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.