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.