I Once Was Lost
But Now I'm Found:
in the following of my articles:
Conceptions of Proper Femininity
Incest, and Female Desire in
Woman-Penned Novels in Corvey.
Corvey Journal 5.2/3 (1993): 44-52.
Lewd and Notorious Women.
Ed. Katharine Kittredge.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. In press.
My work over the past year in the Corvey collection in northwestern Germany has made me aware, as I would like to make you aware today, that the collection is an invaluable and under-recognized resource in terms both of the sheer quantity of texts from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in its holdings, and of the ways the texts there demand the rethinking of generalizations by which we understand works from the era - specifically, heroine-centered woman-penned novels in English. Today I'd like to talk a little about the collection and then discuss ways the woman-penned novels it holds challenge a number of currently held views about what such novels from this era might do.
First, the collection itself. It was amassed principally by Victor Amadeus, Landgrave of Hesse Rotenburg, and his wife Elise, Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who, from about 1795-1834, seemed to have in mind to collect as many works in French, English, and German as they could, ending up with a library of about 30,000 volumes - around 13,000 titles. About 2,800 of the works are in German, 4,500 in French, and 5,400 in English. The whole library contains 68,000 volumes, and was amassed by both earlier and later relatives of Victor Amadeus who also collected literature, albeit less obsessively. Genres include poetry, drama, travel literature, non-fiction, natural sciences, and novels. As I understand it, the genre that predominates is fiction.
Because my field is the English novel of the period, I'll concentrate on facts about the genre in that language. We - I include myself, because I will continue to work with the collection for another year - have approximately 2,200 English novels, making the collection the largest single collection of English novels from the period in the world. A comparison with other large collections might be useful: the University of Pennsylvania Library holds something like 1,110 English novels from the period, the University of Illinois approximately 1,000, and the University of Virginia about 1,200. Over half our English novels from the period are by women. Obviously many works not available elsewhere can be found at Corvey; among works published by the Minerva Press, for example, there are about 71 works that, to our knowledge, exist no-where else. In my rather random reading in the collection I have found a number of works of which we seem to hold the only copies.
Research in the collection's holdings works as follows: Most of the rare novels have been copied onto microfiche, and these are fairly easy to work with; copies can be found at the University of Paderborn, currently the center for research in the collection, and I believe the microfiche copies can be obtained elsewhere, through Interlibrary Loan. Harder to work with at present are those works which have not yet been copied onto fiche, such as much of the travel literature. These works will soon be microfiched too, and will then be more accessible to scholars.
Now, getting to the generations about the period this collection allows us to question:
Aside from doing my own research, I'm also participating in a project that has as its goal a description of the kinds of English novels from the period that can be argued to have been available and read in Germany at the time. Others working on the project came up with a form for participants to fill out when reading novels from our list of pertinent works, and the part of the form with which I have had the most difficulty, especially when I'm reading heroine-centered novels by women, is that which asks the novels' genre. In fact, the most typical genre types for novels by and/or about women weren't included, despite my colleagues' recognition that over half the novels in English are by women. In rethinking the form, I used logic by which we currently read such novels form the era, and that is, that novels about women, especially, are primarily either euphoric or dysphoric marriage plot novels, to use Nancy Miller's terms, whatever else they may also contain. Rachel Blau DuPlessis has argued that even when novels from this era include plots other than the marriage plot, the novels' conclusions privilege the marriage plot and thereby suppress other plot interests. Even when such novels include "quest" plots, because they privilege the marriage plot in their conclusion, anything other than the heroine's ability to fill the social/emotional role of wife gets suppressed; the reader remains, then, primarily aware of the maritally-directed love interest developed and remembers the text as a marriage plot novel only. Critics have explained why women writers chose the marriage plot for telling women's stories; given strictures on women, for a woman to choose something as self-forwarding as a career in writing, she was wise to present females' lives in terms of the sanctioned trajectory for women - a movement from being a daughter to becoming a wife. She was best off, in fact, writing a quasi-didactic novel that female readers could use as a guide for their own behavior. Departing from such models, we know, meant that a female writer's own reputation for propriety was at risk (Newton, Poovey, Showalter, Spender).
It is in fact true that most of the novels from Corvey I've read involve young women of marriageable age who either end up married at their stories' end or dead if marriage turns out to be impossible for them. But many don't feel primarily like marriage plot novels, either during the experience of reading or at its conclusion, however, and when these novels do close with the marriage or death of the heroine, too much of the story has to do with things other than marriage for the marriage closure to close off awareness of those other interests. Furthermore, many of the novels involve a heroine who is not obviously marriageable during most of her story; frequently she marries so early in her story that even if she remarries at the end of the story - even if circumstances rid her of a first husband and unite her by her story's end to a more deserving man - her situation through most of her story along with the structure and/or balance of the story itself force our attention to other elements of her life than just her relationship to the men. To therefore classify all these texts as marriage plot novels is to ignore the main focus of many of the works.
One novel that demonstrates what I mean is The Natural Daughter, written in 1799 by Mary Robinson, an author who is better known, when known at all, for her poetry and her rather scandalous life. The heroine, Martha Bradford, gets married rather early in the text to a man named Morley, but because she adopts an illegitimate child while Morley is absent, and because various characters represent the infant as Martha's own illegitimate child, Morley throws Martha out of her marital home. If the story focused on the bad relationship Martha had with Morley, it might at least be called a wedlock plot novel, a form more commonly identified as occurring later, in the nineteenth century, but there is little attention paid to the couple's interaction; if the novel did not bring in a marriage so early but rather followed the fortunes of an unmarried woman thought to have had an illegitimate child, it could be considered a marriage plot novel which could end either dysphorically or euphorically - such a situation occurs in Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, for instance, a novel with a euphoric conclusion to its marriage plot(s). And the novel does end with Martha's marriage to a man better able to recognize and value her worth, Lord Francis Sherville, after Morley fortuitously falls off a cliff and dies; while the novel spends some attention to Martha's recognition of her love for Lord Francis, it does not focus the body of its attention on their relationship: it really is not, that is, organized primarily around a marriage plot.
In fact, the bulk of the novel dwells on Martha's attempts to survive after being thrown out of her home and before reaching the "safe haven" of marriage to Lord Francis. She takes a pseudonym, Mrs. Denison, and tries a number of routes to self-sufficiency. She tries working as a lady's companion; as a teacher at a school for girls; as a writer; and as a strolling actress. Every attempt fails, not because she lacks skills at any of the things she attempts, but, generally, because of the scandal that surrounds her, whether because she has supposedly borne an illegitimate child or because she has attempted work that brings her forward into a sphere more public than generally considered proper for women.
Alongside the narration of Martha's attempts at survival comes a great deal of criticism of the society in which Martha tries to make her way. There is criticism of the culture's taste in reading - only if Martha writes a novel filled with scandal can she hope to see herself published. There is also criticism of the stringent rules for judging and condemning women, rules which damn a woman for trying to survive, because her doing so involves a scandalous movement into the public realm that allows others to believe they have a right to treat her with disrespect or to chase her out of employment among the "honorable." Furthermore, there is criticism of the hypocrisy of those, both male and female, who condemn Martha for her apparent lapses out of propriety and hound her to such an extent that it is hard to see how she can survive at all: her husband, who is in fact the father of the child everyone believes to be Martha's, although he doesn't know that this particular child is his through most of the narrative; Martha's sister, who is one of the main gossip- mongers who gets Morley to believe the child is Martha's and who has an affair with Morley after having an illegitimate child by another man; and Lady Louisa, who hires Martha as lady's companion but then fires her after hearing about her scandalous past, but who seems to be having an affair herself - with the man who has fathered Martha's sister's child.
This book is reminiscent of Frances Burney's The Wanderer, which was published fifteen years later, and which similarly focuses on the hardships that come to a woman who is trying to survive, and whose very efforts to survive make her seem improperly self-asserting and hence suspect in her morality. Even more than Burney's later novel, Robinson's seems designed to offer a quite overt, explicit social critique and to inform its audience of the hardship for women who do need to make their own way in the world; in addition, in Robinson's novel, again perhaps even more than in Burney's, these critical and informative elements overshadow the love story of the heroine.
The differences stem in part from something I've mentioned earlier, Robinson's positioning Martha as already married, with no realistic hope through most of the narrative of becoming free to marry someone she prefers. Once she is married but then thrown out of her house, and once it becomes clear that the remaining members of her family will not help her out, her story becomes that of a woman trying to do without men as protectors, and it becomes the clearer how precarious such a woman's life may be. Her position is stressed by her choosing a pseudonym. While she does so to protect herself from calumny attached to her marital name, her choosing her own name means she is choosing her own identity, one that has nothing to do either with the family into which she was born or the family into which she has married. It is worth noting that one reason she marries Morley quickly at the novel's outset is to escape the treatment she receives from her unreasonable, peevish father; choosing a new name is a repudiation specifically of the men to whom she has been related. And her misfortunes as Mrs. Denison are therefore the misfortunes of a woman not defined by relationship to men, be they fathers or husbands.
Robinson's novel further increases the movement of the focus away from love relationships (or women's relationality to men in general) to female hardship in general by dedicating so much ink to explicit commentary by an extradiegetic narrator and speech by Martha which protests the gossip-mongering, hypocritical tendencies of the society in which Martha is forced to move, and which very nearly ruins her. This text could easily be read as linking the literary tastes of the society portrayed to its faulty treatment of the heroine herself - the demand of other characters to locate the titillating and scandalous elsewhere besides in themselves and so damn it in a way that leaves themselves purified: Martha works for her society, that is, in much the way a scapegoat works.
Rather than follow through on this thought in a desire to give a definitive reading of this novel, I would like to move on to discuss two other points The Natural Daughter raises which challenge current conceptions about what books in the period do, points which I will explore through reference to other works in the collection as well. The first is the notion that a woman who departs from strict chastity need not be seen as utterly fallen and deserving as punishment, a view that departs from all my received knowledge about heroine-centered novels in the period. This notion again stems from understandings of the position of women writers in the era; because writing and publishing were considered improperly self-asserting for women, women who did enter the profession needed to ensure that their rewarded female characters be very strictly upright.
Generalizations on the required behavior for female characters we have inherited are easily formed by an attention to most books from the era widely available; Clarissa, after all, dies not from complicitous sexual congress but from having been raped while unconscious; Lady Adelina, in Smith's Emmeline, fares a bit better - she gets to live - but she sees her adultery as so serious that she might not marry the man who seduced her when she gets the chance to do so, judging herself too sinful to be worthy of him. While such texts treat even unwilling departure from chastity as dreadful and treat women as more to be castigated for extra-marital sexuality than the men equally involved, they by no means provide the entire story on the way female behavior gets treated in novels of the period. The other side is provided by novels in which women's sexual lapses gets treated leniently, in which illegitimate daughters are able to marry and so escape being treated as affected by some sexual depravity passed along genetically from their mothers, and in which even premaritally sexually active women are able to wed men who are treated as basically good, and as frequently bringing not only their love, but also fortune and title to their marriage.
In The Natural Daughter, leniency toward fallen women is evident in Robinson's - and Martha's - treatment of the woman who has born the illegitimate child fathered by Martha's husband. The woman became pregnant after a false wedding and therefore is not strictly at fault; although she does not get the reward of a man to marry by the novel's end, neither does she get killed off. What gets treated as worse than the sin of departing from strict chastity is the woman's abandoning her child, but even in this case, as Martha meditates on the situation, the blame gets placed less on the woman who so sins than on a world which judges a woman's slip from strict chastity so harshly that it drives her to hide her error at any cost (1: 89-91).
Other texts are even more lenient on women who fall; in Miss Street's 1793 The Recluse of the Appenines (not in Corvey), the central male figure "seduces" the innocent shepherd girl he meets in the Appenines and whom he loves - "seduces" is not quite right here, because, child of nature rather than society, the heroine sees no reason why she should not have sex with the man she loves. While the male protagonist castigates himself for his criminality, the heroine does not get treated as criminal at all: not only does she get to marry the man she loves - her seducer - she also gets reunited with her real parents by the novel's end, themselves reunited by the male protagonist, and promoted from poor peasant status to the more illustrious family standing and fortune that is rightfully hers by birth.
In Mrs. Yeates' 1800 Eliza, a female character who sleeps with her lover before marriage becomes pregnant and goes to meet her lover to marry him; on her way, she almost sleeps with another man as well, but rather than getting seen by others as necessarily blameworthy, "her conduct [gets attributed only] to a too great softness and tenderness" (164). The plotline treats this woman less than well, however: she gets shot in the temple and dies. Another woman in this novel gets tricked into a false marriage by a man who turns out already to be married; although she too has fallen, by the novel's end she gets to marry a man who becomes devoted to her; this match is treated fairly positively, with no sense that the woman is too sinful to wed, or that the marriage will be injured by adultery later.
One of the first novels I read in the collection, Robinson's Vancenza, treated a woman's being illegitimate herself as adequate reason to suffer at a novel's conclusion, a conclusion to be expected as long as one views heroine-centered novels from the period as needing to present rewardable heroines as free from any taint. In his novel, the heroine discovers not only that she is illegitimate, but that not knowing she is illegitimate - not knowing her heritage at all - she mistakenly becomes engaged to her brother; as one might expect, she does not survive this misfortune. Other novels, however, challenge the notion that a woman should suffer unduly because her parents have erred. In Sophia Lee's The Recess, for instance, another illegitimate woman falls in love with a man who later turns out to be her brother; she, however, doesn't die; the siblings simply live together as brother and sister. In other texts, a mother's sexual taint does not affect daughters to even that extent; in many, illegitimate daughters marry men of wealth and title: such is the case in Miss A. Kendall's Tales of the Abbey, as well as in her Derwent Priory, a text in which the female character in question is produced after one sort of marriage, as her parents had been united by a Catholic priest. The pregnant woman's being underage, however, and the couple's never getting the chance to go through legal marriage forms means the daughter is recognized by all others as illegitimate. Nonetheless, she gets to marry a lord, heir to a good estate.
The other notion about heroine-centered texts currently held that gets challenged by the works I've been reading is that in the late eighteenth century, woman-woman relationships are treated as less important than those between heroine and her male protagonist. In Austen, women's friendship with one other may be provisional; perhaps her female characters don't really come to life until a man walks into the room and simply use each other in the meantime to while away "empty" hours (Auerbach). Certainly there have been efforts to show ways in which female friendships are important and in which female groupings may be offered as in fact more satisfactory than male-female couplings. In most currently available texts, however, one must work with subtleties to find female groupings as valorized. Some of the texts I've been reading make it easier to make such arguments.
First, there's Mrs. Ross's The Balance of Comfort, or, the Old Maid and the Married Woman, which came out toward the end of the long eighteenth century, in 1817. This novel revolves around the efforts of the heroine, Althea Vernon, to choose which life is better for women; for most of the narrative, she favors being an old maid, and living with the relative freedom that choice brings and the relationships she might have with some of the spinsters she meets. The conclusion of the novel in Althea's marriage may undermine the idea that relationships with women are better for women, but the fact that so much of the text explicitly raises and explores the issue may seem astonishing to those used to viewing all texts from this period as having the marriage of the heroine as the unquestioned goal.
Also pertinent here is Louisa Helme's Louisa, or the Cottage on the Moor, an immensely popular novel reprinted from 1787 until 1848 and translated into French, German, and Russian. This novel is in many ways conventional; one knows the heroine will wed the man she loves; that marriage will be her reward not only for her virtues but for her suffering is never questioned. Part of the rest of this "orphan's" reward is to be reunited with her parents, itself not so unconventional; each of the family members believe all the others have died and only find out they have not near the narrative's conclusion, although given the heavy foreshadowing, we're aware of characters' relationships long before the characters are; there are, in fact, few plot surprises in this text.
What saves this novel from being annoying in the predictably of events recounted is the way the story progresses: by characters bonding through telling each other their stories. When Louisa stumbles onto the cottage in question, the woman living there, who later turns out to be Louisa's mother, notes that Louisa is traumatized, and rather than risk exacerbating the trauma by asking her to recount what has happened, the woman tells her own story, so that Louisa has some time to recover equilibrium. In this novel of sensibility, Louisa feels closer to this woman because the woman tells her story; Louisa bonds with her mother through empathy. And the mother then bonds to Louisa through her empathetic reaction to Louisa's narration of her story. What is in fact remarkable about this novel is that through the entire first volume and much of the second, there is no forward movement in the plot at all; all narration is taken up by these two characters' filling each other in on their past life. This means that the real action of this novel is narrating, listening, and empathetic bonding, rather than the typical action of a marriage plot, a plot which is included in the novel as well.
Furthermore, although the concluding pages of the novel reveal that Louisa and her parents are all reunited, the fact that the characters become close through narrating their histories to each other or through the services they render each other means that their relationship is one of choice, in addition to being one of consanguinity and marriage; that they choose one another and their relationship with one another is treated by the progression of the narrative as equal in importance to their hidden relationship. Clearly this is not a matter of women bonding with women only, since Louisa's father is brought into the triangle of empathetic connectedness; all the same, the balance of the narrative is spent on the relationships between women - not only the relationship between Louisa and her mother, but those between Louisa and her adoptive mother, Louisa and her adoptive sister as well. Another novel which uses its structure to link female characters not only in the similarity of their experience but in their bonding to one another because of sympathy for that experience is Mrs. Showes' 1798 Statira, a work I lack time to discuss today (and which is not held by Corvey).
I would hesitate to argue that these novels have slipped out of publication and hence from our attention because of plotting by male publishers who recognized that these novels attack patriarchy both overtly and covertly, the latter by providing female characters who survive despite their departure from behaviors most likely to uphold patriarchal society. One also certainly can't say that these works have slipped out of publication because of poor original reception; one only need look at the publishing history of Helme's Louisa to see the flaws in such an argument. Certainly by some standards these novels aren't great; Louisa is entirely too predictable and Robinson's novels are loose creations with diatribes against her society only barely brought within her fictional framework. But that our most standard generalizations about women-penned novels of the period can be so thoroughly challenged by so many novels from the period should astonish us. It is not simply that we need rethink the kinds of plotlines female writers provided for their heroines; so many of these novels are so far from teaching proper female behavior - so many allow and reward what we think of as scandalous behavior for women at the time - and so many are so overt in their attacks on patriarchy, that we need rethink women writers' situation in the patriarchal society of the period as well. Given these challenges to our conceptions of women's novels and women's role in the period's society, we also need rethink all kinds of generalizations we make about the period - no longer can works on the ideological of the period be based on the one or two writers on which such works even today are based, if these other writers' works offer such a difference of view. When further research in the Corvey and other collections occurs, it can become the work of as many of us as possible to question our assumptions about and our constructions of women's role in the literature and culture of the time, and, therefore, what that culture was actually like.
Last updated 10 December
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