Northanger Abbey

April 10, 2013


[Photo-bombed in the Crescent in Bath]

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s critique of British high society seems fairly apparent.  Her use of humor and sarcasm highlight the flaws and shallow nature of her characters, which serve as tropes of the upper-class.  The novel’s protagonist, Catherine, is presented from the beginning of the novel as disconnected from this world, and her initial tentative and awkward steps into her first “season” at Bath are documented meticulously by Austen. 

One way Austen sets Catherine apart from the conventions of high society is by her honesty.  Catherine is contrasted with John Thorpe, her initial love prospect, as she listens to his trumped up and exaggerated claims about himself.  Austen reinforces this as she comments about the Catherine’s family: “they were not in the habit…of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next” (56).  On the other hand, Catherine feels naturally inclined towards Miss Tilney because of the fact that she can be honest with her: “and though in all probability not an observation was made, nor an expression used by either which had not been made and used some thousands of times before, under that roof, in every Bath season, yet the merit of their being spoken with simplicity and truth, and without personal conceit, might be something uncommon” (62). 

Catherine’s honesty is witnessed elsewhere in the novel.  For example, after Thorpe tricks Catherine into riding with him instead of walking with Henry and Eleanor, she explains to Henry what happened, and he attempts to smooth it over and assert that they were not offended.  Whereas normal protocol may have dictated that Catherine should be reasonably happy with his response, she presses him further: “’Oh! Do not say Miss Tilney was not angry!’ cried Catherine, ‘because I know she was….’”  And after Henry, again, tries to smooth over the situation, Catherine still is unsettled: “But, Mr. Tilney, why were you less generous than your sister?  If she felt such confidence in my good intentions, and could suppose it to be only a mistake, why should you be so ready to take offence?’” (84-5). Instead of accepting the fact that the problem has been rectified, Catherine, rather naively, keeps pressing Tilney.  However, no harm is done, because she is asked to accompany the family to Northanger Abbey.

While there, Catherine (again rather naively) comes to believe that General Tilney was the cause of his wife’s death.  While exploring the room in which she died, she hears Henry coming, and meets him in the hallway.  Instead of making excuses (something like “I’m not used to this huge house, I got lost!” probably would have worked fine), again, she is honest: “’ I have been,’ said Catherine, looking down, ‘to see your mother’s room’” (184).  Henry assumes it is out of admiration for his mother that she stops in, but Catherine lays out the real excuse: she believes his father, General Tilney, killed his wife.  This is another instance where Catherine is naively honest, but again, it serves her interest.  Henry scolds her, but regrets it the next day and is even more amiable towards her than usual.  And, in the end, though Catherine was not entirely correct about the events surrounding Mrs. Tilney’s death, she did perceive that General Tilney simply is not a good person.

However, one initial instance of dishonesty sets off Catherine’s troubles for the rest of the novel.  After meeting John Thorpe, she lies about her feelings concerning him, even though she has evaluated his character correctly.  When James asks Catherine “’how do you like my friend Thorpe?’ instead of answering, as she probably would have done, had there been no friendship and no flattery in the case, ‘I do not like him at all;’ she directly replied, ‘I like him very much; he seems very agreeable’” (40).  This one ill-advised occasion of dishonesty is what lands her in all sorts of trouble throughout the rest of her book, since this admission propels her into further tricky encounters with Thorpe, and he is the one who turns General Tilney against her.  This moment of trying to do the socially acceptable thing brings a number of challenges, which Catherine surmounts, but had she just been honest, may have been able to avoid.   Though those challenges make for a good novel, Austen simultaneously trains her readers to learn from them.

The Progress of Romance

April 5, 2013

When beginning to read Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance I thought to myself, “there is no way this material needs to be in narrative format.”  This is because The Progress of Romance has no real plot-line.  In fact, it is basically just an argument for the worth of romances voiced by an advocate of the genre to a skeptic and a fence-sitter.  The main argument in favor of romances is that “a Romance is nothing but an Epic in prose,” and the rest of the text sets out to prove this (51).  However, once gender is assigned to the characters in the play, much is revealed about Reeve’s potential intentions for her argument, and it is clear that the narrative framework she sets up can do much more than a basic argument essay ever could.

The three characters in this play are Euphrasia, Sophronia, and Hortensius.  Hortensius is a man, and he hates romances.  Euphrasia is a woman and she likes them.  Sophronia is also a woman and she represents a moderate viewpoint, though she often leans towards Euphrasia’s point of view.  As the “story” begins, Hortensius and Sophronia approach Euphrasia to ask her about a claim she had made recently, that Romances were, in her estimation, as good as Epics.  Hortensius takes great offense at this, as Romances are already at this point thought to be silly works of fiction, yet Euphrasia maintains that her assertion is true, and also that she can prove it.  Sophronia and Hortensius demand that she explain her reasoning to them, so they set up weekly visits to hear Euphrasia’s reasoning.

The exchanges between Euphrasia and Hortensius at initially debate-like.  Hortensius seems personally scandalized that Euphrasia would make the claims that she does and he does not think that she can support them.  However, she soon shows that she has much support and evidence, along with a vast knowledge of literary history, as “artillery.” Her research is referred to as her weapons of war a few times throughout The Progress of Romance and she uses these weapons to debate Hortensius into submission, to the point where he is no longer offering arguments but merely receiving knowledge and information from Euphrasia, and asking for more.  She accuses Hortensius of being “prejudiced” against and “ignorant” about Romances, and this prejudice seems to be indicative of his prejudice against women, as well.  Hortensius is unable to assail Euphrasia’s perfect reason and logic, declaring that “whenever I think to catch you tripping, you glide away from me, and in your place I find another person, whom I am to contend with” (61).  By the end of the The Progress of Romance, Hortensius is won over to Euphrasia’s side by her skillful use of rhetoric and argument. 

So it seems that Reeve is making a double argument in this text, and one that she would not have been able to make so effectively if she had just written an essay about the benefits of Romances.  Along with defending a genre, she also portrays women as reasonable, logical, learned, open-minded, and ultimately, in this case, superior to men in a battle of intellect.  This was a quick read with lots of interesting commentary on several of the books we’ve read in class, as well as several works I’ve read for my 16th century class, as well as on the French Romances that Melanie and I are working on for our digital project, so I’m glad I had the chance to read this work.

While reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, it was not difficult to discern a certain theology being built around Adeline’s storyline. 

For example, the presence of anti-Catholicism was difficult to miss.  The source of Adeline’s first significant “horrors” in the story is the convent in which she was forced to live, by her father/uncle’s command, for several years.  Adeline hates the seclusion and darkness of the monastery, as well as the “cruelty and superstition” of its inhabitants (36).  The word “superstition” signals an alarm right away, as it was often a charge against the Roman Catholic faith.  Adeline also deplores other practices of the convent, such as “silence—rigid formality—abstinence and penance” and desperately desires the color and vibrancy of the outside world (37).  When she is removed from the convent by her “father,” she briefly glimpses the delights of the city, as well as the beauty of nature  beyond the walls of the convent.  However, this pleasure is short-lived, and Adeline soon finds herself once again in the seclusion of the forest.  She ends up at the abbey, another source of anxiety, isolation, and terror, as well as another symbol of Catholicism, with the La Mottes.

Both places are also associated with failed father figures: her uncle with the convent (as it was his will that placed her there) and La Motte with the abbey.  Both show little regard for Adeline and both place her in the hands of men who would harm her.  Adeline longs for fatherly protection, and finds her only source of comfort in God: “At length, and with that artless piety, which innocence only knows, she addressed the Supreme Being, and resigned herself to his care” (59). 

God, as a father, stands in stark contrast to Adeline’s father-figures in her uncle and La Motte, as well as to the dark landscapes of the convent and abbey.  Throughout the book, Adeline “spirits” are often raised by the beauties of the natural world.  When she meets La Luc, “he desired she would henceforth consider him as her parent” and Adeline finds a much more able father figure (259).  When they take an excursion into the mountains, Adeline displays “high enthusiasm” for the scenery:

“The stillness and total seclusion of this scene,’ said Adeline, ‘those stupendous mountains, and the gloomy grandeur of these woods, together with that monument of faded glory on which the hand of time is so emphatically impressed, diffuse a sacred enthusiasm over the mind, and awaken sensations truly sublime” (264). 

Adeline already senses the divine in nature, and La Luc elaborates on these feelings:

“’The view of these objects,’ said La Luc, ‘lift the soul to their Great Author, and we contemplate with a feeling almost too vast for humanity—the sublimity of his nature in the grandeur of this works.’ La Luc raised his eyes, filled with tears, to heaven, and was for some moments lost in silent adoration” (265). 

As opposed to the “trappings” of organized religion, both Adeline and La Luc feel spiritually aware and overwhelmed when enveloped in nature.  Here, perhaps Radcliffe is preparing the scene for the early Romantic poets, who would also see the divine in the natural beauty of their surroundings.

The Female Quixote

March 20, 2013

In Charlotte’s Lennox’s The Female Quixote, the main character, Arabella, makes the reader aware of the dangers of fiction and the problems that can arise from the misreading of the genre of Romance, in particular.  Arabella indeed seems to live in her own fantasy world where she resides as a sort of deity or monarch, permitting love, distributing punishments, and even controlling death.  Clearly, Arabella has “misread” her Romances, attributing truth to them when they are, in fact, only fiction, and regarding them as the role and norm for her morality and conduct when no one operating in the “real world” sees them in the same way. 

Along from Lennox’s commentary on how fiction can be misread, it is also intriguing to view Arabella’s devotion to the Romance, as it affects her everyday life, as a type of literacy.  Her fluency in the Romance, along with her lack of ability to participate and converse in the dominant cultural discourse, causes the people around her to misunderstand her and mock her (as evidenced by Mr. Granville’s many attempts at stifling laughter and smiles).  For example, conversations between Miss Granville and Arabella tend to go awry, especially earlier in the novel, as they speak past each other and miss each other’s meaning.  Miss Granville, weary of Arabella’s contrivances, demands that Arabella speak in “plain English” when she speaks of her plans to visit Sir George (180).  And of course, her feelings towards Sir George are due mainly to his ability to engage in the language of the Romance with her, even if it is in jest.  The narrator notes, after one incident where Sir George speaks fluently in Romance, that Arabella is caught off guard: “Arabella, pleasingly surprised to hear Language so conformable to her own Ideas, looked for a Moment upon the Baronet, with a most inchanting Complaisancy in her Eyes” (144).  She feels a connection to Sir George, but it is Sir George’s fluency in both realms of discourse, and her lack of familiarity with the dominant cultural norms, which keep her from realizing Sir George is acting out of false ambitions. The Countess, however, serves as a more legitimate speaker of the Romantic language, though she is able to distinguish that language as “archaic” or “dead” in modern society: “Tis certain therefore Madam, added the Countess with a Smile, that what was Virtue in those days, is Vice in ours” (329) The standards and patterns of morality, conduct, and what is considered “good” has changed in the past 2,000 years. (

Mr. Granville frequently mocks Arabella’s behavior, but while frustrated and often embarrassed by Arabella, he is also intrigued by her exotic mannerisms, and  falls and remains in love with her.  This is not to say, however, that Mr. Granville wouldn’t prefer her to be “normal.”  He attributes Arabella’s strangeness to her rural upbringing, assuming that this social isolation combined with the unsupervised reading of Romances has caused her socially awkward behavior.  As Sir Charles asserts, however, Arabella could be “cured” and “reformed” of her “follies” and brought back into proper social literacy when Mr. Granville becomes her husband (180).  Her social illiteracy is viewed as a kind of “mental illness” for which there are hopes of rehabilitation.  The rehabilitation, it turns out, comes in the form of Reason (quite natural for this time period) imparted by a Clergyman, which realigns Arabella and seamlessly introduces her into the dominant cultural and moral literacy.

The Governess

March 6, 2013

The Governess

One aspect of The Governess which fascinated me was the emphasis on confession and repentance throughout, and how these acts, along with the “contentment of mind,” brought about true happiness.

For example, while the girls are still reeling from the apple incident, Miss Jenny tells Miss Sukey that she could show her “a Method of being very happy , and making all those Misses you call your Enemies, become your Friends” (55). Her Method consists of “owning” her wrong and “confessing” her fault; this will lead Sukey to renewed friendship and having “the Pleasure of having caused the Quiet of the whole School” (56).

Later on, following the story of the giants, Sukey is able to reinforce the moral passed to her by Jenny:
I am most pleased with the Part of the Story where the good Benefico cuts off the Monster’s Head, and puts an End to his Cruelty; especially as he was so sullen he would not confess his Wickedness; because you know, Miss Jenny, if he had had Sense enough to have owned his Error, and have followed the example of the good Giant, he might have been happy” (85).

Likewise, following the story of Chloe and Celia, Jenny explains that “’Nor could she enjoy one Moment’s Peace, till by confessing her Fault and heartily repenting of it, her Mind was restored to its former Calm and Tranquility” (101).

There are several more conclusions like this throughout the novel, but I won’t belabor the point. The idea of confessing faults and turning away from them is connected with both physical and mental health, as well as “happiness.”

I think this is interesting as this moral lesson, as is the case with most of the lessons in the book, seems to be disconnected from an overt sense of religious duty or spiritual reward, as is the case with a traditional Christian understanding of the concepts of “confession” and “repentance.” For example, as the images along with this blog-post suggest (from a child’s catechism, published in London in 1725), the ideas of confession and repentance are linked to a worthy reception of the Sacraments, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In order to be linked to God through these earthly conduits, believers must first confess their sins and then repent by turning away from those sins. However, spiritual rewards are not mentioned by Fielding and the concept of repentance is separated from the matters of the Church. Instead, to confess one’s faults and to turn away from them is the most logical or reasonable course of action because it is what causes happiness, peace, and tranquility in one’s daily life, not because this process leads to reconciliation with God and eternal happiness. This makes me wonder if Fielding’s use of logic to rationalize and promote tenets of faith/morality was indicative of pedagogical efforts at her time, or if she is doing something unique. The introduction to the novel also notes that Fielding includes this process of logic to determine right conduct because it was assumed that females were inherently “unreasonable.” So perhaps this is an argument about religion, gender, and reason somewhere in this discussion.

Joseph Andrews

February 27, 2013

Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews contains commentary on a variety of different subjects: the gentry, the state of printing and the form of the novel, love, etc. Another prevalent topic which piqued my interest was Fielding’s views on religion, as reflected in the character of Abraham Adams. Often times Adams religious opinions were expressed in the context of discussions and debates with other members of the clergy. A whole parade of parsons, curates, and priests march through Joseph Andrews, giving Fielding a chance to critique ideas of religiosity and controversial Christian doctrines.

Adams, himself, is portrayed as a well-meaning parson who takes his work seriously and has a genuine affection, and sense of responsibility, for his parish-members. This is demonstrated in his treatment of Joseph and Fanny, especially, as he goes through great lengths to help them and instruct them throughout the novel, and even regards them as his own “children” (170). Adams’ generosity is emphasized, and he frequently laments other clergy-members who are preoccupied with money, finery, and social status rather than their calling. Adams also teases out the argument Samuel Richardson begins to make in Pamela: that a true Christian society would not be concerned with class. When staying at Mr. Wilson’s house, he comments that “I should be ashamed of my Cloth, if I thought a poor Man, who is honest, below my notice or my familiarity. I know not how those who think otherwise, can profess themselves followers and servants of him who made no distinction, unless, peradventure, be preferring the Poor to the Rich” (170).

Adams’ good-natured, sincere approach to his vocation is compared to Mr. Barnabas, for example. Mr. Barnabas is the clergyman called to visit Joseph when it is assumed he will die of his wounds from his encounter with the highwaymen. He reluctantly visits Joseph and, instead of comforting him as he lie dying, insists that he renounce his love for Fanny: if not, he risks eternity in hell. After hearing his confession, Mr. Barnabas prays rapidly, because “some company then waiting for him below in the Parlour, where the ingredients for punch were all in readiness; but no one would squeeze the oranges till he came” (52). Clearly, Mr. Barnabas lacks devotion to his calling.

Later, when Mr. Barnabas and Adams are discussing the printing of sermons, the ideas of certain “free-thinkers” come up, and Mr. Barnabas denounces them for believing that “the Poverty and low Estate, which was recommended to the Church in its Infancy, and was only temporary Doctrine adapted to her under Persecution, was to be preserved in her flourishing and established State” (70). Mr. Barnabas here sets up an argument which Adams will, throughout the novel, continue to comment on and denounce in several different circumstances (as we see in the instance above). However, at this point, Adams makes an even more pointed and controversial claim, re-instating the value of works into Protestantism and adopting a quasi-universalist tone: “a virtuous and good Turk, or Heathen, are more acceptable in the sight of their Creator, than a vicious and wicked Christian, tho’ his Faith was as perfectly Orthodox as St. Paul’s himself” (71). Here Mr. Adam’s is responding to the insistence of right belief (not necessarily just “faith”) instead of right practice, coming down strongly on the side of right practice and, throughout the novel, continuing such conversations with Mr. Trulliber, with the Catholic priest, and with others. Fielding seems to use the form of the novel, and the character of Abraham Adams, to make arguments regarding a variety of social issues, particularly religious ones, through the form of fictional discourse.


February 20, 2013

Whereas Pamela is written almost entirely in first person epistolary form, Anti-Pamela (by Eliza Haywood) moves back and forth between first-person letters and a third-person omniscient narrator.  In Pamela, the first-person nature of Pamela’s writing was meant to attest to the honesty and truthfulness of her narrative, and to her own sense of interiority.  In Anti-Pamela, the reader is set up from the very beginning to dis-trust Syrena, thus causing the reader to cast doubt upon the veracity of her letters.  Her ability to “act” is described in the fourth paragraph of the book, and she is often referred to as the “young dissembler.”  Furthermore, Syrena’s honesty with her co-conspirator, her mother, also does not last long:

“Hitherto Syrena had disguised nothing either of her Behavior or Sentiments from her Mother; but a very little Time made her alter Conduct in that Point, and practice on some of those Lessons of Deceit, she had so well instructed her in” (69). 

Similarly, later on, when Mrs. Tricksey scheming to get Mr. W to take Syrena as his wife, she sends two letters to her daughter.  The narrator is careful to make sure the reader knows which letter contains Mrs. Trickseys’ actual thoughts: “That which contain’d her real Sentiments was to this Purpose” (182).  Without the narrator, the reader may, somehow, mistake her deceitful designs for her actual interiority.

Because of these narrative intrusions, the reader regards all of Syrena’s writing suspiciously (as well as her mother’s), but only suspects her because of the third-person narrator, the figure that Pamela lacks almost entirely.  And though Pamela contains some letters from Mr. B and from her father, her voice comprises the vast majority of the five-hundred pages.  Without an omniscient, trustworthy narrator, we can only accept Pamela’s words as true, despite the pure unbelievability of her circumstances and unfaltering virtue.  Haywood writes in an omniscient narrator, however, to guide the reading and bias the reader against the first-person narratives embedded within.  Though we can gather most of what the letters read (due to their conspiratorial and secret nature) is true, there still exists the seed of doubt placed there by the narrator.  While these different voices lend more complexity to the story, itself, I feel that Haywood also places her narrator in the story in order to highlight what Pamela lacks: a sense of truthfulness and veracity.  Perhaps if Pamela had had a consistent third-person narrator, we might have known Pamela’s true feelings, and not only seen the saintly side of a sixteen year old girl.     

Pamela Pt. 2

February 13, 2013

Pamela’s writing continues to be a topic of interest in the second half of Pamela, especially as we see Mr. B wanting to read her letters and journal not to “spy” on her, but rather, for his own enjoyment. We, as readers, discover that Pamela’s “language” and “sentiment” are a large part of what reformed him and drew him to her in love, thereby making Pamela’s literacy the means to her happiness. Pamela’s literacy, in this sense, almost fulfills modern notions of education’s benefits: literacy means a better chance of succeeding in life and the possibility of social mobility.  However, there is a difference; when we talk about education, we mean that it will allow the educated to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get a good job, and create a better life for themselves (the “American Dream”).  However, that is not quite what is happening here.  Pamela is able to move up the social ladder not just because of her literacy, but also because of her virtue, chastity, and integrity, which are transmitted through her writing.  By possessing these honorable traits, she doesn’t have to “pull herself up by her bootstraps.”  Rather, it seems it is the work of fate, rather than her own volition, which sweeps her up and places her back into the social position she should have been in in the first place.  Someone with all that virtue wasn’t created to be impoverished, after all; somewhere down the line a mistake was made.  Pamela’s ascent to a higher social sphere is just the “great chain of being” working itself out, in a way.

However, considering our conversations in past weeks, I don’t want to be too pessimistic about Pamela.  Contemporary readers tend to come down too hard on these early novels, judging their social statements by our own sense of “advanced” ethics, when in fact, for their time, these novels often proposed rather “novel,” even scandalous ideas.  After all, that a poor servant girl should marry a gentleman and Justice of the Peace is quite an event, and one that shouldn’t be pronounced “status quo” so quickly.   Richardson is radical in this novel, showing us first a servant girl moving up in the world.  Richardson’s connection of Pamela to the Magnificat, Mary’s song, which praises God for exalting the lowly, certainly revises traditional theological ideas of those verses from Luke’s Gospel (311).  Instead of that song speaking about Mary’s spiritual contentment in God, Pamela connects it with her own situation, implying that it relates to her change in status from a lowly maid to a gentlelady.  So perhaps even the Scriptures allow for some social mobility for the worthy.

The idea of marrying for love is also radical, though as we’ve noted in class, is a philosophy that is beginning to be advocated in this time period.  But Pamela, the novel’s spotless heroine, makes a rather impassioned stance against the idea of arranged marriages between upper-class families: “What must be the Case of those poor Maidens, who are forced, for sordid views, by their tyrannical Parents, or Guardians, to marry the Man they almost hate, and, perhaps, to the Loss of the Man they Love?” (348). Though on the other hand, maybe those “poor Maidens” will grow to love the man they hated, like Pamela. And one could argue that Pamela never quite became Mr. B’s wife, considering her constant references to him as her “Master.” Still, Richardson’s eventual portrayal of two people, from “different sides of the tracks,” falling in love and getting married is still a provocative narrative device, and one that doubtless ruffled a few feathers upon Pamela’s publication.

Week 4 – Pamela pt. 1

February 6, 2013

Pamela, thus far, has not quite been as “fun” as Love in Excess.  This is partly due to the fact that the title character is so darn virtuous and careful to protect her innocence that any fleeting moments of seduction are vacant of any sort of passion, due to the fact that Pamela is never actually tempted by Mr. B.  I know eventually Pamela will fall in love with him (how, I cannot guess), but for now, there is a lot of worrying about being raped on Pamela’s part and anger/frustration on Mr. B’s part, neither of which is particularly compelling. 

What is interesting, however, is Pamela’s literacy and her use of it in her own defense.  There was much in Ros Ballaster’s Seductive Forms which I found problematic, but her idea of the woman writer, though lacking a sense of personal, social, and political agency, as still able to stand on the margins as a kind of witness and testify to injustice, was an intriguing one.  In some sense Pamela is a witness for herself against the treachery of Mr.B, especially since she has no one else to come to her rescue.  She carefully chronicles his attempts to seduce her, as well as her modes of resistance.  Her actions should be enough to safeguard her reputation, but Mr. B works against her through his own acts of “artifice.”  However, due to Pamela’s careful documentation, her parents are secure in their opinion of her and continue to trust her steadfastness; this is crucial because her parents’ belief in her innocence is nearly as important as her innocence, itself.  When her letters become more journal-like and a recipient is not always so certain, her writing stands to record the hardships provoked by Mrs. Jewkes and Mr. B, and to prove her guiltless conscience in spite of their assaults.  So Pamela’s ability to write, and her insistence on doing so, affords her an amount of agency in a situation in which she has very little.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with this reading.  For one, this is not actually “woman’s writing,” but the idea of a woman and of a woman’s interiority, as proposed by Samuel Richardson.  Richardson is doing his best to imagine Pamela’s social situation and gives her the benefit of the doubt by assuming  she would value her virtue more than her own life, but his Pamela presents herself as a trope of sorts: she is the woman of unfailing quality who passes every trial and is justly rewarded in the end (the title page gives it away). 

Also, Pamela’s agency in writing is somewhat foiled as Mr. B, ultimately, has control over it.  He reads all of her private letters before they are sent out, withholds several of them, and even usurps her voice on one occasion by dictating exactly what she will write.    Her witness, therefore, is compromised, as he has special knowledge of it and can base his next moves on what she has recorded. 

However, there is a whole second half of the book, so we shall see what becomes of this theory.

Week 2 – Love in Excess

January 23, 2013

Something is definitely “in excess” in Eliza Haywood’s novel, but I don’t see “love” as the main offender here. In fact, I don’t know I spotted love anywhere, but that’s a matter of definitions. So what was in excess? Desire, passion, rage, “dispai r,” envy, and hormones, and on the part of pretty much every character. The amount of extreme emotion in this novel, the amount of swooning and suffering, elation and “extasie,” may very well be typical of an 18th century women’s novel (although that I yet have to test). But it was interesting how each new character brought a similar disposition towards obsessive “love” to the novel, along with all of the emotional states and mood swings that obsession brings. Everyone was subject to the heavenly highs and dreadful, unbearable depths of desire, feeling jealousy, anger, pleasure, joy, guilt, and regret in a steady and reliable sequence.

The structure of the novel says something interesting in light of this observation. Contrary to modern forms of fiction writing, where individual pieces of dialogue are given their own paragraphs in order to distinguish them clearly from subsequent dialogue, discourse in Love in Excess was often hosted in long, rambling paragraphs, where the obscure syntax of sentences* did even more to distract the reader from who was saying what. Often while reading longer exchanges of dialogue, I lost track of the speaker due to the fact that dialogue was separated only by “he said” or “said she” or something to the effect, and paying close attention to punctuation was the only way to decipher the discourse (the dialogue between D’elmont and Melantha on page 125 is a perfect example of this). Though this frustrated me (and made me grateful for the evolution of novel forms), it seemed almost appropriate in this story, especially considering the similarly vexing amorous experiences of the majority of the major players in the novel.  What does it matter if I mix up some of Melliora’s or D’elmont’s lines?  In some sense, they are both grappling with treachery of passion.

But it also seemed appropriate considering the amount of deception and veiled identity within the plot.  Since the characters were so often confused or manipulated by their seeming friends or lovers, it is only right that I, as the reader who, along with the narrator, is “in” on all the schemes, should be subject to a kind of confusion.  In this way, the skewed passages of dialogue immerse me in the bewildering and perplexing experience of desire, which must be shrewdly and carefully decoded down to the last period.  But even the omniscient narrator falls prey to this confusion in distinguishing characters and their desires, as we see marked by a footnote on page 146.  Haywood writes, in reference to D’elmont, “As for his wife, he thought not of her, with any compassion for his sufferings…” (italics mine).  The footnote at the bottom of the page tells us the sentence is most likely to be read “her sufferings,” but in a sense, does it matter?  The suffering of either Alovysa or D’elmont, or Melliora or Melantha, or anybody else in the novel, parallels each other so closely.  I am perfectly willing to forgive the narrator for this small misstep in keeping all the suffering, groaning, and despair straight.

* One particularly difficult sentence to parse: “After Melantha had vented part of the raillery, she was so big with, on the Count, which he but little regarded, being wholly taken up with other thoughts, she proposed, going into the wilderness, which was at the farther end of the garden, and they readily agreeing to it, ‘Come my lord,’ said she to the Count, ‘you are melancholy, I have thought of a way which will either indulge the humour you are in, or divert it, as you shall chuse.’” (122).