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.