16 August 2009

Lecture time!

As promised/threatened: my sprawling, messy lecture notes for my Austenland lecture last Wednesday. I talked for an hour, and told the story about my dad crying at the end of the recent BBC version of Persuasion, and got to wear a wireless mike, just like a celebrity on a late-night talk show.

Lady Susan
(written around 1794; first published 1871)

The correspondents:
  • Lady Susan Vernon (our antiheroine)
  • Mr Vernon (Charles): her amiable-if-not-the-sharpest brother-in-law; resides at Churchill
  • Mrs Johnson (Alicia): her equally scheming best friend; resides in Edwards St, London
  • Mrs Vernon (Catherine, née De Courcy): Charles’ not-taken-in wife
  • Lady De Courcy: Catherine’s mother; resides at Parklands
  • Mr De Courcy (Reginald): Catherine’s dashing, impressionable younger brother
  • Sir Reginald De Courcy: Catherine & Reginald’s sickly father
  • Miss Vernon (Frederica): Lady Susan’s timid, ill-educated daughter

Other characters:
  • Mr Manwaring: Lady Susan’s married lover; resides at Langford
  • Mrs Manwaring: his jealous-with-reason wife, formerly Mr Johnson’s ward
  • Miss Manwaring: their (presumably plain) daughter
  • Sir James Martin: Miss Manwaring’s erstwhile suitor, waylaid by Lady Susan for Frederica; eventually Lady Susan’s second husband
  • Mr Johnson: Alicia’s gouty husband, not a fan of Lady Susan, who refers to him as “just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout—too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.” HA!
The Epistolary Novel
A novel told as a series of documents, usually letters, although diary/journal entries, newspaper or magazine clippings, or (recently) audio, radio, TV or film transcripts, blog entries, emails or even instant messages (Lauren Myracle’s teen novels ttyl & ttfn) have been used.
Early examples (which Austen would likely have read):
  • Pamela and Clarissa, Samuel Richardson (1740, 1749)
  • Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Cholderos de Laclos (1782)
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)
Modern(er) epistolary examples:
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)
  • Griffin & Sabine, Nick Bantock (1991)
  • The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008 Man Booker Prize winner)
  • The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (2008)
The Fragments
The Watsons
  • Unfinished novel of five chapters (about 18,000 words).
  • Emma Watson, having been raised by a wealthy aunt, is forced by her relation’s imprudent second marriage to move back home. She is awkwardly courted by a lord, but prefers his former tutor, Mr. Howard.
  • The story bears similarities to Pride & Prejudice (Emma is embarrassed by her family’s vulgarity and her sisters’ husband-hunting) and Mansfield Park (a girl raised by relatives more genteel than her immediate family).
  • Worth reading for a charming ball scene: 10-year-old Charles Blake has been promised the first two dances by Miss Osborne, the daughter of the local Great Family. When Miss Osborne cavalierly abandons the boy for a dashing colonel, Emma, without pausing to think, offers herself as a partner to the crestfallen boy. It’s a lovely bit of characterization-by-action, and the delight of the child staying up till all hours to dance like the grown-ups is heartwarming.
  • Austen likely abandoned the novel after her father’s death in January 1805; Mr. Watson is seriously ill in the preserved draft, and Jane confided in Cassandra that he was to die in the ensuing chapters.
Sanditon (The Brothers) (1817)
  • Eleven chapters; Austen was working on it during her final illness.
  • While there are various marriageable young characters to provide romantic intrigue (the ostensible heroine seems to be Charlotte Parker, daughter of a large and isolated country family who goes to visit the burgeoning beach resort of the title), the most interesting elements of the story come from social satire.
  • Unlike Persuasion, probably the most restrained of her novels, Sanditon contains broad caricatures: a trio of hypochondriac siblings, fond of leeches and tonics; a young peer who’s read too many Gothic novels and fancies himself a dangerous seducer—his conversation is peppered with the buzzwords of the time (prefixes like anti- and pseudo- were super-hip); his mother, Lady Denham, who exemplifies the mixture of haughtiness and parsimony that we often find in Austen’s aristocrats.
  • Austen’s other novels all take place in established locales, but Sanditon is in the process of developing from a sleepy seaside village to a fashionable resort in the manner of Bath—at least in the mind of Mr. Parker, the town’s most zealous promoter. In reality, few of the lodgings are let, and the library’s subscription list is sadly missing names of rank or fortune.
  • Mansfield Park comes down firmly on the side of the staid status quo, but Sanditon is much more uneasy in its appraisal of the progressive consumer culture that was to define 19th-century England. The tone with which Austen details Sanditon’s improvements—blue shoes in the shop windows! fashionable ladies with harps and telescopes and sketchbooks! the library/convenience store, which sells “all the useless things in the world that could not be done without”—is certainly mocking. But the coastal setting is lovely, Mr. Parker’s enthusiasm in his hometown is sweet, and Charlotte, the representative of the “old ways,” is even less likeable than Fanny Price. It’s maddening that Austen’s death prevented the novel’s completion, because one has no idea where it’s going!

Austen’s Female Literary Influences
Modern audiences more or less consider Jane Austen to be the first woman novelist in English. Nothing could be further than the truth: though the literary form was only two centuries old (arguably—I’m dating from Cervantes’ Don Quixote [1605], but the ink spilled by comparative lit scholars on the subject could float an armada), women had been formidable forces in the genre since its inception. (A great, if academic, study of women’s contributions to the early novel is Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen [1988].)
Here are a few:

Aphra Behn (1640-1689)
Love-Letters Between a Nobleman & His Sister
(1684), Oroonoko (1688)
Behn was perhaps the first Englishwoman to earn her living as a professional writer; because of this, and her reputed bisexuality, she’s something of a celebrity to feminist scholars (as she was to Virginia Woolf, who eulogized her in A Room of One’s Own, a work which also applauded Jane Austen). Mostly known at the time as a dramatist, she also served as a spy for Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Her novel Oroonoko chronicles the romance of an enslaved African in the English sugar colony of Suriname in South America.

Charlotte Lennox (1729-1804)
The Female Quixote (1752)
Poet, actress, and literary scenestress, a friend of Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson. Like many independent women of her time, she was separated from her husband. Though her novels were widely popular when published, she died penniless.
The Female Quixote is a great read (and, at 400 pages, quite short for the 18th century) and a direct progenitress of Northanger Abbey. As the title implies, it’s an inversion of Cervantes’ work; the contemporary heroine, Arabella, has steeped herself so far in the melodrama of chivalric romance that she models her life after their women characters, expecting her suitors to undergo horrific ordeals to win her favor, and perish by their own hand at her rejection. Reality crashes down on her with some force.

Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)
Emmeline (1788), Ethelinde (1789), The Old Manor House (1793)
Miserably married to a unfaithful, violent, and profligate man, Smith turned to writing as a career—the proceeds from her first book of poetry got him out of debtor’s prison in 1783. She later left him and started writing novels instead, as they were more profitable than poetry (hey, even back then!), and she had ten children to suppport. Needless to say, her experiences led to strong feminist themes in her writing, and even radical politics—later novels took stands against slavery and supported the ideals of the French Revolution. Aesthetically, she blended sentimental plot with an artist’s eye for landscape and setting; she is credited as an early influence on Gothic literature and Romanticism.

Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840)
Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796)
Like Austen, she wrote about strong-willed, flawed, middle-class female protagonists negotiating the stressful realm of romance and marriage, and satirized contemporary manners and social hypocrisy. While her first novel was published anonymously (her father, in fact, read several reviews of Evelina before he learned it was written by his daughter), her cover was eventually blown; but instead of causing a scandal, her authorship brought her national fame. Her widespread success under her own name helped legitimize writing as a career for women. She married a French exile, General Alexandre d’Arblay, when she was 42. Her diaries, published after her death, were started at 16 and span 72 years.

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849)
Castle Rackrent (1800), Belinda (1801)
The proudly Irish Edgeworth never married, and her writing career was closely shepherded by her overbearing father, who insisted on approving and editing her work. Her first novel, Castle Rackrent, was submitted for publication without his knowledge, and hence escaped his improving pen—it’s the story of four generations of bungling, dissolute Anglo-Irish landlords told through the bemused voice of their steward, Thady Quirk.

Northanger Abbey and the Novel

“Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has be so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.” (Northanger p.22, Bantam Classics edition)

Northanger Abbey is a novel about novels in general, gothic novels in particular, and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in even more particular. Both the narrator and the sensible Henry Tilney poke fun at the over-the-top conventions of popular fiction, and Catherine’s inability to distinguish between imagination and reality gets her into trouble. But Austen is not anti-novel (or even anti-Radcliffe); rather, she calls them the works “in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (p.23). Even her hero, Henry, reads and loves novels, though Catherine assumes “‘they are not clever enough for you—gentlemen read better books’” (p.85); then, as now, women read more novels than men, a likely reason for the disparagement of the genre. (A 2007 Gallup poll confirmed that women read more books in every major literary category except for history and biography. One can’t help but wonder what Austen, who through Catherine typifies history as dull—“the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all” [p.87], would think of this.)

Novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey

p. 23: Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, Fanny Burney (1782): The eponymous orphaned heiress will inherit a vast fortune, but only if her future husband adopts her last name. Unable to find a gentleman who’ll do so, she relinquishes her wealth and marries for love. Pride & Prejudice takes its title from this quote from the end of the novel: “[R]emember: if to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.” Also alluded to by Anne Elliot in Persuasion.

p. 23: Camilla, or a Picture of Youth, Fanny Burney (1796): Thorpe describes it as “‘the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man’s playing at see-saw and learning Latin.’ . . . [T]he justness of [this critique] was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine" (p.33).

p. 23: Belinda, Maria Edgeworth (1801): In the first two editions, this novel featured not one but two interracial couples: an English farm-girl marries an African servant, and the titular heroine nearly weds a wealthy West Indian Creole. The third edition, published in 1810, excised both these relationships; Edgeworth’s editor father was likely responsible. Austen would have added this mention in revision, as the novel hadn’t yet been published when Northanger was first written (under the name Susan).

p.24: Isabella’s list of “horrid novels”: For years scholars assumed these titles were the products of Austen’s imagination, but they are all real works of disposable popular fiction already deservedly obscure by the time Northanger saw print. Rife with incest, ghosts, and ruined castles, these novels were indeed shocking reading for well-bred young ladies! Several have been reprinted by Valancourt Books, or can be found in etext form online:
  • The Castle of Wolfenbach, Eliza Parsons (1793)
  • Clermont, Regina Maria Roche (1798)
  • Mysterious Warnings, Eliza Parsons (1796)
  • Necromancer of the Black Forest, Karl Friedrich Kahlert (1794)
  • The Midnight Bell, Francis Lathom (1798)
  • The Orphan of the Rhine, Eleanor Sleath (1798)
  • Horrid Mysteries, Karl Grosse (1796)

p. 26: Sir Charles Grandison, Samuel Richardson (1754): Austen’s hands-down favorite novel, told (like Lady Susan) in epistolary form. The saintly hero & heroine’s exceedingly drawn-out path to the altar (seven volumes & 80,000 words!) were buoyed along by their far more interesting family and friends. Charlotte, a sister of the title character, seems quite familiar, in fact: “Here was an outspoken young woman, very often wrong in her judgements and behaviour, yet always captivating, brilliantly lively and wholly human, whether speaking for herself or presented through the eyes of others. with her sisterly love and loyalty, her teasing, her articulacy, her repartee, her ‘archness rising to the eye that makes one both love and fear her,’ Charlotte Grandison was surely an early inspiration for Elizabeth Bennet” (Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life, p.74).

p. 32: John Thorpe’s “tolerably decent” novels Tom Jones, Henry Fielding (1749) and The Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796): The former is a founding work of realistic fiction (made into an Oscar-winning movie with Albert Finney in 1963. You probably remember the dinner scene.), while the latter is high Gothic, the tale of a corrupted monk who dabbles in black magic, rapes and kills a woman who turns out to be his sister, and eventually sells his soul to the devil. Radically different books, but both scandalous and extremely sexual; together, they don’t speak well of Thorpe’s moral fiber.

Ann Radcliffe and The Mysteries of Udolpho

“Have you gone on with Udolpho?”
“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I have got to the black veil.”
Northanger Abbey, p.24

[Emily] paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.
The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 249 (Oxford World’s Classics edition)

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was probably the most celebrated English writer of the 1790s, and a must for anyone with pretensions to being well-read for at least fifty years thereafter. All of her novels were bestsellers; The Mysteries of Udolpho, her 1794 masterpiece, was sold for the astonishing sum of £500 (Pride & Prejudice, in contrast, was sold for £110). Unlike a lot of modern blockbuster authors, however, she was also a critical darling, called “the Shakespeare of romance writers” and “the Great Enchantress”; even those who admitted her characters could be bland and same-y (at least the good guys) praised her scene-setting, her lush description of the natural world, her sense of the sublime, and her intricate plotting and ability to inspire terror in her readers.

Her biography is brief and pedestrian—hers truly was, as Henry Austen said of his sister’s, not “a life of events.” She was middle-class, seems to have been happily married—her husband certainly supported her writing—and never comfortable with her fame. She didn’t mingle in literary society, preferring a private, quiet lifestyle. The only strange incident is the abrupt end of her career: after publishing five novels in eight years (The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, 1789; A Sicilian Romance, 1790; The Romance of the Forest, 1791; The Mysteries of Udolpho; and The Italian, 1797), she simply stopped writing at the height of her fame. (A sixth novel, Gaston de Blondeville, was published by her husband after her death.)

She didn’t invent the Gothic novel; that distinction is usually attributed to Horace Walpole, whose The Castle of Otranto (1764) established many conventions of the genre—the exotic-to-the-English location in Italy (France would also be popular); the setting somewhere in a vaguely medieval past; the aristocratic family with a dark and terrible secret; a crumbling, mysterious edifice full of secret passages, unexplained noises, and dark corridors. What Radcliffe did was make the genre respectable. Where Otranto was full of paranormal and magical events—beginning with the castle’s heir being crushed to death on his wedding day by a giant helmet that falls out of the sky—Radcliffe pioneered the “explained supernatural,” in which seemingly ghostly happenings (spectral figures, haunting music) are eventually revealed as ordinary—if backstory-and-coincidence-dependent—human actions.

She also cleverly blended Gothic trappings with the “novel of sensibility,” which featured a sweet, well-behaved, usually orphaned heroine and her ordeals at the hands of cruel, tyrannical father figures, on her way to happily ever after with her similarly proper but persecuted love interest. (In terms of genre shifts, it’s similar, actually, to Stephenie Meyer’s commercialization of the vampire myth, achieved partly by excising the traditional eroticism connected with bloodsucking in favor of a chaste romance that echoes Radcliffe’s wholesome values. Edward and Bella are really not that far from Udolpho’s Emily and Valancourt.)

But while her ostensible protagonists may be one-dimensionally virtuous, her villains are fantastic: bloodthirsty, avaricious, manipulative, ruthless, completely amoral. Her landscapes are gorgeous and painterly, mountains and fields and forests lovingly lingered upon. And her plots are jaw-droppingly complex, fast-moving and packed full of shocking plot twists that would make M. Night Shyamalan hang his head in shame. She’s worth reading, is what I’m saying.

And Jane Austen would agree. Northanger Abbey laughs at the more exaggerated aspects of her Radcliffe’s fiction, especially in contrast to mundane middle-class English life:

“But you must be aware” [said Henry Tilney] “that when a young lady is introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before.” (p.128)

And poor Catherine Morland’s Radcliffe-assisted imagination leads her to assume General Tilney (who has “the air and attitude of a Montoni,” Udolpho’s remorseless bad guy) must have hated his wife, and probably either killed her or imprisoned her, of which scandalous notion Henry disabuses her in astonished anger:

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult you own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?” (p.163)

But it’s Catherine’s suggestible nature that’s mostly to blame. And is she so wrong after all? General Tilney’s not the sort of man to murder his wife, no; but he is the sort who would peremptorily send away his daughter’s good friend and his son’s sweetheart, early in the morning, all alone, with no money, for the sin of not being an heiress. He’s a proud and unyielding man, whose children are scared of him, who sucks all the fun out of the room. He may not be an out-and-out villain, but he’s not a pleasant chap.

And that, I think, is where Austen’s respect and admiration for Ann Radcliffe figures in. Sure, she doesn’t write realistic fiction. But she’s not trying to. She’s trying to entertain, and there she succeeds; further, while the events are overblown, there’s a central truth about emotional experience that is very real. Radcliffe captures intensity of feeling; she truly, as Austen says, conveys “the most thorough knowledge of human nature” (p.23).

As for what’s behind the black veil, I am totally not telling you.
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