Dear friends and readers,
Paradoxically I’ve not had any books to blog about since I’ve been reading so diligently towards one perhaps two conferences. Tonight I looked and saw that the proposal I was aiming at — for a Chawton conference in summer 1213 — is not due until January 1213. I had thought it was November 1212. From a brief conversation I had with Gillian Dow at the JASNA in Portland, more than two years ago now, I had the impression she’d welcome papers on the French background of 18tn century women writers and as I love reading French novels and am interested in the issues that crop up when one reads translations as well as the interaction of French and English texts, the one I thought I’d try for is for Dow’s panel whose topic is to be women writers and translation.
This blog is about the novels I’m going to deal with (and maybe a memoir) — which cannot be said to anticipate the Brontes so much as be like them fundamentally; the ultimate precursor is Prevost. Another problem with Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth is she apparently does not know of these novels, still very much part of the reading of Victorian women of the first half of the 19th century. I call specific attention to Sophia Lee’s The Recess (which Austen probably had in mind in her NA parody), and Charlotte Smith’s The Young Philosopher. Great and powerful novels — if with the usual flaws of wild romantic novels of the era.
Starting late last week, I’ve now read Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (1734, revised 1753), a novel that deeply engages me), Charlotte Smith’s translation, Manon Lescaut, or The Fatal Attraction (1786), and am now into her Romance of Real Life (1787), a set of stories she has made out of published long legal cases originally in French, and at the same time reading her very great and last long partly-gothic, Scots novel, The Young Philosopher (1798). Ive not got a specific thesis yet; I seem not to come up with anything precise until I actually sit down and write.
A second novel I’m persuaded is strongly influenced by Prevost is Sophia Lee’s The Recess; Or, A Tale of Other Times (1783), which like Smith’s book is also influenced by Prevost’s Le Philosophe anglais, ou Histoire de Monsieur Cleveland, fils naturel de Cromwell, écrite par lui-même, et traduite de l’anglais (1731-39). I once read half way through it in French and now have it from ECCO in both the French and contemporary English translation. The Recess was almost immediately translated into French as was The Young Philosopher. For The Recess I have very good notes which I’ll share here one night later this week.
In all these
the world is filled with people who are having a long and
painful journey, who are exhausted by affliction, who have lost all the ties that meant anything to them, and who have not deserved this! I have thought the central motive for the gothic is a knot of grief: it is a genre compounded of mourning and rage, one in which people are allowed to express what cries out for expression but which they silence — for many reasons. The book is a memoir written in the first-person, sometimes in the present tense and sometimes in the historical present (the past). It is intended to vindicate the writer, to record the unknown truth and is written to pass and to solace the time.
I have two critical books I want to read through or dip into J. R. Foster’s older The Pre-romantic Novel in England which is really a study of Prevost’s influence on the English novel, and April Alliston’s Virtue’s Faults: Correspondences in 18th century French and British Women Writers. I own a copy of Smith’s Etherlinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1786) in both the Elibron reprint of the English text (5 vols!) and my home-made xerox of the contemporary French translation.
Later this week I will write a blog on The Recess (which I have ample notes about from the time I read it on ECW with a friend) by way of re-familiarizing myself and on the weekend The Young Philosopher, in order to come to some conclusions about it.
For now what the English women took from Prevost seems to be his use of wild remote places in which the protagonist is driven to a nadir of loss, grief, despair, madness, suicide; intense sympathy with a younger generation’s rebellion and reactive defiance against the mercenary ambitious on their own and previous generation. Prevost expressed an enduring psychic condition of neurotic passion, he expresses a cri de coeur about the nature of life and both Lee and Smith took these over. With this mood they can take whatever conventions they are using to an extreme and alter our perspective on life.
Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night o’er the ocean settles, dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot
Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
Of seamen, in the anchored bark, that tell
The watch reliev’d; or one deep voice alone
Singing the hour, and bidding “strike the bell.”
All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Mark’d by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar, the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Mislead the pilgrim; such the dubious ray
The wavering reason lends, in life’s long darkling way.
— Charlotte Smith as Elisabeth Lisburne
The other conference paper I’m not much more precise on. I began by proposing a panel on actresses which I did not plan to contribute to, but when it seemed only one person was interested in actresses (at least for a panel of mine), I changed its focus to R-e-s-p-e-c-t: For actresses, women playwrights, working women, fictional heroines and even aristocrats respect and favorable reputation matter. In other words, I included all sorts of women and the dangers of their various occupations to their reputations.
Then because I didn’t know what to do (meaning if I should or could just withdraw the sugggestion), and did want to contribute something, I decided I would present a paper at it too, to be titled: Ellen Moody, George Mason University, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!” paranoia and shame in the writings of George Anne Bellamy, Charlotte Smith, Sophie Cottin and Mary Brunton. The conference program is now up and my panel is Saturday early afternoon.
Looking at it, I begin to worry less about trying to do two things since I’ve read the works of two I mean to cover, am now reading Smith (and have read her before) and have certainly worked on Bellamy. I also see where the topics criss-cross. Brunton and Cottin also use wild remote places, have a knot of grief at the core of their work; the difference is the accent: in the first I want to see how the French work enables this, in the other the effect of it on the writer’s reputation and way we regard the work.
A key link between the two sets of books and emphases or themes could be the fictional poet, Elisabeth Lisburne whom George Delmont hears of in The Young Philosopher. In Delmont’s wanderings in Wales (supposedly after his brother to give up yet more money to him) he comes across wild landscape, remote, rocky, where he is told of a young gentlewoman who drowned herself; she had been intently waiting for letters that never came and we are given a moving poem of lyric despair. My guess is there will be more poetry from her. She is a surrogate for Smith. I’m drawn to the first set of lyrical stanzas that Smith puts in the book as by Elisabeth Lisburne because it reminds me of a translation I did of Veronica Gambara’s similar poem where a refrain deepens into a bleak lack of hope.
When the two heroines, twin-daughters of Mary Queen of Scots by Bothwell wake in the morning in their subterranean cavern their source of light the sun is seen through the glazed thick windows: “The rising of the sun, whose first beams gilt our windows, rouzed us entirely. Methinks, while I expatiate on these trifles, times seems suspended, and the scene still living before me …” Once when they left, they found themselves in a park “with a playful group of fawns and deer, with whom [they] long to frolic.” But another time it was a ruined cloister:
For a long way beyond, the prospect was wild and awful to excess; sometimes vast heaps of stone were fallen from the building, aong which, trees and bushes had sprung up, and half involved the dropping pillars. Tall fragments of it sometimes remained, which seemed to sway about with every blast, and from whose mouldering top hung clusters and spires of of ivy. In other parts, ruined cloisters yet lent a refuge from the weather, and sullenly shut out the day while long echoes wandered through the whole at the touch of the lightest foot; the intricacies of the wood beyond, added to the magnificence of art the variety of nature. We quitted, with regret, our new empire, when the sun left his last rays on the tops of trees.
I think of Manon and know how lack of money drives our hero and heroine into crime, self-degradation, and realize that money too is key to these romances, to Brunton and Smith’s heroines, Bellamy, even Sophie Cottin. Each novelists traces female sexuality as experienced by many women (sometimes disturbingly silenced as someone who has had a child out of wedlock). Each “traces [her] heroine['s] incessantly renewed struggle to keep from being swamped in the tempest of men’s emotional needs. (Manon may be said to have been swamped in the tempest of Des Grieux’s emotional needs.) Most of her sympathetic heroines, central or not, have a “tenuous hold” on “their social position” and we repeatedly see them “displaced” (“common theme” across the novels) “so that women already existing legally as possessions within male-controlled economy, find themselves alienated from its provisions …” They resemble figures from French, “exiles” (Prevost called himself “d’Exiles”) defined by what they cannot have. Nancy Miller makes Prevost’s heroine one of her key heroines’ texts — of the tragic terrain instead of euphoric.
I figure I’ll find enough to make an elegant argument for a proposal and a paper before November with sufficient content to back it up. But to anyone reading this, have you have articles or books on Prevost (beyond Sgard whose work I know well) or Sophia Lee. I know all Labbe’s books on Smith.