The Female Quixote

Charlotte Lennox’s best-known novel is still not particularly well known—certainly not as famous as its contemporaries, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (published four years earlier) or Fielding’s Tom Jones (published three years earlier). There’s a reason for that: The Female Quixote is patchily constructed, with psychological acuity in its early books fading into a kind of episodic filler approach in later ones (although there’s a reason for this, too, as we’ll see). It is, however, both extremely funny and extremely interesting in the way it shows a young, unmarried woman claiming the kind of power for herself that her society simply does not grant her. Arabella’s ability to steamroll others, largely men, into accepting that she possesses a right to command them is remarkable, even if, at the end of the book, she is “tamed”, her “madness” passes away, and she accepts docility and submission as the wife of the patient and kind, if also rather predictable, Mr. Glanville.

The title of the book suggests the nature of Arabella’s “madness”. Like our friend Don Quixote from earlier in the year, she has read too many of the wrong sorts of books; unlike Don Q, she has overdosed not on chivalry books but on tales of heroic romance. These were prolifically produced by French writers in the late seventeenth- and early- to mid-eighteenth centuries, and there are so many of them that the use of the scholarly footnotes is eventually rendered pointless, because every time a little footnote number appears, it is bound simply to be another summary of whichever heroic romance Arabella is quoting from this time. What this tells us is that Charlotte Lennox had an intimate personal acquaintance with the canon of heroic romance, which throws the generally accepted view of The Female Quixote as pure satire into question. Why bother becoming deeply read in texts that you scorn and despise if your only purpose is to mock them? Is it not more likely that Mrs. Lennox had, at least, a conflicted relationship with heroic romance, and that Arabella’s behaviour in The Female Quixote has greater complexity?

After all, her madness allows her a great deal of freedom. The heroines of romance are queens, empresses and princesses, not only of kingdoms but of hearts; the women upon whom she models her behaviour, like Statira, Thalestris, Cleopatra, and Media, have the powers to raise men nearly from the dead merely by commanding them to live and “permitting them to hope”. They have no obligation to be compassionate, no social pressure to placate or soothe wounded feelings, other than this. Indeed, in romance, the more miserable and wretched a male suitor is, the better he proves himself worthy to perhaps eventually kiss his beloved’s hand; in the meantime, anything less than at least ten years of devoted service, in which either he kills thousands of enemies for her sake, or lives in pastoral, hermitic retreat, is considered insufficient. (Miss Glanville, Lady Arabella’s cousin, points out, rather inconveniently, that ten years of service will make both parties “old” when they finally begin courting; Arabella responds with horror and disgust at Miss Glanville’s vulgarity, since of course the consequences of the passage of time are never dwelt upon in heroic romance.) What this means is that for a young lady in the 1750s to model her behaviour upon these heroines, she must arrogate to herself much more power and consequence than she actually possesses, and for a long time in The Female Quixote, this more or less works. “A little more Submission and Respect would become you better; you are now wholly in my Power”, she informs a startled dandy on page 20.

Her power, of course, in this case, comes from her father, as she indeed acknowledges. The patriarchal world of England in the 1750s means her peculiarities are much more indulged than they would otherwise have been, because she has a large fortune and her father was a lord. Were she a dairymaid, her convictions of high status would see her packed off to an asylum. (And yet: her uncle at one point is seriously considering having her committed, something we are only told in passing but which serves as a sharp reminder that no women of any station have more than nominal power in this world. The tension between Arabella’s absolute belief in her own righteousness when she berates a man for his insolence in following her, and the equally strong belief, in the society in which she lives, that women simply do not have a right to privacy—a woman wanting to be left alone could retire to her chamber, but would not dare to place limitations upon a man’s movements—is a small example of the tension that drives the book. She is clearly not mad, and yet what is madness if not a failure to understand and accept the limitations of your environment?)

There is a trade-off to Arabella’s claims of power, of course. The world at large views her as ridiculous, her cousin Glanville loves her but is embarrassed by her presumptuous outpourings, and when they visit Bath and London, she is gossiped about relentlessly. None of this, however, makes much of an impression on Arabella. Until her conversion in the penultimate chapter, she is largely concerned with preserving her reputation; the problem is that she misapprehends her society’s idea of a good reputation, and her society, in turn, misapprehends her notion of virtue. Failure to interpret signs is, quite literally, everywhere in the book (Arabella frequently makes hand gestures which the men around her don’t understand; likewise, she’s usually incapable of “reading the room” she is in), but the greatest misapprehension is in her idea of good womanhood, and her environment’s:

“[…] I am afraid, if he was to commit Murder to please you, the Laws would make him suffer for it; and the World would be very free with its Censures on your Ladyship’s Reputation, for putting him upon such shocking Crimes.

[…] replied Arabella […] you kn[o]w as little in what the good Reputation of a Lady consists, as the Safety of a Man; for certainly the one depends intirely upon his Sword, and the other upon the Noise and Bustle she makes in the World.

The Female Quixote, Charlotte Lennox, p. 128

This is, of course, diametrically opposed to ideals of womanhood in the 1750s, as Miss Glanville knows, and as another character, the Countess, reinforces later in the novel: asked to tell Arabella “her Adventures”, she replies gently but firmly: “The Word Adventures carries in it so Free and Licentious a Sound in the Apprehensions of People at this Period of Time, that it can hardly with Propriety be apply’d to those few and natural Incidents which comprise the History of a Woman of Honour.” She was born, she tells Arabella; she grew up; she met a man and married him, with her parents’ encouragement and consent; and that is the end of that. Arabella is shocked to discover that she has experienced not a single shipwreck, abduction, or case of false identity. The Countess is an interesting character, because she responds to Arabella’s infatuation with fictions by engaging her rationally: Arabella is capable of perfect reasoning when not discussing romances directly, and the scene where she and the Countess discuss the changing nature of virtue and vice depending upon historical context must be one of the most interesting conversations two women have with each other in the whole of eighteenth-century literature. It does not concern men; it concerns ethics, literature and history, all considered “serious” topics and all part of a classical education, and although it is done to disabuse a young woman of “madness”, it is done on her turf and on her terms, simultaneously gently demonstrating the limitations of fiction as a model for life and taking her intellectual capacities with the utmost seriousness.

The Countess disappears after this chapter, and the final cure of Arabella is left to a wise and elderly (and male) curate who has never appeared before in the book. This is probably because of some advice Samuel Richardson gave Lennox with regards to the ending, which also explains why the final chapters feel both rushed and spun out. It’s a shame that the Countess is not brought back; some scholars think this was Lennox’s original plan, and I have to say I would have preferred it. It would make more sense to use a character with whom we were already familiar, and it would serve also to reinforce Lennox’s interest in the nature of female power. It is an interest that the twenty-first century also shares, although we are in a different historical context. The book also possesses a strong flavour of the surreal. The tension between laughing at Arabella mistaking a carp-poaching gardener for a prince in disguise wishing to abduct her, and admiring her for her courage and consistency in adhering to principles that, though impractical and wrong-headed, give her a sense of self-worth, is potent. Should a brave production company be casting about for Bridgerton-alikes, a judicious reimagining of The Female Quixote would be fertile ground.


The Female Quixote was first published in 1752. My edition is by Oxford University Press, in their World’s Classics series, from 1998 (textual apparatus copyright 1989). There’s a newer edition from 2008.

September Superlatives

September! A thoroughly mixed bag: meteorologically, professionally, literarily. I finished ten books, which is okay, and felt good about eight of them, which is also okay. The air has been getting steadily less warm, although today was the first day I actually felt cold outside. I’ve taken a part-time job in a gastropub round the corner from our flat, which is exciting—they’re giving us training! I’m learning to pull pints and carry three plates at once!—but also, of course, intimidating, and forcing me to rethink myself in a way that will hopefully be healthy (did I ever expect to be working in a pub at this stage of my life? I did not.) The book is coming along steadily; I’m handwriting some of it, which is going better than I thought it would. Roll on October!

least my thing: Unsurprisingly, this accolade goes to Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymously published English translation of a book originally released in Amsterdam in 2006. The foul misogyny I was expecting was mostly replaced by narcissism and alcoholism, so although it could have been much worse, it was still a bit of a chore.

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most delightful: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel about a maiden aunt whose eventual move to the countryside to start her own life is the catalyst for a pact with the devil. I like how gradually the plot moves; we get to know Laura, or “Aunt Lolly”, so well that when the devil eventually does come a-calling (surprisingly late in the book), we care all the more about her happiness.

most evocative: Deborah Levy’s incredible novel Hot Milk, which makes heavy use of symbolism and allegory but which also says “summer” in a way few other novels I’ve read this summer actually have. Set in desert-like Almería, Spain, it deals with hypochondria, sexuality, mothers and daughters, and responsibility. I liked its bizarre unpredictability, loved its woozy prose. I’d be happy if it won the Booker Prize.

most surprisingly enjoyable: I hadn’t expected to dislike Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but I’d expected to find the politics much more obviously unpalatable. Instead, I found right-wing military philosophy that struck me as more juvenile than malevolent. I think I still prefer the film, mostly for reasons of pacing; the book drags a little.

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warm bath book: Defined either as “one you could read in the bath” or “one that functions like a warm bath”. In this case—Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event—both are true. It’s a novel based on the real events that happened in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1950s, where three planes crashed en route to Newark airport in the space of three months. There’s plenty of domestic drama too, and although Blume’s prose is occasionally ungainly, it’s ultimately a lovely, life-affirming read that doesn’t shy away from tackling huge questions.

best romp: Obviously, Love and Freindship [sic], a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia. It’s so rewarding to see how she developed from her very earliest writings to the work she was producing in her late teens: sharp and witty from the beginning, but the wit gets ever more pointed as she goes on. Lady Susan is a miniature masterpiece. It’s the early stuff, though, like The Beautifull Cassandra and Frederic and Elfrida, that makes me giggle: heroines get rat-arsed on port wine and steal bonnets, men are so useless that they forget who they’re married to. It’s great.

most illuminating: iO Tillett Wright’s memoir, Darling Days, about growing up semi-feral on the Lower East Side. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s had a difficult family life; who’s experienced parental alcohol or drug abuse, who’s grown up “alternative” or who’s been through the juvenile courts system, you need to read this book. It will tell you everything you need to know about the effect it has on a kid, and it will also show you that it is possible for kids to survive and thrive into adulthood even under the craziest of circumstances.

most aptly timed: Not Working, by Lisa Owens, for obvious reasons. Seriously, though, this is a fantastic novel. I was braced for something a bit brittle, a bit vapid or over-privileged. Instead, the sadness, the humour, and the bravado of this book absolutely knocked me out. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing; I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for Lisa Owens’s future work.

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most disturbing: Angela Carter is always going to win “most disturbing”, isn’t she? Not necessarily bad disturbing, just…disturbing. You know. Anyway, I read The Magic Toyshop this month, which apes the traditions of Victorian novels (beautiful young orphaned heroine, big bad uncle, mysterious cousin, etc.) and produces, out of material that we think we know, a wholly strange concoction. This book has got atmosphere by the bucket-load; you feel so grounded in its reality, reading it, and yet simultaneously enchanted. My favourite Carter to date, I think.

most disappointing: I hate to say this, but: Michael Hughes’s The Countenance Divine. I was expecting, if not quite Neal Stephenson, at least Stephenson-adjacent, and you can’t really blame me: the plot summary is that, in 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666). Sounds phenomenal, no? And yet. The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.

up next: I’m currently reading Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer who’s been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez with absolute justice. When I finish it, I’ll review The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, coming out from Granta this week.

Love and Freindship [sic] and Other Youthful Writings, by Jane Austen

My temper is even, my virtues innumerable, my self unparalleled. Since such Sir is my character, what do you mean by wishing me to marry your Daughter?

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Jane Austen has basically always gotten a rough shake, because literary misogyny exists and anyone who writes about bonnets is always going to find herself dismissed by one half of humanity and read feverishly—but only for the bonnets—by half of the other half. The truth, of course, is less frilly and floral than the background for the photo above would suggest. Consensus on Austen for a while now has generally been that she was a shrewd and uncompromising chronicler of human hypocrisy and frailty; that she wrote with absolute clarity on the myriad foolishnesses of polite society but also that she understood them inside out; and that her “charming” marriage-based plots are a forensic examination of the legalized system of prostitution that found it acceptable to sell unmarried women to the highest bidder—and in which the women in question frequently colluded because their other choices were homelessness or humiliation as “companion” dependents of wealthier families.

This book is a collection of Austen’s juvenilia, work written when she was between the ages of eleven and nineteen. Christine Alexander, the editor of the Penguin volume, has laid them out in rough chronological order (more or less as they appear in Austen’s manuscript books). The advantage, obviously, is that you can see how Austen grew and developed, not just in terms of her prose becoming more complex and easily controlled, but also as she became more confident in her ability to handle a plot and as her satire became no less sharp, but significantly more subtle.

The stories from her pre-teen and early teenaged years are surprisingly excellent, however, because they give a sense of how unbounded and anarchic her imagination was. She was supposedly an excellent mimic, loved parlor games and charades, and that vivacious goofiness is so evident in pieces like “Frederic and Elfrida”. Here she gleefully mocks the conventions of sentimental novels (then very much in vogue) by writing a group of young women who fall into raptures of adoring friendship the moment they see each other, who are constantly obliging one another with snatches of trite pastoral song, and one of whom accepts two marriage proposals so as not to cause offense to either suitor. Their claims of intimacy are burlesqued by their deeply unladylike conduct towards each other: “From this period,” Austen writes,

the intimacy between the Families…daily increased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation.

Years later, when writing “Catharine, or the Bower”, and also “Lady Susan”, she recycles this idea in the characters of young men who use the informality of friendship as a shield against charges of quite astonishing rudeness that include inviting themselves, unasked, to the homes of people who don’t actually know them.

I also particularly enjoyed “Jack and Alice”, whose heroine tosses off bumpers of claret with extreme alacrity (young unmarried women would, first of all, not have been offered claret, which was a strong, heavy red wine, and secondly, would have been expected to sip at their glasses—not down the whole thing at once, as Alice does.) And “The Beautifull Cassandra” is a glorious, ridiculous story comprising four pages in which our heroine (who shares a name with Austen’s sister) steals a bonnet from her family’s shop, wanders around London committing various acts of vandalism and fraud, and then returns to the bosom of her family quite content. Her attitude towards paying for goods and services is especially anarchic:

She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry-cook and walked away.

…Being returned to the same spot of the same Street she had set out from, the Coachman demanded his Pay. She searched her pockets over again and again; but every search was unsuccessfull [sic]. No money could she find. The man grew peremptory. She placed her bonnet on his head and ran away.

“Love and Freindship” [sic], meanwhile, is a particularly excellent satire on the sentimental, focusing on two women who commit acts of the most appalling selfishness, cruelty and criminality, and blame everything on their deep “Sensibility of Mind”. When a carriage containing their long-lost husbands overturns in front of them (it’s a long story, okay), they enact responses of horror that suggest, indeed, sentimentality, but are not exactly practical:

Yes, dearest Marianne, they were our Husbands. Sophia shreiked [sic] and fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran Mad. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, and on regaining them were deprived of them again—. For an Hour and a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate Situation—Sophia fainting every moment and I running Mad as often—.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist the image of our narrator Laura dashing wildly to and fro, waving her arms in the air and frothing at the mouth, as Sophia swoons and revives repeatedly in the background like some kind of interval in a Loony Tunes episode.

It turns out that one of the men has survived, but the women become aware of this too late, and instead of providing him with prompt medical attention, they demand that he recite “what has befallen you” since they were separated (another trope of sentimental fiction: long stories-within-stories as every new acquaintance does a huge info-dump on their background and life history.) Before he can begin his tale, of course, the poor man expires.

This is all very entertaining, and in places, very sharp, but it’s “Lady Susan” (recently made into a film under the name “Love and Friendship”) that represents the pinnacle of Austen’s young writing. Written in the epistolary style of Samuel Richardson, whom Austen idealized, it is primarily told from the point of view of Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow who is, we quickly realize, on the hunt for a husband again. She is in disgrace as a result of her conduct at Langford, the home of her friends; at no point is this ever fully explained, but through her letters and those of her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon, it becomes evident that she has seduced Mr. Manwaring, a married man, away from his wife. Since Manwaring would not be free to marry her unless his wife had died (an event which Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson certainly mull over the idea of hastening), she fixes her sights on another young man: Reginald De Courcy, brother of her dead husband’s sister-in-law.

Lady Susan is a fantastic character: beautiful, manipulative, extremely intelligent, and totally amoral. She takes great delight in confounding the prejudices of Reginald, who has already heard stories about her that cast her in a bad light. Of him to Mrs. Johnson, Susan writes,

There is something about him that rather interests me, a sort of sauciness, of familiarity, which I shall teach him to correct. He is lively and seems clever, and when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister’s kind offices have implanted, he may be an agreable [sic] Flirt.—There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.

Instead of being coquettish when he is “familiar” (e.g. flirtatious) with her, she responds with gravity, dignity, and quietness. Reginald becomes convinced that the tales he heard were slanderous, and poor Catherine fails to convince him of their truth in time to stop him from becoming entangled. Meanwhile, Susan is maneuvering to get her daughter Frederica engaged to the somewhat simple Sir James Martin—not because she cares about Frederica’s happiness, but in order to get her off of her hands—and engages in a campaign of what we’d now call gaslighting to prevent anyone else from taking Frederica’s concerns seriously. Fortunately, Catherine Vernon’s efforts are more successful here; Frederica is saved from a soul-crushing marriage and becomes, essentially, the ward of her aunt and uncle.

Lady Susan, of course, receives her comeuppance, though to tell you how this happens would ruin the pleasure of reading the story. In a way, too, reading her downfall is a disappointment. She is too deeply unpleasant a character for a reader to entirely invest in, but her pursuit of her own satisfactions is so unabashed, and so cleverly strategized, that to read her letters is like peering inside the head of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. She is one of English literature’s best villainesses; that her creator was not more than twenty is really proof, if any is still needed, that Austen was a literary genius.

Fall (P)reviews

Recently I stepped down from my position on the editorial team at Quadrapheme. I’d had a great time there, learned a lot and been given incredible opportunities, but it was time that I moved on. Now that I’m just working on Elle Thinks, I have a lot more room to expand and to accept books for review from publishers that fit my own interests. The following are all books that I’ll be covering here in the fall months, some of them very soon!

The Black Country, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce (Salt Publishing). This was sold to me as a variant on Gone Girl, and although I generally roll my eyes at such comparisons, that’s because I think Gone Girl is a real work of genius, and it’s too facile to say that every thriller with an unreliable female narrator is on the same level. The recommendation, however, came from Salt’s publicist Tabitha Pelly, who’s been reliably funneling incredible books my way for over a year, and whose judgment I trust. As far as I can tell, it’s about a married couple whose relationship is toxic, who make terrible (criminal?) decisions together and separately, and who spend a lot of energy deluding the reader as well as themselves and each other. Yum yum.

Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams (Little, Brown). A fictionalization of the Laperouse expedition that sought to circumnavigate the globe in the eighteenth century; each chapter is told by a different character. Ships’ captains, scientists, and sailors all tell their story. I’m hoping it’s going to be a cross between Patrick O’Brian and William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. It certainly has the most beautiful cover of the season.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada (Pushkin Press). Pushkin’s new crime imprint, Vertigo, seeks to bring into English translation some of the best crime and thriller writing from around the world. I’ve never read any Japanese murder mysteries before, but  this tale of an eccentric, murdered man whose plans to kill the seven women he lives with are carried out to the letter after his death struck me as particularly fiendish. This cover is absolutely ace, as well.

Katherine Carlyle, by Rupert Thomson (Corsair). Created by IVF in the ’80s, Katherine Carlyle is born eight years later. By the time she is an adolescent, her mother has died of cancer and her father is emotionally distant. Partly out of an immature desire to punish him, partly out of impulses she doesn’t really understand herself, Katherine decides to disappear… This looks like it could be extraordinary, and Rupert Thomson has a good reputation. I’m excited for it.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter (Faber and Faber). Two young boys lose their mother; their father loses his wife. Into a household shattered and inarticulate with grief comes Crow, a version of Ted Hughes’s famous bird. He brings solace, warmth, and wildness. He promises not to leave until they are ready for him to leave. This is one of Faber’s biggest fiction releases this season and it looks utterly amazing. The fact that I have a Bit Of A Thing for Hughes, Plath, and their respective poetry certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’ve also been promised a copy of Virago’s gorgeous new version of The Birds and other short stories by Daphne du Maurier, which I’m very excited about. See how pretty/scary it is!

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Best Books of May, Part One

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do forQuadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month. Here’s the first part of May’s list, featuring novels about a religious cult and a Spanish Civil War veteran’s suicide; nonfiction on global feminism and the unfairly forgotten Sir Thomas Browne; and a debut poetry collection by Anglo-Chinese Sarah Howe.

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March Superlatives

I read six books in March–only half as many as last month–but this was partly because of a heavy work schedule, and partly because I read several long books that took a lot of time but will stay in my head for even longer. Here are this month’s Superlatives: as previously advertised, like your high school “most likely to succeed” categories, but less shit.

all around best: Joint honors go to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hall’s novel is a thoughtful, beautiful, fiercely intelligent exploration of generation, family ties and the connections between humans and the environment we live in. She is the sophisticated, sexy writer I wish I could be. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel is a peerless evocation of pre-WWII England, told through the life stories of a large and typically idiosyncratic upper-middle-class family. Links above are to my reviews of both.

creepiest: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer, the conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy. Better than the second if not quite as good as the first, Acceptance is about learning to die, or learning to change (isn’t it much the same?), as the biologist and Control unravel the secrets of Area X. The three need to be read together, but I thought Acceptance a satisfying ending, despite the many coyly unanswered questions.

The Florida coastline, where the Southern Reach trilogy is set

most oddly anticlimactic: I like this category so much that I’m resurrecting it from February’s Superlatives post. This month, it was Laline Paull’s The Bees which left me cold and bewildered. Why are people so keen on this book? The writing is no more than competent, the structure is chaotic, the plot is guessable from the early pages. It’s not terrible, but why it’s on the Baileys long list and The Wolf Border isn’t is one of those things I’ll never, ever understand, like people who vote Republican.

most due a renaissance a la John Williams’s StonerWithout a doubt, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond. Since it’s published by NYRB, the original publishers of Stoner, it seems possible that such a renaissance could happen again. Schwarz-Bart’s dreamy prose swaddles the story of a Guadeloupean woman and her struggles in life and love. It’s a gorgeous book, and offers no easy platitudes.

most intense: In every way, David van Reybrouck’s doorstop volume Congo: the Epic History of a People. The story he tells, from remote beginnings to Leopold’s annexation of the territory as his personal property to formal colonization by the state of Belgium, through to the granting of independence, the assassinations and incompetence that followed as a consequence of being woefully underprepared, and the culpable negligence of the US, EU and UN in coping with Congolese problems, are all covered in novelistic prose. Some of van Reybrouck’s assertions are, according to my uncle, who works in the now-DRC, “tendentious”, and he glosses over many of the European interventions or lack thereof, clearly uncomfortable apportioning blame. For an overview, though, it’s very informative. I plan to read Blood River and King Leopold’s Ghost as soon as I can, to get a more nuanced (and hopefully less “official”) picture.

Congo

up next: The Moon and Sixpence (I’ve been saying this for months) for the Classics Club, and Deep Lane, a new poetry collection by Mark Doty, to review in Quadrapheme. It has the most elegant cover I’ve seen for a long time, even with fuzzy resolution:

Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland

First published: 1748.

Edition read: Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, ed. Peter Sabor.

Provenance: purchased from Blackwell’s secondhand section

Read: October 2014, on the slow-moving commuter bus in the evenings.

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UGH I am sorry it’s taken me so long to get around to writing. I note that it’s been ten days since I’ve posted anything at all. Work has been enervating, to say the least, punctuated by a lot of weeknight socializing, and, well…anyway. Here we are. I have a cup of coffee, Bruckner coming through the speakers (Os Justi, which, if you’ve never heard this before, just do yourself a favor and click on it), and my notes arrayed about me, ready to begin talking about Fanny Hill.

Where to start? Maybe with the plot. Fanny Hill (yes, yes, it’s crude slang, what did you expect, this book was the PornTube of its day) is a young country girl whose parents die. She’s pretty and innocent, and puts herself into the protection of a rather more worldly-wise young woman, who takes her to London and dumps her in the hands of a brothel madam. The rest of the novel delineates Fanny’s adventures as a mistress, a high-class prostitute, and then a mistress again, before finally reuniting her with her first lover and allowing her to settle into a happy-ever-after. She is sort of like the little sister of Moll Flanders; all of her criminal and sexual activity is wiped clean at the end of the novel, her sins forgiven.

Like Defoe, Cleland is writing at a time when the novel genre has no clear boundaries. He positions his book as a memoir, so we hear everything in Fanny’s voice, and see everything through her eyes. This is both refreshing and problematic for a twenty-first century reader: on the one hand, hearing a female voice in fiction speak candidly and unashamedly about sex is unusual, but on the other hand, that voice is being ventriloquized and manipulated by a man in a narrative that is, let us be frank, pornographic. So how much of it is a legitimate attempt to understand female pleasure and motivations, and how much of it is just another literary man’s wank fantasy (to put it bluntly)?

The sex scenes are some clue. The first one is with another woman, and Fanny is quite keen to abdicate all responsibility for her part in this: “[it] robbed me of all liberty of thought”, she writes. Nevertheless, her own response is clearly enthusiastic:

“the extensions of my limbs, sighs, short heavings, all conspired to assure…that I was more pleased than offended.”

Despite her horror of actual homosexuality, Fanny likes sex, and although she’d rather have it with a man than a woman, her objections are never moral. Her first suitor is turned down, not because of any piety on Fanny’s part, but because he is ancient and insufficiently attractive. She’s independent of mind, determined in character, and knows exactly what she wants. Maybe the fact that Cleland  is a man lends these traits a touch of inauthenticity; maybe Fanny is a prototype of the Cool Girl made famous by Gone Girl’s maniacally brilliant Amy Dunne. But the very attribution of these thoughts and feelings to a woman’s mind–and an extremely young woman at that–is transgressive, even today.

There are other elements in the novel which suggest that Fanny’s stereotypically male characteristics are perhaps a result of Cleland having observed the mechanics of female sexuality more carefully, and more open-mindedly, than most men of his era. Female assessment of male attractiveness, for instance, is absolutely key in this novel. Academics of all stripes like to throw around the concept of “the male gaze”: the idea that women, and objects, gain their societal value from how they appear and how they are constructed by the men who look at, assess, and evaluate them. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure reverses the idea by giving the power of evaluation and judgment to a woman. The first time Fanny sees Charles, her first lover and eventual husband, she describes him as lasciviously as any man has ever salivated over a woman. (That salivation thing is almost literal: later, when she seduces a footman, she refers to him as “meat” and comments,

“I should have thought anyone much out of taste, that could not have made a hearty meal of such a morsel.”)

The male gaze is irrelevant in comparison to Fanny’s opinions and decisions, and the men she chooses are mostly objects to her.

How many prostitutes in eighteenth-century London had lives like this? Not many. Mrs Cole, Fanny’s madam, is presented as a good and moral businesswoman, who cares for her girls as though they were daughters, requiring them to get regular medical checkups, giving them week-long holidays if they show signs of becoming too tired, ensuring that they are well fed and clothed, and–perhaps most importantly–giving them choices about which clients they entertain. Fanny makes a point of telling us how good a woman Mrs Cole is, and how unusual this situation is, but we lose track of the fact because we see no other brothels. There has obviously been some editing of the truth: very few fifteen-year-old virgins in a brothel would have been permitted to choose how, where and with whom they lost their virginity, but Fanny chooses Charles and sails onwards to great fortune. Despite his interest in female autonomy, Cleland is writing for men, and for a story about sex work to be palatable to those who consume it, it has to be tidy. Modern-day pornography is like this too: no one ever fumbles for a condom, trips while taking off their trousers, menstruates (well, not in mainstream porn, anyway), or demonstrates anything too uncomfortably lifelike. It’s fantasy, after all. So Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is, perhaps, a more unusual fantasy than most, taking an idiosyncratic point of view; but it is still fantasy. We’re a long way from Anne Hathaway’s agony as the shorn Fantine of Les Miserables (which is also fantasy, just on the other end of the spectrum.)

The male gaze, that baleful item, returns near the end of the book. By this point Cleland has worked out that it’s quite difficult to keep writing sex scenes without repeating material. He has exhausted regular sex, group sex, masturbation and flogging (a surprisingly common fetish for eighteenth-century men, and described with remarkable generosity of mind), and Fanny notes, rather wearily, that

“the words…flatten, and lose much of their energy and spirit, by [their] frequency.”

Perhaps for this reason, Cleland switches in the last thirty pages or so to a Thousand and One Nights style of narration, where each of the whores (I use the word with reservations, but it’s the word the novel uses) describes how she lost her virginity. It’s a piece of titillating page-filler, with the women’s experiences always described from an external point of view. It stands out because there’s so little like it in the preceding pages; Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is not a long book, but one feels that Cleland could have improved it just by cutting this bit.

Nevertheless, when Fanny gets her reward at the end of the book in the form of Charles (who returns from having been rather implausibly shanghaied), it’s deeply satisfying on an emotional level as well as a personal one. The reader likes her–it’s impossible not to, she’s candid about her own shortcomings and thoroughly charming–and wants her to succeed. And we know that she will be happy; Charles is a kind and thoughtful young man who is interested in cultivating her intellect as well as in her body. She is intelligent enough for other patrons to have considered her worth teaching, as well, and given Charles’s family wealth, she will act as the chatelaine of a large estate. There can be no doubt that Fanny lands on her feet. Why punish her for having been a prostitute when, instead, Cleland could show us how capable that life has made her? As she notes herself,

“Our virtues and our vices depend too much on our circumstances.”

A revolutionary assertion in any era, I think, and one that makes this book well worth reading.

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For more classic books that address female sexuality, see:

Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe (ed. G.A. Starr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)

Justine, by the Marquis de Sade (transl. John Phillips (Oxford: OUP, 2012)

A Sicilian Romance, by Anne Radcliffe (ed. Alison Milbank (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

For more on Cleland’s work and context, see:

“What is Fanny Hill?’, B. Slepian and L.J. Morrissey, in Essays in Criticism 14 (1964) 65-75

“Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure: Pornography and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century English Novel“, Michael Shinagel, in Studies in Change and Revolution, ed. Paul J. Korshin (Menston: Scolar Press, 1972)

Male Novelists and their Female Voices: Literary Masquerades, Anne Robinson Taylor (Troy: New York, 1981)

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe

This is a super-weird cover, but this is the edition that I read, so here’s a Martian in a plague burka for you.

First published: 1722.

Edition: Signet Classics ed. 1960, J.H. Plumb.

Provenance: found on my mother’s bookshelves and “borrowed” about 2 years ago, never to be returned.

Read: August 2014, on a rainy holiday week in Cumbria.

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A Journal of the Plague Year occupies a curious position, chronologically, in the history of literature. It comes at a point in the development of fiction where “the novel” doesn’t yet exist, as such, but where technically made-up pieces of writing are frequently garlanded with such strong elements of reality that they read more like reportage. It’s an extreme way of trying to assure verisimilitude, and it’s not really surprising that writers dropped it, because it’s time-consuming and distracting to constantly provide the reader with evidentiary back-up. Nevertheless, this is how Defoe presents his account of the great plague that swept London in the year 1665-1666.

One of the first things you notice with Defoe–it doesn’t matter which one of his works you’re reading–is his narrators’ passionate dedication to the reporting of material minutiae. In Robinson Crusoe it’s how many guns he gets off the ship, or what his crop yield in any given year happens to be; in Roxana it’s the obsessive cataloguing of her possessions and fluctuating finances; in A Journal of the Plague Year, of course, it is the death toll. Crusoe was written before Journal, and Roxana was written after it, but both of them use that obsessive tracking as a method of characterization. In Journal, the data is used only to give you a sense of immediacy, which is one good reason, I think, for not categorizing it as a novel.

On the other hand, there are some clever touches in Journal which are characteristic of fiction. Our unnamed narrator decides to stay in London during the plague as a result of Biblical divination. This is a rather dubious form of fortune telling which involves flipping to a random page in the Bible, then pointing to a random sentence thereon, and making your decision according to what it says. It was widely used in the eighteenth century, and represented a kind of capitulation to Providence, which was seen to order all of human history. (There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the concept of Divine Providence and the role of the omnipotent author, who orders the plots and characters of all his works.) But Defoe uses it as a plot device: his narrator must stay in London in order to observe the effects of plague, since that is what the whole book is about, but the narrator can’t just stay in an infection zone for no reason. His belief in divination makes the decision to stay in London more explicable.

And what a hellish London it is. Journal is perhaps most famous for its descriptions of an infected, deserted metropolis, and the more you read it, the more you realize that it is an uncanny precursor of the post-apocalyptic tales that are riding the zeitgeist at the moment. Civil and individual liberties are curtailed in the name of containing the disease: houses in which even one inhabitant is infected are “shut up”–forcibly quarantined–and a system of watchmen is established to prevent any possibly-infected people from leaving. Religious feeling, except for a vocal minority of “atheists and mockers”, is increased: much of the populace believes that the plague is a symptom of divine vengeance. Normal behaviour breaks down: insanity, robbery, and suicide all increase. Rumour runs wild: tales circulate of nurses to the sick who, instead of healing their charges, deliberately smother them. The narrator decides that these reports must be made up, partly because they are too repetitive and similar to one another, and partly because they are too hard to corroborate. Cleverly, his focus on how to determine truth also pulls a reader’s awareness back to the half-and-half nature of Journal.

Defoe is not just interested in compiling the death lists of each parish, although he does that too; the effect of the disease on the city causes him to ponder some very serious ethical questions. On the forced quarantining, which became a source of major public unrest, he writes,

The shutting up of houses…had very great inconveniences in it, and some that were very tragical…But it was authorized by a law, it had the publick good in view…and all the private injuries that were done…must be put to the account of the publick benefit.

Journal was written in an England that had experienced the traumas of the Civil Wars not terribly long before–Defoe didn’t live through the wars himself, but they would have been within living memory for a person slightly older than he–as well as the extraordinary strictness of the Commonwealth. Governmental action that was “authorized by a law” was, in some of these contexts, generally seen as positive (e.g. Parliament’s ability to refuse to grant the king’s request for additional taxes); in others, it proved deeply destructive (e.g. the Rump Parliament’s crackdown on public leisure activities such as theatre). Defoe notes the policy’s legality, but that does not make it less ambiguous. The reader is left uncomfortably aware that many deaths might have been averted by taking a different approach, but also that the quarantine policy clearly seemed to be the best solution at the time.

The authority of personal experience is a particularly prominent bridge of the gap between non-fiction and fiction in this period, and here Defoe’s narrator does not disappoint. He claims believability for his account in part because he works as one of the quarantine watchmen; the job is a duty for the men of a parish much as being an air raid warden might have been during WWII. His meticulousness about recording details,  strengthens his claim to authority by virtue of having been present. When, eventually, he decides to move away from central London with a group of merchants (they stop in the small village of Hackney; one of the uniquely contemporary delights of reading this book is discovering how tiny the city of London was in 1665, and how comprehensively the growth of the modern city has swallowed all of the smaller communities for nearly forty miles around), they camp in a forest, and must answer the challenge of the townspeople. Our narrator is careful to note the particularities of this first meeting: “It seems that John [their leader] was in the tent, but hearing them call he steps out…” It’s the sort of detail that is often cited in arguments about the historical veracity of the Gospels: a circumstance unusual enough to complicate the subsequent action, but which a straightforwardly fictional account would, one imagines, have excised in favor of simplicity. That Defoe chooses to include it in his narrator’s story suggests, again, the balance between reportage and deliberate shaping of the story that characterizes Journal.

There is suspicion, cruelty and brigandry in the book, but there is also extraordinary kindness: the bargeman who continues working to support his children, the country folk who leave bread and meat on a stone for the London refugees. I came away from the book full of admiration and pity for the people who survived such apocalyptic events and continued their daily lives with what Defoe calls “a sort of brutal courage.” Such brutal courage has formed part of the English self-image for centuries; its value as a survival tactic is nowhere more obvious than in A Journal of the Plague Year.

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For more by Defoe, see:

Robinson Crusoe, ed. Michael Shinagel (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994)

Roxana, ed. John Mullan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Moll Flanders, ed. G.A. Starr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)

Captain Singleton (This appears not to be in print by any reputable house at present, but there are a few non-academic versions online. Try the one by Hardpress Publishing, 2012.)

For more on Defoe’s work and context, see:

The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt (London: The Hogarth Press, 1987)

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe, Richard West (London: Harper Collins, 1997)

Nicholson Baker on “Daniel Defoe and A Journal of the Plague Year” in Second Read, ed. Marcus James (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)

Dislocating the End: Climax, Closure and the Invention of Genre, Alan Rosen (New York: Peter Lang, 2001)

For more on the Great Plague, see:

Year of Wonders, GeraldineBrooks (London: Viking Press, 2001)

Introducing the Classics Challenge

In August, I found and joined the Classics Challenge. (I think it’s actually called the Classics Club, but I really don’t like the word Club. It sounds too much like the Babysitters’ Club.) You pick fifty classic books (and your definition can be as broad or as narrow as you like) and commit to reading them over the course of five years. That means roughly one of these a month, and I’ve read five now. One reason this is useful is that it will force me to slow my reading. Quite often, I read fast, without reflecting as much as I could. Sometimes things sink in or percolate; other times, I know that a little more mental application would open up more interesting angles on what I’ve just read, but tend to feel as though I haven’t got the time. For the Classics Challenge, I’ve got a notebook (with an owl on the front, of course) and am taking a few pages of notes on each book I read, which should help to clarify and expand reviews.

The second reason this is useful is that, despite having taken a degree in English, there are some surprising gaps in my reading (A Tale of Two Cities, anyone?) and, in addition, I want to continue reading good books, old books, unusual books. Just because I’m not in formal education is no reason to stop reading them. Here’s the full list. There’ll be a permanent link to it in the header. And I’ll be posting catch-up reviews to each of the books from the past five months, before writing monthly Classics Challenge reviews (along with regular reviews of other books, of course). At the moment, crossed-out titles are ones I’ve finished but not reviewed yet, and the red links are to reviews.

  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, by Anon. (13th-10th century BC)
  2. The Iliad, by Homer (~8th century BC)
  3. The Odyssey, by Homer (~8th century BC)
  4. The Poetic Edda, by Anon. (10th century AD)
  5. The Mabinogion, by Anon. (~11th century AD)
  6. The Masnavi, Book One, by Rumi (1258)
  7. The Kalevala, coll. Elias Lonnrot (collected 19th century AD)
  8. The Book of Margery Kempe, by Margery Kempe (1490s)
  9. Essais by Montaigne (1580)
  10. The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish (1666)
  11. The Princesse de Cleves, by Madame de Lafayette (1678)
  12. Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn (1688)
  13. The New Atalantis, by Delariviere Manley (1709)
  14. A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (1722)
  15. The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay (1728)
  16. Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland (1748)
  17. Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson (1748)
  18. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett (1748)
  19. Cecilia, by Fanny Burney (1782)
  20. A Simple Story, by Elizabeth Inchbald (1791)
  21. The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Anne Radcliffe (1794)
  22. Zofloya, or The Moor, by Charlotte Dacre (1806)
  23. Major Works of John Clare (1820-1835)
  24. Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (1847)
  25. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte (1848)
  26. Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte (1849)
  27. North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)
  28. Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856)
  29. The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, by Dorothy Wordsworth (pub. 1897)
  30. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (1859)
  31. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins (1859)
  32. Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)
  33. The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope (1867) 
  34. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins (1868) 
  35. The Fortune of the Rougons, by Emile Zola (1871)
  36. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (1881) 
  37. Hester, by Margaret Oliphant (1883)
  38. The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham (1919)
  39. Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)
  40. August Folly, by Angela Thirkell (1936)
  41. Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (1937)
  42. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
  43. Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch (1954)
  44. Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming (1959)
  45. Beloved, by Toni Morrison (1987)
  46. Here Be Dragons, by Stella Gibbons (1956)
  47. Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess (1980)
  48. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter (1984)
  49. Wise Children, by Angela Carter (1991)
  50. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth (1993)