ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                                              Spring 2009

 

April 20   Charlotte Smith, Desmond, Vols. III

               Recommended: Appendices to Volume and Jones, chapter 7 “Women and the Rise of the Novel:  Sexual Prescripts” by Ros Ballaster

 

Presentation:  Denice Traina

Bibliographies by Marisa Iglesias and Paul Quigley

 

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A week of conclusions:  we conclude our presentations with Denice’s assessment of Ballaster.  We conclude our discussion of Smith’s novel, Desmond, focusing on volume three and the materials included in the appendix.  We conclude our discussion of eighteenth-century female writers with a rousing send-off, recapitulating what we covered, what was missing, all the many scholarly projects that remain to be done, and what that means for “your brilliant career”!*

 

*See Judith Pascoe, “Mary Robinson and Your Brilliant Career,” http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2000/v/n19/005937ar.html

 

 

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Desmond

 

From “Literary Gothic” page on Charlotte Smith: http://www.litgothic.com/Authors/csmith.html, visited November 25, 2003.

 

British poet and novelist who never wrote a "Gothic" work. So what's she doing here? Simple: she helped invent the Gothic, in large part due to the influence of her works on Ann Radcliffe. (She also helped invent Romanticism and William Wordsworth, and never gets much credit for that, either.) She did this by bringing to the sentimental novel—extremely popular in her day—a sophisticated aesthetic sense (informed by her deep interest in landscape and painting) that included a thorough knowledge of the sublime and the picturesque. Setting important episodes and characters in both sublime and picturesque landscapes, Smith heightened the emotional and aesthetic register of her works, thus bringing them in line with—and/or helping to create, actually—the emerging intellectual and cultural currents of Romanticism.”

 

Examine this effect in Desmond.  In particular, what emotional valence does the landscape of France in the last volume carry?

 

For those who would like to read Richard Powhele’s anti-jacobin attack on female writers from the 1790s, which includes references to many of the writers we have studied, see the text on the University of Virginia’s website:  http://etext.virginia.edu/britpo/unsex/unsex.html.

 

The lines 95-96 from Powhele’sUnsex’d Females” refer to Smith:

“And charming SMITH resign'd her power to please,
Poetic feeling and poetic ease;”

 

Polwhele's note: “The Sonnets of Charlotte Smith, have a pensiveness peculiarly their own: It is not the monotonous plaintiveness of Shenstone, the gloomy melancholy of Gray, or the meek subdued spirit of Collins. It is a strain of wild, yet softened sorrow, that breathes a romantic air, without losing, for a moment, its mellowness. Her images, often original, are drawn from nature: the most familiar, have a new and charming aspect. Sweetly picturesque, she creates with the pencil of a Gilpin, and infuses her own soul into the landscape. There is so uncommon a variety in her expression, that I could read a thousand of such Sonnets without lassitude. In general, a very few Sonnets fatigue attention, partly owing to the sameness of their construction. Petrarch, indeed, I can relish for a considerable time: but Spenser and Milton soon produce somnolence. As a Novel-writer, her Ethelinde and Emmeline place her above all her contemporaries, except Mrs. D'Arblay and Mrs. Radcliffe. But why does she suffer her mind to be infected with the Gallic mania? I hope, ere this, she is completely recovered from a disorder, of which, indeed, I observed only a few slight symptoms.”

 

By the time Smith writes Desmond (1792), she was a famous author both for her poetry, particularly her sonnets, and her sentimental novels, Emmeline (1788), Ethelinde (1789), and Celestina (1791).  Remember that the mechanisms for literary fame were firmly in place by the 1790s and the numerous Review journals covered most published works.  An author of Smith’s fame was certain to receive considerable attention. Here are some excerpts from reviews of the novel:

 

Monthly Review, Second Series 9 (92): 406-413: "Among the various proofs which the present age affords, that the female character is advancing in cultivation, and rising in dignity, may be justly reckoned the improvements that are making in the kind of writing which is more immediately adapted to the amusement of female readers.  Novels, which were formerly little more than simple tales of love, are gradually taking a higher and more masculine tone, and are becoming the vehicles of useful instruction" (406) – all the extracts are from political sections of the novel and appreciated. 

Analytical Review 13 (92): 428: "the cause of freedom is defended with warmth, whilst shrewd satire and acute observations back the imbodied (sic) arguments."

European Magazine 22 (92) 22: "The narrative, which is conveyed in the form of letters, is agreeably enlivened by discussion on the new face of affairs in France.  It is not be expected that much information is to be found here, but our Authoress has certainly vindicated the cause of French liberty with much acuteness." 

Of the representation of France, the Critical Reviewer sagely observes: "which will be differently judged of according to the taste, more properly according to the political opinions of the readers…. Her politics we cannot approve of" (Critical Review, Second Series 6 (92): 100).

 

What does the response from the critics tell you about the novel?  What can you learn about the ways in which eighteenth-century readers read novels?  What does this suggest about the gendered dynamics of literary and political values?

 

Ros Ballaster discusses the changing forms and subjects of female-authored novels, illustrating how works like Oroonoko address the public issues of government and tyranny by the law.  “In these early novels the ‘domestic’ preoccupations of the later novel are not evident and plots of sexual pursuit, whether those of seduction and betrayal, or those of courtship to marriage, seem to require a more allegorical or metaphorical reading than their successors.  These are stories in which the canvas of sexual intrigue serves as the ground for explorations of what constitutes political or civil agency, especially for women” (202-203).  While we can think of novels like Female Quixote, Betsy Thoughtless and Evelina as examples of this type of later domestic narrative, in what ways does Desmond return to the overtly political discourse of the early novels?  In what sense does this tie the domestic and the political in direct ways?  What does this suggest about the rise (or circumnavigation?) of the novel?

 

Discuss the doubling of Josephine de Boisbelle and Geraldine Verney.

Diana Bowstead: “Smith uses Josephine to propose that the sentimental heroine may, herself, have sexual appetites and to imagine for her readers the consequences when she chooses to satisfy them:  in this case, an unwanted pregnancy, but no public shame or private guilt because Josephine’s enlightened brother and honest lover cooperate to protect her reputation.  The price she pays for her indiscretion is no higher than that required of Desmond.  Contemporary readers seem unruffled by the radical implications of Josephine’s story, perhaps because it can be seen as merely confirming stereotypical notion about the moral lassitude of the French aristocracy” (247).

How radical is Josephine’s story?  What does this suggest about the politicization of female sexuality (control of female bodies)?  How does the English attitude toward the French inform the story?  How does it inform the response (or lack of it) to Josephine’s story?  How does this fit into our discussion of the sub-theme of French women in the writings by English women?  To what extent does the French Revolution change the stakes of the argument about female sexuality?  (Pace Wollstonecraft and Burke?)

 

Some reviewers (in parts not excerpted above) took issue with the character of Desmond, seeing his affair with Josephine as a flaw.  To what extent do you agree?  What is at issue in Smith’s representation of male sexuality / sentimentality in Desmond?  To what extent do you agree with Bowstead that this is a problem resulting from the epistolary form?

 

Examine Bowstead’s point about sentiment and rebellion: “Eliciting pity is in this novel a means rather than an end.  The reader’s pity for Geraldine is not supposed to become awe at virtue’s transcendent capacity for self-immolation – the intent of the Griselda motif.  Rather, it is supposed to become indignation on her behalf and on behalf of all victims of institutionally authorized oppression.  And these emotions are supposed to motivate critical insight into wrongful and inhumane presuppositions that are used to rationalize servility on the one hand and to justify privilege on the other” (252).

 

To what extent does Smith propose that Geraldine has an ethical responsibility to revolt against unjust domestic government?

 

Examine Bowstead’s conclusion:  “Although Geraldine is a ‘distressed heroine’ and suffers as nobly as any of her breed, the reader is finally not altogether certain that abjection is a heroic posture.  The disposition of subject matter – the contiguity of two such similar stories [as Josephine’s and Geraldine’s] raises questions about the relationship between resignation and integrity in a morally responsible individuals, even when that individual is a woman” (253). 

 

In the end of the novel, the structure of the three letters brings marriage directly into comparison with political discussion of the slave trade – an issue that has been invited and hinted at with subtlety in many writings by women this semester (also in the poetry by women that implies a comparison between women and animals).  To what extent does the novel illustrate the importance of individual rights and thus the relationship among women’s status as wives, slavery and political despotism?

 

To what extent do you agree with Bowstead that in the end Smith radicalizes her heroine and brings her through a psychological, moral and political reversal from a Griselda to a Jacobin (261)?

 

Other Conclusions:

 

Take a moment and reflect on the literature and authors we have read from the class.  How would you describe the range of subject matter?  Forms?  Media?  Class representation?  Now recall the opening work by Judith Stanton Phillips on women’s published writings in the eighteenth century and the monograph by Margaret Ezell on writing women’s literary history.  What has been left out of our study?  What forms of writing have we passed over?  What authors? 

 

Also evaluate the narrative of women’s literary history posited by Susan Staves.

 

By 1789 women writers had become a normal, albeit minority, part of literary production.  Between 1777 and 1789, for example, thirty-two plays by women were produced on the public stages and about 224 novels by women were published.  More women – including Burney, Cowley, Inchbald, and Smith – now had substantial and celebrated literary careers lasting decades.  While some women writers continued to come from the aristocracy and the gentry, increasingly women from the middling ranks, especially those from families of knowledge workers like teachers and booksellers, established themselves as writers.  More women also took on the literary authority entailed in editing, anthologizing, reviewing, and writing literary biography and literary criticism.  At the same time, most women writers still experienced considerable anxiety that their literary ambitions might somehow unsex them and engaged in self-censorship that constricted or weakened their work.  Some took on the task of policing other women to keep them within the narrowed constraints of proper contemporary feminine domesticity.  Our story of the rise of the women writer is, therefore, bittersweet.  (26)

 

As a gesture of closure, consider what work remains to be done on the women writers from the eighteenth century, those we have read and even those we have skipped.  What trends do you foresee having traction in the academic world?  What might this mean for eighteenth-century studies?  The future of literary studies? Your brilliant career?