne in decent silence the burden of bringing up her dozen children under the untoward conditions caused by their father’s proclivities for squandering his money, getting into debtor’s prison, or flying to France to escape prosecution, had it not been for lawyers. Very likely the lawyers received some of the blows she would gladly have bestowed on her husband and his relatives could she have done so without stepping out of her role of the exemplary wife. Yet she did not spare her spouse entirely as she put him in many of her novels as the hare-brained, selfish husband of a long-suffering, clever, sweet and saintly wife—that is, herself. To her mind lawyers were legalized ruffians who deprived her of what was rightfully hers—vampires who sucked the blood of her children. There is no fury like a woman trying to collect, and she was that woman during most of her writing years.

Lawyers do NOT fare well in Charlotte Smith’s novels.

The final novelist considered in this study, who gets a chapter all to herself—and rightly so—is Ann Radcliffe, who across the 1790s made the Gothic novel her own. Foster spends some time analysing the Gothic as a uniquely exaggerated offshoot of the sentimental novel:

    Of course, one can find moral instruction in Mrs Radcliffe’s pages, but she dared to give up pretending that each page was written for edification. Although she did not wish to encourage superstition, she played such a convincing game of “Wolf-Wolf” that she made the hair stand on end and the goose pimples come out. And citing Burke’s Inquiry, she pretended to believe that the effects of such strenuous emotional exercises were beneficial because they expanded the soul and stimulated all the faculties… But she was not really much of a philosopher. Her forte was the imagination. She was the inventor of melodrama in technicolor, the great impresario of beauty, wonder, and terror.
    Her novel stems from the line of Richardson, Prévost, D’Arnaud, Mackenzie, Clara Reeve, the Lee sisters, and Charlotte Smith. It is a special development of the sentimental novel and retains its main features… The atmosphere of her novel is more melodramatic and “wondrous strange” than in the regular type of sentimental narrative. Her heroine, instead of dwelling in a modest cottage in Surrey or Dorset, spends nights of insomnia and nightmare in a Gothic castle in the Apennines or Pyrenees. Strange lands and unfamiliar things take the place of the old familiar surroundings of London and Bath. The heroine who used to have desperate trouble with obdurate papas and mammas whose worst threats were to send her to a convent or to confine her to her room and take away all her writing materials now finds herself menaced by dangers so terrible that the mere thought of them brings on fainting fits. Instead of macaronis and young men about town, sinister villains with sin and despair written on their faces plot her undoing… It is a world of the romantic imagination and one that is most effective at twilight and after dark…

Radcliffe, too, had her copyists, of course; and Foster concludes his study with a brief look at the most successful of them: Elizabeth Helme and Regina Maria Roche.

The French Revolution, which began with such high hopes and ended in a bloody nightmare, was a shattering blow to the sentimentalists and their desire to think well of all mankind. Most of them retreated, mortally wounded, and so left the field clear for the cynics and the misanthropes. Yet the sentimental novel did not entirely go away, even as satirical portraits of a corrupt society grew in popularity. Many domestic novelists still embraced elevated principles and high-flown emotions, although they tended to integrate them into tales of young ladies fording the shoals of London society, rather than living in isolation in “Surrey or Dorset”. The Victorian era preached self-control and restraint, but it also embraced the extravagances of Charles Dickens, who managed to turn the sentimental novel into a weapon. “Sentiment”, as a genre, may have died under the guillotine, but “sentiment”, as an abstract, continued to be cherished throughout the 19th century—

—at least until Oscar Wilde had the final word on Little Nell.