Tag Archives: writers

In Defense of Novels: Jane Austen’s Perspective

In December 1817 Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was published posthumously.  She’d been a novelist in print since 1811, and presumably, like all novelists, had occasioned to meet with derisive, if not outright patronizing, commentary when she’d discussed that activity which had brought her the most joy and possibly the most angst: writing novels.

The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer
The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer

In the 18th century, as well as throughout the 19th century, reading fiction was a questionable avocation.  It led the mind toward fancies and illusions; for weak-minded females, reading romances could turn the potentially perfect wife into an Elizabeth Bennet, a bluestocking, a virago with irrepressible opinions.  Gentlemen cautioned against these idle amusements, but Jane Austen and erudite intellectuals like herself offered their vehement replies.  Her sentiments on the matter appear within Northanger Abbey.  Couched within is a soliloquy in defense of novels, and I can put her argument in no cleverer words than she already has.  The passage of interest appears shortly after a description of Catherine’s and Isabella’s progressing friendship and informs how novels allow for invaluable ingress into the human condition:

” . . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.  Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding–joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages in disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.  Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition have been so much decried.

Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs
Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.  And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  ‘I am no novel reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’  Such a common cant.  ‘And what are you reading, Miss –?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.  ‘It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, 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.

Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbably circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

Hurrah for Jane!  The above is a total smack-down, and I can’t say I blame her for the rebuke, but I do adore history. Of course today’s society is much more approving of novels, but I, too, have heard many an opinion on the uselessness of fiction–from people who have obviously never read Austen! The bottom line is: can we not applaud both pursuits and be all the more finely tuned by what the two subjects have to offer each other? I like to think so, but I also can’t help but wonder that if Austen were alive today, would she be writing incisive commentary on modern day life, something along the lines of (don’t smack me) Lena Dunham’s Girls? Or even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary?

Queen of the Blues: Elizabeth Montagu’s Bluestockings

It all began with a gentleman who liked blue tights and intellectual women.  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen.  The term “bluestockings” was used to categorize the elite female members of England’s smarty-pants club, and it was named after a pair of gams.

You see, once upon a time in the 1750s a lady named Elizabeth Montagu sought to make her home on Hill Street the intellectual capital of London.  She was to be England’s answer to the French salonnière, an aristocratic/upper bourgeosie hostess of late hour assemblies where men and women gathered on equal footing to discuss society’s fashionable arts.  From the written word to the painted embodiment, London’s distinguished came to discuss whatever was itching society at the present moment.  And unlike other club atmospheres of the day, it was a society undressed, the Georgian answer to casual attire and debate en famille.

For a club geared toward the intellectual expansion of women, its attendees were also prestigious.  On any given evening, one might encounter Samuel Johnson’s high-reaching troop including Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Sir Joseph Banks, David Garrick, Adam Smith, and many others.

Depiction of Samuel Johnson’s Literary Party – Joshua Reynolds, 1781

But there was only one man who wore blue stockings or so the legend says.  He was purportedly a philosopher who minded his economics over his fashion sense (ever an admirable trait among the enlightened).  Blue worsted stockings were cheap compared with bleached or black silk and he sported them on his frequent visits to Hill Street, flashing his legs at Montagu’s get-togethers whenever he was in the mood for a bit of high-minded chatting.

Michel Garnier – Elegant Lady at her Toilette (*modified)

As with many clubs, the bluestocking ladies were in constant transition, attending by the year and the inclination.  In the beginning they included Frances Boscawen, Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Talbot, Elizabeth Vesey, and of course, Elizabeth Montagu herself.

Although small in nature, the formation of the society was an achievement both applauded and criticized by society.  Horace Walpole called it “the first female club ever known,” and it probably was in the public sense.  Although feminine hunger for knowledge was admired and even encouraged in the highest circles of enlightened French society,  England still expected their women to uphold the traditional definition of “an accomplished lady.”  She would practice the delicate arts such as painting and playing the pianoforte, but she would not engage in criticism nor would she become a creator, much less of virtuoso.  That is not to say women failed to ascend to the heights of which many 18th century men considered the masculine landscape.  Richard Samuel’s 1779 painting, The Nine Great Living Muses of Great Britain, paid tribute to the torchbearers who led the weaker sex out of their darkened drawing rooms and into the public light.

From left to right: Elizabeth Carter, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Angelika Kauffmann, Elizabeth Linley, Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu (our original bluestocking!), Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah More, and Charlotte Lennox.

Keep in mind the Bluestocking Society gathered some 40 years prior to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and Wollstonecraft was received as a radical, though for a variety of reasons, political, social, and personal.

Over time, particularly in the 19th century where the tightening of morals and social etiquette became the norm, the term “bluestocking” evolved in meaning.  As any romance novel reader knows, bluestockings were known to shake up the natural order.  They indulged in literature when society would rather relegate them to dancing or standing for gown fittings.  Instead of playing the shrinking violet or wallflower, they opined, debated, and asserted their intellectual independence over the common pitfalls of women: restrictive marriages, lack of economy and agency beyond household affairs.  Spinsterhood was uniquely suited to them, but many of the original bluestockings were married.  They were merely women who wanted an avenue of culture and contribution, women who espoused that the improvement of the female mind would benefit society at large.  They were bluestockings and yes readers, they were amazing.

Further Reading:

Reconsidering the Bluestocking – ten essays that “explore the Bluestockings’ social, economic, and intellectual achievements, including the publication of fiction and criticism, their plans for a utopian community, their charitable enterprises, and the management of a large coal-mining concern.”

Brilliant Women: 18th century bluestockings

Novel Recommendation: The Secret Diary of a Princess

If you are a Marie Antoinette fan and find yourself wondering what her early years before Versailles would have been like, consider reading Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess.  For one, it’s on sale for kindle through Monday for 99c or 86p in celebration of Bastille Day.  Yay!  Two, it’s written by the fabulous blogger Madame Guillotine

I started reading last night and the voice of young Maria Antonia really shines through–Melanie got it just right.   I’ve read a lot of novels about MA and thought the market was saturated, but Melanie proves there’s still more to offer.  MA’s childhood and adolescence is a fascinating and formative period of the queen’s tragic life and should not be missed.

I’ll post the review late next week!

P.S. If you miss the sale, Melanie’s novel is usually priced at $3–still a steal!