Posts tagged ‘Penelope Aubin’

13/03/2011

Friend or Defoe?

“What makes Robinson Crusoe so monumental is the moment of hesitation – brief for some readers, longer for others – during which the horizon of expectations definitively shifted and adjustments were made that ultimately forced such ‘historical’ narratives to be read as works of fiction. Defoe’s importance to the history of the novel lies principally in the fact that his narratives were a key part of the process in the course of which readers created a new narrative category, eventually labeled ‘novel’.”

In History And The Early English Novel: Matters Of Fact From Bacon To Defoe, Robert Mayer contends that the novel as we know it evolved out of historical writing, and his study makes a case for Daniel Defoe as the critical figure in the development of the novel, based upon Defoe’s unique melding of history and fiction in those works which we now call his “novels” – but which were not generally recognised as novels at the time.

The first half of this book traces “the history of history”, the development of historical writing in England and the different forms in which it appeared before what we might now consider “proper” historical writing emerged, including history with a frank political or religious agenda, or history that was also autobiography, such as the Earl Of Clarendon’s History Of The Rebellion.

Although it covers a great deal of ground, Mayer’s main thrust here is his examination of how legendary or fantastic material, most notably the stories of King Arthur, was handled over the years by various categories of historians. He shows that even with a strong push towards factual and unbiased history, the old stories continued to be included and treated with respect. It was the attitude of the historian that changed, from one of declared belief to an acknowledgement that the stories were just stories. Many historians took the view that a respect for tradition demanded the inclusion of these tales; others recognised that a fabulous beginning was better than no beginning at all (harder-line historians tended to begin their work with the first Roman invasion); while others still, significantly, simply recognised that their readers liked stories.

The upshot of all of this, according to Mayer, is that the English people were not merely used to having, but happy to have, “fabulous” material included in their history; that they were accustomed to a little fiction mixed into their facts. And this, he contends, paved the way for the idiosyncratic writings of Daniel Defoe, who took the opposite tack of producing fictions that read like histories, and that challenged the reading public to categorise them correctly – and indeed, do so to this day.

Mayer uses Robinson Crusoe and The Journal Of The Plague Years as the basis of his argument, examing the puzzlement, the confusion and the outrage that greeted the former, and the way in which history and fiction are blended in the latter. Some of this we have glanced at before, courtesy of Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, which Mayer references here, but which is considerably more critical of Defoe’s manoevrings than this study. Mayer makes a strong case, but a highly selective one; and the more I thought about his assertions the more I felt inclined to argue.

Mayer’s stance – and he uses the word repeatedly – is that Defoe’s writing is “revolutionary”; that it literally changed the landscape and determined the course of the development of the novel. There are, of course, quite a number of studies of the history of the novel that make a case for a single critical figure, an ur-figure, as Mayer puts it; and while I do not dispute the importance of Defoe or the uniqueness of his writing, my issue with this approach to literary history is that by definition it requires an accompanying argument as to why other writers are not important…and that’s where I start to get uncomfortable.

In fact, the main case that Mayer makes against Defoe’s “rivals” – and we are, of course, talking mainly about Aphra Behn, but also Eliza Haywood – is that their writings were not “revolutionary”; that readers were not confused and uncertain about them, as they were about the status of Defoe’s “histories”; that they didn’t change anything, or not immediately. This seems to me an odd sort of argument, but I suppose it is an unavoidable one once you start insisting upon a single writer, a single work, as responsible for the rise of the novel. In making this assertion, and dismissing Aphra Behn and her followers from the history of the novel, Mayer makes use of what seems to me some fairly specious arguments, which confuse the writings themselves with their changing public reception.

“The inescapable fact of the history of the English novel is that the so-called “novel of amorous intrigue” has been marginalized for two-and-a-half centuries, and no amount of criticism will change that.”

One immediate problem I have here is the snarkiness of that final clause. I would argue, on the contrary, that criticism has changed everything: that thanks to the hard work of some very determined academics, we have not only witnessed the rehabilitation of the personal and professional reputations of Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, but seen, not just Behn and Haywood, but other writers like Delariviere Manley, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, among others, take their rightful places in the timeline of the novel’s development.

But if we’re only arguing the immediate effect of  the works in question, well, I feel inclined to dispute that point, too. Mayer seems to be suggesting here that the “marginalising” of certain writers meant that they could not be an influence upon the course of the development of the novel. If that is his contention, he’s rearranging the facts to suit himself. The marginalisation to which Mayer refers happened well subsequent to the original publication dates of the works in question, which were successful and popular to a degree that should not be underestimated. For example, Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister ran through something like eighteen editions between the time of its publication and the turn of the century, that is, better than one a year: hardly evidence of “marginalisation”. It was years, in some cases decades, before the writings of Behn and Haywood did fall out of favour, and then it was the result of shifting social mores, that is, a judgement made not upon the quality of the writing, but upon its content.

I also take issue with the implication that these writers wrote only “novels of amorous intrigue”. This may or may not be true of Eliza Haywood, or true of the first phase of her career – I haven’t examined her writing closely yet, so I can’t at the moment say – but you can hardly call Oroonoko a “novel of amorous intrigue”. Nor, in spite of its sex and manoeuvring, can Love Letters… possibly be dismissed as nothing more than a cheap thrill, as we have seen. What’s more, having now really sat and studied Behn’s first attempt at fiction, it seems to me Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana owe more than a little to the character of Sylvia, but there’s no consideration here of any such possible influence.

More importantly, however, at least to my mind, is the fact that if you dismiss Aphra Behn from the novel’s timeline, you lose along with her a proper understanding of the development of the epistolary novel, so dominant a form all the way through the 18th century, and so critical a factor in the emergence of true psychological writing. Here, too, Mayer strikes me as disingenuous: while arguing for Defoe’s creation of a new form of writing, he takes no notice of the fact that Behn did the same; his account of the novel, as all these “single figure” studies do, then jumps from Daniel Defoe to Samuel Richardson, where we find him simultaneously admitting Aphra Behn’s influence upon Richardson while dismissing her as an important influence. He also skates over the fact that Richardson plundered Behn’s work while leading the growing wave of criticism, moral rather than literary, against her.

(While I wouldn’t call Pamela “a novel of amorous intrigue”, exactly, I do find its prurience much more offensive than Behn or Haywood’s frank approach to sex.)

I suppose  in the end it comes down to whether you want to posit the history of the novel in terms of a single individual, or whether you prefer see it as a stepwise process involving any number of writers. Mayer argues strenuously for Defoe’s writing as causing a “literary revolution” that expanded the “horizon of expectatations” for the early 18th-century reader. The trouble is, having made this assertion, and having dismissed Behn and Haywood for their failure significantly to alter the literary landscape, he then makes little effort to show how Defoe’s “revolutionary” writing actually changed anything, either for the contemporary reader or for contemporary and subsequent writers.

And while Robert Mayer makes his case here by talking in historical terms, I feel compelled finally to answer him biologically, and to say with respect to his vision of a single progenitor, an ur-figure, that evolution really doesn’t work that way. It is true that nature sometimes throws up a spectacular mutation, a sport. However, these dramatically different entities rarely lead to anything, but are, on the contrary, usually sterile. Most of the time change occurs, not instantaneously, but gradually, by a process of action and reaction, with the individual, or the individual species, pushing against the prevailing environment, which pushes right back.

We can illustrate this in a literary context. We’ve seen already how Aphra Behn’s move to fiction writing was shaped both by her knowledge of pre-existing texts (chiefly Love Letters From A Portuguese Nun) and by political and economic factors (no new plays being commissioned): the result was Love Letters…, which in turn inspired Delariviere Manley, who was simultaneously influenced by the nature of the text and by her environment, in which politics were dominated by the Whigs she so despised. Eliza Haywood, noting the ephemeral nature of Manley’s texts, so much a product of a single time and place and milieu, shed the literal politics but kept the sexual kind; while Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin, strongly disapproving of the earlier publications but nevertheless adopting their forms, began to strive for the novel as a moral influence… And so on, to Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Edgeworth, to Scott, and Austen, and beyond… All important figures, some truly great figures…but no ur-figures, if you please.

And now, to change the subject somewhat— Thinking over my reaction to History And The Early English Novel, and trying to articulate it, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, feeling somewhat reassured about this ridiculous blog project of mine*. Mayer, like many literary historians, simply steps over the intervening years between Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson…which are precisely the years that most interest me.

This may, at first glance, seem somewhat perverse. Off the top of my head, I can name only a couple of writers who worked during this time: Penelope Aubin, who certainly was influenced by Defoe (but perhaps that’s not considered anything to boast about?), but whose career ended in the 1720s; and of course Eliza Haywood – and the first part of her fiction-writing career came to a shuddering halt during the first part of this period, too, thanks largely to the limitless bile of Alexander Pope. So who else was publishing in the years before Richardson? Was it a wasteland, as most literary histories would suggest? – or were still further novelistic developments going on there in the shadows, in works perhaps more important than worthy? Do any forgotten gems lurk there? I don’t know…but it is these historical black holes that I’m finding increasingly fascinating…

(*Call it Robert Mayer’s revenge. I’ve come away from History And The Early English Novel with yet more additions to my wishlist, this time a set of publications that are for the most part either apologies for “the Glorious Revolution”, or reactions to those apologies. Never mind my hope of “getting the hell out of the 17th century“: at this rate I’m never going to make it out of the 1680s…)

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29/09/2010

The Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (Part 4)

“I want nothing more from you. I am mad to keep saying the same things over again, I must leave you and not spare you another thought…”
— (?)

The fact that it has taken me three full posts on the subject to even begin talking about the Lettres Portugaises themselves is an indicator of just how much cultural and scholarly baggage they have managed to acquire over the centuries—a case of not being able to see the letters for the words.

In a way I feel I should apologise for the way this series of posts has gone. I picked The Love-Letters Of a Portuguese Nun to kick off this blog because it was a famous work I’d never read, and because I knew it was considered to be a strong influence upon the subsequent development of the novel. I was aware that there was some controversy over its authorship (“some” – how naive I was back then! – last week), but if I’d had a more accurate idea of just how much, I probably would have done things differently. As it turned out, before I realised it I was, well, I was in Mariana, stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

(Hmm… I hope the operative word in that paragraph isn’t “tedious”.)

Anyway—while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this journey on my own account, it does strike me as being rather unfair on you, O loyal, uh, reader. (You know who you are!) All I can say now is that I’ll try in the future not to get quite so carried away, and that I promise this will be my last post on this particular subject.

Although I don’t promise it will be short.

Having examined what we might call the external history of the Lettres Portugaises, and the arguments pro and con resulting from it, what I want to do now is examine the text, and see if there are clues in there as to the work’s reality as fiction or non-fiction.

Naturally enough, many people reject the idea of a nun having a love affair! – although not so much that she would as that she could. However, I think it has been adequately demonstrated that the prevailing political and social conditions of the time might have made it possible. Spain had succeeded in forcing Rome to cut its ties with Portugal, which meant that to a large extent the convents were left to their own management, without too much oversight. It was a time of war, and there was much disruption of the normal processes. The Convento da Conceição, although founded on principles of poverty, had over the years become extremely wealthy. In order to remain so during these troubled times, it began opening its doors to potential benefactors, wealthy men, who were entertained with conversation and music and scrummy Portuguese pastries. Visiting the convent became a common past-time for many young men—possibly including the French officers stationed nearby. Although it was against official regulations, nuns from wealthy families often had private accommodations in the grounds of the convent, rather than being forced to sleep in the communal dormitories. The logistics of an affair might, therefore, have been less daunting than it appears at first glance.

Some critics have taken issue with the fact that, although Mariana’s affair is an open secret at best, she seemingly attracts no punishment. Improbable as this may now seem, it may well have been so. The era of the supposed affair was a time of great lawlessness in Portugal, even amongst the clergy: there are accounts of monks, in particular, involved in everything from murder to tobacco-smuggling – importation of illegal tobacco from Spain was hugely profitable – to sexual misdeeds of all kinds.

(Mariana’s brother, Balthazar, had three illegitimate children after entering a monastery.)

As usual, there was more toleration for bad male behaviour than female, but the records show that in this respect, the men didn’t have it all their own way. At the turn of the century, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that the nuns in a convent in the north of the country were using the little buildings on the grounds, which supposedly were cooking-houses, to entertain their lovers—and that they, too, were involved in tobacco-smuggling. (It is unclear which of these two transgressions attracted the most official ire.) The king, Dom Pedro II, tried to crack down on the licentious behaviour of his clergy, but even as he did so his son, John (later King John V), was openly taking nuns as his mistresses. In the context of the time, Mariana’s affair may have seemed no more than a minor indiscretion. Indeed, you get the feeling that the affair per se was not the problem, but rather that she had it with a Frenchman.

These stories of misconduct amongst the clergy underscore one of the the most striking aspects of the Lettres Portugaises: what we might call the absence of God. This was an era when many people were forced into convents and monasteries against their wills for political or financial reasons. Mariana and two of her sisters were, to remove them from the inheritance line and thus concentrate the family fortune in their brothers. However, it is one thing for a woman to be a nun in a convent and yet have no sense of vocation; it is another for such a nun to write an account of an illicit sexual affair that contains no hint of either moral or spiritual angst. Mariana’s emotions of shame and humiliation are all entirely personal. There is no hint anywhere that she feels that she has sinned against either man or God.

Perverse as it may appear, this lack of religious feeling is one of the qualities of the Lettres Portugaises that inclines me to think they might be real. It seems to me that if you chose to write about a nun having an affair, these are the sorts of touches you would include, on one hand to exploit your subject matter to the full, and on the other to deflect accusations of immorality or anti-clericalism. Fiction had not, granted, yet reached the point where female misconduct was invariably punished (usually with death, but sometimes with – oh, irony! – entering a convent); but it seems to me unlikely that someone would conceive of such a story and then offer no external framework at all.

Similarly, I find the lack of internal reference points persuasive. These are the letters of someone, understanding her situation and circumstances, who writes to a second person equally aware of the situation and circumstances. There is no instance in which they do what openly fictional letters too often do, and have the writer telling the recipient things he already knows, or describing things he has already seen, or explaining references to landmarks and events with which he is perfectly familiar. There is no sense in them of the awareness of an audience, or an audience’s expectations.

Whether they are fiction or non-fiction, the Lettres Portugaises were indeed hugely influential upon the development of the novel—the English novel in particular, which is ironic for reasons we shall consider presently. The main basis of the letters’ influence is that their intense interiority showed people a new way to write. We get almost no sense of Mariana’s surroundings, her companions, her duties, or the day-to-day details of her life in the convent. As one commentator puts it, we know the state of her soul, but not what she had for dinner. Her passion absorbs her to such an extent that, we feel, everything else in her existence has become rather dim and shadowy.

This leads into the other aspect of the letters’ influence, the way in which their writing functions for Mariana as a form of self-psychoanalysis. She cannot always maintain her distance, of course, and repeatedly slips back into pleading, cajoling and making improbable plans; but increasingly with the passing of time and the writing of each individual letter, Mariana is able to step back and examine her situation, the growth of her love, the stages of her affair, her lover’s desertion, how real his love for her could have been – and indeed, how real her love for him.

That Mariana has been, if you’ll excuse the expression, “in love with love” becomes increasingly clear to us and to her. It is not very surprising. Confined to a convent since childhood, this epoch in her life has come along and simply overwhelmed her. It is her slow recognition of the true nature of her feelings, that they were not entirely what she first thought, that sustains Mariana through the sickening realisation that what to her has been a great and glorious passion has been to her lover a mere diversion, something to rank alongside hunting and gambling as a way of passing the time between his military engagements. It is not, however, this which finally cures her, but the two letters she does eventually receive in return for her own. The first is short, cold, and written with obvious distaste and reluctance; the second is even worse, full of expressions of kindness and – as Mariana puts it – impertinent protestations of friendship. It is the second one that does the job.

There is little in Mariana’s language that rings false, given her circumstances. We might wish her to effect her cure sooner, but we are not surprised when she cannot. The letters circle around and back again as she is unable to leave her subject alone, her words passing from helpless pleading to bewilderment to indignation and bitter anger, mixed with occasional flashes of sarcasm, such as that provoked when an officer who has agreed to carry a letter for her is kept waiting – and waiting – as she repeatedly tries and fails to sign off. How importunate he is! she observes, when he sends her yet another reminder of his need to leave. No doubt he is forsaking some unfortunate woman…

(There’s even an unnerving, pre-Alanis Morissette moment when she reflects darkly that if she’d really loved him as much as she thought she did, his desertion would have killed her – which it didn’t – so she couldn’t have.)

Published letters, including love-letters, were nothing new in 1669. The magnitude of the success of the Lettres Portugaises then begs the question of what it was about these particular letters that made them catch fire all across Europe. It’s tempting to answer “their reality”. Either way, it seems feasible that the rawness of their language and the refusal by Mariana (whether character or author) to either shrug off her desertion or to suffer it in silence may have struck a nerve at the time, particularly in salon society where, whatever the real feelings of the participants, love was often treated merely a game for sophisticates. In any event, the letters swiftly spread from country to country, being published (legally or illegally) in England, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia—but not Portugal; not legally. Pirated copies did slip across the border, but an authorised edition of the Lettres Portugaises was not published in their putative country of origin until 1819.

It is the effect of the letters in England that I wish to consider here. As it evolved, there was a strong tendency for the English novel to be defined by what it was not: it was not European; it was not “a romance”, that is, a string of improbable events; it was not immoral—or not as immoral as European romances. There had been “immoral” English novels, but by the mid-18th century, they were being expunged from the record. They were not to be spoken of, except perhaps by tactful allusion, as a reminder of past unpleasantness. The same was true of the (mostly) women who wrote them.

The overriding irony of this is that the single work that had the most influence upon the development of the English novel was that most European of productions, the Lettres Portugaises—not least by inspiring an “immoral” novel by an “unspeakable” woman, which would itself be enormously influential. Women had long written and published in England, but never with impunity. Those who, in the second half of the 17th century, were trying to make a living by it were subject to disapproval and criticism at best, and violent abuse and social ostracism at worst. This, however, applied to women trying to earn a living as playwrights, journalists or (eventually) novelists. At the same time, there was one branch of literary endeavour at which, it was considered, women excelled—and at which they were allowed to do so: letter-writing. Many women did publish their letters – or wrote letters with the intent of publication – and these ruminations upon the subjects of general interest were embraced.

The arrival in England of the Lettres Portugaises opened a new door for the writers of the day, the women in particular. The emotion and focus of the letters, their lack of any surrounding plot or purpose, gave birth to a new form of literature, the epistolary novel: a story told from the inside out. Such novels could, of course, have a conventional framework, but it was no longer necessary; and as the letters themselves had so graphically demonstrated, they were the perfect vehicle for an amatory tale. For the aspiring women writers of the day, it was an amazing opportunity: a form of novel-writing that seemed to need a female author.

The extent of breakthrough that this represented is illustrated by the fact that all of the important female English writers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and from both sides of the moral divide – that is, Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood on one side, and Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin on the other – adopted the epistolary novel as a means of expression, very often making the connection with the Lettres Portugaises explicit in their titles. And even as the letters themselves had swiftly entered the language in France – a passionate love-letter was said to be “à la Portugaise” – before long, amorous letters and novels published in England were being advertised as “in the Portuguese style”.

Of all the works influenced by the Lettres Portugaises, the one that was itself the most influential was Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, published across 1684 – 1687, wherein Behn penned an amatory epistolary novel that not only exploited to the full its thematic connection with the Lettres Portugaises, but allowed her to serve her own political purposes by writing what Claude Brabin had indirectly suggested that the letters might be, a roman à clef of a contemporary scandal. Behn’s novel was written and released in three separate parts. The first volume is very much “in the Portuguese style”, although it does what its forebear does not (could not?) and takes the reader inside the minds of both participants in an illicit affair. In writing the second and third volumes, however, Behn was without the political purpose that shaped the first, and was free to experiment with style. Extraordinarily, the result of this is that the three volumes represent three different kinds of epistolary novel, with each of them taking a different approach to the handling of their material, and above all to the way in which the characters are presented to the reader via their letters.

Later novelists may have disapproved of Aphra Behn, but disapproval did not stop them appropriating her style—and taking credit for it. The worst offender was probably Samuel Richardson, whose moral purpose may have been new, but whose technique was borrowed from a woman whom he frequently condemned. (Richardson liked to condemn Eliza Haywood, too, despite the fact that during the 1730s he reprinted her novels and made a lot of money from them.) There’s no disputing that Richardson’s writing, particularly in Clarissa, took the epistolary novel to heights, and psychological depths, that had never before been achieved; but in doing so he built unacknowledged upon work that came before, that of Aphra Behn, certainly, and of—

the author of the Lettres Portugaises.

[That’s it. I promise!]

 

04/08/2010

Despicable, indefensible and lubricious

Few things annoy me more than those studies of the novel that seem to believe that Daniel Defoe woke up one morning and said to himself, “Hmm…today I think I’ll invent the novel!”, and which dismiss any writing that doesn’t fit a set of parameters devised in academia centuries after the fact. So John J. Richetti’s Popular Fiction Before Richardson got off on the right foot with me by making exactly the same objections to certain other studies as I do – although centring the novel’s “beginning”, as you would infer, in Pamela.

However, it was soon clear from Richetti’s language that while he would not be doing as many of his fellows have done, and casting no more than a single shuddering glance at the majority of popular writing of the early 17th century, that this study would nevertheless be an exercise in gritting the teeth, holding the nose and wading through. Expressions such as artistically despicable and morally indefensible appear with great regularity from the earliest pages, as indeed do pointed remarks about the intellectual capacity (or lack thereof) of the many, many individuals who put the “popular” in “popular writing”. The comparisons to television and comic books come soon enough, as does a reference to tabloid journalism. It could hardly be clearer that Richetti is somewhat embarrassed by his own subject matter.

Be that as it may, this an important work in spite of its air of head-shaking and tongue-clucking, simply because it engages with, and in some detail, the writers in question and their influence upon the likes of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding – which influence they certainly had, albeit often in the form of negative example. Richetti quotes from and discusses a variety of popular genres, including rogue, whore and pirate biographies, travel journals, scandal fictions (including romans à clef), political allegories, erotic tales and moral fables. The section on the political and amatory works of Mary Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood is particularly amusing. The usual note of gender judgement is struck, of course: it’s bad enough for anyone to be writing this stuff, we gather, but for women to be doing it – ! Although he is unable to deny their success – or their embarrassing popularity, as he puts it – Richetti makes no real attempt to investigate whether there is more to these works than immediately meets the eye.

(Here’s a fun game: count the number of times Richetti uses the word lubricious in this part of his book.)

It is with a palpable sense of relief that Richetti moves onwards, and perhaps a little upwards. He is clearly more comfortable dealing with the moralities of Jane Barker (described as relentlessly edifying), Penelope Aubin and Elizabeth Rowe, and as a consequence (consciously or unconsciously) is far less critical of their works; even though he admits that Aubin’s stories, in particular, tend to consist of little more than a string of absurd coincidences, a lesser degree of which he condemns in Haywood’s writing. Comfort brings a greater degree of perception, and Richetti is able to sum up these works as, Symptoms of the gradual accommodation of fiction to the ideological needs of the time.

It is not, however, upon that comparatively gracious note that Richetti’s study concludes. His epilogue finds him declaring, The bulk of eighteenth-century pre-Richardson popular narrative is largely beyond redemption, and making reference to, The sorry hacks and well-meaning ladies who produced this fiction; and in short, struggling to justify his own work.

(Odd, isn’t it, how in that context “well-meaning” seems a nastier epithet than “sorry”? I think it’s the implication of the juxtaposition with “ladies”.)

However, perhaps the strangest thing of all is that all this negative rhetoric hasn’t in the least quelled my eagerness for the literary journey I’m about to take through the same era. If anything, on the contrary: I’m very much looking forward to discovering just how much teeth-gritting and nose-holding is actually required.