“I propose to trace Romance to its Origin, to follow its progress through the different periods to its declension, to shew how the modern Novel sprung up out of its ruins, to examine and compare the merits of both, and to remark upon the effects of them.”
— Clara Reeve (1785)
I have learned, over the years, to keep my hobbies to myself – at least out there in the real world. I’ve learned to dread the look; that combination of puzzlement, pity and discomfort that seems to accompany any public admission of how I spend my time. Its bad enough, it seems, that I read at all, without reading, you know, old stuff. I shudder to think what a confession of my chronobibliographical aspirations would get me.
So it was with feelings of pleasant surprise and some comfort that I read Clara Reeve’s The Progress Of Romance Through Times, Countries, and Manners; With Remarks On The Good And Bad Effects Of It, On Them Respectively; In A Course Of Evening Conversations, which seems to have been inspired by an impulse similar to that which led to this blog.
Clara Reeve turned to writing comparatively late in life: her first novel, The Champion Of Virtue, written is disapproving reaction to Horace Walpole’s The Castle Of Otranto, was published in 1777, when she was forty-eight; it was reissued the following year under the title by which it is now much better known, The Old English Baron. Reeve subsequently wrote half a dozen more novels, none of which were anywhere near so successful as her first, and which today are virtually unknown. In between, Reeve also published some poetry, translations and non-fiction. (Like every other woman writer of the time, or so it seems, she had a plan for the education of the young.)
The Progress Of Romance, published in 1785, has a double purpose and a unique structure to go with it. The book is fashioned as a series of conversations between three friends, the well-read Euphrasia (Reeve’s alter-ego), Hortensius, her main antagonist, and Sophronia, who acts as an arbitrator between them. This was a clever move on Reeve’s part, turning what otherwise might have resembled a series of lectures into a more easily absorbable form. It also allows Reeve to argue against many of the prevailing opinions of the day, most of which just happen to be Hortensius’s.
The premise of this work is that Hortensius has taken exception to, or at least been startled by, some remarks of Euphrasia’s in which she seemed to denigrate epic poetry. Euphrasia explains that, rather, she was merely expressing her opinion that romances are by no means necessarily inferior to “the works of the great Ancients”, as is usually asserted, but may be regarded as essentially the same works in a different format.
Hortensius is affronted by this comparison of the classics and a form of writing that he has no hesitation in condemning as “trash”. It turns out, of course, that he hasn’t actually read most of the works he condemns – plus ça change. Reeve’s response to this revelation, which she puts into the mouth of Sophronia – “I have generally observed that men of learning have spoken of them with the greatest disdain, especially collegians” – is, I suspect, an expression of her opinion of the narrowness and inutility of the classical male education. It is evident throughout this work that Reeve considers the results of her own autodidactism far more satisfactory, although she never says so outright. She does, however, while admitting the often pernicious effects of novel-reading on girls, take issue with basing the education of boys on the classics – thus familiarising them at a young age with the Ancients and, “Their Idolatry – their follies – their vices – and everything that is shocking to virtuous manners.”
Euphrasia then proceeds to make her case by examining the origins of epic poetry, romantic prose, and other related works such as ballads, tracing fiction of all kinds across countries and centuries, highlighting their handling of the same historical events and demonstrating how the same story-telling impulses underlie each.
We emerge from this section of her book with a mental picture of Clara Reeve as highly intelligent, astonishingly well-read and amusingly opinionated. She also strikes us as very much a woman of her time, a stern judge who condemns any work that seems to her to have an immoral tendency. Her main argument in favour of the old romances is that they were almost always aspirational works, which celebrated courage and fortitude, and featured heroes and heroines of unimpeachable virtue, and which therefore were appropriate works “to put into the hands of young people”. The same cannot always be said, alas, for the romance’s descendant, the novel.
One of the purposes of The Progress Of Romance is to tackle the question that so obviously greatly bothered so many analysts of the time – just what is the difference between “a romance” and “a novel”? The definitions offered here seem to have guided opinion on the subject for many years afterwards. At the outset, we have Hortensius (prior to his conversion to Euphrasia’s point of view) asserting that a romance is, “A wild, extravagant, fabulous story”, to which Sophronia adds the rider, “Those kind of stories that are built upon fiction, and have no foundation in truth.” The conversationalists return to the point following Euphrasia’s dissertation of the history of the romance, with Euphrasia giving her own definition:
“The romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The novel gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it, is to represent every scene, in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that it is all real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own.”
It is the “reality” of the novel that makes it such a double-edged sword. Its familiarity makes it a far more effective vehicle of “instruction” than the romance, but it also makes it more likely to do harm. We get the usual sketch here of “young persons”, particularly young women, being mindlessly influenced by what they read. The fear of what novel-reading could do to girls was so widely expressed at the time that I suppose people actually believed it – although we notice that “Euphrasia” seems to have emerged from the reading of the works she subsequently condemns without suffering any particular moral damage. Reeve must have been aware of this inherent contradiction in her stance, although she avoids engaging with it directly, merely having Euphrasia observe, not of her own but of Sophronia’s reading, that certain works are, “Apt to give a romantic turn to the reader’s mind, unless she has as much discretion as Sophronia.” Discretion, we gather, is a quality largely lacking in novel-readers.
The second section of The Progress Of Romance is one of the earliest serious studies of the novel, and a fascinating snapshot of the mindset of the time. To my infinite amusement, Euphrasia / Reeve starts out by expressing a doubt I know only too well, as she contemplates with obvious dismay, and possibly some feeling of panic, the magnitude of the task she has undertaken:
“At our last meeting, I mentioned some difficulties I apprehended in my progress…and I must now confess, upon relexion they increase… It is now that I begin to be sensible in how arduous an undertaking I have engaged, and to fear I shall leave it unfinished.”
Sister! I cried.
“I purpose in future to take notice only of such novels as are originals, or else of extraordinary merit… I will endeavour to go forward warily and circumspectly…”
Okay, I muttered, obviously one of us was adopted…
But even Reeve’s cut-down history of the novel is extensive and impressive. She starts out tracing its origins out of Italy and Spain, before discussing its flowering in France. Here she does something that many later critics are strangely loath to do (a point I’ll be returning to in a subsequent post), and admits candidly the strong influence of the French writers of that century and the preceding one upon the development of the English novel.
Of the English novelists, she starts, inevitably, with “the Fair Triumverate of Wit”, and offers an interesting perspective on the three ladies who would suffer so much abuse over the succeeding centuries. Poor Delariviere Manley comes off the worst, being dismissed as a mere scandalmonger. Reeve admits Aphra Behn’s “genius” but, striking the key-note of the rest of her analysis, argues that her genius does not make up for her immorality.
It is Reeve’s opinion of Eliza Haywood that is the most intriguing. As you might imagine, she condemns her early writings utterly – but then insists that Haywood be given a pass, “Because she repented of her faults, and employed the latter part of her life in expiating the offences of the former.” Haywood’s reinvention of herself in the 1750s as a didactic novelist is indeed one of the most remarkable phases of the lady’s serpentine career, regardless of whether it represents her “repentence” or merely her pragmatism; while The History Of Miss Betsy Thoughtless is one of the most important novels of its time, as I hope to be discussing at some unspecficied future date…
As you will have gathered, at all times in this review, it is less the quality of the novel that is considered important than its morality. Not surpringly, then, it is a discussion of the relative merits of Richardson and Fielding, those twin kings of the 18th-century novel, that shapes the rest. Reeve concedes that in Fielding’s novels, “Virtue has always the superiority she ought to have”, and that his books are superior to Richardson’s in terms of “wit and learning”. However, “As I consider wit only as a secondary merit”, Reeve contends that Fielding’s work is, “Much inferior to Richardson’s in morals and exemplary characters.” And indeed, “To praise the works of Mr. Richardson is to hold a candle to the sun.”
Reeve then goes on to consider most of the more successful novelists of the preceding fifty years. (She chooses discretion over valour, and refrains from giving an opinion of the writings of her immediate contemporaries.) Reeve praises Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Sarah Scott, Oliver Goldsmith and (with reservations) Tobias Smollett. The latter allows her to take another pot-shot at Hortensius: when he praises Humphry Clinker she marvels, “Then you do condescend to read novels sometimes, especially when they are written by men?” Hortensius also asks her opinion of Tristram Shandy, which she condemns – although not with as much certainty in her own judgement as she usually displays: “What value posterity will set upon [his writings] I presume not to give my opinion of, it is time that must decide upon them.” Sterne’s more sentimental works, however, she does approve.
From my own peculiar point of view, I was somewhat disappointed that Reeve did confine herself to the better-known novelists; I was hoping for a few more obscure works to add to The List, but for the most part it was not to be. The closest we get is some praise for Elizabeth Griffith, whose novels are allowed to be, “Moral and sentimental, though they do not rise to the first class of excellemce”; and on the other hand, a dismissal of “Miss Minifie’s novels”, which are tartly summed up as being, “In the class of mediocrity, if I were to mention such, it would make our talk too long and tedious.”
Given Reeve’s general reticence in this respect, one does wonder why the unfortunate Margaret Minifie was chosen to represent “the class of mediocrity”. This probably wasn’t the reaction she wanted, but…I’m sorely tempted to go and find out…