Descendants of Waverley: Romancing History in Contemporary Historical Fiction

Descendants of Waverly by Martha Bowden

When I began thinking about writing Descendants of Waverly: Romancing History in Contemporary Historical Fiction (Bucknell University Press 2016) more than a decade ago, I was working within a set of assumptions that could only exist in an insufficiently researched critical framework. For example, I accepted the commonly held views that historical novels were defined by date- and character-driven markers (a certain distance in the past; a fictional character participating in a historical event or a historical figure whose interiority the novel reveals), that Sir Walter Scott “invented” the historical novel, and that the right way to go about the book was to choose a number of contemporary historical novels that take place in the eighteenth century, my area of expertise, and show where and how they get the period right or wrong, at the same time tying the whole thing, somehow, into the Waverley Novels. Tidy systems are always the result of insufficient information.

A wise colleague pointed out that the third assumption would result in a mechanical and repetitive book. I was dubious about the second, because, after all, I had read A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and a little research negated it altogether. I found that Scott did not claim to have invented the form. In his introduction to the works of Defoe, he notes Defoe’s brilliance at bringing alive a historical event, and only regrets that he did not write a novel about the Great Fire of London. In the General Preface to the Magnum Edition of the Waverley Novels, he claims that “I felt that something might be attempted for my own country, of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland,” identifying the regional novel as an ancestor [1]. He also reveals what he learned when completing and revising Joseph Strutt’s historical novel, Queen-Hoo-Hall, in 1807-08, an attempt that failed: “I thought I was aware of the reason, and supposed that, by rendering his language too ancient, and displaying his antiquarian knowledge too liberally, the ingenious author had raised up an obstacle to his own success” (xvi).

Frontispiece and title page of Ivanhoe, Magnum Edition

The first assumption stuck with me for a while, until I read Andrew Beahrs’s article, which develops a theory of the genre that interrogates not the what (period and character) but the how (the author’s method). From this article, I developed the theoretical model of the tensions between authenticity and accessibility, and the familiar and strange, both of which are exemplified in Scott’s assessment of Queen-Hoo-Hall [2]. Scott did not invent the historical novel, but he did play an important part in both establishing the accepted version of it and in theorizing how it works. Next, I was startled by Scott’s description of his books as “historical romances,” and his proclivity for subtitling his novels “A Romance.” Another assumption was the standard history of the novel: an evolutionary development in which the romance mutated into the modern novel and thus disappeared. Clearly, that was not the case when it comes to historical fiction. Anne H. Stevens’s work helped me see how the historical novel gradually disentangled itself from Gothic fiction, which was also described as “romance” in the period. The idea of romance, which vivifies the historical record, adding emotions, motivations, conversations and all those details of an event that are never recorded, became the central idea in my book, the effect created by the tensions inherent in the form.

The liberation from the mechanical casebook approach allowed me to write a text that reworks the history of the novel as a genealogical rather than evolutionary growth. Writers of historical fiction today need not have read a Waverley Novel in order to be influenced by him, any more than we need to know who our great-great-grandparents are for our genes to be affected by them. The first section contains two chapters that develop this critical framework. In the second, I devote two chapters to the establishment of authenticity while retaining accessibility, the first on literary intertextuality and the second on the use of images, such as portraits, both historical and fictional. Readers of historical fiction are interested in the “truth” of the narrative, but they generally are concerned about the what and I am interested in the how, which is the function of romance.

The third section covers the metamorphosis of the form, with the first chapter discussing three subgenres: the embedded narrative, the historical detective novel, and young adult fiction. It ends with an analysis of Iain Pears’s Stone’s Fall, which fuses most of the genres that I discuss in this section. Just as we don’t have just one set of great-grandparents, so the historical novel, while retaining the tensions, the movement into the grey, unknown spaces, and the romance of its earliest forms, has developed a hybridity through the influence of new genres. John Frow’s article [3] gave me a way to describe what happens when C. J. Sansom combines a classic historical form with the equally classic detective novel. It is not necessary for the Shardlake series to reside in one and only one generic box. We can discuss it in the context of historical fiction or detective fiction, as a historical novel with detective fiction characteristics, or as a detective novel with a historical setting. The second chapter is dedicated to biographical romance, the most common of the contemporary developments. The third and final chapter engages with “the historical novel at play,” those fictions that combine historical situations with elements of the supernatural and narrative playfulness. I realize that there are other subgenres of historical fiction, but I had to stop somewhere, and these five forms are representative of the wider scope of the genre.

Writing this book was a great pleasure because it allowed me to investigate one of my favorite forms of fiction while employing my scholarly interest in the development of the novel. I realized that I have been reading historical fiction for most of my life; the first playground reading recommendation that I remember was from a classmate who loved Elizabeth Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. In the young adult fiction section I return to another early love, Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books I first discovered on those magical shelves of books at the back of my elementary and middle school classrooms. The Dawn Wind is the one I remember most clearly from those days; this book allowed me to discover more of her work. The good news is that, even after years of scholarly investigation, I still read historical fiction for pleasure.

The cover of the book shows three of my 1880 Wedgwood plates depicting scenes from Ivanhoe, photographed by Lauren Holt. I am very grateful to Bucknell University Press and Rowman & Littlefield for giving me this kind of latitude to get an image that is just right for the book, and for Lauren Holt’s professional expertise.

Notes

[1] “Scott on Defoe’s Life and Works, 1810, 1817,” in Defoe: The Critical Heritage, ed. Pat Rogers, 66-69, 1972; see also his references in to Defoe in “Essay on Romance.” Walter Scott, “General Preface,” The Waverley Novels, Volume I: Waverley. Magnum Edition, 48 vols, 3rd ed. Edinburgh and London, 1830, xiii.

[2] Andrew Beahrs, “Making History: Establishing Authority in Period Fiction.” Writer’s Chronicle, 38, no.1 (September 2005): 34-40.

[3] John Frow, “‘Reproducibles, Rubrics, and Everything You Need’: Genre Theory Today.” PMLA 122, no. 5 (October 2007): 1626-34.

Life Mask by Emma Donoghue: The Lawrence Portrait of Eliza Farren

life maskLife Mask by Emma Donoghue (Harcourt, 2004) takes its title from the artistic technique that allows a sculptor to make a cast of a living person’s face in preparation for creating a sculpture. In the novel, Donoghue defines it as “An image made by taking a plaster mould of the face of a living human subject” (156). But the term has a secondary meaning in her work, as the epigraph reveals: “How tired I am of keeping a mask on my countenance. How tight it sticks–it makes me sore. There’s metaphor for you” (quoting from William Beckford’s Lisbon Diary, 27 May 1787). It refers to the double lives of many of the characters, who hide self-doubt, love affairs, fears, and unspoken sexual identities behind the faces they present to society.

Using the historical record as the ground for her art, Donoghue depicts the social world where the masks are worn, especially the Devonshire House set and the group centered at Strawberry Hill and its owner, Horace Walpole. At the same time, she investigates the interior selves behind the masks.

Anne Damer, the central character, was a distinguished sculptor in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who faced many obstacles in her life: the suicide of her husband, the social attitude that considered female sculptors to be unfeminine because their art required hard physical labor, and persistent rumors that she was lesbian. Donoghue uses these and other contemporary events, people, and artifacts to create a world that encompasses both the complicated social structures of England on one hand and Damer’s inner life on the other.

Her lesbianism has never been definitively established. Andrew Elfenbein declares that “[f]or recent historians of lesbianism, Damer has been a pivotal figure, in some cases appearing as virtually the first modern lesbian” [1].  The Dictionary of National Biography is less assertive; it documents the “passionate and lasting friendship with Mary Berry,” whom she met in 1789, and notes the public remarks during her marriage about her “Sapphic nature,” rising from close friendships with women. But apparently her contemporaries considered her “reticent;” for example, she ordered that her private papers be destroyed after she died [2].  It is this very reticence that allows Donoghue’s speculation on her life, although it requires the utmost delicacy.

In writing a biographical novel, Donoghue must negotiate between the novelist’s license to invent and biography’s commitment to the historical record. Thus, she does not turn Damer into “the first modern lesbian”; she does not even allow her to admit her own orientation publicly. Both scenarios are false, to history and to the general mores and values of the period. On the other hand, had she left the question as vague as the information contained in the limited number of surviving documents, the novel would be unsatisfying. Instead, Donoghue, as historical novelist, fills in the gaps; the result is the portrait of a woman coming to terms with her own sexuality in a society that considers it disgusting and ludicrous.

Donoghue portrays the relationship between Anne and Eliza as an intense friendship that is destroyed by the publication of a piece of anonymous doggerel that claims that the connection is sexual [3]. This squib is deeply hurtful to Anne, but is perilous for Eliza. As an actress, a profession not held in high regard in the period, Eliza must be much more protective of her reputation than the aristocratic people who form Anne’s circle. Not surprisingly in a novel filled with artists and their subjects, a portrait plays a critical part in illuminating the friendship and its rupture [4]. Donoghue enhances the background to the creation and presentation of Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Farren to reveal the conflicts that class and sexuality cause.

The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1790 and made Lawrence’s reputation as a painter. Before the 1790 Exhibition, he had been better known for his works in pastel, but he “seemed to arrive fully formed as a painter in oils” at that event [5]. In the episodes in which Lawrence paints the portrait, Donoghue speculates on how he might have achieved the expression on Farren’s face. According to A. Cassandra Albinson, visitors to the studio felt that “Miss Farren’s look met you as you entered” [6]. Lucy Peltz notes the “complicity between artist and sitter” in the “playful glance Farren shoots across her shoulder to her appreciative viewer” [7].

Donoghue explains the gaze as a mixture of flirtation and annoyance. The pose emerges from Eliza’s arrival in a rush at the studio: “She pulled off her muff to hand to her mother; she tugged off one glove and reached to unclasp her fur-lined pelisse. Lawrence raised one finger. ‘Don’t do that’” (251). She does what he says, but she is “smil[ing] through her irritation.” She thinks he is young, arrogant, and callow; he doesn’t seem to care, which makes it worse. What is more, she is puzzled by his method;  as an actress and thus a public person, she expects to pose as some kind of allegorical figure, or a famous woman in history, and not as Eliza Farren, a private woman (253). When she sees the finished portrait, she realizes he has produced an entirely unexpected image: “This wasn’t Miss Farren of Drury Lane, this was a private person, rushing across a summer landscape in winter clothes. How had Tom Lawrence seen such a tentativeness in Eliza’s eyes as she posed for him in his studio with a worldly confidence? How had he glimpsed the fears that she carried around like tiny pebbles in her mouth?” (262).

When she points out to the painter that she still looks very thin–she had asked him to add “a pound of flesh”–he refuses: “‘You couldn’t be more beautiful,’ he said and she didn’t know whether he meant her or the Eliza in the picture” (262). But she is frightened by the idea that there are two Elizas, the private self and the public object of desire that appears on the stage. The need to protect the private self from being tainted has caused her to break with Anne and the suggestion that she could be equally objectified by the portrait increases her insecurity. These are the fears that Tom has revealed.

In dealing with the controversy over the naming of the picture, Donoghue takes a position that is more determined than the historical record. It was originally to be titled Portrait of a Lady, an anonymous, class-registering designation, but was hung at the Exhibition as Portrait of an Actress, a title, as Peltz comments, “that without any honorific qualification was synonymous with ill repute.” In what is described as a “long and obsequious letter” to Farren, who was furious and dismayed, Lawrence blamed the Academy for the change [8]. Peltz does not give any independent confirmation for Lawrence’s version of events, but Donoghue accepts it, producing a dramatic scene in which Anne views the painting for the first time and questions the title.

Anne’s reaction to the painting tells us how much it resembles the sitter: “The pose was startlingly spontaneous: there stood Eliza Farren with one glove off, as if interrupted in the middle of a rapid journey. She was as thin as a silver birch sapling; Lawrence had caught all her serpentine grace” (265). It also reveals the resonances of its title.  Donoghue’s shaping of history is revealed when Anne demands an explanation and the Academy official tells her that the decision was made by the Academy (because it is impossible for an actress to be a lady) and that Lawrence made a terrible fuss about it. Anne responds, “How dare they?…Portrait of an Actress sounds as if she’s no better than any other strumpet who ever walked the stage. They might at least have added an adjective: Distinguished, or Celebrated” (265-266). As an aristocratic woman, Anne understands the nuances of class and realizes how much more serious it is for Eliza than for a woman of her own status, who would never actually be in that situation. Her comment also suggests her own attitude towards actresses: “any other strumpet who ever walked the stage.”

The angry confrontation the two women have at the gallery, immediately after Anne has defended her, emphasizes the tragedy of their distance; they clearly still respect each other but Eliza is afraid to be seen with her and Anne is too deeply hurt to be polite. In this scene, Donoghue comments on the complexity of human sexuality and its effect on friendship, employing the portrait to ground her narrative in history.

Notes

[1] Andrew Elfenbein, Lesbian Aestheticism on the Eighteenth-Century Stage, Eighteenth-Century Life 25.1 (Winter 2001): 2. Project Muse. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ecl/summary/v025/25.elfenbein.html

[2] Alison Yarrington, “Damer, Anne Seymour (1749-1828),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition, January 2008. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7084.

[3] See the online readers’ guide to Life Mask, which contains specimens of the attacks on Anne Damer, including the libel about her friendship with Farren: “Companion Guide to Life Mask by Emma Donoghue,” rebeccarriverslitblog, http://rebeccariverslitblog.wordpress.com/. Accessed 13 May 13, 2013.

[4]  In this discussion, I am using “Anne” and “Eliza” to refer to the characters in the novel and “Damer” and “Farren” to refer to the historical record.

[5] A. Cassandra Albinson, “The Construction of Desire: Lawrence’s Portraits of Women,” Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 34.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Lucy Peltz, “Elizabeth Farren, Later Countess of Derby, c.1759/62-1829, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, ed. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz, Yale Center for British Art and the National Portrait Gallery, London. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 98.

[8] Ibid., 99-100.