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!

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