Wednesday, 14 April 2021

London: A Social History at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Last night Doctor Johnson’s Reading Circle met on Zoom to talk about Roy Porter’s London: A Social History. But before it did, there were a couple of other things that happened first. We were given sneak-peeks at the programme for next year (our seventh) including books from both ends of the long eighteenth century. And we welcomed our newest and youngest member. Currently five days short of her first birthday, she did not seem to have enjoyed London: A Social History as her attention quickly turned to Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo. And to be fair, the rest of the group didn’t enjoy it much either.

That it was rather dull and was too full of lists was the general complaint. There was a pleasure in seeing a known person or place mentioned and there were some little details that were interesting, such as the ludicrous introduction of flocks of sheep into public squares to make them more ‘rural’. There was even a recognition that it was good to have a history of how the city was governed rather than another run-down of the same tired stories (though Pepys and his cheese did get a mention in here as well). 

It seems that what we wanted from a social history, is one that provided an in-depth look at how people lived with the nitty-gritty, revealing details that entails. Porter’s, however, is a social history in the sense of society in general. It’s a history of ‘the people’ rather than ‘people’. As such, this is a generally broad-strokes story of how London was formed and grew into the baggy conurbation it now is and how its governance always lagged behind.

In many ways, the book resembled the city it was trying to describe. While the lists of streets, of people, of jobs, of leisure activities - lists that went on for paragraphs and pages, seemed to exist to show the sheer size and fullness of London – they were allowed to spill over all the pages and were not governed or controlled by the author. 

Despite the dense foliage of lists, there is an argument through the book, that London has long developed due to economic and market forces and that those forces have created something huge and stupendous but also something that leaves the poor behind. The last couple of chapter contains a forceful polemic against Thatcher’s disbanding of the GLC and calling for a London that is properly governed in the future.

Perhaps this book would have been more pleasurably read by a politics reading group, or a group of town planners, but the more literature-focused Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle didn’t enjoy it very much. It did make us question what we would want from a history of London, and we generally though it too big a topic to write satisfyingly on without a more specific focus. Perhaps in a time before the internet was common (this book was published in 1994) a book such as this provided a good source of information that may now be googled. 

We also wondered what Roy Porter would make of today’s London, which has (so far) avoided the decline he predicted and has even created a more comprehensive form of governance in the democratically elected mayor. 

From there we started to reflect on the lost Londons we had known, whether pitted with bomb sites, receiving milk or beer by horse-drawn cart, or remembering what a telephone box was once actually used for. It will be interesting, as the grip of coronavirus lessens, to see what kind of city it will be now - and very exciting to return to Gough Square in EC4 and once again meet in Dr Johnson’s House.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Video: Robinson Crusoe - an animated version

 This short video was almost two years in the making, mainly because there wasn't as much to say as I was hoping. I do like the fact about the goats though and the sneaky flume edit.

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Review: Memoirs of Emma Courtney by Mary Hays


Memoirs of Emma Courtney is one of those books where the story around the novel is as interesting (or in this case, more interesting) than the novel itself. 

Mary Hays was an interesting person, born in Southwark to a dissenting family, not far from where a young Mary Wollstonecraft has also lived. She had to fight her family to allow her to marry the man of her choice and right when she convinced them to finally let them marry, he died. She became friend with a group of radicals, including William Godwin, who would be her mentor. Writing a selection of essays, she attracted the admiration of mathematician William Frend who she completely fell for. She wrote him a number of love letters but her love was unrequited. Filled with emotion, with nowhere to release it, William Godwin recommended she used her letters as the basis of fiction as a means to work through her feelings and produce something interesting. Memoirs of Emma Courtney is that novel.

The novel is framed as letters from Emma Courtney to Augustus Harley, a young man who has been pestering her for some details from her life. The retelling begins interestingly if a little conventionally. She was born in a loveless marriage where her mother died shortly after. He father being too invested in his playboy lifestyle, she is shipped off to her auntie and uncle. (They are incidentally called Melmoth, which made me smile considering the later 1820 work.) There is is loved and loves in return, she shows a prodigious love of play and stories which develops into a love of reading. In her grief when her uncle dies, she claims to read 10-14 novels a week. She claims that her happy childhood and devotion to her aunt and uncle taught her “that lively propensity to attachment, to which I have through my life been a martyr.” Her aunt sees this and, on her deathbed, gives a lengthy warning for Emma to keep her emotions in greater check. A warning so lengthy and so verbose it comes off as comic. This is an accident, there is nothing in the slightest bit playful or funny in this book.

The point of all this, other than to pad out the text, is to show the education Emma receives in childhood. It seems, from the amount of times she quotes him, that Mary Hays was a huge fan of a French philosopher called Claude Adrien HelvĂ©tius. He took ideas from Locke and expanded them. If people are blanks slates in which sense impressions from consciousness and intelligence, then all humans (male and female) are born with equal potential which is shaped and limited by childhood experiences. This also linked very well with Wollstonecraft’s writing about how women were intentionally stunted, physically, mentally and spiritually by their education and it was through learning that women could learn to develop into rational equally able to participate with men. 

It’s important to Emma Courtney, that she had a different upbringing than many women and unlike them had a chance to develop skills of rational argument and logic, something which greatly informs how she behaves in the rest of the book.

After the death of her uncle, aunt and father, she goes to live with another uncle. They keep table with Mr Francis, our William Godwin stand-in and Mr Montague, a flighty young man who alternately flirts with her and her two cousins. She also strikes up a friendship with Mrs Harley, a widow who talks repeatedly about her wonderful son. Emma falls in love with these stories and the picture of him kept in the woman’s house. 

In a rare exciting scene in the novel, she is summoned by Mrs Harley who is sick. Mr Montague accompanies her out of gallantry and they rush off in a carriage that bumps into a figure on the road and starts to teeter. Mr Montague leaps out the carriage to save his own skin and is run over by a back wheel, then the whole thing overturns. Emma is okay and takes off the man who was bumped to nurse him back to health. Of course he is Mrs Harley’s perfect son, Augustus. As he heals she spends time with him and he teaches her, she falls even more in love but although he is kind and seems to love her, he just won’t commit.

This is where the real love letters come into play. It’s interesting that in the novel, Harley has a very good reason he can’t commit to her (and a deathbed confession of love). In reality, the recipient just wasn’t that into her and it’s easy to see why.

The first letter is excusable, it’s a gushing declaration of love that details all the ways in which she thinks he is wonderful and offering her complete devotion in return. I am certainly guilty of sending such an embarrassing letter to someone who didn’t reciprocate and was probably turned off. What I didn’t do, was follow it up with a series of increasingly long, dull and bludgeoning series of letters, which is exactly what Emma Courtney does and Mary Hays did. 

If these really are versions of love letters she sent, then they are the most astonishingly wrong-headed, passion-killing love letters of all time. They veer between the oddly boastful (“I would give myself to you - the gift is not worthless.”) to the knuckle-gnawingly pedantic. The worst example is one where she lists the four main reasons he may not want to enter into a relationship with her and uses facts and logic to take apart those reasons. I can see her angle, to show that she’s not like other girls, that she can wield a logical argument but it is so leaden, so dull, there’s no twinkling of fun or pleasure. I’m not saying women should pretend to be bimbos to win men, only that even in the eighteenth century (or especially in, if you’ve read much around it) there’s an element of romantic intercourse in which both parties try and please the other. The love letters are ultimate passion killers. 

They are also book killers, any momentum is ground to a halt for a hundred pages and the parts linking her letters only talk of depressive lethargy. She’s very good at the details, talking about how she moved “restless and dissatisfied, from seat to seat.” When I went through a depressive phase on leaving university, I called this restlessness ‘moop’ and made a video to show it.


After a long period of depression and empty philosophising, she finds out the reason he can’t respond. Then the plot kicks into high gear; in 30 pages she becomes bankrupt, marries a second best and has an uneasy marriage as a result, is cheated on, there’s also infanticide and suicide - then the book ends. Had the love letters been omitted and this material been explored, it could have been a really interesting, dark novel but they weren’t and it isn’t.

In some ways the book is like an earlier By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept but if the passions of that book been funnelled through a university logic class. It’s turgid and awkward and really only interesting for how it was written than what was written.

As a complete aside, this is possibly the third Oxford World’s Classics edition of a novel I’ve read recently that seems a little sloppy in the editing. In this case, the text seems to have been (digitally?) converted from an older print copy and on three occasions the long ’s’ has been converted into an ‘f’. This means at a critical point at the novel, a character lets out ‘convulsive fobs’.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Brothers of the Quill by Norma Clarke at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

This month Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle met with Norma Clarke to discuss her book about Oliver Goldsmith and his fellow Grub Street writers. Like many of the writers we’ve met before, Norma told us that she hadn’t revisited the book since it was released and being asked to speak to the group gave her the courage to do so. 

The book seeks to explore Oliver Goldsmith in context as an Irish-immigrant writer for hire and to use him as a way to ‘pay attention to the way cultural factors affect writers’ from within the big system of print and print culture that he and others were caught in. It’s less a biography and more of a sociological exploration. Goldsmith isn’t the bumbling ‘poor Goldsmith’ of Boswell’s writing, nor is he the unworldly innocent as he appears in the Victorian imagination: he is a canny player with a keen sense of what his audience wants to read.

It is Goldsmiths talent, his ability to create quality work fast and in a range of styles and genres that allowed him to ascend in the writersphere. He never fully left the grind of writing behind him, but as the book points out, nor did Joshua Reynolds leave the grind of daily painting. Goldsmiths reputation for foolishness and awkwardness seem to come partly from his efforts to negotiate the minefield of respect and reputation that was the shifting literary market at the time. No supporters of patrons, he took one in Nugent. A railer against the anonymous compilers and compendium creators of his time, the vast body of his work consists of compilations of histories. He wrote a novel with a seemingly innocent tone which has all sorts of barbs buried in it where the moral at the end is spoken by a conman. 

Whats more, he longed to please and amuse, as a writer and as a person. He may have had strong views about the situation of Ireland and the Irish, about the evils of slavery or the corruption of luxury - but he was not going to risk the enjoyment of his reader to create haranguing works. He was also prepared to tell jokes at his own expense, jokes that people like Boswell (who could never have told a joke against himself) didnt understand.

If Goldsmith was a man of contradictions, he was one living in an age of contradiction. The rich and the poor moved through the same streets, MPs fighting for civil liberty at home fought for slavery abroad, Grub Street filled pages with works both ephemeral and eternal. Whether he was drinking with Samuel Derrick (editor of Dryden’s work and a popular ‘What Prostitute?’ guide), or he was secretly writing scripts for masques at Mrs Cornelys (love of Casanova, exclusive club owner and eventual donkey-milk street seller), Goldsmith navigated an unstable world with relative success.

Certainly more successfully than fellow Irish writer, Jack Pilkington. Son of the infamous Laetitia (subject of another book by Norma Clarke), he had helped her edit the last volumes of her tell-all memoirs (Laetitia’s rather than Norma’s, that is - although Norma recently published her own wonderful memoir, Not Speaking) and decided to write one of his own. He built up an impressive list of subscribers, partly by threatening to expose those who didn’t subscribe within the pages of the book. Shortly after the book was released, he ran to Europe to escape creditors and never came back. 

Brothers of the Quill also included some of the most interesting discussions of slavery the Reading Circle has had in some time, as it presented the topic from many different angles. Goldsmith himself was against slavery, but he wasn’t against receiving gifts and support from Robert Nugent the MP of Bristol who defended the trade that supported so much of his constituency. Then there was James Grainger, another Irish writer who went to St Kitts where he worked as a plantation manager and doctor. He wrote The Sugar Cane, a West Indian georgic poem which raises small questions about slavery but ultimately can’t see a way without it. Smollett, the writer of Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker (which the Reading Circle read in 2019) could set himself up as a gentleman writer on the funds of his wife, a Jamaican heiress.

As well as providing a more human Goldsmith who is more than a fool with a golden pen, as well as providing different ways of looking at how writers were shaped by their circumstances, the book is also a fount of so many of those little anecdotes that remind me of why I love the London of eighteenth-century writers. Whether its Paul Hiffernan being robbed by a man hes just resuscitated from the gallows, Derrick being put up at a friends and having nowhere to sleep but in a cot with his feet poking out, or Richard Pockrich with his musical glasses - theres always an outrageous story lurking round the corner. We were entertained and informed and the evening was a fast-paced and lively one and we all thoroughly enjoyed meeting Norma Clarke.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe


The Mysteries of Udolpho is a book a reader can only enjoy by giving into it. There is no engaging in it in any normal way, no way to second guess the mysteries or plough through the excess of landscape detail - a reader can only wallow in it and be carried away. On the days I was willing to be swept away, I had a delightful experience but on other days it was a real slog.

One aspect that alternately won me over and put me off was the description of landscape. It is lush, especially at the beginning when Emily, our main character, and her father are taken a scenic route around the mountains. There were some beautiful details, such as a mountain slightly taller than the others glowing with snow on the top, or the dreamlike depiction of Venice and being rowed towards it with the fairy-lights twinkling and music in the air. Other times, I was tired of being told yet again that there were larches, or another rushing torrent of water. Yet, as excessive as it is (and the Gothic novel relies on excess) it had a point. This is a book of heightened sensuality. The landscape, food, music - it all strikes hard and is felt deeply. As much as Emily is warned away from feeling things too strongly, it’s very noticeable that the characters in the book who are good and decent also feel very strongly and are at times carried off by their engagement with their surroundings.

Another push/pull element of the book are the mysteries themselves. This book may as well have been titled The Mystery-Boxes of Udolpho, the way the book creates mystery after mystery and only fills them all in at the end. There are times when the book cheats, shifting point of view so the reader isn’t informed of the shocking thing seen and then teased about it forever after. There are also examples of the technique known in film as the Leyton Bus, where tension is built and relieved by a false scare, in the case of Udolpho often in the form of a figure bursting out of the shadows actually being a friend.

I can see why some readers may get frustrated with Emily. I saw an infographic where she wins the ‘fainting-woman-in-a-Gothic-novel award’ with a total of eleven faints. She’s also prone to crying and sighing. Yet I really grew to like her, especially in the parts of the book in Udolpho itself. She does faint a lot, but more often she feels faint before overcoming it. She may cry often but frequently she holds back the tears until she’s alone or fights off the urge. She does get the creeps about spooky goings on but she reserves her real worries for earthly fear, like the spare door to her room she can’t lock. Rather than see her as a weak character, I saw her as someone with very strong feelings and no experience of life’s horrors being remarkably brave under utter desperate circumstances. True, she doesn’t have sudden kick-ass kung-fu moves, neither does she parkour over the castle backflipping guards - but she is strong and (especially in Udolpho) is in a completely impossible position.

I didn’t like Valencourt though, that guy was a wuss. Though he does further add evidence to Emily’s strength, when they said goodbye to each other, he was in incoherent bits and she was firm. Also, what was Du-Pont about? His character made no sense to me, I’m guessing he went off and invented Nylon. (Also, speaking of inconsistent characters, what about Manon, the incredible disappearing/reappearing dog?)

I thought the book built up tension very well. Montoni was a brilliant villain with enough fairness to make him seem like he could be reasoned with and enough nastiness to make it dangerous. The part when Emily returns to the castle after the siege and everything is lawless had me gripped, anything could have happened in those winding corridors. It did seem strange, then to have the stuff about Blanche and their castle in the third part. We’d already spent time in the scariest castle, this one feels like a come-down, even though the part when they go into the abandoned apartments is really good.

An element that mostly put me off the book was the poetry. I didn’t skip any of it but most of it did little to add to the story or the atmosphere, few people when being abducted decide to amuse themselves writing a poem about Troy. The poetic tags at the beginning of chapters were interesting, giving little clues about the content of the chapters. One of those tags made me laugh out loud, it was from Thompson and read;

  “Hail! Mildly-pleasing solitude!’ - It’s a lovely bit of bathos. 

As for chapters, it rather ruined the flow of my reading that some chapters were a page or two long, whilst others could be up to thirty pages. It meant that when I started a chapter, I didn’t know if I’d have enough time to get to the end of it in the same sitting.

Overall, The Mysteries of Udolpho can be very rewarding if it is read right. Don’t fight it - just let it take you and it will.

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

My biggest ‘shame’ as a reader is that I’ve never really got into Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice is one very few books I did not finish, having got impenetrably lost in the names, relations and general prose. I’d read her Juvenalia with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle and enjoyed it, finding it fresh and funny, I’d also enjoyed the early novella, Lady Susan. Perhaps I would find Northanger Abbey, her earliest full novel but published posthumously, equally enjoyable.

The first thing that struck me was the tone. I knew that Austen was famous for an arch, ironic tone but the Juvenalia had been more silly than sophisticated, for the most part knock-about fun and much of it at the expense of novels of sensibility and the gothic. There’s a reflection of these earlier pieces in the beginning of Northanger Abbey, where the narrator informs the reader that Catherine’s father doesn’t have a fancy for locking his daughters up, her mother is alive and well, and she was a bit of a tomboy in her childhood. Yet there are suggestions of the more sophisticated tone as the seventeen year old Catherine is being described as ‘almost pretty’ and her education at a state where ‘though she could not write sonnets, she brought herself to read them’ -  a more lithe way to imply a certain lack of knowledge of Catherine’s part, but also one that hints at her resilience and points to They Mysteries of Udolpho where the heroine is happy to knock out a poem or two at any time.

The underhand tone of the book fits particularly well with describing characters, especially ones with flaws it may be too rude to highlight. This is done with particular effect with (possibly my favourite character) Mrs Allen. At first she is simply ‘a good-humoured woman’. When introduced next, she ‘was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.’ It’s not that she’s an unpleasant person, she’s just very stupid. 

Later, Mrs Allen finds that she can’t entertain herself very well and merely repeats how she wished she had a friend around to talk to. She meets up with Mrs Thorpe, an old school friend and talks about clothes while not listening to her friend talking about her family. Later, she is described as not having enough knowledge to have much to talk about, but not clever enough to stay quiet so she simply narrates things that are happening . When called upon to use all her persuasive powers to get Catherine to go on a coach ride, the best she can come up with is ‘suppose you go.’  By the end of the book she’s essentially a parrot, repeating what she hears but adding the occasional comment about clothes. What’s wonderful is that however we may laugh at her narrow range of interests and her empty inner life, we never hate her for it, not even pity her. She is content in her small way and she has only the best intentions to those characters around her.

In many ways, Mrs Allen reminds me of what Mary Wollstonecraft said about womanhood; that while women have the inherent potential to act clever and competently in the world, they are not given the education or have the expectation to care about any more than clothes. There’s an interesting section about female intelligence and ignorance while Catherine, Henry Tilney and his sister are walking on the hills above Bath. The Tilneys start a conversation about the beauties of the landscape which Catherine doesn’t know much about and the author muses that ‘imbecility in females is a great enhancement to their personal charms’ and then asserts that if a woman can’t be naturally imbecilic, she can be just as sweet if she’s kept in ignorance. All this being said by the narrator, who is obviously a very clever woman, the irony drips off the page.

The walk on the hills is also where the book goes into one of the many defences of the novel as a genre. Henry Tilney says, ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ Earlier on, the novel is described as ‘in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’ As a novelist and keen reader of novels, I am all in favour of their praise, but it’s interesting that over a hundred years after the novel started gaining popularity in Britain, they still needed defending. Then again, I know of people who claim not to read novels as if it’s a virtue, one of them being the novelist Dan Brown.

This defence of the novel (and gothic novel in particular) I found particularly interesting as I went into this book expecting it to be largely a satire on that genre. I had just finished The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox and was expecting Catherine to be like Arabella in that book, to have had her head turned by so much ‘low’ reading as to seek the gothic in every situation. It’s not really like that though. She does feel a tingle when told that she’ll be visiting her friends in an abbey, and she does have a night of nerves where she opens a wardrobe and finds mysterious papers which turn out to be little more than a laundry list, but other than that she remains relatively grounded, if inexperienced. There are a few references to gothic tropes, and General Tilney, father of the man she fancies, does act in some strange ways which her fancy briefly builds up until she is corrected, but the jabs at gothic are rather slight and the book is more about Catherine’s naivety when it comes to people’s intentions.

She becomes instant friends with Isabella Thorne, seeing her as a paragon of truthfulness when it is obvious to the reader (and narrator) that she is a complete phoney. She also doesn’t realise that her brother fancies her and his boring, braggartly, boastfulness is his idea of courtship. I enjoyed how long it took for her to admit to herself that she didn’t really like him, as someone who tends to see the best of people, it takes me a while to realise I don’t like people also. 

In talking about this romantic fiction for over a thousand words, I’ve yet to really talk about the romantic couple, Catherine and Henry. I must say, I liked him instantly. In his first conversation with Catherine, he teases her a little about her fresh-faced impressions of Bath but not in a crawl way, or a fun-sucking way, he’s pleased she’s happy but knows it’s a happiness built on surface. I liked his little rant about the word ‘nice’, his little quirks and his playfulness in general. I can see why Catherine, with her flights of fancy is attracted to him. I also liked how he admitted he mainly grew to love Catherine because he was flattered by her attention to him. Despite the play of gothic, they are not a gothic couple and I wish them a bright, sunshiny future.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

My own thoughts on 'The Female Quixote'

I had a few of my own thoughts about The Female Quixote. It was a book I’ve had a very long time but was a little intimidated by. Even after I had read her Sophia, I still found it threatening on the shelf and when I was forced to read it as part of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, I was expecting it to be a long, dull trudge.Therefore, it was a great surprise to me that this is a lovely, cuddly teddy bear of a book and its biggest weakness may be its light and fluffy and inconsequential nature than the heaviness I feared.

The set up is similar to Don Quixote, like Alonso Quixano, Arabella reads too many romances and begins to base her view of the world and her conduct on them, leading to various shenanigans. The Don is engaged by 16th century French and Spanish romances about great knights and courtly love, Arabella is enamored with their 17th century ancestors, like Scudery’s Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus. I can’t say I’ve read these later works (though I have dabbled with the earlier works like Ariosto and The Song of Roland) but they seem to be equally absurd tales of impossible love and ludicrous derring-do. 

The main difference between Don Quixote and The Female Quixote is not the gender of the protagonist or the exact type of romances which turn their heads, but the author’s attitude to those romances. Miguel de Cervantes seems to genuinely hate the books he is riffing on and to feel they are a real menace to society, in the first book, Don Quixote is a dangerous figure and his attempts at being a chivalrous knight cause people real harm. It makes sense for a man, coming home crippled from a war and having been held for ransom, to have a dim view of books that glorified such stuff. 

Charlotte Lennox, on the other hand, seems to have an affectionate view of the romances in The Female Quixote, showing a vast knowledge of them and a fondness which comes across in how she handles Arabella. The character may be ridiculous for treating such trash as real and using it as a source of wisdom and advice but (with the exception a few lines from the doctor at the end) it seems the biggest harm she causes is by embarrassing those around her.

At first, it’s hard to see why Glanville still has affection for a woman who is so irritating and who makes him bite ‘his lips almost through with madness’ but after a while, Arabella grew on me. The first part which made me laugh out loud was when he admitted he hadn’t read any of the books she keeps referring to and so she pulls out tome after tome from her library and brings them into the garden. He’s intimidated by their sheer volume but pretends to read the (lengthy) section she highlights. Then she comes back to chat with him about the section and he pretends to have read it, badly. It’s a section that reminds me of pretending to know about someone’s favourite band to try and get close to them.

Beyond being a comfort in her lonely child and being misfiled in the ‘history’ section of the library, there are some good reasons Arabella invests herself so fully in the romances. They are books where the women, although under the risk of constant kidnap, have a great deal of power. In following the example of the women in her books, she dictates the pace of any romantic encounter and determines the outcomes. She is impervious to beaus trying to flirt with her or other romantic chancers and assumes that every man depends on her good favour and will do anything to keep it. This belief then affects the behaviour of the men, who work very hard to stay in her favour. For Arabella, the ultimate punishment she can give someone is to remove that favour and banish the man from her presence, which would cause him to fall ill and die if she doesn’t order him not to. This gives her confidence and agency that other women in the book do not have.

Arabella’s monomania can grow a little wearing. We hear the names of the characters and off-hand references to their adventures so often that it begins to remind of a Stewart Lee joke, the way he stretches it past being funny and then continues stretching until it’s funny again. The book seems to assume that the reader has at least a passing knowledge of the romances being parodied but even if they don’t, there’s (far more) than enough information to get it. However, there were enough genuinely good jokes to revive the reader after long discussions of Alitira and co. The chapter titles were often funny, in the teasing manner that many of Tom Jones’s chapter titles have and I really liked the running gag of Arabella comparing Miss Glanville to some of the dodgier characters in the romances.

The very best part of the novel, for me, was Book 6, in which a Sir George, a romance-savvy would-be-suitor ‘tells his history’. It was such a good idea to have him essentially tell a fully-realised but miniature version of the grand romances to get a proper idea of the sort of books that has captured Arabella so much. It gives Charlotte Lennox room to show the appeal of such fiction, the breathlessness of action and romance, the almost surreal repetition of falling head-over-heels with the most beautiful woman who has ever been (though three times with three women) and the instant tragedies which impede those love affairs. We also get Arabella’s breathless belief as Sir George talks about being the rightful King of Kent or fighting five-hundred men with his back to a tree. On top of that, the snarky remarks by Sir Charles (the Glanville’s father) and the eye-rolls of Glanville himself. It was such a wonderful celebration and take-down of a genre and I loved it entirely.

But all romances must have a happy ending, and Arabella’s is when she is talked out of her fantasies by a wise doctor who speaks in the voice of Samuel Johnson (whose Rambler had a puff earlier in the book). There is some speculation that the penultimate chapter was written by Johnson himself but I’m not convinced. There are proper scholars who have looked at sentence length, word choice and other technical aspects of style and concluded both ways - I simply don’t feel like it is direct Johnson. We know that Lennox did talk to Johnson (and Richardson) about the novel when it was in progress and it seems far more likely that she wrote the chapter having discussed it with him and using phrases and arguments he might have said. I have no proof for that, it’s just how it feels to me. Aside from anything else, Johnson thought ‘heroick fiction’ was the very best reading material for children and annoyed Hester Thrale when he dismissed specifically written children’s books as not being engaging enough for them.

I was describing this book to a teacher friend, who said that Arabella sounded like she was on the autistic spectrum. I generally don’t like applying such modern concepts to people, real or imagined, who existed before the concepts existed, but it did make sense to me. Arabella’s fixedness on her favourite books, managing to bring them up and apply them to things they don’t fit with, is a very common trait for those on the spectrum. As was the fact she often doesn’t notice, and frequently misreads the effect her actions and words have on those around her. Even her fondness for looser gowns and dislike of the bustle in places like Bath’s Pump Room could be seen as results of the hyper-sensitivity many on the autistic spectrum experience. It’s not how I would naturally interpret the book but it fits very well.

I had a great deal of fun with The Female Quixote and I imagine other people would also.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The Female Quixote at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

As interesting and exciting as it is to have the authors attend our discussion of their books, sometimes it’s nice to put on the comfy slippers and knock a book about without its creator in attendance. 

It was the turn of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, a novel in which the heroine, Arabella has been raised alone in a castle with little but seventeenth century French romances for company. Like the famous Spaniard, the books turn her head and she models her expectations of life, particularly romance, on them; expecting every man to be the noble hero of a hundred fights and every woman (of a certain class) to be bewitching beauties who may only admit their love at the end of the story when the couple have experienced years of adventure and highly-wrought emotion.

The book being founded on a single joke, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle had differing opinions on  how successfully it had told it, whether there were enough variations and indeed, whether it was a funny joke at all. The first few encounters take the Don Quixote route, a young man showing mild interest in Arabella is interpreted as a smitten suitor, a gardener’s scheme to steal carp is transformed into a lovelorn prince in a gardener’s disguise, and a woman hiding out in the countryside to give birth to a bastard becomes a tragic princess.

Then her cousins enter the story, Charles and Charlotte Glanville, (their father is also called Charles, he must have a very small baby naming book). Arabella’s Father had hoped she would marry Glanville time but the young man doesn’t exactly live up to her heroic ideals. He makes the ‘dreadful’ error of telling her that he’s interested in her so she banishes him from her presence. This sets the pattern for most book; Arabella does something ridiculous, Glanville winces in embarrassment but still loves Arabella and Miss Glanville sneers. This is broken up a little when a potential suitor who is seventeenth-century French romance savvy tries to seduce Arabella by telling his history in that style, with a battle against five-hundred enemies, three one true loves and a longing to reclaim his kingdom of Kent. However, that’s too many one true loves for Arabella and the book goes back to its previous pattern.

We talked about whether this repetition was a feature or a flaw. Whether Charlotte Lennox had failed to give variety to her situations or whether the book worked something like a sitcom, where all sorts of crazy events can happen within an episode but everything reverts to status quo by the beginning of the next one. It’s hard to know how original readers reacted to The Female Quixote but it may have been they appreciated the elements of predictability as a modern viewer enjoys a catchphrase in a sitcom. Another question about the humour in the book was about how ridiculous the eighteenth century romantic conventions were supposed to appear to the reader. Nowadays, those customs are as strange in themselves as the ones in the romances Arabella reads, was Lennox making a point about that or was that just a result of our distance from when the book was written?

One comic stand-out we all agreed upon was Arabella’s maid Lucy. The Sancho Panza to Arabella’s Quixote, she doesn’t suffer the same delusions but she is swept up into her mistress’s view of the world by her love and devotion. Her inability to understand or convey a message in Arabella’s high-flown style is a running gag as are the moments when she can’t fully become the maid that the romances expect her to be. She’s a little like Partridge in Tom Jones, and the two novels also share the technique of including funny chapter titles. These titles would have been displayed on loose leaves on a bookstall and intended to tempt the buyer to shell out for a whole copy. Chapter titles include; ‘Contains several Incidents, in which the Reader is expected to be extremely interested’, ‘A very Heroic Chapter’, ‘For the Shortness of which the Length of the next shall make Amends’, which is followed by, ‘Not as long as was first intended: But contains, however, a surprising Adventure on the Road’, and many more.

The penultimate chapter is titled, ‘Being, in the Author’s Opinion, the best Chapter in this History’. In this lengthy chapter, a doctor attempts to reason Arabella out of her delusions and succeeds. The doctor doing the arguing sounds a lot like Samuel Johnson, who Lennox did consult when writing The Female Quixote (as she did Richardson). The notion that Johnson may have written this chapter himself was suggested by Gentleman’s Magazine editor, John Mitford in 1848. Various textual analyses have been conducted on the chapter, looking at techniques, sentence lengths and word choices. Some have concluded that he did and others that he didn’t. We didn’t spend much time arguing this point and I suppose it’s for each reader to decide for themselves.

What we did agree on though, was that the ending seemed a missed opportunity. Earlier on, there had been a countess introduced, who had begun the process of arguing Arabella out of her worldview but she is discarded for the doctor character who the reader has never met before. Even more satisfying may have been a conclusion where Arabella argues herself out of her mistakes. Glanville goes through some variation of the sufferings the lovers do in her romances and had something happened for her to recognise this, to realise her expectations were too high and her view of the world faulty, then the ending may have landed better.

The reader’s enjoyment of The Female Quixote seemed to stem from their appraisal of Arabella herself. Those who did not enjoy it as much, found Arabella to be selfish, closed-minded and resistant to the weight of evidence she is shown that prove that the world is not like her romances. They found her willingly deceived and to be seemingly unaware that her actions could hurt other people. Those who enjoyed it, found Arabella to be intelligent, capable of learning and retaining vast amounts of information about the books she loves, books which give her a degree of power and control in her world she may not otherwise have. Her delusions make her believe that every man depends upon her favour to live, and the men around her find themselves bent to her will by her confidence. In a German translation, made two years after, the translator made subtle changes to make Arabella less assertive.

Talking about Elizabeth Carter, Hannah More and Fanny Burney, Johnson said; 

  “Three such women are not to be found; I know not where to find a fourth, except Mrs. Lennox, who is superior to them all.” What it was he saw in her? The Reading Circle were unsure but I feel it must be something to do with her self-confidence. From humble, practically unknown background, she made a living as a writer, just as Johnson had done. She had the confidence to attack Shakespeare at a time when Bardolatry was on the rise, not so much for his taking stories from other sources but for his changing them and (in her mind) missing their point. For example, Romeo and Juliet was first written as a warning against foolish, puppy-dog love which Shakespeare turns it into a celebration of it. For a man who thought Shakespeare a great but also greatly flawed writer, I can see him relishing in her iconoclasm.

Many of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle listened to the audio-book read by Juliet Stevenson, who brought the book to life. It may be that The Female Quixote is nothing more than a bit of fun, which time has ossified into ‘classic literature’ and a great performance is all that’s needed to rub some life back into it.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Review: Zofloya, or The Moor by Charlotte Dacre

Victoria Loredani is not the messiah, she’s a very naughty girl. She’s the main character of Zofloya, or The Moor and the book goes to great trouble to both blame her for her descent into wickedness and to absolve her of blame. 

This descent is all her fault because she’s a terrible person who deserves great chunks of texts outlining how very bad she is, how her soul is organised upon evil principles and how even her ‘feelings of delight’ are ‘teemed with woe for others’. On the other hand, she was spoiled as a child and her mother left her father, moving in with the man who killed her father in a duel and generally setting a bad example. Then there’s the father of lies himself…

I like my gothic novels on the nuttier end and a novel that has adultery, a few stabbings, only one wrongful imprisonment and some (admittedly very in-depth) poisoning, is playing it a bit safe. There are a few good gothic bits, the reveal of the poisoned body, writhing in sores, but on the whole, it all felt a little undercooked. The writing had the stiltedness of a gothic novel but none of the breathless excitement. Our manipulative, evil protagonist is also a poor victim of her circumstances, a woman of agency who spends most of the book having things happen to her rather than making things happen. Even when she does take action, she follows the ideas of new bestie Zofloya. A gothic with few gasps (even gasps of laughter) is a rather anodyne thing.

Things picked up a little at the end, the Looney-Tunes-esque ‘temporary and very specific madness’ potion was a treat, as was the hangover it produced. Then there was the teen, stabbed multiple times and thrown off a ravine and the hilarious bandit reveal but it didn’t pick up enough to lift the book.

I can’t exactly call the book limp because it was so stiff. It was never a chore to read but nor was it a pleasure, I’ve got some more gothic coming up this year, I hope it properly catches light.

A small note on the Oxford edition, not only does it give away a spoiler on the back cover, not only did the endnotes tell me more about The Monk than Zofloya but it is riddled with more typos than any Oxford Classic I’ve ever read.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

A few thoughts on Bridgerton

One of the benefits of focusing on the eighteenth century is that the century can be as long as you like. Some centuries are confined to a hundred years but the eighteenth can go long, it can go back as far as the ‘glorious’ revolution of 1688 or reach forward as far as yesterday dinner time (or, more usually, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815). This means I could have the period known as ‘The Regency’ easily within my grasp for this website if I wanted to. There are times where I have dabbled in the time period but if I’m honest, I prefer the early to mid eighteenth century and leave all that Regency stuff to other people. I did watch Bridgerton, however.

To claim that Bridgerton has anything other than the most dubious links to history (or indeed reality) is a risky one indeed. I’ve not read the books, but the TV series has more to do with the tropes and foibles of the genre of regency romance than anything else. It’s funny because a  great deal of historical romance, even the bodice-ripperest, can be the result of very careful research, but Bridgerton is not. Claiming to be set in 1813, this is a Regency without the Prince Regent. George III is ill-disposed and his madness and outbursts are largely played for sentiment. The person with the Royal powers and prerogatives is Queen Charlotte.

This Queen Charlotte is a wonderful figure, narrow-eyed, capricious and scheming but humanised by her love for the King and pain at his illness. She’s nothing like the real Charlotte, who was a fond patron, particularly of natural sciences, but regarded as quiet and rather shy. The strangest part of the entire series was a discussion about Charlotte, where it is revealed that her and the King’s love ended slavery and allowed black people to be treated as equals and even be made Dukes as Duchessess. While it is true that Queen Charlotte and a number of the nobility are played by black actors, I had presumed this was an act of colour-blind casting like Armando Ianucci’s very enjoyable The Private History of David Copperfield. It seems completely strange to change the history of the world in the show to justify colour-blind casting the audience would have simply accepted as part of the fiction. 

(I've been watching videos on youtube about Bridgerton and there's a really interesting angle of colourism at play also, that the darkest skin character is the closest thing to a villain and most of the black characters are of lighter skin - not to mention the lack of any Asian named characters. A great video on that is found with this link. )

The main story in the series is about the romance that blossoms between Daphne Bridgerton, daughter of a Viscount, and Simon, a man who has come to sort his affairs out after his father has died and he has inherited the title of Duke of Hastings. They decide to pretend to be in love, he to keep predatory mothers out of his hair and she to raise her stock in the marriage market. It should come as no surprise that what starts out as pretence becomes truth. There are also the romantic and social lives of those around them, the wealthy and titled individuals who make up the ‘ton’.

The story takes place over a London season and is sharply and enjoyably narrated by Lady Whistledown, a pseudonymous gossip columnist that’s a cross between The Female Tatler and RIia Skeeter. Her spiky commentary is one of the most enjoyable elements of the programme and (along with Lady Danvers) a source of its spice and fun. 

From the trailer, I was expecting even more humour, although it leans more into drama. I was also expecting the Bridgertons themselves to be more scheming, possibly a down on their luck family hoping to make it big. Instead they are a well-to-do family with a warmth that is quite charming. My favourite character was the second eldest Bridgerton daughter, Violet. She could be described as a woman out of her time but seeing as the programme isn’t really of a time, she seems simply a snarky, funny, rather naive bookworm. My other favourite characters include the battleaxes Queen Charlotte and Lady Danvers. The men are a little more slim pickings, but Lord Simon really is very attractive, if a little brooding and needy, and his boxer buddy is a grounding influence.

The programme looks gorgeous. I was slightly distracted by bits of Bath (I was at the assembly rooms the day before they started filming) and other places I recognise but they are stitched together to make a lovely fantasy version of London and Grosvenor Square. There aren’t many productions where I am blown away by the wallpaper, but there are some beautiful wallpapers in this production. The costumes are, of course, something special as well. Daphne, in particular, has a number of very attractive dresses, in shades of blue, particularly sky blue. My favourite was this dress;

.. though she’s not particularly happy about wearing it. I liked the shape, the sheen and the flowers. I don’t know much about fashion or costume history, but I appreciated what I saw.

In terms of drama, there were some brilliant moments, I loved the moment in the Inn with Daphne and Simon when they finally talk plainly to each other. It could be because much of the plot is one where if the characters spoke straight to each other, nothing would happen and it was cathartic to have them actually do it. The women’s ignorance of how babies are made first comes up as a joke but becomes a plot point, highlighting the innocence with which the women are entering into marriage. I shortly plan to read The Memoirs of Emma Courtney by Mary Hays which implies in the blurb that it will also be looking at women’s education, particularly sex education.

Although there is big drama, it’s not a programme to take heavily, it’s well-made and enjoyable entertainment designed to binge. I did, however, find the accumulation of obstacles and problems throughout the episodes to be rather exhausting.I reckon most people who were inclined to watch Bridgerton have already done so by now, but I would recommend it and look forward to the second series. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Under the Glass: Readers in Fiction


Dan Brown famously says that he doesn’t read. Particularly, he doesn’t read fiction, preferring instead to use non-fiction to research his own novels but not reading anyone else’s. It shows in his writing. On the whole, writers are readers. I would consider myself a reader first, who occasionally makes forays into writing when I’ve filled my head with so many words, I can't help them spilling them out now. 

What I find unusual, is how rarely the characters in books are readers, especially as they are the creations of writers who invariably are. How often has a writer (usually in a mid-career slump) written about a writer, usually with a dissatisfying love life? Writers love writing about writers, especially about how special writers are, or what an emotional strain it is on the writer’s life. What’s interesting is that it’s very rare for these fictional writers to ever read anything. Real writers might be readers, but fictional ones are often as literate as Dan Brown or Garth Marenghi. 

My own Sidney Derrick is a writer, but his illiteracy is one of the principle jokes of the book. (On a slightly related note, it really annoyed me in The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas, when a professor and student of the eighteenth century spent their whole time talking about Derrida and never mentioned or read an eighteenth century author.)

Currently, I am reading The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, which is about a woman who is delighted by reading, so delighted she uses some quite unsuitable books as the basis of her worldview and the influence of her action.  She follows a certain ‘type’ of reader to be found in books, the reader who can’t handle it. This reader is unduly influenced or cannot tell fiction apart from reality. We start with Don Quixote, driven mad by books of chivalry then onto Lennox’s Arabella, whose devotion to French romances may be less dangerous to those around her but make her seem ridiculous. Also looking silly is Catherine in Northanger Abbey, whose love of gothic fiction makes her expect a life more dramatic than it may be.

Novel-reading was itself a full moral panic at one point, the Gentleman’s Magazine (Samuel Johnson’s first London gig) said;  “Novels have been long and frequently regarded not as being merely useless to society, but even as pernicious, from the very indifferent morality, and ridiculous way of thinking, which they almost generally inculcate”. The people most at danger of corruption from books, especially novels, were women as their poor minds wouldn’t be able to cope with the strain.

Then there is the character for whom reading is a source of power. Matilda is the first example of this, she must be one of the keenest readers in literature and all that mental pressure gives her literal superpowers. Slightly different to Matilda are those characters like Frankenstein’s monster, who learn to speak and then read, actions that give them more agency. In The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, women have not been taught to read and it is a source of enormous power when Agnes Jemima is taught in order to become an Aunt. Although the reader for power is often an interesting and exciting one, they don’t usually have a ‘normal’ relationship with books, often being denied them in ways not so common in everyday life.

Another form of reader in books are those who are keepers of words. A little like the reader of power, they are a character who have an exceptional relationship with books in some way. My first thought is The Professor in Mistress Masham’s Repose by TH White, but his Merlin would also fit the role. Many of these figures are old men or wizards, keepers of arcane bookshops or hidden, magical libraries. They frequently are not the protagonist in a work though, and frequently pop up to help and then disappear.

The last sort of reader in fiction I can think of is the reader as set dressing. The example that instantly jumped in my mind was of Anastasia Steele from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (I’ve read the first one). At the beginning of the book, she’s studying Literature at college, is given a first edition Tess of the D'Urbervilles (these characters have a magical way of obtaining first editions of things) and quickly finds herself chief editor at a publishers.  Yet, despite her love of books she never really seems to read and the books she’s read don’t seem to impact her. She’s far from the only character to have the light sprinkling of ‘into books’ to help her characterisation, but she’s a pretty clear example.

I’d like someone (maybe even me one day) to write a novel in which the main character is  a reader the way I am. Who spends significant time reading, who finds thoughts of current books or future books intruding as they do other things, who see books not as an escape from life but a general part of it. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read a book featuring someone who has that casual yet intense relationship with the written word and I think it would be something worth reading one day.