Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Tuesday 10th November 2020 was a big day for Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It not only was it the day on which was unveiled a statue erected to commemorate her at Newington Green, but more importantly, it was the day was appointed for Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle to discuss the most popular of her works, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. William Godwin, her future husband, would say of it, ‘If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.’ Would it charm the grizzled online attendees of Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle?


Located very late in ‘our’ period, Mary Wollstonecraft has one foot firmly in the earlier ‘rational’ culture but another in the brewing maelstrom of Romanticism and this ambivalence is reflected in the book. It combines passages, some arguably purple, about the beauty of the Scandinavian landscapes with thoughtful assessment of land-use and its practical impact on the societies she travels through. 


Like Johnson exploring the Western Isles of Scotland, Wollstonecraft was travelling a landscape without an established travel itinerary. But unlike him, she was not travelling with a sociable native. She was either entirely alone, or had only her two-year-old daughter and her nursemaid for company. Nor did she know anything of Scandinavian languages. As Johnson travelled further away from Edinburgh, it was through a country perceived as still rising from barbarism. Similarly, Wollstonecraft traced a route from the relatively civilized to the still barbarous as she travelled from Sweden into Norway, furthest away from ruling Denmark. However, where a lack of trees prompted Johnson’s snark about the value of wood and a range of practical ideas on how to encourage tree growth, the stark rocks of Norway impact Wollstonecraft in a different way. Her response is an strongly emotional one, particularly when she arrives at a claustrophobic town penned in by looming cliffs: to her it seemed like a prison. When she travels further inland and into a forest, she too reflects on the usefulness of wood as a commodity and on the encroachments and improvements of farming. But unlike Johnson, she also reflects on the beauty of the light through the leaves and the calming effect of nature on her soul.


These passages show a deep emotional engagement with the natural world where she notes that the ‘rocks aspiring towards the heaven’ succeed in ‘shutting our sorrow’ and allow peace to ‘steal along the lake to calm my bosom.’ Later Mary Shelley, her younger daughter, when touring Switzerland, would read aloud from the book to her husband, Percy Shelley. Wollstonecraft’s book inspired other Romantics. Surely her description of a huge waterfall inspired Coleridge’s ‘chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething’ in ‘Kubla Khan’? Another of Coleridge’s poems, ‘Frost at Midnight’, seems to draw strongly on Wollstonecraft’s vision in depicting the poet as parent, lost in ‘abstruser musings’ by the fireside on a wintry night. Wollstonecraft had described a similar night in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in which she ‘contemplated, fearless of idle questions, a night such as which I had never before seen or felt to charm the senses or to calm the heart.’ In Coleridge’s poem, he too is soothed by the peaceful presence of child sleeping in a cot beside him, and on the peaceful calm outside:


‘… at my side 

My cradled infant slumbers peacefully. 

'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs 

And vexes meditation with its strange 

And extreme silentness.’



However, Wollstonecraft’s travels engage her analytical mind as much as her sentiments. She had been caught in the whirlwind of the French Revolution. This book finds her at a moment balanced finely between hope and fear. She frequently speaks of her hopes for the future, her belief that the world is improvable and improving, yet she finds greater freedoms in the places further removed from these improvements. When she contemplates Copenhagen, not looking its best after a terrible fire, she sees a decayed society ready for revolution and deplores the selfish nature of those trying to save their own houses from being pulled down and letting the fire rage out of control. At the end of her journey, when she travels to Hamburg, she finds a city where the deposed aristocracy of France are attempting to build businesses among the already established merchants of the city. What should be a place where ideas trade as freely as commodities, she finds a narrow-minded, money-grubbing smallness of vision where a love of wealth displaces a love of people. 


There’s also a vulnerability about Wollstonecraft that is exposed by her recently becoming a mother. She had strongly advocated female education in Vindication of the Rights of Women, arguing that if women were weaker it was only because they had been trained to be so. Now a mother herself, she doubts her ability to raise and educate her daughter. But it is less self-doubt, but a questioning of whether the world is ready to accommodate a woman equipped with an education that would allow her to show her full talents. Yet as she fears for the world her daughter will inherit, she maintains a hope that the world can be made better.


The book, for all its beauty and hope is followed by a dark shadow. Wollstonecraft did not make the trip as a mere jolly: she went to contract business for her lover, the father of her daughter, Gilbert Imlay. The relationship, kindled in revolutionary Paris, had begun to disintegrate: mere weeks before she left on the journey, she had tried to kill herself with laudanum. Shortly after returning, she was to make another attempt at ending her life, throwing herself off Putney Bridge. There are times in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark where she admits to a profound melancholy. The word itself appears many times in the book and suggests a suffering that is in some way beautiful. But her private letters to Imlay (when she tends to talk of depression rather than melancholy) betray a far bleaker sense of hopelessness and despair. Yet the book isn’t weighted down by this sadness, there’s a notion of healing through nature. This seems strangely apt for us reading the book in yet another period of lockdown, when walking through parks is one of few permitted recreations. There are moments of peace, joy and hope for the future which burst out of the book, all the more powerful for the dark place they spring from.


Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark inspired a lot of conversation in the group. Among other subjects we discussed methodism and wondered if Lutheranism, with its happy Sundays, was a comparatively less dour form of Protestantism. We also considered the shades of meaning covered by the word ‘tolerable’ and the ever-so-slightly different etymologies of ‘innoxious’ and ‘innocuous’ (broadly with the same meaning but the second starting life in zoology). 


There was also discussion of the new statue.


The Mary on the Green campaign has campaigned and raised money for a statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green for the past decade. In 2018, the two shortlisted designs were announced: a traditional depiction of Mary in bonnet and frock with a pile of books and a quill to be cast in bronze by Martin Jennings, and Maggi Hambling’s silvered naked woman emerging from a wave of feminine forms, described as a statue for Mary, not of her. Hambling’s design was chosen, and perhaps unsurprisingly has provoked instant controversy: some of us remember the early reactions to ‘The Scallop’ on Aldeburgh beach, her commemoration of Benjamin Britten, now much loved. The general mood of the group, none of us having yet gone to see it, was that if the statue was striking, controversial and deserving of comment and debate, which would seem to make it fit Mary Wollstonecraft quite admirably.




Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Review: Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft


Todays post is about my initial thoughts about this book, next weeks shall be my report of the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle reading.


 In 1796, Mary Wollstonecraft went to Norway to transact business for Gilbert Imlay, common-law husband and father of her daughter, who she took with her. The relationship was already in terminal decline and the week before she left on her journey she’d already tried to commit suicide with Laudanum. Already the author of Vindication of the Rights of Men and Vindication of the Rights of Women and a novel, so she decided to make a little money with a travel book.

…And it’s a wonderful example of the genre. Wollstonecraft has an ability to describe the sublime and the beautiful in a way that evokes memories of similar feelings I’ve had and, what is more amazing, doesn’t bore the shit of of me. How many travelogues and novels have tried to describe dramatic landscapes and raise my flagging sensibilities but succeeded in putting me to sleep? As well as all this, the descriptions are mixed with interesting readings of social and political life and some genuinely interesting reveries. The book shows a keen mind married to depth of feeling with  the ability to actually craft meaningful prose out of it.

I warmed to the book on the first page, where she is in a boat in peril off the Swedish coast and remarks that in England, there’d be a rash of lifeboats out to save them, though this isn’t due to any special English benevolence but because they’d be paid per rescue. 

The journey itself involved travelling into Sweden, where her two year old daughter, Fanny and her nurse were left behind while she went into Norway to set about the legal wrangling she’s been sent to sort out. Coming back, she then meets up with her baby, travels through Denmark and into Germany where she took a boat back to England from Hamburg. 

Sweden she finds a worn down, with lots of people merely existing, an impression that strengthens after she returns from Norway, which she finds to be more independent. Worse that Sweden is Denmark, especially Copenhagen, which had burnt down months before and was not looking its best but, for Wollstonecraft, the worst place she visits is Hamburg. It’s a town where the nouveaux riche and the fallen French aristos mix, though that’s not the problem, it’s the money-grabbing narrow-mindedness of the place. I found it funny read of Wollstonecraft talking about the Scandinavian countries as places on their way out of barbarism as they’re now ofte considered as models of statehood.

She mixes with people, very few of which she can properly communicate with and spends as much time as she can outside by herself, admiring a field “enamelled with the sweetest wild flowers” and a great many impressive rocks. She finds it hard to be social, not only can she speak none of the languages, she doesn’t enjoy the forms of entertainment her hosts have for her, eating very large dinners in stuffy, closed rooms accompanied by lots of booze and smoking. She also takes up rowing, which gives her plenty of fresh air and time to think, “my train of thinking kept time, as it were, with the oars.”

Many of her thoughts are about, “my favourite subject of contemplation, the future improvement of the world.” She has a really interesting view of progress, in general it was extremely positive, convinced that ‘civilisation is a blessing.’ She even says that  “The increasing population of the earth must necessarily tend to its improvement, as the means of existence are multiplied by improvements.” She sees this is particularly true in the case of women, where she sees greater cultural and social capital having a trickle-down effect and raising the possibilities for women above mere domestic drudges. 

She’s also worried about progress, she lambasts the avariciousness of early capitalism and the way it can narrow minds to anything but money. At one point she worries about the future when humans have used up all resources and even moved into the wildernesses of Norway. She admits it’s a silly thing to worry about that may not come to pass for thousands of years, something which was very uncomfortable to this reader two-hundred and twenty years later living in a time where her fear could take place in the next eighty years.

As she says, “common minds rarely break through general rules,” and Mary Wollstonecraft clearly has no common mind. She dismisses the notion of national characteristics, especially the notion of them being formed by weather or landscape but shaped by social systems. She also sees this simplification of complex systems to be an easy cop-out for writers who should do better. 

     “The most essential service, I presume that authors could render to society, would be to promote enquiry and discussion, instead of making those dogmatical assertions which only appear calculated to gird the human mind round with imaginary circles.”

Of course, one of her big interests is the life of women in the countries she visits, apologising for, “still harping on the same subject you will exclaim- How can I avoid it when most of the struggles of my eventful life have been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex.”

One of the other interesting little ideas is one she has about how “the preservation of the species, not the individual, that is the design of the Deity,” - a very interesting notion that points to Darwin.

The thing that makes the book really spark, is the sense of vulnerability. There are many luminous, numinous moments in the book but there’s always a sense that they’re moments of joy that bring light in a bedrock of distress. She’s so aware of her own passions, declaring that she “must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness,” and that she has to “catch pleasure pleasure on the wing - I may be melancholy tomorrow.” This is an author who’d tried to kill herself mere weeks before writing the book, and would try again shortly after.

   “How frequently has melancholy and even misanthropy taken possession of me, when the world has disgusted me, and friends have proved unkind. O have then considered myself as a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind; - I was alone, till some involuntary sympathetic emotion, like the attraction of adhesion, made me feel that I was still a part of a mighty whole, from which I could not sever myself.”

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of this book also has excerpts of the genuine letters she wrote to Gilbert Imlay as the trip progressed. From these letters it’s clear that the journey was much harder and Wollstonecraft’s emotional pain much stronger than the published book shows. It’s clear that Imlay is not answering letters and if he is, he’s replying in simple business terms. She spends many of these letters describing her pain and demanding that Imlay either properly commits to her and his daughter, or makes a certain decision to leave them which he doesn’t seem to do. She goes through the pain of breakup, sometimes excusing Imlay, 

“my imagination is perpetually shading your defects,” and other times relishing his being out of her life as, “this heart is worthy of the bliss its feelings anticipate.” Those real letters are a difficult read, showing genuine pain that does enter into the published work but in a way that elevates that book beyond ordinary travelogue.

The title may not suggest much but the book is certainly worth a read.




Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Review: Jeoffry, the Poet's Cat by Oliver Soden


 
One of the troubles with being a Christopher Smart fan is that there’s a limit on how much there is to read so I was extremely excited when something Kit Smart related popped up on my Twitter feed, I was even more excited when I saw the unusual nature of this project.

Jeoffry the Poet’s Cat is the biography of a cat. Namely the one which Smart praised in Jubilate Agno, a section of the book which is now so widely anthologised I can easily lay may hands on a copy at the primary school I work in. As there’s no more information about Jeoffry than appears in the poem, there’s a fair bit of poetic licence, creating a wonderfully indefinable book presented in language that is both wonderfully simple yet detailed. 


Our imagined backstory for Jeoffry has him born in a cattery, or brothel, because of course he is, not just for pun related reasons but to let Jeoffry (and the reader) explore the world of eighteenth century sex for sale and Covent Garden in general. He spends his kittenhood “underneath the bed” while his owner, a prostitute called Nancy spends her time “underneath a cavalry officer.” His early pranks involve scattering venereal disease pills and his favourite toys are the re-washable condoms, his claws probably making them even less useful than they were anyway. We also briefly meet a lord who likes to be treated like a baby.


As Jeoffry gets older, he starts to explore more and we get a cat’s-eye view of the variety and life of Covent Garden, from the market stalls with their rotting vegetables, so a glimpse of the king outside Drury Lane theatre. He becomes a favourite of the doormen at the opera as well as the theatre, is stroked by an actor with a pleasing voice and jostles with strange cats.

    “Of dogs, and his encounters with their noxious enthusiasm or salivating rage, we shall not speak.”


Alas, even brothels as well-connected as Mother Douglas’s are raided at times and in the confusion, Jeoffry finds himself with a young volunteer constable. Oliver Soden has a very skilful way of telling parts of the story from Jeoffry’s perspective, getting right down among the legs and shoes of the other characters, feeling his fear and injury as the raid happens as well as his lack of understanding, but then pulling back to giving the historical and character context. This is done so smoothly that the changes of point-of-view never jar. 


The scene where Christopher Smart and Jeoffry are introduced is beautifully done. Each is wary of the other, nursing a distrust but also a longing to connect. Their meeting is a delicate wordless series of actions, tentatively done after which the book admits that an accurate portrayal of the moment can’t be described. Then the reader is taken back to find out a little more about Smart as he is, though a supporting player, is a major one.


The book gives a really good overview of Smart as a person and a writer. That he was from an upper servant class, that he became a sizar in Cambridge where he worked hard to become a fellow. That his sense of fun and his poetic gifts took him to London where he entered the Grub Street pattern of ‘conveyor-belt churn-out and genuine inspiration’ and that he married the step-daughter of Newbery, the publisher. I’d have included the transvestite revue shows in there but I can see they complicate things a little. The exact timeframe of the next events are a little unsure and Soden does well to turn them into a coherent narrative; Smart gets sick and upon his recovery decides to take instructions from the Bible to pray at all times literally, where he stops traffic in St James’s Park. The book admits that the exact cause (and extent) of Smart’s madness is unclear and has been debated about; with no-one certain whether it was a manipulation by his father-in-law, whether it was bi-polar disorder hinted at by Smart’s admission that he has ‘a greater compass for mirth and melancholy’ than other people, or whether it was stress deepened by an alcoholism that was notable even in those alcoholic times. 


For whichever reason, or combination of reasons, Christopher Smart ended up in a private madhouse, where he started writing Jubilate Agno, a poem built on a Hebrew model that involved call and response lines. In this case the call lines starting with ‘let’ and the responses with ‘for’. There’s the suggestion in the book that sometimes Smart wrote ‘let’ lines without their corresponding ‘for’ and vice versa, though I am more inclined to think that corresponding lines have simply been lost in the manuscripts many journeys. However, the book is very accurate in how Jubilate Agno stopped being a just a poem and also became a way of marking time, of recording his thoughts and feelings and trails off into an almost mechanical act.

One of the fascinating elements to how this part of the story is told is again the viewpoint of Jeoffry. Both the poet and the cat find themselves in the prime of their lives but locked in a small room with access to a little garden. As such imprisonment for Smart is also imprisonment for Jeoffry and this diminishes the cat just as it did the man. However, there are moments of company and ‘Jeoffry made occasional contact with distinguished legs’, including Johnson, Burney, Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. Now, I love Goldsmith almost as much as Smart and he so rarely makes an appearance in things that I treasure him whenever he does. Now, it makes sense, Goldsmith was a closer friend to Smart than Johnson, sharing a publisher and a circle of friends that included lesser poets like Samuel Derrick. However, Goldsmith is portrayed reading out his novel in progress, doing the character’s voices and making Smart laugh. While I don’t doubt Goldsmith would make him laugh (and I love the image) I can’t imagine him reading from a work in progress, but that could just be me.


The peculiar ease with which Smart was broken out of the mad house is well done, leading to (perhaps) the sadder part of his life, as a hack with his reputation shattered and no luck at all. Jeoffry makes the most of freedom to again explore, where of course he meets Samuel Johnson’s cat, Hodge. We follow Hodge back to Johnson’s living room to hear most of the Samuel Johnson ‘bits’ about being as happy to pray with Smart as anyone else. Though we don’t get Johnson’s assessment of Smart’s poetry, where upon being asked who was better, Smart or Derrick, he replied, ‘Sir , there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea’.


From Jeoffry’s point of view, this is a particularly sad time, as Smart’s need to churn out words and lack of money ground Smart down bit by bit. The man who had elevated his cat with poetry and viewed him as a natural worshipper of God, now had little time for the animal and his ‘reek of despair was unmistakeable’. We get a beautiful rendering of Smart’s friend John Kempe playing his flute for him, ‘the notes hit the panelled walls and died instantly, falling to the floor to lie at Smart’s swollen feet like faded rose petals’. I do have a quibble with this section though, as many of Smart’s writings from this time have a fragile yet definite hopefulness, this is when he wrote the words ‘we never are deserted quite’ and found himself helping other people with money he’d been given for himself. I don’t think Smart ever gave up hope as he does in this book.


The last part is with Jeoffry as an old cat, living in the countryside and gradually losing his faculties until he lies down for one last sleep. ‘Nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.’ It’s a fitting choice for a last sentence, leaving poor old Jeoffry with the dignity he deserved.


In many ways, this is a book crafted of bits, many of them from other books and all of those bits are ones I’ve encountered before, this being possibly the only book I’ve encountered where I’ve already read the entire bibliography. What makes is brilliant is that the author has clearly read their own bibliography (unlike Catherine Arnold in her Bedlam book) and the way those bits are put together and presented. They tell an entire story, taking in many interesting aspects of the eighteenth century, the shadowy interplay of brothels, theatres and authors to Smart in his private madhouse in a way that is both melancholy and dignified. 


While enjoyable to a fan of Christopher Smart and the eighteenth century, this would be an even better present to someone to introduce them to the world and characters and let them dip their toes in (and would make a really good half-hour animation, I think).




Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Inanna Underground Blurb/Pitch



 I haven’t talked much recently about what I’m writing and Grubstlodger was a place where I intended to intersect ideas of eighteenth century writing and my own scribblings from the outlands. Currently I’m working in a psychological thriller called Inanna Underground and to help structure the thing in my head, I wrote a little blurb/pitch.




The Cricklewood branch of a bunker enthusiast club meet on a cold, September morning, excited to open their pride and joy to the waiting public. During safety checks they make a grim discovery. Inanna had joined them the winter before and her unpredictable joie de vivre had changed the life of each member for better, worse or both. Now her body is lifeless in their prize bunker.


What series of misadventures led Inanna underground?



I’m really enjoying writing this book, it’s a little different to my usual novels, with a tighter plot and style, dealing with the intricate social connections of a small group of characters. It came from an unexpected pairing of two semi-ideas for novels floating about in my head and gave me that very satisfying feeling as more and more pieces clicked into place.


However, I have two main misgivings as I write the text:


The first is the horrible cliché of starting with a woman’s body being found which I generally find a pretty loathsome way to start a story. I tried recasting the body in the bunker with the other members of the club but only makes sense if its Inanna. In my defence, she’s not an inciting incident but the main character, most of the book tells of her interactions with the other club members and I can promise the solution to the mystery is not as hackneyed as a killer. 


The other is the narrator. Stuart is one of the members of the Cricklewood branch, a man with an obsession for detail who is proud of his lack of imagination, which he thinks makes him more accurate. My hope is that there’s a sense of tension, and even humour, between Stuart’s detailed account and the big picture forming in the reader’s head. If I pull his style off, I think it’ll be something pretty special, though I’m not exactly there yet.


I’d be interested in what anybody thinks of this piece from the glimpse of it and if anyone has books of a similar nature they could recommend I try.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

A little renovation

 


I am aware that as this blog approaches its tenth birthday, it's getting a little hard to navigate. With 400 posts and over 300,000 words, it might be excused if the regular reader (i.e myself) gets a little confused. This is not helped by my flinging labels around like a baboon with excrement.

So, in preparation for the blog's tenth birthday next May, I shall create an actually useful index to enable users to find anything that interests them. So far I've gone through all 400 posts, sorting them into categories, I hope to finish them by the end of the week.




Wednesday, 21 October 2020

'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle



In October the Dr Johnson Circle met again on Zoom to discuss what may have been the most divisive book in the group’s five years, Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos.


In the book, two conniving aristocrats, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, play games with each other and everyone around them. Valmont schemes to break the virtuous wife, Présidente de Touvel and both scheme to break the virtue of the young Cécile. The book is an epistolary novel in which a third of the letters are skilful tissues of lies, another third are reports about how the schemes are progressing (which might also be skilful tissues of lies) and the last third are genuine communications of feeling (which we may have doubts about, given all the lying).


The division was not over the quality of the book, which was described as ‘powerful’ and ‘mind-blowing’ by members of the circle, it was whether the quality and craft had created a book that was possible to enjoy. We all agreed that we were increasingly appalled as the book progressed and the schemers at the centre were increasingly exposed. But half the circle found themselves disconnected, to the extent of putting the book down, and half the circle found themselves engaged, to the extent of staying up into the night to finish it.


The book spends a few pages at the beginning trying to distance the reader from the action with what purports to be a publisher’s note. The ‘publisher’ of the book has the suspicions that the text may not be actually a genuine collection of letters but, horror of horrors, a novel. He notes that if they are a collection of letters, they can’t be modern French ones, as the current French aristocracy are so virtuous that the characters and events of the book could not possibly happen there. However, the intimate nature of the epistolary form means that this distance is narrowed, especially as the book progresses.


Usually the Reading Circle meets bi-monthly, but with the need for online meetings, it’s been upped to once a month. This means our previous reading of Pamela was fresh in our minds as we read this, especially as the form and subject matter overlapped in so many ways. Whereas Pamela was largely told through her letters, Dangerous Liaisons has letters zipping about in all directions and while Pamela used her letters to reveal herself, many of the letters in this book took the form of disguises. It showed how sophisticated that form of novel had become and we wondered how Laclos kept the details in his head as he wrote, talking fancifully of the reams of post-it notes that must have littered his desk.


At one point Danceny, Cécile’s aspiring lover, declares that, A letter is the portrait of the soul”, a sentiment that couldn’t be further from the truth in this novel. Johnson once wrote something similar to Hester Thrale, though he was being ironic;

“In a Man’s Letters … his soul lies naked, his letters are only the mirrour [sic] of his breast, whatever passes within him is shown undisguised in its natural process. Nothing is inverted, nothing distorted, you see systems in their elements, you discover actions in their motives.”


Valmont is a man famous for seduction but he fails to seduce. He may have charm but his primary technique is to wear down his would-be conquests until they can’t put up any more resistance. He describes it as siege warfare, and that is exactly how he plays it, a war of attrition until the woman gives up. While this is very easy with Cécile, whom he rapes without much compunction, Tourvel is a less easy target. She is committed to her husband and he must use all his ‘skill’ to break her - sending her letter after letter even after she pleads with him to stop. Indeed, the campaign to wear her down begins to wear him down and he starts to fall in love, terrified of having ‘an involuntary feeling’. This makes him weak in Merteuil’s eyes and makes him a target, congratulating him with the wonderfully sarcastic, “you are well endowed, I am sure, with a good opinion of yourself.”


Tourvel, whose spirited defence almost breaks Valmont, eventually gives in and his cock-crowing report almost buries the rape in his self-congratulation. She changes instantly, from a character who expresses herself in firm, yet polite dignity, into Valmont’s slavish worshipper and then, worst of all, the typical tragic heroine dying of a broken heart. While the book may be reaching for the same tragic death as Clarissa, a book overtly mentioned in the text, her sudden lack of agency saps the tragedy out.


While Valmont may be the physical player in the schemes, it’s Merteuil who is the true puller of strings whilst maintaining her cover as a chaste widow, good friend, kind mentor and eager lover. She’s like Iago with a decent postal system. Now tired of Valmont, and jealous of his almost-loving Tourvel, she sends letters to incite a duel which kills him, finding herself the happy fly in the middle of her web and looking for new victims. She receives a huge comeuppance though: the now loose Valmont papers implicate her in enough schemes to ostracize her from all her community; she loses her wealth in a court case she had not expectation of losing and her beauty is taken by smallpox. While some in the Reading Circle felt this appropriate karma for her actions (and the calculated manner in which she did them), others wanted her to have a last triumph she never had, slinking off to Holland a much-reduced figure. In some ways she does get the last laugh, although the author couldn’t have known it: she was spared the guillotine in the Revolution which occurred only four years after the novel’s publication.


This is in no way a book which makes the reader feel good at the end but it is thoroughly gripping throughout. It was fascinating to read a book which uses the word ‘love’ so many times but is filled with so much hate, Dangerous Liaisons still has some danger in it.






Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Review: Anti-Pamela by Eliza Haywood


The Anti-Pamela; or, Feign'd Innocence Detected came out a year after Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded and a month after An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews and unlike the other two books, was not a debut novel but one by established novelist, Eliza Haywood. 

Unlike Shamela, it is not a direct parody but seems more a response, Haywood is trying to show how a proper novelist deals with the same films. As such, Anti-Pamela shows the flaws in Pamela by comparison, but inadvertently shows the strengths of Pamela when compared to Anti-Pamela. As such, the book is not in itself anti Pamela, but that the main character, Syrena is herself the opposite of Pamela.

Much like Pamela, Syrena is heavily influenced by her upbringing. Pamela’s parents are near saintly, but Syrena is raised by a mother who trains her beautiful daughter to find the best ‘deal’ with her beauty. For Pamela, being ‘ruined’ is losing her virginity but for Syrena, being ‘ruined’ is losing her virginity without a decent cash payoff. In many ways, the best relationship is between this mother, who wants the best for her daughter as she sees it and Syrena, who isn’t mature enough to put the mother’s lessons properly into practise.

Unlike Pamela, Anti-Pamela doesn’t focus on one situation in a claustrophobic house but moves from one ‘adventure’ (a word with sexual overtones in the eighteenth century) to another. In the first, Syrena, who has been bred up to ‘bag’ a rich man, is languishing as an apprentice in a small dressmakers. On a trip to buy lace, she meets a man in a brocaded hat who offers to buy her stockings and there’s sexual tension with the nature of the purchase. Falsehood being ingrained in her she, pretends to ‘seem coy, but such a coyness to give him room to fancy I might at last be won.” The man quickly seduces her, much to her mother’s dismay as he wasn’t sufficiently rich. She has to move back to her mother’s and has “an abortion to the great joy of mother and daughter.”

The second adventure is the closest to Pamela, as Syrena becomes the maid to an elderly lady and both the father and the son latch on her instantly. It’s clear that she is seen as sexually available to the men of the family and is her job to manipulate both men and decide which will give her the best deal, as the elder’s mistress or the younger’s wife. There’s a greater sense of the workings of the household and her place within it; all clearly shown by the geography in the house and the timetable of the servants. There was a wonderful sense of what is was like to be one of the higher servants in a house, especially how many of the higher servants are largely decorative and have little to do, which makes them easier to get alone. At one point, the younger man waits in the old lady’s cupboard for three hours waiting for her. The end of this adventure shows how Syrena and her mother have no compunction in ruining people’s lives. They set up a fake-rape and accuse the son of perpetrating it, he even goes to prison. The aim is to drop the charges in return for marriage, with Syrena having no worry about marrying a man who hates her in return for money. However, the discovery of the mother’s letters to Syrena undoes their plan and they have to go in hiding in Greenwich.

The book then goes through another series of adventures and each one works for a while but is ultimately unsuccessful which limits future pickings. Things get more desperate as Syrena’s total head-turning beauty has a very small window. She’s not even 17 by the end of the book. 

At one point, Syrena leaves her mum after argument in which Syrena wants to be more sexual in her advances as the coy-game is taking too long. She becomes the kept woman of a tradesman who almost bankrupts his family for her but also falls in love with a handsome man who uses her for money as she uses the tradesman. 

Finally, she falls in love with an elderly man and ‘lets’ him talk her into marriage. Syrena’s mother says that he’s their best bet as only an elderly man would choose to marry his maid. The wedding is almost prepared and the night before it, she is introduced to the old man’s son. To her horror, the son is the handsome man who had previously used her. Again, her plans are foiled by her own indiscretions and she is packed up to be isolated in Wales.

Although there were letters in the book, it was not out-and-out epistolary, with the adventures linked together and occasionally told by a narrator. This narrator means the book doesn’t keep circling the same ideas again and again and gets the story moving. As such, the biggest implied criticism Anti-Pamela makes of Pamela is that it is too stuck in one place, containing too little incident. However, the accumulation of incident does mean that we don’t live in the character’s minds to the same extent, while I may not be Pamela’s biggest fan, Anti-Pamela does show a new direction that novels could, and did take.

(On a little note about my copy, I had the Broadview edition edited by Catherine Ingressia, which also included Shamela. For the most part, I found it a brilliant edition but I was rather irritated by the footnotes. It had the American ‘thing’ of describing well-known London locations but it also explained very common phrases as if they were something strange and archaic. Do people really not understand what ‘fast and loose’ means?)