Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization — Samuel Johnson
Dear friends and readers,
My first blog report for this year’s ASCES covered what I could of Friday sessions and lectures of the ASECS Conference, this concludes with Saturday morning. As with this first where for the sake of more representative sweep, I record titles of sessions and a few of the papers on Thursday that I would have like to have gone to on Thursday, so here I will cite similarly from the two Saturday afternoon sessions.
I began with “Thieves, Beggars and Vagrants: Rethinking 18th century Poverty” (8-9:00 am), chaired by Tracey Hutchings-Goetz. Catherine Keohane’s “Calamities Real or Fictitious: The Poor and the Act of Supplication” discussed how hostile attitudes towards the poor forced poor people to represent themselves through stereotypes which would fend off sceptical and hostile critical attitudes towards them. Common myths then and now are that the poor and disabled are faking and imagine males; the prosperous expected “deserving” beggars suffering under “true calamity” to be modest and mostly silent, self-controlled. They have to meet a standard of lowness, look lame, blind, bruised. The poor and disabled are forced to fake or perform what is not so in many situations. They cannot speak up freely for themselves about their needs and actual situation. In fact most beggars were women and children. Many today would like help from a lower middle class standpoint: say go to a school but if they ask for this kind of thing then they are seen as asking for inappropriate help. They must ask just for food say or rent. Similarly in the 18th century what a beggar could ask for was severely limited.
Nicole Wright analyzed two texts supposedly written to convey advice to person impoverished or who has experienced disastrous legal injustice. Giles Jacob’s Law Guide purports to teach the average person how to navigate the legal and criminal justice system on the assumption that auto-didacticism will do what’s needed; he omits the reality of power relationships, how time, intricate complications, large sums of money needed prevent anyone from using such a guide seriously. In contrast, Charlotte Smith’s advice in her novel Marchmont accurately emphasizes the legal helplessness of the average person, showing that only a thorough re-structuring could begin to end the depradations; she makes concrete the realities of the difficulties litigants faced: these include slow pace, exorbitant fees, how terms worked, how counselors discouraged their clients, mystified the legal process. Jacobs’s treatise has a subtle pervasive bias against its supposed readership; Smith’s novel offers a radical sympathetic critique. Both writers had far more motives than that of helping others actuating their texts. Smith does admit to these, Jacobs does not.
Hogarth contextualizes this melodramatic “prison scene” as the result of a “rake’s progress.” The conversation of the session on poverty and disability enables us to see Hogarth’s picture in a different light. It’s presented as a moral story about a type of experience or individual. What it does is give exaggerated and false notions of what life is like in a prison, erases its reality (for example, you had to bribe the wardens and guards to get food and physical comforts). It does not come near talking about the injustices of the criminal and prison systems of the era.
As respondent, Rachel Seiler-Smith remarks gave us a third and (more overtly) modern context. In the 21st century we see a similar refusal to look at the larger system which causes poverty, a desire to police and pre-script poverty and disability as necessarily totally desperate before any help will be offered. Thus effective help to enable someone or a group of people to lift themselves into independence is precluded. Jacob’s is a kind of conduct book, while Smith makes visible the legal morass from which few can extricate themselves. She suggested that impoverished people today are denied platforms while real social and physical violence (what can happen to someone on the street) are inflicted on the excluded. People prefer fantasies of class mobility. The discussion afterward included the question of how genre affects the presentation of poverty, the contradictory emphasis on visible suffering and maladies when what is compelling the continued reality of distress is psychological. We mentioned how anger is not allowed to the poor, the disabled, those who have experienced violence (I mentioned raped women in rape shelters or police stations where self-controlled conventional middle class behavior is demanded). Fielding was brought up as someone who discussed extreme poverty as a cause of violence and misery but his solutions were harsh punishments for the poor. We agreed the topic is too rarely discussed at conferences.
An imagined scene of a literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds (1851 engraving by D. George Thompson after James Doyle, an antiquarian and illustrator (1822-92)
My second session of the day was Anthony Lee’s session on Samuel Johnson, social and intertextual networks (9:45-11:15 am). As usual (he had them regularly) the session had rich complicated papers which included the treat of close readings of texts. I offer only a gist of each. Andrew Black’s “John Wesley’s Share” began with content creation on the Internet that link the reader back to original sources as an modern example of how John Wesley justifiably borrowed from Johnson in an unusual moment of agreement with Johnson on the empirical nature of the new American culture. Anti-methodist literature excoriated Wesley for plagiarism. Johnson himself understood that limited control over your texts was fruitful for thought. Mr Black joked that Wesley would today have a big twitter following. Christopher Catanese’s title “The Gale of Favour” alluded to catching popular themes as a source of power. He focused on later 18th century changing philosophies and new forms of history to contextualize Warton’s canonizing History of English Poetry. Warton finds compensatory pleasure in how Spenser departs from conventional English. Unlike Jeffreys in the later Edinburgh Review, and like Johnson, Warton does not seek to control and discipline a reader’s pleasure. He quoted Hazlitt and suggested that readers were coming to have a changing role in the development of texts (as they do on the Internet today). Philip Smallwood entertained us with a vivid account of John Dennis’s close critical readings of Pope and Shakespeare as seen by himself and Johnson. Johnson saw Addison as too distant, too obedient to critical commonplaces while Dennis’s rampages were made up of genuine tight engagement with texts. If Johnson was vocal against Dennis (many ridiculed Dennis showing they at least remembered aspects of his writing), Johnson took Dennis seriously. Prof Smallwood’s examples from Dennis included how Dennis treated Blackmore insolence and contempt, and enraged Pope. Dennis may have attacked their “abuses” of language, but he was also an enthusiast for Milton and Shakespeare and recognized the beauty and insights of Pope’s Essay on Criticism.
Christopher Vilmar’s topic was Johnson’s semi-fictionalized reports on parliament, the famous “Debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia.” While Mr Vilmar conceded the value and usefulness of most scholarly accounts of these texts which demonstrate the accuracy of Johnson’s reports, he maintained the procedure is still a form of misreading. His paper went over thoroughly ironical passages with overt allusions to Swift to show how they connect back to the Scriblerian projects and Gulliver’s accounts of Lilliput,and suggest how much we have to gain from reading them as satirical texts. These semi-fictionalized debates are lavish set pieces hard to interpret, ambiguous, but also creative arrangements that make statements about Walpole in the way Swift’s novel commented on say colonialism. Mr Vilmar said that Johnson hoped readers would notice what he was doing.
The discussion afterward included critical objections, qualifications, and praise. Someone was delighted to find methodism and Johnson brought together, but reminded everyone that methodists were not dissenters. They stayed inside the Anglican church, were loyal to the king. It was pointed out that both Johnson and Dennis were readers alert to the denseness of texts, paying attention to detail and nuance; Prof Smallwood said Dennis is hard reading and often wrong-headed, but “there is something there, and Dennis was far more congential to Johnson than Addison. Deirdre Lynch’s new book about loving literature was brought up in connection with Warton.
The Clifford lecture (11:30 am to 12:30 pm) was given by John Brewer: “Fire and Ice: Travel and the Natural Sublime” in the Age of Enlightenment. Prof Brewer took us through the great travel books of the later 18th century (accompanied by many images from paintings, watercolors, engravings) to reveal the connections among scientific projects (planetary, geographic, geological), the aesthetic categories of sublime and picturesque:
He also talked of the literature about personal transformative experiences b someone alone or in a group of travelers together, which readers were invited to join in on vicariously through reading and looking at pictures. Prof Brewer was concerned to show how the figure of the heroic genius, the savant, is so often featured in these accounts; we also frequently see and read of groups of people in heroic solidarity in dangerous places and among different disciplines (Senestrier, Horace Gregory de Saussure, William Hamilton, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Humphry Davy, Adam Smith). We see and read of them braving frightening experiences. A social world is being made visible and presented as something to be proud of belonging to. There is also a commitment among these people and groups to putting their information gathered to work in a pre-existent or newly invented system of understanding. So order is reasserted over experience, one which comes from prior assumptions in the writers and their readers about the nature of experience. The literature also includes accounts of indigenous people, often fleeing their homes (from crises, like earthquakes). When the person or people depicted were shown to exercise fortitude, resolution, they would be respected, and offered as cynosures to follow. Of course this implies those who don’t react this way are somehow wanting (and reinforces colonialist attitudes). OTOH, such books slowly enable real fieldwork begins to go on (for real in botany), and a slow accumulation of knowledge because mapping occurs, forms of transportation are set up, all this put into sets of books, which others can read and use. Prof Brewer said much else, but I couldn’t catch it all by any means and what from what I got down I thought this line of argument might be of most interest to a reader of this blog.
At this point it was lunchtime and I headed for the Women’s Caucus Luncheon. The room was crowded and enthusiasm seemed high. The Women’s caucus has now built a second website for all members to make contact, find out about the program, whatever is needed. I enjoyed myself talking to people, but couldn’t stay. I had a five hour plus trip ahead of me.
Had I been able to stay for the whole of the luncheon and the afternoon, I would have gone (at 2-3:30 pm): “On Foot: Walking in the Eighteenth Century, chaired by Alison O’Bryne. Unexpectedly (perhaps naively) I was surprised to see two papers on Elizabeth Bennet’s walk through the mud, another on “mobility” in Emma (what mobility?!),
One paper that sounded intriguing was a comparison of the wildness in Burney’s The Wanderer to Scott’s in Heart of Mid-lothian (I find it illuminating when you take other novels of the regency, especially by women and subjective in thrust and cmpare them to Scott’s). I was also drawn to the many papers under the aegis of “Historical Poetics in the Long Eighteenth Century, chaired by Anna Foy. Eight people were to speak on specific poets (including Anna Seward), or genres, the effect of nationalism on Scots and Welsh poetry, translation. One seemed to be about, How poetry and realistic historical fiction emerge from a post-colonialist and personal perspective?
I’ll here add a foremother poet I’ve not seen talked about individually, only in anthologies of poetry by women, which reading about the session brought to mind.
Question, on the Art of Writing
Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?
— Catherine Jemmat (f. 1750-66)
A brief life for the curious: Catherine Jemmat was daughter to Admiral John Yeo of Plymouth by his first wife (not named). Her mother died when she was 5 and herfather married a woman who was mean to her (the father was often at sea). She was sent to a boarding school and married a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she had a daughter. The escape was worse than the original sentence. He was abusive (violent, often drunk) and went bankrupt. So Catherine was (according to her memoir) “thrown upon the wide world for support.” We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 3 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762) She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father. She also published _Miscellanies in Prose and Verse_ (1766) which includes an essay called “In Vindication of the Female Sex” where she protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about). Lonsdale says there are “mysteries” surrounding her. The poem comes from Joyce Fullard’s British Women Poets,1660-1800: Anthology.
The last session was at 3:45-5:15 pm. Although I had gone to a good panel on the Marriage Act once before, I would have attended “The Literary Impact of Hardwicke’s Marriage Act” (chaired by Jaclyn Geller) as it seems to be such an important piece of legislation. There was a paper on John Shebbeare’s The Marriage Act and (as a type) a kind of novel written “for the better preventing of clandestine marriage. finally I was drawn to “Lost and Found in the 18th century” (I used to get lost regularly, pre-Garmin life), chaired by Stephanie Koscak. These panels included papers on the profound desolation or fear engendered when a person loses consciousness, when they are a runaway slave or convict; guilt felt by the young women mixing and matching with young men at an understandable loss how to conduct a light courtship. I would also have liked to go to “Illustration, Visual Interpretation and the 18th Century Book Market (chaired by Kwinten Van De Walle), with papers on botany, poetry illustrations, the luxury book trade.
But I had better stop here with an image from another area of the visual arts, a design for landscape architecture.
I arrived home near 7. My two pussycats were glad to see me. They had been alone for many hours.