Friday, December 26, 2008


Henrietta (1758), by Charlotte Lennox, is a funny, charming Fieldingesque novel about the adventures of the eponymous heroine. Henrietta is a very well-born young lady, down on her luck. She refuses to submit to her aunt's decree that she convert to Catholicism, and this leads to a downhill spiral that sees Henrietta go from being the niece of an earl to the servant of a succession of very silly women. What is remarkable about Henrietta is her unwavering sense of pride and dignity - she has no problem saying no to people, and is not willing to bend her principles or beliefs, even when it would mean significant financial gain (or the ability to escape certain sticky situations). Henrietta undergoes many misfortunes, and finds herself in situations where lesser heroines would have come completely unstuck, but her sense of pride and dignity never falter. She is not a prig, however, as she is willing to do a lot of things that proper women should never do (such as run away from home), so she is never a boring character.

I found this novel really wonderful. Henrietta is a great heroine, and mercifully does not faint as much as Lennox's Harriot Stuart. Lennox has wonderful comic timing and the social satire in this novel is brilliant. I really enjoyed her portrayal of Miss Woodby, which I think may just have influenced Austen's portrayal of Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. And Lord B's proposal to Henrietta echoes both Pamela and Pride and Prejudice. As Perry's introduction points out, this novel fits neatly between Fielding and Burney. Fielding is obviously a major influence on Lennox, particularly in her portrayal of comic types, and Burney obviously looked to Lennox's use of the bildungsroman.

While I am still giving The Female Quixote the Lennox prize, this is a very readable, funny and interesting novel about a woman who dares to stand up for what she believes in, despite the consequences.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Madam de Beaumont and The Count de Vinevil

As my Garland edition puts these two novels by Penelope Aubin together, I thought I'd review them together.

The Life of Madam de Beaumont, a French Lady (1721): This is a short novel about a very virtuous family who are separated due to Madam de Beaumont's refusal to convert to Catholicism. This gives Aubin an opportunity to do some Catholic bashing, and also subject the three protagonists of the novel (de Beaumont, Madam de Beaumont, and their daughter Belinda) to all sorts of wild adventures. I think Belinda actually gets kidnapped three times whilst she is being kidnapped. As in, she's being carried off somewhere, only for somebody else to fall in love with her and carry her off, only to be kidnapped whilst trying to escape from that person and so on and so forth. Despite all these lurid adventures, this is a very pious, moralistic book about the importance of virtue and chastity. The de Beaumont family are rewarded for their morality and patience. It's all a little tiresome, really. The plot is vaguely Eliza Haywood, but not half as sexy or well written and with this priggish morality brushed over the top.

The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and His Family (1721): This is another short novel about a nobleman down on his luck who decides to move his family to Turkey so that he can make money as a merchant. Of course, this doesn't exactly go as planned. His beautiful daughter is lusted over by almost everybody, apparently, and a Turkish nobleman who is determined to obtain her by any means necessary causes all kinds of trouble for them. It's all very racist, of course. The Turkish people are lustful, extravagant, and violent, whereas the French, the English and the Spanish (in other words, the Christians) are the very epitome of perfect Christian morality. I did find this more entertaining than the former novel, though, because there is a very strange section of the novel where the main characters have a Robinson Crusoe-esque adventure, which I found rather hilarious.

All in all, though, I'd much rather read Haywood.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Parent's Assistant

The Parent's Assistant (1796), by Maria Edgeworth, is a collection of short stories designed for children. It is really a fictionalization of the Edgeworth's educational theories, in that the stories are designed to teach children by practical example. It is full of stories of virtuous young children who learn lessons about industry, patience, tolerance and kindness. It is very 18th-century - I doubt many children these days would take well to the stories - but it was a very modern idea for its time.

I think I enjoyed "Simple Susan" the best, because there is a vile character in that story that definitely deserves what she gets. I also liked "The Orphans" and "The Mimic". "The Mimic" has a wonderfully drawn comic character, Mrs Tattler, and since the children in that story aren't initially as wonderfully good as the other children in the collection, I found it more entertaining.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handed morality, I rather enjoyed reading these stories. For the most part, they are very sweet. And I very much like Maria Edgeworth's educational methods, because she shows a lot of respect for children's innate abilities and intelligence. Very old-fashioned reading, but quite charming in its own way.


Dorothea; or, A Ray of the New Light (1801) is attributed to a Mrs Bullock, but that is based mostly on educated guessing, as nothing is known of the author. Dorothea is a little-known anti-Jacobin novel about the courtship and marriage of the eponymous heroine. Dorothea has been educated into "radical" beliefs by her careless governess and a radical philosopher called Thomas Williams (obviously named after Caleb Williams, from Godwin's novel). The novel is so aimed squarely at William Godwin that it seems that most of the novel is directly lifted out of the pages of Political Justice, as almost all of the characters quote from it extensively. Of course, as this is an anti-Jacobin novel, the novel explores how Dorothea learns to turn away from her radical beliefs to embrace a life of happy conformity and conventionality. Godwin's beliefs are held up for ridicule, as they lead Dorothea into a lot of pain and suffering.

So, the politics in the book are very unpalatable to the modern reader. Dorothea at the beginning of the novel, whilst immature and a bit too literal, is spirited and independent. By the end of the novel, she's the "perfect" wife - submissive and totally subordinate. And this is presented as a good thing. However, if you can get past the politics, this is actually a surprisingly entertaining novel. It is at its best when it leaves aside its diatribes and focuses on social satire. There are parts that are genuinely funny, and I think even the most conservative reader would have found Dorothea, even at her most radical, quite sympathetic. I found this a much more interesting anti-Jacobin text than something like Waldorf, for example. Bullock provides direct parallels to Godwin's work, and actually demonstrates practical situations where Godwin's idealistic principles can be harmful. While I was not convinced by Bullock's arguments, obviously, Bullock's use of direct quotations is quite a persuasive technique.

I don't know that I would read this if I weren't studying anti-Jacobin novels at the moment, but I did quite enjoy it, despite the ultra conservative politics. And even though I hated the ending!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Force of Nature & The Perplex'd Duchess

The Force of Nature and The Perplex'd Duchess are collected in a compilation called Four Novels of Eliza Haywood. However, as I have already read Lasselia and The Injur'd Husband, the other two novels that make up the four, this review will only be of the first and last novel in the collection.

The Force of Nature, or the Lucky Disappointment (1724) is a novel of misunderstandings, confusions, missed opportunities, and coincidences. It follows the fortunes of a young couple in love. They have grown up together as close as brother and sister, as Fernando has been taken under the guardianship of Alvario, Felisinda's father. Of course, they fall in love, and Alvario decides to separate the young lovers. What follows is rather implausible but rather entertaining. There's mishaps in convents, duels, disguises - all kinds of melodrama. Another couple is introduced as a foil to Felisinda and Fernando. The ending is a little disturbing to a modern reader, but it genuinely surprised me, which is an unusual feat for an early 18th-century novel! Typical Haywoodesque fun.

The Perplex'd Duchess, or Treachery Rewarded (1727) is a short novel about an evil woman. Gigantilla, in spite of her rather unfortunate name, is a typical scheming Haywood villainess, clever and shrewd and manipulative. She's remarkably good at what she does, rising from the servant class to become the Duchess of Malfy - the equivalent of a queen. Of course, Gigantilla is undone eventually, but it is only by chance that her schemes are thwarted. I love reading about Haywood's bad girls, because although their schemes are eventually thwarted, Haywood obviously has a great deal of fun showing women bending gender conventions and assuming power in their own right. This is a really short novel - I read it in one sitting - but it's hugely fun, in typical Haywood style.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Modern Griselda

Maria Edgeworth's take on the famous folklore stories about the patient and submissive Griselda, The Modern Griselda (1804), is quite hilarious. It's about a wife who is basically the opposite of long-suffering Griselda. If her husband says you pronounce a word a certain way, she says it's pronounced differently. If her husband wants to sit down, she wants him to stand up. If her husband says he likes salad, she insists that eating salad will be the death of him. And so on and so forth.

Of course, this starts to present something of a problem. Their marriage (predictably) begins to unravel, but Griselda keeps on using her "techniques" in an attempt to acquire power over her husband. This is a pretty light novel, but I really enjoyed Edgeworth's tongue-in-cheek depiction of marital power struggles. You definitely don't sympathise with Griselda, but she has her moments of clarity, when she loses the obsession with power, and you can see that she really does love her husband.

There is the obligatory virtuous and moral Edgeworth heroine, of course, but she has a fairly minor role here - which is mainly to irritate Griselda. The point, of course, is that the virtuous Emma Granby is able to acquire power over her husband by simply being a loving wife and not badgering him to death or getting strange ideas about female submission into her head.

I enjoy Edgeworth much more when she lightens up, I think!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Emilie de Coulanges

Emilie de Coulanges (1803), by Maria Edgeworth, is another anti-Jacobin novel. This time, it's about two emigrants, a mother and daughter, who have come to live with an upper-class English woman. Mrs Somers, the English woman in question, is initially very generous to them, but over time, of course, she comes to resent them for various reasons. She thus engages in this very convoluted form of psychological warfare with Emilie (the daughter).

I found this a much more engaging novel than Madame de Fleury. As I said in regards to that novel, Maria Edgeworth is better at creating "bad" characters than good ones, as her "bad" characters are more believable. Mrs Somers is not evil, but obviously has a problem controlling her temper. Her idea of being a good friend involves making over-the-top sacrifices of her money and time. Of course, nobody can ever be as grateful as she wants them to be, so problems arise. I found her scenes with Emilie wonderful, as Emilie has no idea what she's doing wrong, and so keeps on accidentally enraging Mrs Somers. There's a great scene involving the purchase of some paintings (or, really, the inability to purchase the paintings), in which Mrs Somers grows steadily more resentful, and Emilie has no idea, so it's all kinds of complex and delicious.

This is not a perfect novel - the romance plot is a bit tacked on, and there is a miraculous restoration of the de Coulanges fortune a la Madame de Fleury. The anti-Jacobinism of the text is played down, so that all you really hear about the Revolution is that the de Coulanges family have lost their money and that the father of the family has been guillotined (but this is not dwelt upon at any length). The Revolution is a very remote calamity, so you're never really engaged with the question of whether or not the de Coulanges will regain their property. For a family that's just had to cope with the execution of their husband and father, they don't seem to think about it much.

However, for the psychological complexity of the interaction between Emilie and Mrs Somers along, this is well worth a read.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Madame de Fleury

Maria Edgeworth's Madame de Fleury (1805) is a pretty standard anti-Jacobin text. Madame de Fleury is an exemplary woman. She is clever, benevolent, wise, patient, and good. The action is centred around a school for impoverished girls that she is inspired to open when she meets three poor children who are forced to spend their days locked in a room while their mother looks for work. Given Edgeworth's interest in education, there is a lot of detail about how exemplary the school is in every way - the girls are educated by example, and the emphasis is on practical education, rather than the acquisition of accomplishments. There is a strong class bias inherent in the school, which I found distasteful from a modern perspective, but was obviously intended as a good thing: despite the fact that the girls show signs of high achievement in areas such as writing and dancing, they are not encouraged to develop these talents due to their lower-class status. Such accomplishments might encourage them to climb the social ladder, you see. They must be perfectly content to suppress their talents and work as shop assistants, ladies maids, and governesses.

Anyway, along comes the French Revolution to put a damper on this whole more-perfect-than-perfect school. Madame de Fleury is forced into exile, and the school is forcibly disbanded. Victorie, the most perfect of these perfect students, is the center of the student's attempts to salvage Madame de Fleury and her property. At one point, Victorie confronts the revolutionaries head on, and her perfection is enough to make them reconsider destroying Madame de Fleury's chateau. Oh, to be so perfect!

If you think I'm sounding a little cynical, it's because I am. I think Maria Edgeworth's tendency to didactism works for her sometimes, and sometimes it does not. This is one of the cases where it does not. I didn't feel like any of the characters were real, and the story lacks the wit and insight of her other novels. For all Maria Edgeworth's morality, I think she is much better at writing "bad" characters than good - her good characters are too good to be believable, while her "bad" characters all seem like real people to me (see Lady Delacour in Belinda, for example). All of Maria Edgeworth's novels are moralistic and educative, but this one is moralistic and educative and nothing else.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Letters for Literary Ladies

I thought it was time to include a post about this, since it gives my blog its name! Letters for Literary Ladies, by Maria Edgeworth, is basically a collection of letters between two women, Julia and Caroline. However, one woman, Julia, only writes one letter. To put things very simply, Julia might stand for "sensibility", while Caroline stands for "sense". So, of course, Julia runs into all sorts of relationship disasters, while Caroline's judgment is vindicated and she leads a virtuous life. It's only a short work, and most of the letters are merely lectures by Caroline to Julia about the decisions she is making or has made. It's not as boring as it sounds, however, and it's a pretty interesting glimpse of the kinds of concerns that Maria Edgeworth would revisit in her later fiction. While Julia is treated harshly, she is allowed to repent at the end of the novel, in typical eighteenth-century fashion.

However, I enjoyed the Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification a lot more. It's basically a satirical essay instructing women on various ways to manipulate their husbands. While it's supposed to be an indictment of those kinds of women, and that way of thinking, it's actually quite hilarious.

As Letters for Literary Ladies is short and obviously didactic, I doubt it has much contemporary appeal, but it's a must for anybody at all interested in Maria Edgeworth. Although definitely not as fun as Belinda.

The Life of Harriot Stuart

Charlotte Lennox's The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself (1750) is a Richardsonesque novel about a young woman's process of maturation. However, unlike Richardson's "angelic" victims, Harriot is a fiesty, fiery woman with a lot of flaws. She likes attention rather too much. She gets herself into all kinds of scrapes. She refuses to succumb to the eighteenth-century seduction plot (she actually stabs the man who is trying to rape her, which is awesome). She falls in love with one man, but admits to enjoying flirting with other men. Above all, Harriot is an intelligent heroine who never lets circumstances control her. I was surprised by how much agency Lennox gives her - she never has to "learn" as much as Arabella from The Female Quixote does, and her judgment and actions are almost always vindicated.

This novel has additional historical interest, as it is partly set in mid eighteenth-century America. While Lennox never actually names New York and Albany (calling them N- and A- respectively), it's pretty clear that she is talking about them. Lennox provides an interesting glimpse of American society, based on her own experiences. Harriot has dealings with the native Americans, makes various observations on the nature of the American landscape, and at one point wanders through American wildlife by herself.

While I still think that Lennox's The Female Quixote is a stronger novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart is a very enjoyable novel, especially if you want to get something vaguely Richardsonesque, with a proto-feminist twist.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Sophia King's Waldorf; Or, The Dangers of Philosophy (1798) is basically a very conservative little book about how the logical endpoint of all radical philosophy is death. Death, death, and more death. And I hated it.

This book is badly plotted, ridiculously melodramatic, unbelievable, and eye-roll worthy in its 'down with the radicals' ideologies. Basically, Waldorf is a young man who falls in with Lok, a radical philosopher along the lines of William Godwin. And because he has adopted Lok's radical philosophies, Waldorf suffers a litany of misfortunes. These are just a few of them: he causes two women to die because of their trauma over his atheism (somehow?), he ends up killing the two brothers of one of the women, his lover runs away because she has been all fired up by his radicalism (?), his infant son is murdered, he is the cause of an innocent man's execution, and finally his lover dies and he commits suicide over her body. And we are somehow led to believe that if only he didn't listen to Lok, all of this would be avoided! Somehow.

I get that conservative thinkers were extremely worried about the effect that radical philosophies would have on the fabric of society. The turn of the eighteenth-century was a time of radical change, which can often be scary. But this is a weirdly Chicken Little kind of hysterical reactionary melodrama that is just irritating. Apart from being told that Waldorf's atheism is troubling to the two women he "kills", there is no explanation as to why it's so troubling that they can't do anything but die as a consequence. And since the rest of the drama takes off with their deaths, the whole novel is built on the flimsiest of notions.

In other words, I wouldn't recommend it!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Injur'd Husband and Lasselia

As this edition of The Injur'd Husband and Lasselia draws together two Eliza Haywood novels, so I will review them together (and also because Lasselia is really short and this would be a really short blog post if I didn't.

The Injur'd Husband; or, The Mistaken Resentment (1723): This is a sexy, naughty little novel about a very evil woman. The Baroness has about six lovers going on at once. What is amazing is that none of the men ever figure it out. Of course, she gets her comeuppance (in a rather public manner), but the real fun of this novel lies in her (mostly successful) scheming. The "heroine" of the novel is a wet blanket in comparison, until she decides to flirt with cross-dressing as a man. This isn't my favourite Haywood novel (that distinction still goes to The Adventures of Eovaai, over Betsy Thoughtless), this is a whole lot of fun. And I really appreciated it's depiction of female sexual desire - while the sexual Baroness is evil, sexual desire in women is not seen as a bad thing because she doesn't really feel genuine sexual desire for anyone. Montamour, who feels genuine sexual desire for Beauclair, is seen as the exemplar (and, some have argued, represents Haywood herself).

Lasselia; or, The Self-Abandoned (1723): This is a slighter novel, both in length and in subject manner. Lasselia falls in love with a married man, and this novel charts both their histories and their love-affairs. There is an inset narrative which is loosely connected to the main action, but seems rather shoe-horned in (although I found the story of the sisters much more interesting than the story of Lasselia). While Haywood was extraordinarily prolific (she wrote a novel every three months for most of the 1720s), most of her novels don't seem rushed. Except for this one. I have the feeling that there is a more complex novel somewhere in Lasselia, but it never comes to fruition, and the novel ends rather abruptly. As it is so short, however, it's a very easy read, despite the incoherency.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Excursion

Frances Brooke's The Excursion (1777) is funny, sly, cheeky and very entertaining. It is very much in the vein of Fanny Burney's Evelina (but not quite as good). While I was reading this, I couldn't help but think how much I would have loved to have known Frances Brooke - she seems like she'd be a lot of fun!

The Excursion is about the "excursion" of a young lady to London. Maria, the young lady in question, has lived in the country her whole life, but starts to wish for a "coronet" (to marry a member of the nobility), so off she goes. Predictably, all sorts of wild and wonderful things happen there. She falls in love, spends way too much money, becomes briefly addicted to gambling, and has the play she has written rejected by a theater manager (a not subtle at all parody of David Garrick, who had some not very pleasant interactions with Brooke). I spent half the book being irritated with Maria for being so dumb, and feeling strangely maternal and protective towards her.

The best part of the novel is definitely Brooke's narrative voice. The narrator is like a proto-Jane Austen narrative voice - it's a bit sly, it's a bit ironic, but it's very sympathetic and wise. Brooke uses chapters very effectively to signal her way around the text, often ending a chapter by saying something along the lines of "okay, you've seen this scene. Let's look at another scene happening at the same time as this one". That could get irritating, but it really works for her.

I really enjoyed this one and will have to read more Brooke - especially The History of Emily Montague, which is considered to be the first Canadian novel.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Fortunate Foundlings

Eliza Haywood's The Fortunate Foundlings (1744) is much more obviously a "novel" than some of her earlier works: you can see by comparing her works of the 1720s to this one how the novel was developing as a form. For example, this book is divided into chapters, and follows a more or less linear structure, with much fewer inset narratives.

The Fortunate Foundlings is about twins (Horatio and Louisa) who are found abandoned under a tree by a wealthy bachelor. He brings them up, and then they go off and have their own adventures for various reasons. I found Louisa's story much more sympathetic and interesting than Horatio's, which is more predictable in its exploration of love and war. Louisa is a typical Haywood heroine - both very feminine and surprisingly strong and independent. At one point, she wanders around Italy on foot with very little money. While her stubbornness can be irritating at times, I ultimately found her extremely sympathetic and her story kept me gripped in a way that Horatio's didn't. Again, there is a certain proto-feminism inherent in the novel, as Louisa's story is very much about the vulnerability of women in a patriarchal society (and, on the flipside, the methods that women used to try and elude victimhood).

I didn't love this in the way I loved The Adventures of Eovaai (which I can't stop thinking about), but it was a fun and pretty absorbing read, especially in what it demonstrates about how the novel had developed since the time Haywood wrote Love in Excess.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Distress'd Orphan

This is more like it! I've just finished reading Eliza Haywood's The Distress'd Orphan; or, Love in a Mad-House (1726). Which I loved. It's predictable, it's melodramatic, but it's also really fun and surprisingly ahead of its time.

The Distress'd Orphan is, as its name suggests, about an orphaned girl brought up by her uncle. She is heir to a large fortune, and so aforementioned uncle is secretly plotting to marry her off to his son. Anyway, Annilia is not as pleased with her uncle's scheme as he had hoped, and she falls in love with somebody else. Her uncle is very much not pleased with that course of events, so he imprisons her in a mad-house (in which case her money would pass to him as next of kin).

This book was written 70 years before Mary Wollstonecraft's Maria, but there are many similarities. Both women are imprisoned as a result of unhappy marriages (or intended marriages, as the case may be). And despite Annilia's essential femininity, she demonstrates a strong resistance to laws that allow women to be bought and sold by unscrupulous family members. The Distress'd Orphan is much less political than Maria, but there is a definite political aspect to Annilia's cry for liberty.

This is a very short book, but I found it incredibly fascinating, especially when compared to Wollstonecraft's later text. I'm in such a Haywood mood at the moment because the more I read of her, the more I like her.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Wild Irish Girl

I've just finished reading Lady Morgan's (or Sydney Owenson's, as she was when she wrote the novel) novel The Wild Irish Girl. To which I say THANK GOD because I hated it.

Lady Morgan is not a great writer, as Jane Austen pointed out. This is a syrupy, silly melodrama, badly written and very predictable. The characters are all highly irritating and the storyline drags and drags until a rush of highly implausible events occur in the last fifty pages of the book.

The book's only real appeal lies in its very positive portrayal of pre-Union Ireland. That is the only possible reason one could have for reading this. That is the reason I read it, after all. Well, kinda - I am more interested in comparing her with another Irish novelist, Maria Edgeworth.

I think I will read some more Maria Edgeworth instead!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fantomina and Other Works

Broadview Press has been really great at publishing what would otherwise be obscure works by little known eighteenth-century novelists. Eliza Haywood, however, little known now, was a literary superstar of her day (arguably the most well-known and prolific novelist of the first half of the eighteenth century), but is not widely read today. This Broadview edition brings together four of her shorter works. Since these works are so short, I decided to review them together.

Fantomina, or Love in a Maze (1724): I found this quite hilarious. It is about a woman who manages to seduce the same man over and over again by adopting various disguises. Yes, really. He never picks up on the fact that he is sleeping with the same woman over and over again. The way Haywood transforms the "seduced maiden" story is very clever - she turns the seduced maiden into the seducer (much more daring than Clarissa!). While this will leave you wondering about the intellect of the man in question, it's a very clever, tongue-in-cheek work. I really enjoyed it.

The Tea-Table, or A Conversation between Some Polite People of both Sexes, at a Lady's Visiting Day (1725): The title really gives away what this work is about - it literally is a conversation over a tea-table. Most of the conversation centers around love and virtue, but they do veer off on tangents and some of the inset stories are quite lengthy. It is interesting, but a little disjointed. Much less a real conversation, I guess! I enjoyed the narrative sections much more than the theoretical conversations.

Reflections on the Various Effects of Love (1726): Again, the title gives the game away. This is basically an extended reflection on the nature of love. There is a lot of discussion on why some people behave so appallingly when they fall in love, and the conclusion that the narrator comes to is that love heightens our essential characteristics. For example, if you are subconsciously frivolous or morally loose, love "unlocks" that characteristic. On the flipside, if you are good, love will bring out that essential goodness. Again, there are quite a few inset narratives that serve to illustrate the narrator's point, which are the most enjoyable parts of the work.

Love Letters on All Occasions lately passed between Persons of Distinction (1730): This is basically a set of individual love letters. While some letters are followed by a reply, most exist in isolation, so we never actually know 'what happens next'. The longest sequence of letters (which runs over approximately 10 pages) is similarly incomplete - the lovers are just about to be reunited when all of a sudden Haywood switches her attention to another couple. What is interesting is that each letter is about a different facet of love. There are letters about unrequited love, jealousy, constancy, absence - everything you can ever imagine. It's actually quite remarkable. While the fact that there is no actual narrative means it's hard to get into the book, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. And I wanted to know more about everybody! It's like 80 pages of tantalizing hints at longer stories. Very frustrating, but very enjoyable at the same time.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveo

The Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveo, by Eliza Haywood (1736), is one of the strangest novels I've ever read. Part oriental fantasy, part political satire, part romance, and part soft pornography, it's a very strange, but very enjoyable read. It takes place in a "pre-adammatical" period. Haywood's explanation for this strange choice of setting - before any humans were supposed to have existed - is that the world was destroyed and reborn a few times before this world was created.

The political satire comes from the fact that Haywood is obviously satirising the corruption of Robert Walpole, who was what could be considered the first Prime Minister of Great Britain (the position wasn't recognised as such then, but he basically acted as Prime Minister). The character that represents Walpole in the novel is an evil magician. That should tell you that this is not a gentle satire, or a satire that merely makes its subject ridiculous. Rather, the satire is downright vicious. Walpole is represented as nothing short of the embodiment of evil. The political satire doesn't end with Walpole, though - Haywood represents most of the major political figures of the day through the course of the work. It's amazing to see just how politically engaged a female novelist could be, so early in the development of the novel as a form. This is definitely not a domestic novel!

It's also a surprisingly postmodern novel. Throughout the text, which is presented as if it is a translation of an ancient text, there are extensive footnotes, or "commentaries", by an unnamed narrator. The narrator comments on the action and constantly draws attention to the text as a text, but is by no means unreliable. Rather, the commentator makes misogynistic statements or claims that the characters don't really mean what they have appeared to say, but actually mean something else. It's all very metatextual and interesting. It's a very knowing text - Haywood clearly intends to be experimental, obviously mixing generic forms and tipping her hat to the reader in recognition of this. This is why it makes me mad when certain modern authors think they are being oh-so-experimental by doing stuff with unreliable narrators or textual commentary - it was being done in 1736!

I really enjoyed this book, and I think it's a book that will stand up well to re-readings. It's a short novel, but there's a lot to take in. Knowing a lot about the politics of the time is non-essential if you read the Broadview edition, too, as the introduction is excellent and the editor points out a lot of the more subtle references to early 18th-century politics that would otherwise be lost on the 21st-century reader.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


I'm not entirely sure what I think of Vivian, by Maria Edgeworth (1812). I felt it started off as one kind of novel, then became another kind of novel.

Vivian is basically a novel of ideas. The central idea in the novel is education. There are a number of portraits of the different kinds of education a man or a woman in the eighteenth-century might receive. What the novel is concerned about is the limitations of these forms of education, and the errors that people fall into as a result of imperfect education.

Vivian's main flaw is that he is easily led. In fact, he is so impressionable that his opinion usually coincides with that of whoever he has last conversed with. This seems to set the novel up as a bildungsroman, but Vivian never seems to learn anything at all, despite falling into numerous mishaps as a result of his inability to decide anything for himself. This can become extremely tiring. However, somehow Edgeworth avoids making her hero too irritating. I found myself liking Vivian despite myself. And Edgeworth's careful examination of the effect of education was interesting, especially given her expertise in the area (she published educational textbooks with her father).

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, there is a surprising amount of humour in the book, especially surrounding the character of the self-absorbed author and actress, Miss Bateman (or the Rosamunda, as she is known). When the novel was published, it was rumoured to be a portrait of another Irish novelist, Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan), but Edgeworth always denied this.

This novel finishes on a much more bleak note than I initially expected. Which is why I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. I felt like there was something missing in the novel, and it does end rather abruptly. However, I did feel sorry for pretty much all the characters, and I found one scene in the novel almost up there with similar scenes in the novels of Jane Austen (hint: it involves a woman refusing a proposal of marriage).

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Things That Annoy

You may or may not have heard that a new edition of Frankenstein, edited by Charles E. Robinson, has recently been published. This edition credits the novel to Mary Shelley (with Percy Shelley).

Um, excuse me?

Certainly, Percy Shelley edited the novel. He no doubt discussed it heavily with Mary. He made many suggestions. We have manuscript evidence of that fact.

But that doesn't make him a co-author! Anybody who has ever written anything at all knows that every piece of writing in a collaborative effort. Most people have a whole litany of assistants, from thesis supervisor to editor to supportive partner.

I don't think I'm over-reacting to read heavy doses of sexism into this. Of course, a 19-year-old woman could never have written one of the most enduring classics of literary history all by her lonesome. No, she could only do it with the help of her husband! So lovely of him to give up his time to help his helpless little wife churn out a good story. Please.

And, of course, I highly doubt that attributing co-authorship to a wife in the case of a famous MALE writer would ever be seriously considered.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Sometimes, when I'm writing about these books, I have to make excuses for them. 'They're melodramatic, but...', etc. The reason for this is largely because eighteenth-century novels are so different from modern novels. There is not as great a concern for realism, for example, and the passages that we consider overblown melodrama were considered deeply effecting. This is not to say that they're bad, just different, and it's something to keep in mind when reading a book written prior to the works of Jane Austen (when novels became more recognisably 'modern').

However, some of then novels I read are sheer joy from beginning to end. In this category, I put (and this list is off the top of my head and by no means exhaustive): all of Fanny Burney's novels, but especially Evelina, Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, Mary Robinson's Walsingham, Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote and Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. And now I can add to the list another Maria Edgeworth novel, Manoeuvring.

Manoeuvring will never be considered Edgeworth's greatest achievement. In terms of her oeuvre, it is a relatively minor novel. But damn if it isn't ridiculously entertaining.

Basically, Manoeuvring is about a clever and competent Mrs Bennet-ish character. Where Mrs Bennet was silly, Mrs Beaumont is clever. Where Mrs Bennet is completely transparent, Mrs Beaumont is clever enough to get away with things most of the time (although, obviously, things start to unravel over the course of the novel). At one point she's got about seven schemes going on. The novel is funny, light-hearted, and compulsively readable. While the ending is pretty predictable, I wanted to keep reading just to see how Mrs Beaumont would get her inevitable comeuppance. As with all Edgeworth's novels, there is a moral, but it doesn't get in the way of the story, but rather, comes out of the story naturally. It's actually quite Jane Austenish, but a bit 'lighter' (in that it is very narrow in focus).

To summarize: lots of fun! And sometimes, that's really all you need.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I've just finished reading Delphine, by Germaine de Stael. It's a French novel about a tragic love affair, and is about as melodramatic as one might expect from that description. But, luckily, melodrama is not all there is to it. I actually found the book surprisingly enjoyable and only a little annoying. There is lot of radicalism in this book. It is set during the early days of the French Revolution (i.e. before the Terror), and there' s a lot in it about women's rights and liberty. It is especially concerned with upholding the right of women to divorce. And there are a few interesting inset narratives about women's lives and the choices open to women (or the lack thereof). While there are a few men in the book, obviously, this books is overwhelmingly concerned with women, their relationships, and their friendships. I found Mme de Vernon particularly interesting.

Be warned, there is much contemplation of the nature of love, and lots and lots of swooning. The hero is a complete wet blanket who deserves some serious bitch-slapping at times. But, for all that, I found myself genuinely moved by parts of this book, and the ending is a bit unsettling, despite my earlier irritation at the actions of the hero, Leonce.

Interesting Germaine de Stael fact: she introduced Fanny Burney to the man who would become her husband, Alexandre D'Arblay.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Monody to the Memory of Marie Antoinette

Today marks 215 years since Marie Antoinette was executed, on October 16, 1793.

I've always felt great sympathy for Marie Antoinette. While I am on the opposite side of politics (I would totally have been a Revolutionary), I always feel like what she had to go through was both unjustified and beyond the limits of human endurance. Maybe it's because I have an irrational terror of beheading. Mostly it's because I feel great sympathy for female scapegoats.

I'm not unique in my "I should hate her but I love her" sympathies. Mary Robinson was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, yet she met and admired Marie, and produced a pamphlet pleading for her release, and two poems (one set shortly before her execution, and one shortly afterwards). Ann Yearsley, Olympe de Gouges and Charlotte Smith were all sympathetic to Marie. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, another 18th-century female liberal, was a friend of Marie Antoinette. A lot of women on both sides of politics were shocked and dismayed by the execution of the Queen. Books written in England from late 1793-1796 are full of accounts of people being shocked by Marie Antoinette's death. I would argue that it was the defining moment of the French Revolution - more so than the execution of Louis XVI.

I find Marie Antoinette to be completely fascinating, both as a person and as a study of a public woman in the late 18th century: a woman who was both the embodiment of ancien regime excess, and its ultimate victim.

Also, her dresses were fabulous.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Duchess

I went to see The Duchess last week, despite my fears that it would be disappointing. I mean, Keira Knightley? Give me a break.

Unsurprisingly, my fears were vindicated! It wasn't so much Keira's fault as I expected, though. She was competent in the role as given. If I'm not mistaken, there was even less pouting than usual. The problem was that I didn't see Georgiana in the role. Movie Georgiana is not unintelligent, but is nowhere near as fascinating and intelligent as the real-life Georgiana. They turned this amazing woman into a victim, and it irritated me.

I felt that the movie was too concerned with showing what characters were 'good' and which were 'evil'. Georgiana is good and wonderful in every way. Which she wasn't in real life (there's that gambling problem, for starters). The Duke is a caricature of a "bad" husband. Which he wasn't in real life. And so on and so forth.

I was also really disappointed that they reduced Georgiana's involvement in politics to 'introducing speakers at rallies'. There was no sense of just how daring it was for a woman to get involved in politics, nor how much criticism she braved. There was no sense of just how involved she became - how she went out into the street and talked to the ordinary people to solicit votes. I mean, she practically invented door-knocking and shopping centre visits. Also, there was very little acknowledgment that Georgiana was a patron of the arts, a novelist, and really the hub of Whig intellectual life in the late 18th-century. This is interesting stuff, especially since most audiences probably wouldn't be aware just how central a position women occupied in public life in the late eighteenth-century (as opposed to the much more repressed Victorian era). Much more interesting than the fairly mundane story of her marriage. I mean, what high-society couple weren't having affairs in the 18th-century? It was hardly remarkable at all.

I also felt the film suffered from desperately trying to be Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a film which I absolutely adored. I think the difference between the two films was that MA had a guiding principle, a thread that ran through the entire movie. Despite the focus on Marie's childishness, it still managed to not present Marie as a victim. The Duchess, however, didn't seem to have any 'point' (besides the OMG SHE'S JUST LIKE DIANA thing), and it turned one of the most fascinating women in history into a victim. And that is what is truly unforgivable.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hubert de Sevrac: A Romance of the Eighteenth-Century

I've just finished rereading Mary Robinson's Hubert de Sevrac (1796). It's a bit of a pot-boiler, really. Full of attempted abductions, imprisonment, mysterious assassins and near executions (complete with last minute escapes and exonerations!), it's very much a Gothic novel. Despite the fact that Robinson fills this novel with more melodramatic thrills than one could ever hope for, it's actually a really bold and radical novel. Basically, it's about a family of French aristocrats who have been dispossessed due to the French Revolution. They wander around Italy for a while, and have many adventures. What is really interesting is that despite the fact that they have essentially lost everything, they are still exceptionally pro-Revolutionary. In fact, they think the Revolution is just tops and feel guilty for being rich and enjoying parties and pretty dresses.

Nowadays, it seems quite unlikely that somebody who is essentially homeless would be all 'yay homelessness!', but evidently it was taken quite seriously at the time. The de Sevracs are exemplary in every way, and along the way they pick up a few other emigres who seem to hold the same liberal ideologies they do. There's a lot of stuff in the novel about the essential corruption of the court of Versailles, and the book is very egalitarian. The lower classes in this novel are the most virtuous of them all, it seems (even when they are aristocrats in disguise).

While this does reflect the viewpoint of an English woman who did not have to deal with the reality of impoverishment and homelessness, it's actually a much more daring exercise than it might appear. By this time, English writers who came out so strongly in favour of the Revolution were getting thrown in jail. Charlotte Smith, who was just as revolutionary as Mary Robinson, had to "disguise" her beliefs in her later novels, shifting her focus to other areas of Europe (such as Poland) and America in order to comment obliquely on the situation in France. For Mary Robinson to demonstrate such a strong belief in the Revolution at a time when the Revolution was more about chopping off heads than anything else (and when she could get in trouble for doing so) was nothing short of remarkable.

Mary Robinson herself is just as interesting as her novels. She was an actress, briefly mistress to the Prince Regent, allegedly a courtesan, an actress again, fashion icon of her day (even more so than the Duchess of Devonshire for a time), friend of the afore-mentioned Duchess and Marie Antoinette, and later in her life, a very well-respected poet and novelist. She was one of the 'unsex'd females' named in Richard Polwhele's counter-revolutionary poem of the same name, and was a good friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She was a scandalous woman in her day, but managed to achieve some kind of respectability both with her writing, and a great deal of PR smarts. Check out her Memoirs for a look at how to conduct public relations, 18th-century style!

This is not Robinson's finest literary achievement, but is definitely worth a read for its political and social commentary. If only it were available in a modern edition!

100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen

When I first read Dale Spender's Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen, I made a resolution. Spender lists around 600 novels written by 100 women. One of my life goals is to read all of them. Or, at least, as many as I can reasonably get my hands on, since many of these novels are extremely hard to find. Most have been out of print for some time. Some have been out of print since their initial publication.

Spender's book is a reasonable guide to the world of the 18th-century female novelist. It's designed for the general reader (although at the time, Spender was an academic working in this field. She's since moved on to other pastures), and is very accessible. What's striking about the book is the sense of excitement that Spender feels in "discovering" the works of these largely unknown women. I felt the exact same thing when I started researching in this area. Spender writes:
I cannot, however, begin to convey a sense of the joy I have experienced in finding these women writers. When I had thought that I had read most of the women novelists who had ever been published, the discovery of yet another one hundred "new" old novelists was in itself a source of tremendous excitement. And the last two years of avid novel-reading has been, for me, one of the most moving and illuminating events of my life.(1)
So far, I have read 39 of these 600 books. Which is more than most have read, no doubt (not boasting, it's just a fact), but it's not enough! There's still a very big world of women's novels out there that I haven't read yet, and that's a wonderful thought.

Anyway, I will keep you updated as I go along and I may even type up a list of the novels in question! Let's see how procrastinaty I feel...

(1) Dale Spender, 'Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen'. London: Pandora Press, 1986.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I've just finished reading Leonora, by Maria Edgeworth, which was first published in 1806.

Leonora is a novel about a very, very naughty woman. So, of course, the afore-mentioned naughty woman is French. Because everybody knows that being French means you like pretty clothing and have no morals! Well, at least, that's what was thought by the somewhat more conservative side of early nineteenth-century society, and, obviously, Maria Edgeworth. The novel is about what happens when a French woman with a somewhat 'loose' reputation goes to stay with a young English couple. An obvious recipe for disaster, one might think, and the book doesn't surprise on that front. I don't consider that a spoiler, by the way, because it's just so blatantly obvious from the very first page that there's going to be some sex, and I don't mean of the "between husband and wife" kind.

Leonora takes place during the Peace of Amiens - a brief period of peace between France and England from March 1802 to May 1803. This is only really relevant to the action because there is free movement in the novel between Paris and London, something which could not occur immediately prior to and post the Peace of Amiens. Maria Edgeworth herself visited Paris during this time, and the novel is dotted with allusions to real people and novels that were circulating at the time. In other words, a version with notes is very helpful.

Despite the obvious demonisation of the French in this novel (the French women are melodramatic, interested only in clothes and parties, and enjoy manipulating the men), this is an interesting novel on a number of fronts. There's lots of discussion of post-Revolutionary Paris, and a nice slice-of-life insight into how both England and France at the turn-of-the-century. Lady Olivia, the villainous French woman, is very similar to Austen's equally bitchy and fabulous Lady Susan from her novella of the same name. Lady Olivia is the kind of heroine you just love to hate. She's manipulative and crazy and awful, but at least she's entertaining. Unlike Leonora, who is just as boringly virtuous as any ideal early nineteenth-century English woman. For a novel called Leonora, however, most of the letters (I forgot to mention that this is an epistolary novel!) aren't by or to Leonora, so thankfully the boring virtuousness is kept to a minimum! And Leonora's friend, Helen, is awesome, as she manages to be both good and snarky, and is therefore 100 times more entertaining than the title character.

For a very brief Austen-esque look at early nineteenth-century England and France, this is a pretty good (and brief) bet.

Sex, Satire, Vice and Folly in Regency Britain

I went to see Sex, Satire, Vice and Folly in Regency Britain the other day. It's a collection of hand-coloured etchings and aquatints from the early nineteenth-century, with an emphasis on political satire. There's all sorts of interesting stuff, from pictures of ladies at their toilettes, to shots of men looking up women's skirts.

I think it's the kind of show, however, that would really have benefited with more extensive notes/information available. You really had to be familiar with the material to get anything out of it. For example, if you knew that Lady Jersey was the Prince Regent's mistress (at least, for a time), then the print entitled 'The Island of Jersey' makes sense. If you don't, it kind of doesn't. The prints are nothing short of spectacular, though, and a sneaky look through the visitor's book indicated that everybody seemed impressed.

Worth seeing if you can get there (and, um, live in Sydney), but hurry because it comes down this Sunday 5 October.

Not-So-Frequently Asked Questions

Greetings, and welcome to Letters for Literary Ladies!

Um, what is Letters for Literary Ladies exactly?

First and foremost, it is a book by Maria Edgeworth.

Secondly, it's now a blog! To be more specific, it's a blog about the wonderful (and often weird) world of the 'literary ladies' of the eighteenth-century.

Like who?

Like the many female novelists who were amongst the first writers in the English-language to write in what was then the emerging form of the novel.

I thought Jane Austen was the first female novelist.

Well, then you would be wrong. Jane Austen was building on the achievements of all those women that came before her, as she acknowledges in Northanger Abbey.

But I can't name anybody that came before Jane Austen!


So why should I care?

Because these women wrote some of the most interesting, funny and clever novels you'll ever read. In fact, in the eighteenth-century, women were so dominant in the world of the novel, a lot of men pretended to be women in order to sell more books.

That is one reason why eighteenth-century novels are cooler than Victorian novels, by the way. In the Victorian era, women were pretending to be men.

Another reason is that eighteenth-century novels are much racier. That got your attention, huh?

But maybe these women were forgotten for a reason?

That reason being that the history of the novel has been written predominantly by men, who have traditionally devalued the writings of women. Consequently, there was a concentration on the five "canonical" male novelists of the eighteenth-century (Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett) . However, in their day, these women were highly respected and very popular: equal to, and even more so, than the men I have listed.

However, there has been increasing recognition that women were central to the development of the novel.

So who are you?

I'm currently undertaking a PhD in this very field. I became interested in the 'untold'* story of these women while writing my Honours thesis, and am loving the opportunity to read all these amazing novels that have been left unread and undiscussed for so long.

* There is increasing interest in these novelists in academia. Fanny Burney has recently become quite fashionable, Maria Edgeworth is not far behind her, and Mary Robinson is just starting to get the kind of interest that makes me think she might well be the Next. Big. Thing. However, this interest has been largely confined to people working in the field.

So this blog is just about a bunch of dead chicks?

Yes and no. I'll be reviewing their novels, discussing eighteenth-century writing generally, and occasionally throwing in some fun stuff about gossip, fashion and period films about the era.

While I am studying these novels 'seriously', this will be less about academics and more about having fun. I can't promise you that they won't be long, but I can promise that they will be fun.

And if I make even one person interested in reading even one of these novels, then this will be all worth it.