Posts tagged ‘Samuel Richardson’


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…)


Sisters under the dust-jacket

“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…


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 pasttime 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 dormatories. 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 covent 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 monastaries 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!]


Fiction factions

I’ve found Factual Fictions a very useful addition to this course of historical/social reading: it has, for the most part, quite a different focus from most other studies looking at “the rise of the novel”, concentrating its first half upon print media generally, the evolution of news, and – even as early as mid-16th century – social concerns over the truth, or otherwise, of printed material and its possibly corrupt effects. (looking at this through contemporary eyes, we see that the concern was indeed focused upon the truthiness of news.) Lennard Davis’s study is wide-ranging, and addresses any number of critical watersheds, among them:

  • the infinite definitions of “novel” that existed across the 17th and 18th centuries
  • not just the development of printing, but the lessening of its cost during the 17th century, which put the dissemination of information within the reach of many, and took this prerogative away from church and state
  • the founding of regularly published journals during the conflict between the Royalists and the Roundheads for purely political reasons, which saw “truth” redefined in terms of political truth, party truth, and a shift in attitude by the ruling classes towards the population in general, which ceased to be viewed merely as a mob to be repressed and controlled, and became instead a force to be appealed to for support
  • the attempt to control the press in the early 18th century by taxing the publication of news, which forced a separation between “news” and “fiction” (which until then had generally been co-published if not blended, and were frequently both indistinguished and indistinguishable), and sent each entity on its own distinct evolutionary journey

Factual Fictions then considers the widespread and lingering habit of claiming a fictional work to be true, and the question of why, more than fifty years after Aphra Behn and with “the novel” an accepted and recognised form of writing, we still find Samuel Richardson insisting upon the literal truth of Pamela. The gradual shift towards a distinction between moral truth and literal truth that became the justification of the novel is examined, as well as the way this led to the eventual pruning away of the political/amatory writings of Behn, Manley and Haywood from the novel’s history. At the climax of his study, Davis tags as the key work, the first real novel, Tom Jones – citing Fielding’s habit of repeatedly reminding his readers that the work is entirely fictional (something that profoundly disturbed the critics of the day), his chatty, omniscient narrator, and the artistic breakthrough that saw real-life events threaded into a self-declared fictional narrative, with the closing stages of the story running in parallel with, and occasionally crossing paths with, the Jacobite Rebellion of November and December 1745.

The jewel in the crown here, however, is Davis’s chapter on Daniel Defoe, in which he highlights not only the incredible manoeuvrings to which Defoe resorted in order to avoid ever having to admit anything he wrote was fiction, but links this with Defoe’s, shall we say, malleability of political conviction, which saw him working for both parties simultaneously while repeatedly denying that he was working for either, and even uttering those denials to the people who were paying him to work for them! So convoluted were Defoe’s actions in this respect that I think I cannot do better than simply quote Lennard Davis’s summation of the situation, in which he declares—

“…the frames that are involved here are almost mind-boggling. Defoe, originally a Whig writer, was persuaded to write from the Tory point of view for Harley by insinuating himself into the control of a Whig paper. However, Defoe then secretly agreed to push the original Whig position while pretending to write as a Tory infiltrator… As if this were not enough, Defoe also agreed to infiltrate Dormer’s Newsletter, which was a Tory opposition paper, and to cause, The sting of that mischievous paper to be entirely taken out, though it was granted that the style should continue Tory, as it was, that the party might be amused and not set up another, which would have destroyed the design.  One has only to imagine the subtlety of style required to produce the Whig Flying Post that would allow the Tories to think they had infiltrated it while at the same time expressing the Whig hard-line point of view. And Defoe did all this while writing Dormer’s Newsletter in such a way that the Tories would believe he was writing from their viewpoint while in reality he was infusing Whig ideology…”

But he never wrote fiction! Let’s be quite clear about that!

Davis takes at face value the attack upon Defoe and Robinson Crusoe by his contemporary, the author, playwright and critic Charles Gildon (as Kate Loveman does not, arguing instead that Gildon’s response was an example of the faux-outrage with which Defoe’s various shams were punished), and in doing so highlights the fact that, whatever the motive for his outburst, Gildon may have stumbled onto a critical insight about Defoe: that he did, indeed, Think, that the manner of your telling a lie will make it a truth…

“To read” addition:

The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 – Lawrence Stone