“Roguish Passions”: A Conversation About The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Scholars Joe Drury and Danielle Bobker discuss how a recent novel — The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee — evokes an “engagingly louche” eighteenth century for young adult readers.

Joe Drury: I’m not a great reader of historical fiction nor of YA fiction, so I felt some trepidation accepting your invitation to co-write a review of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. But the title and the blurb were just too delicious to resist: the protagonist and narrator, Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley (why “of” I’m not sure), is the troubled son of an earl recently expelled from Eton and is now setting off on his Grand Tour with his friend Percy and sister Felicity, eager to indulge his “roguish passions” for gambling, late-night drinking, and philandering with both women and men.

Danielle Bobker: These premises are pretty compelling, I agree. As is Monty himself, right from the start. He’s on the top of my list of the book’s virtues.  I did some googling and it turns out this is Mackenzi Lee’s second novel. Her first book, This Monstrous Thing, a steampunk retelling of Frankenstein, won her a lot of fans. Monty’s voice makes it easy to see why she’s been so successful with YA readers.

Joe: Yes, he’s engagingly louche, isn’t he? One part witty Restoration libertine and one part James Boswell of the journals. I was interested to see that Lee cites Boswell’s journals as an influence in a note at the end and, as a Boswell fanboy, I couldn’t help but enjoy the moment when his travelling effects showed up in the second half of the novel.

Danielle: At the same time, Monty’s campiness belongs very much to our own moment: I mean in his attitude as much as his language. For instance, when he watches his best friend stretch himself in bed in the opening pages: “Percy’s showy about so few things, but he’s a damned opera in the mornings.” Or, when the two of them are actually at an opera house half way through and Percy needs help but Monty is stunned: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m fishing bare-handed in my stream of consciousness for some way to take charge of this situation and be what he needs, and I’m coming up empty.”

The style of Monty’s wanting is not that of any seventeenth- or eighteenth-century rake that I know. He’s more in the mold of the eminently likeable, and eminently marketable, Hollywood romcom rake: Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Or whoever the genderqueer boycrush of the hour is (I wish I knew).

On second thought, Monty’s really more like a typical romcom heroine. He loves Percy right from the beginning and waits in agony for signs that the feeling is mutual.

Joe:  The fresh diction and familiar teen angst are great, I agree—and essential to Lee’s whole project of inviting young readers to imagine their way into the lives of the eighteenth-century elite. Interestingly there are good eighteenth-century literary precedents for this kind of approach. For instance, as many critics have pointed out, Ann Radcliffe’s novels are set in late-medieval continental Europe, but feature heroines with the values and sensibility of eighteenth-century English women. The historical dissonance between characters and the world through which they move is part of the fun in a Gentleman’s Guide too.

Danielle: Pointing to Radcliffe is especially apt—because when Monty, Percy, and Felicity find themselves in Venice, this travelogue / picaresque / coming of age story becomes a Gothic novel too.

Lately I find myself wondering about the ongoing appeal of the eighteenth century, both to academics and in the popular imagination. Seeing it through Lee’s eyes reminded me that at least one answer lies in the variety of interrelated escape fantasies that the period so readily supports. The fantasy of adventure, of novelty and discovery, definitely. But also the fantasy of total entitlement encapsulated in the figure of the irresistible young rake.

I like how Lee’s all-you-can-eat approach to eighteenth-century literary genres seems to amplify the energy and rashness of adolescence that the novel captures so well in other respects too. (Even if adolescence wasn’t really invented until the nineteenth century.)

And Lee gives us a nice point of reference for making sense of the novel’s generic wildness in Monty’s sister Felicity: Felicity initially appears to be to a female Quixote, but in fact she’s just put the covers of romance novels over the many other books, including medical treatises, that she really wants to read.

Joe: Yes, that bit was great. But there are other kinds of anachronism I found more jarring, only because they seemed unintended. The novel sometimes seems to be set in the early 1720s, or some point during the Regency in France. But other details—such as the reflections on the slave trade and the abolition movement—imply a much later setting. I found the descriptions of eighteenth-century fashion, carriages, and clothing delightfully vivid, but the portrayal of eighteenth-century institutions rather sketchier: Felicity appears to be on her way to some kind of late nineteenth-century European “finishing school,” while Monty is able to walk into the branch of a “French partner institution to the Bank of England” in Marseilles, though he does at least flirt with a male bank clerk to get his cash rather than use an ATM machine.

Danielle: And other things point back several centuries: the alchemy, for instance, which is especially focused around a mysterious ebony box that Monty steals from a duke’s chambers at Versailles, and the notion that people having epileptic seizures have been possessed by the devil.

Joe: Yes, although Lee would probably argue that many of those kinds of “pre-modern” or “superstitious” beliefs would have persisted into the supposedly enlightened eighteenth century. We have never been modern and all that.

And I wonder about Felicity as a character as well. She seems to be symptomatic of an annoying school of thought that assumes that for a work of art to be feminist, it has to depict “powerful,” ultra-capable women doing kick-ass things like Wonder Woman or Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whereas I’m always trying to convince my students that a work of art can be just as, if not more, effective as feminist critique by representing women who are completely deprived of power and the capacity to act because of their circumstances and the society in which they live. Think of Clarissa or Calista or, even a character from a comic novel like Marianne Dashwood. In these stories, patriarchy isn’t so easy to overcome as it is for lucky Felicity. I’ve nothing against kick-ass women (and there are plenty of great ones in eighteenth-century literature, of course), but I felt Lee missed an opportunity with Felicity to give her readers a richer, darker, less comfortable view of what it would have been like to be a woman in eighteenth-century Europe.

Danielle: I see what you mean about Felicity. She is a composite ideal of Lee’s liberal feminist femininity: intellectually autonomous; literary; career-minded; not particularly invested in male sexual approval yet also attractive—above all, highly competent. The character of Percy, a stoic and unassuming person of color, is burdened with blandness in the same way.

Joe: Yes, it is just as easy for Percy to move through this world, even though he is an epileptic of mixed race who is in love with a man. People notice that he is not white and he and Monty have the occasional discussion about the difficulties of the closet. But these difficulties never become more than just opportunities for the expression of a rather pious liberalism. Why not show us what it would have been like to be the victim of homophobia or racism in eighteenth-century Europe rather than just have people talk about it?

Danielle: Although Lee plays with lots of genres, her attachment to the moral promise of sentimental fiction is quite rigid, especially to its central promise to punish or reform vice and reward virtue. Maybe this is the kind of reassuring moral universe that Lee believes YA readers prefer? (My six-year old children certainly do.) But the title makes it sound like vice and virtue will be embraced equally—like in Casanova’s autobiography or Dangerous Liaisons. It’s false advertising.

Joe: Yes, totally. There is, alas, far more virtue than vice in this book.

Danielle: And, ironically, by presenting Felicity and Percy as morally flawless, Lee actually recapitulates Monty’s basic socioeconomic, racial, and patriarchal privilege: only the rich white guy has the right to be complicated.

Hearing from Felicity and Percy as narrators would have gone a long way to redressing this imbalance, I think. I don’t necessarily agree that their suffering more would have made them better vehicles of critique. But I do think that Lee could have shown that, like Monty, but for good reasons often much more than him, these characters also have to learn to navigate, skirt around, or, occasionally, go head to head with dominant power structures. Even Pamela Andrews has edges.

Joe: Fair enough, although just as he is the only one who is allowed to be complicated and flawed, I’d argue that Monty is also the only character who really suffers and the only one as a result who undergoes any kind of moral development. The ending reminded me a bit of Game of Thrones, where unsympathetic characters like Jaime and Theon only begin to acquire moral feeling and complexity once they’ve been disabled or mutilated in some way. But George R. R. Martin and co also show us what it feels like to be a dwarf or a bastard or a woman in Westeros. In this novel, it feels as if the woman and the black man are just there to be props for the white male protagonist’s liberal moral awakening. Why couldn’t Felicity actually behave like one of Haywood’s heroines instead of just pretending to read about them? My understanding is that YA fiction often goes to these darker places these days—I’ve seen The Hunger Games!—so I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of audience. And as you say, eighteenth-century literature often has a harder, Hobbesian edge so it’s not a question of period authenticity either.

Danielle: Yes, it’s disappointing that, rather than using the past as a pretext to explore ongoing ethical dilemmas, Lee simply encases her fixed contemporary moralism into this vaguely historical package. So, ultimately, I guess we suggest enjoying The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, then chasing it with something a little stronger.

Further reading recommended by Joe and Danielle:

Literature of libertinism

  • John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Poems
  • Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess, Fantomina, The Masqueraders, Anti-Pamela, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless
  • Casanova, Memoirs
  • James Boswell, The London Journal, The Grand Tour
  • John Cleland, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
  • Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons
  • George Etherege, The Man of Mode
  • Aphra Behn, The Rover
  • William Wycherley, The Country Wife
  • The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France
  • When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature

Other literature of the period

  • Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, The Romance of the Forest
  • Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote
  • Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
  • Samuel Richardson, Pamela

Relevant academic studies

  • George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century
  • Susan Lanser, The Sexuality of History
  • Alan Bray, The Friend
  • Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution
  • Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830
  • Karen Harvey, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture

Jane Austen, the Prince of Wales, and Mr. Trump

What would Jane Austen say about Donald Trump? Easy to answer, because she had seen it all before. A Regency girl in a golden age of satire, she attacked the Prince of Wales for his much-lampooned appearance, his lewdness, his licentiousness, his instability, his outrageous spending, his fondness for over-the-top building ventures, his implicit treason, his desire for absolute power, his vanity, his braggadocio, and his love of holidays and sport. Throughout her entire writing career, she kept close watch on the extravagant, dancing prince. At a time when most people were poor, and black lives didn’t matter, she satirized the vulgarian whose wish to become a second Sun King was bringing the country down. In 1813, she would write that she hated him.

Austen was never more than a few degrees of separation away from Prince George. When she was young, he lodged at Kempshot Manor, only three miles from Steventon, and her brother James went hunting with him. At the Wheatsheaf Inn, Basingstoke, where Jane and Cassandra collected the mail, the prince held riotous Hunt Club dinners. As they walked back through those green and leafy lanes, they must have marvelled at the latest excesses of the boorish young man.

At Kempshot, Prince George entertained Mrs. Fitzherbert, and appalled the county with his wild parties; at Kempshot, on honeymoon with Princess Caroline, he reluctantly sired Princess Charlotte. His cohort of “very blackguard companions” were “constantly drunk and filthy, sleeping and snoring in boots on the sofa,” said the Earl of Minto, so that the whole scene “resembled a bad brothel much more than a Palace.” Austen was not prudish, but patriotic, and the prince’s behaviour threatened the nation. She would satirize him through avatars: John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, Tom Bertram and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, Frank Churchill in Emma, and both Sir Walter Elliot and William Walter Elliot in Persuasion.

Like the prince, Thorpe is a “stout young man of middling height,” with a “plain face and ungraceful form.” Like the holiday prince, he lies, boasts, swears, hunts, and talks of nothing but his horses and his rides; like the royal voyeur, he utters “a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met”; like the prince jeering at his parents, he asks his mother, “where did you get that quiz of a hat, it makes you look like an old witch?” Austen’s lacerating portrait suggests close knowledge of the prince’s vulgar ways.

Even palace insiders said that the heir was unfit to rule. In 1811, just as Austen was revising Pride and Prejudice, he was widely mocked for spraining his ankle while teaching a courtier the Highland Fling. If Austen found that as funny as I do, she may have inserted Mr. Bennet’s exclamation about Mr. Darcy, “For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had sprained his ancle in the first dance.”

The matter was not trivial. Overweight and overwrought, the regent had gone to bed for ten days. Some said he was avoiding hard political decisions, others that he was going mad like his father. In George Cruikshank’s Princely Agility or the Sprained Ancle (1812), doctors prepare a strait waistcoat; in his Merry Making on the Regents Birthday (August 1812), the regent prances on a petition for the poor. As Austen once wrote, “How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed,” and in 1811, at a time of severe economic hardship, he had celebrated the inauguration of his regency in ludicrously opulent style. As Percy Shelley wrote wearily, this entertainment would not be “the last bauble which the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of Regency.” When the prince became regent, Austen anticipated the king’s death by buying mourning clothes instead.

The prince spent staggering amounts of money on Brighton Pavilion and the Royal Lodge at Windsor. With instability at home and peril abroad, he supported dead Bourbons, hosted exiled French royalty and nobility, bought up their gilded furniture for Carlton House, and planned a second Versailles at Buckingham Palace. Many called his obsession with all things French treasonable; others accused him of coveting the absolute power of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

In newspapers, journals, and cartoons, “the rising sun” went viral as code for the king’s son/sun. Even the title of a scurrilous magazine, The Rising Sun, signalled his obvious impatience for power, and in Persuasion, Charles Musgrove refuses to meet with Sir Walter Elliot’s heir, William Walter, crying out, “Don’t talk to me about heirs and representatives.” As he says to Anne, “I am not one who neglects the reigning power to bow to the rising sun. If I would not go for the sake of your father, I should think it scandalous to go for the sake of his heir.”

Like Thorpe, William Walter resembles the prince, for he is all too keen to claim the titles and privileges he once despised. The sick king was pitied and loved, but not his impatient son. In a bitter jest about her brother James inheriting many beloved possessions before the family left Steventon for Bath, Austen wrote, “My father’s old Ministers are already deserting them to pay their court to his son: the brown Mare, which as well as the black was to devolve on James on our removal, has not had patience to wait for that, & has settled herself even now at Deane.” In Persuasion, Austen would explode the patriarchal hierarchy that privileged her oldest brother and the prince. Snubbed by powerful but ridiculous others, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth simply walk away from society’s toxic obsession with “rank, people of rank, and jealousy of rank.”

To judge from Persuasion, Austen was alarmed that the prince, now regent, was spending a large proportion of the national income on high living and ostentatious parade. Beau Brummel had taught him the importance of elegance, just as in Persuasion, “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.” Surrounded, like Prince George, by mirrors, he finds it not possible to spend less, “given what Sir Walter Elliott was imperiously called on to do.” His failure to economize gestures to the regent, whose refusal to retrench was threatening the nation.

“Retrench” became another code word for the regent. In Cruikshank’s Economy of 1816, Lord Chancellor Brougham warns him, in an obvious allusion to the French Revolution, “Retrench! Retrench, reflect on the distressed state of your country, & remember the Security of the Throne rests on the happiness of ye People.” In Persuasion, however, Anne and Lady Russell are on “the side of honesty against importance.” To clear Sir Walter’s debts, they urge “a scheme of retrenchment,” and Lady Russell sheets Austen’s satire home by asking, “What will he be doing, in fact, but what very many of our first families have done––or ought to do?”

Personal as well as patriotic reasons fuelled Austen’s loathing of the prince, for he borrowed from the Earl of Moira, who borrowed £6000 from Jane’s brother Henry. Moira defaulted on his debts by becoming Governor-General of India. Thus the regent was partly responsible for Henry’s bankruptcy and consequent heavy losses for other family members, as E. J. Clery explains in Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. No wonder that Austen hated him.

In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram’s absence in Antigua, like the absence of the sick king, allows his pleasure-loving son to take charge. Like the regent, Tom Bertram wastes both his health and his wealth, and occupies himself mainly with the theatricalities of his position, such as miniature battles in the Serpentine. Henry Crawford provides yet another proxy for the regent, for his “freaks of a cold-blooded vanity” never receive the punishment they deserve, while in Emma, the light-minded Churchill rids himself of his money and his leisure “at the idlest haunts in the kingdom.” The prince’s beloved Brighton, perhaps.

Three days before she died in Winchester on July 17, 1817, Austen wrote an odd little poem about Winchester races. The regent attended them every July. Here St. Swithin accuses “the Lord & the Ladies” all “sattin’d & ermin’d” of being his “rebellious subjects,” rebukes them as “depraved,” and announces that “By vice you’re enslaved/ You have sinn’d & must suffer.” To punish them, he vows to bring down regular rain showers on “these races & revels & dissolute measures/ With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain.” It was the satirist’s last fling at a regent who was dissolute, depraved, and a danger to the nation.

Jane Austen’s in-jokes demonstrate her worldliness, her fascination with celebrities, and her relish of rumor. She criticized the Prince of Wales in the only way she could, through her characters and plots. In her resistance to corruption and perversions of power, this savvy, brave, and thoroughly modern woman would have had plenty to say about Mr. Donald Trump.

 

 

 

Theory of Mind, Cognitive Cultural Studies, and Eighteenth-Century Literature

Henry Robert Morland, Woman Reading by a Paper-Bell Shade (1766), Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In 2012, literary scholar Natalie Phillips and a team of scientists at Stanford published the results of a study in which they used fMRI to track brain activity in subjects reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) in either a leisurely or a critical, attentive manner.  Their innovative research, which prompted a flurry of provocative “This is Your Brain on Jane Austen” headlines, demonstrated that close, attentive reading activates different regions of the brain than leisurely reading and engages parts of the brain far beyond those responsible for executive function.  These findings, in turn, led Phillips to conclude both that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions” and that “teaching close, critical reading could serve – quite literally – as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus.” [1]

Phillips’s multi-disciplinary research grew out of her study of Enlightenment writers who address theories of attention and distraction and who explore what neuroscientists call “cognitive control,” the ability to control and order attention in responsive, context-dependent ways in order to meet specific goals or draw logical conclusions.  In Distraction:  Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature (2016), Phillips analyzes the eighteenth-century cultural preoccupation with distraction and attentiveness and challenges our assumption that distraction is a uniquely twenty-first-century problem.  She also suggests that the eighteenth century’s “competing theories of attention . . . transformed the shape of eighteenth-century literature” and require a modified and more complex understanding of the genesis of the novel genre (9). [2]  Phillips employs a cognitive cultural approach to literary texts, an interpretive method that applies findings from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to explain how readers interpret literary texts and to understand how literature can provide valuable insight into human cognition, emotion, and social behavior.

My own research examining literature in light of recent findings in cognitive psychology and neuroscience arose out of my persistent sense that eighteenth-century writers seem stubbornly preoccupied with describing and representing the human brain in the process of interpreting, understanding, and evaluating its own thoughts and the thoughts of others.  Eighteenth-century writers’ attention to literary texts’ emotional and moral effects on readers; awareness of the “embodied brain”; exploration of psychological interiority; and preoccupation with what cognitive psychologists call “Theory of Mind,” or the ability to “explain observable behavior in terms of underlying thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions” (Zunshine 195) all attest to the relevance of cognitive cultural studies in analyzing eighteenth-century literary texts. [3]  Indeed, I would argue that eighteenth-century literature cannot be fully understood or appreciated without a consideration of shifting Enlightenment concepts of cognition, consciousness, self-fashioning, and social awareness.

Phillips’s research, part of a growing body of scholarship that examines eighteenth-century literary texts through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, reflects the fact that, roughly around the publication of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), literary texts began to display and represent layered, complex depictions of Theory of Mind and to rely on the assumption that readers must interpret both written texts and physical bodies for information about “underlying thoughts, feelings, desire, and intentions” (Zunshine 64). [4]  I argue that eighteenth-century literature is a particularly rich and fertile field to explore for information about how the human brain interprets itself and the behavior of others, and offer here four characteristics of the period that intersect with or require the concepts, aims, and practices of cognitive cultural studies:

(1.)  The period’s awareness of and deliberate focus on the written word’s cognitive, emotional, and moral effects on the reader.

Self-reflective and self-referencing prologues, epilogues, dedications, periodical essays, treatises, and letters from the period reveal a persistent eighteenth-century assumption that literature can induce powerful cognitive and moral effects on readers.  In addition, many writers from the period display a remarkably sophisticated understanding of the cognitive process of the act of reading, a common area of inquiry within the field of cognitive literary and linguistic studies.  For instance, Joseph Addison’s thoughtful investigation of the intricate relationship between pre-existing cognitive constructs (“Ideas”), linguistic signs (“Words”), and mental images (“Scenes”), closely parallels the research of cognitive linguists such as Joseph Grady, Gillis Fauconnier and Mark Turner, and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who assert that the mind creates meaning through systems of conceptual and analogical mapping or blending. [5]

(2.)  The period’s growing awareness of the reality of the “embodied brain,” or the close association between mental and physical states.

In their text Brain, Mind and Medicine:  Essays in Eighteenth-Century Neuroscience (2007), Harry Whitaker, C. U. M. Smith, and Stanley Finger delineate the gradual shift from the simple “clockwork,” “animal spirits,” and “hollow conduit” models of brain and nerve function to more sophisticated models, first posited by Thomas Willis in 1672, which locate “spirit” in “matter” (17 – 18). [6]  One of the most striking features of the late-eighteenth-century preoccupation with sensibility is its underlying assumption that the physical body directly, immediately, and intimately reflects states of mind, including emotions, thoughts, and levels of consciousness, an assumption shared by cognitive cultural critics who accept the concept of the embodied brain.

(3.)  The period’s cultural and literary shift toward the exploration and representation of psychological interiority.

In Before Novels:  The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (1990), J. Paul Hunter asserts, “The crucial difference between individuals in romances and novels involves the degree and quality of self-consciousness in novels, a strikingly different awareness of the processes of thought and feeling that affect individuals in relation to their world and their experiences in it” (24). [7]  This highly-refined sense of subjectivity and self-conscious awareness, frequently noted by readers and critics of eighteenth-century novels, depends upon and reflects an increasing interest in psychological interiority, or an awareness both of one’s own private, embodied, cognitive space and one’s reflection in the minds of others.

(4.)  Finally, the period’s preoccupation with what cognitive literary and cultural critics call “Theory of Mind.”

The concept of Theory of Mind seems particularly relevant to analyses of eighteenth-century novels.  Indeed, most cognitive literary critics accept that the period represents what Blakey Vermeule calls “the beginnings of . . . the high mind-reading tradition in the English novel” (129). [8]  Eighteenth-century readers accepted fictional characters as realistic representations of human thought and behavior, revealing their willingness to draw conclusions about the psychological interiority of fictional characters and practice and refine their own Theory of Mind, a set of interpretive skills equally useful in both real and literary contexts.

If recent publication history provides any insight into future trends, the marriage between cognitive cultural studies and eighteenth-century literary scholarship will not only persist but will thrive and prompt further innovative literary exploration.  For instance, Karin Kukkonen’s A Prehistory of Cognitive Poetics (2017) uncovers and examines a neoclassical equivalent of cognitive poetics and demonstrates how eighteenth-century writers constructed a “principled, multi-faceted account of how literature entangles and delights the mind” (xi). [9]  And Wendy Jones’s Jane on the Brain:  Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen (2017), written for a popular audience, offers an engaging and accessible exploration of Austen’s novels through the lenses of cognitive, social, and evolutionary psychology. [10]  Ultimately, scholars of eighteenth-century literature are drawn to the discipline of cognitive cultural studies not simply because it offers innovative approaches literary analysis but because the period’s writers themselves are preoccupied with and fascinated by the way the human mind interprets and makes sense of the world.  Eighteenth-century authors depict in explicit and complex ways the cognitive processes by which we strive to understand others and ourselves.

[1] Corrie Goldman, “This is Your Brain on Jane Austen, and Researchers are Taking Notes,” The Humanities at Stanford, September 7, 2012.

[2] Natalie M. Phillips, Distraction:  Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature.  Baltimore:  John Hopkins University Press, 2016.

[3] Lisa Zunshine, “Theories of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness.”  Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies.  Ed. Lisa Zunshine.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010:  193 – 213.

[4] Lisa Zunshine, “Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency.”  Theory of Mind and Literature.  Ed. Paula Leverage, Howard Mancing, Richard Schweickert, and Jennifer Marston William.  West Lafayette, IN:  Purdue University Press, 2011:  63 – 92.

[5] Joseph Addison, The Spectator.  No. 411 and No. 412.  “The Pleasures of the Imagination.”  The Commerce of Everyday Life:  Selections from the Tatler and The Spectator.  Ed. Erin Mackie.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 1998:  387 – 393.

[6] Harry Whitaker, C. U. M. Smith, and Stanley Finger, eds.  Brain, Mind and Medicine:  Essays in Eighteenth-Century Neuroscience.  New York:  Springer Press, 2007.

[7] J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels:  The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 1990.

[8] Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

[9] Karen Kukkonen, A Prehistory of Cognitive Poetics:  Neoclassicism and the Novel.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.

[10] Wendy Jones, Jane on the Brain:  Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen.  New York: Pegasus, 2017.

The Making of Jane Austen: Going Behind the Scenes of the First Hollywood Pride and Prejudice (1940)

As a Jane Austen scholar, I get to go to some pretty incredible libraries—The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, The Morgan Library in New York City, The British Library in London, the Chawton House Library at Jane Austen’s “Great House” in Chawton among them. But an amazing library with Austen riches in Beverly Hills? Yes, believe it or not, there is one. I spent several happy days there researching for my book, The Making of Jane Austen (2017). The glamour quotient of that trip might seem lower to you, however, when you learn that I arrived via city bus.

It was a pretty great bus ride, all in all. The bus inches along Sunset Boulevard (yes, that Sunset Boulevard) to a stop at Vine (and yes, that Vine!), passing Chateau Marmont and some seriously upscale shopping. I felt pretty much the opposite of the beautiful people, carrying an enormous computer bag, wearing a dowdy sweater, and facing the prospect of spending several sunny California days entirely indoors. For a library rat, it’s absolutely worth it.

The Margaret Herrick Library, also known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, or the Oscars Library, holds countess papers and files that document Jane Austen’s afterlife in Hollywood. I made an appointment to see their unpublished materials on the making of MGM’s Pride and Prejudice (1940), that much loved or hated (and sometimes both loved and hated!) film starring Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. I knew from the online catalog that the library held production files, publicity photographs, and many scripts, but I had little idea what was in them. Only a handful of scholars had ever described this material. Even those few treated these materials rather briefly. I figured that even if it turned out to be a lot of junk, I could describe that. I needed to see it all for myself, in order to cover the stage-performance-turned-into-early-film part of Austen’s afterlife.

Arriving at the Herrick Library turns out to be a rather grand event. The place may look like a church, but it’s locked down like a bank. I had my identity checked by the security guard, stowed most of my possessions in a locker, noticed the familiar names engraved on the walls, walked up the staircase, checked in with the librarian, and found a desk. Then I got my first look at the files. I started with the glossy, black-and-white publicity stills for Pride and Prejudice taken by MGM. There were hundreds of gorgeous shots. Unfortunately, researchers aren’t allowed to take their own photographs of anything at the Herrick, even for personal research purposes. The library also has a strict policy on the small number of paid photocopies a researcher is allowed per year. This is a big scholar-bummer, but knowing those constraints made me focus differently. These images are still seared into my memory, because it seemed my only option.

The shots of the set were stunning. To see them up close made me reimagine the amount of expense and care that went into designing details large and small, from the walls to the furniture to the props. The photographs of the cast wearing those oh-so-wrong Victorian costumes were also riveting, even if they are cringe-worthy examples of historical research gone wrong. It was clear from the production files that the costumers thought that lumping together fashions from 1810s, 1820s, 1830s or even the 1840s couldn’t make all that much difference. (One wonders how any Hollywood costume designer thinking through the amount of fashion change that was seen from through 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s could possibly think so.)

What I remember best from the production photographs, however, are the casual shots taken on set during filming. There was an arresting photograph of Judy Garland “stopping by” oh-so-casually—and coincidentally with a photographer on hand!—to visit Garson in her Pride and Prejudice dressing room. Another photo shows Garson reading an enormous nineteenth-century volume—a book prop—between takes, as she sits on a director’s chair near the set’s unintentionally hilarious “Rare Books” storefront. I suppose one could argue all books were rare in the eighteenth century, when buying even one volume was something out of the reach of most regular people, but “rare books” was not yet a commercial term.

A photograph of the outdoor table from the film’s famous archery scene between Elizabeth and Darcy shows that someone had delicately taped over a naked putto’s nether regions. A casual photo of Garson in costume as Elizabeth, getting an archery lesson from a man in a white undershirt, was terribly funny in its sartorial and historical contrast. A shot of Olivier and Garson in costume, receiving dance instruction from a modern-dress husband-wife team, was similarly amusing but at the same time surprisingly moving. A dedication to the study of movement—for teachers and students—was well captured in this photo.

Another shot of two men, Olivier, dressed as Darcy, and the film’s director, Robert “Pop” Leonard, in his Colonel Sanders-like outfit, playing badminton together in between outdoor takes was priceless. A shot of the English members of the cast, in a down moment, enjoying a tea break, seemed both staged and true-to-life. It made visible the trans-Atlantic elements of the production very clearly, too.

But the best photo of all is one of the Bennet sisters posed at the edge of the set. The five actors are standing together, in a costumed line, in front of doors with signs above them. The doors presumably lead to a women’s dressing room. The largest sign reads, “Thru These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in Meryton,” with smaller letters below that warn, “Positively No Admission,” and “The Little Girls Club.” There is also an obscured notice that seems to advertise an on-set knitting club.

The photos definitely whetted my appetite to learn more about the making of this film, but it was the typescript files that turned out to be an absolute feast. I moved from the production stills to the print files. I knew the rough outlines of the agonizingly slow play-to-film journey of MGM’s Pride and Prejudice, which had its start in Helen Jerome’s 1935 Broadway hit play and was rewritten by a series of screenwriters for Hollywood. It’s a story that has been told many times before, and I won’t repeat that five-year odyssey here, except to say that it involved not only predictable casting changes but a premature and unexpected death. (If you want to learn about why the story of Harpo Marx’s role in it all is greatly exaggerated, you’ll have to check out my book.)

What I got to read in those Herrick Library script files were drafts that few have had a chance to digest before. There were dozens of Pride and Prejudice screenplays—“failed” scripts–with Austen-inspired scenes and dialogue never brought to life. Some of these scripts were truly dreadful. It was all I could do to stifle my laughter as I read these preposterous scenarios, from the full-on mud-splashings proposed for Elizabeth and Darcy (two different versions had each of them successively doused in mud) to the heart-of-gold neighborhood gypsy named Tony. Obviously, though, laughing out loud would not have been okay, as sounds of any kind are frowned upon in libraries in general. The Herrick especially inspires silence and awe, with its spotless, white Bob Hope Lobby and its elegant, olive-green Katharine Hepburn Reading Room. I tried to limit myself to broad smirks. Believe me, it was a challenge.

You can read more of the gory details of these ridiculous failed scripts in my book’s chapter seven, but I can’t resist sharing one more tidbit. In one early version of the screenplay, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Colonel Fitzwilliam go off on a crazy bachelor weekend to London. In one of their misadventures, they end up wagering on a dog versus monkey fight. Colonel Fitzwilliam bets on the monkey, but Darcy’s money is on the dog. And it turns out that that bit, at least, was vaguely historically accurate! There was a fighting monkey, Jacco Macacco, that fought in the Westminster Pit in London and was made famous by Pierce Egan in his Life in London (1821). It’s the book that gave rise to the characters Tom and Jerry, so it’s especially amusing to think of Darcy, Bingley, and the Colonel as precursor bro-friends transposed into those roles. Whether you’re a fan of the 1940 Pride and Prejudice or not, the final version of the film will rise in your estimation once you realize just how much worse things might have been.

I also came away from reading these scripts doing more than laughing. Reading them makes one realize how these screenwriters were really in a tough place. They were trying to find—they were no doubt being charged to create—ways to make Austen seem fresh to millions of late 1930s moviegoers who may never have heard of her or who knew of her only glancingly. Screenwriters were throwing whatever they could think of at Pride and Prejudice, including the conventions of Westerns and screwball comedies. In the end, I thought, we should probably be more generous in assessing their attempts, even if you feel, as I do, quite relieved that most of these ideas never saw the screen.

I came away from the library thinking, “Long live Jane Austen in popular culture, whether in Beverly Hills or London or Chawton—whether in enough mud for a full-body wrestling match or with just a few glorious inches of it worn around the ankles—and whether you are cheering for the dog or the monkey.”

P. S. The Herrick Library was very generous with me during my visit, providing access to a lot of material and invaluable research assistance. I’m especially grateful to librarian Jenny Romero, who helped me find just the right things to read. I’m also thankful to the staff there, who never raised their eyebrows too high, even if an audible laugh or two may have escaped from me unawares.

You can read more about The Making of Jane Austen, watch a book trailer, see additional images, and order your own copy at makingjaneasten.com.

Keeping Marriage Spicy With Jane Austen

Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan

“It can be a pleasure to meet one’s wife as a stranger.”

When friends and colleagues heard that I was reporting on the eccentric world of Jane Austen superfansone question was uppermost: Do people hook up at Jane Austen camp? At first, I grew irritated at these inquiries, which seemed to assume that Austen cosplay is somehow centrally about sex. (It’s not, really; it’s mainly about books, and only a little about sex.) Still, as I spent more and more time in the world of the Janeites, I came to meet quite a few older couples for whom the Jane Austen summer camp doubled as a romantic getaway—a chance to rediscover the pleasures of flirting with one’s spouse.

Some, in the tradition of R.W. Chapman and Katharine Metcalfe, had fallen in love with each other in part through discovering a mutual love for Austen, and there are various academic power couples across the world whose unions owe their beginning to an indiscreet moment at an Austen conference; as Kipling’s narrator says in his 1924 short story “The Janeites,” Austen remains a “bit of a match-maker” even in death, and at the larger conferences I occasionally met a child conceived (the parents told me) with the aid of Austen’s prose as aphrodisiac.

Read the rest of this excerpt on Slate, and buy Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan from your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.

Jane Austen Summer Program Presents “Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein: 200 Years of Horror”

This summer more than 100 people, from readers to writers to scholars, will gather at the sixth-annual Jane Austen Summer Program to celebrate the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Attendees of “Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein:  200 Years of Horror” will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups on the gothic-inspired novels.  They also will partake in an English tea, dance at a Regency-style masquerade ball, attend Austen-inspired theatricals, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference.

Hosted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and JASNA-NC, the events will take place from June 14 to 17, 2018 at the Hampton Inn in Carrboro and at various locations on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, NC.  The program discussions will consider the two classic novels in their historical contexts as well as their afterlives in fiction and film.  Program Director Inger Brodey notes, “both Austen in Northanger Abbey and Shelley in Frankenstein react eloquently to the gothic taste in literature and have similar commentary on the frightening results of the French Revolution.  Bringing the authors’ works together will allow us to explore their revolutionary legacy, both in terms of literary innovation and social change.”

Participants old and new praise the program’s educational mission, along with its innovation and focus on community-building.  “The conference on Mansfield Park was my first experience of JASP—and now I’m hooked!,” says Vicky Brandt.  “It’s a wonderful idea to open up an academic conference to the interested public:  everyone should be able to experience the loving inquiry that is the heart of scholarship.  All the presentations were enlightening; the small group discussions lively and insightful; the Saturday evening Regency ball almost as beautiful to watch as the ones we see on film.  In short, I can think of no better way to describe it than with Austen’s own words:  ‘the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.’”  Pamela Martin, a recipient of the program’s teacher scholarship, adds, “I found the Jane Austen Summer Program to be one of the most inspirational events I have ever attended.  It was refreshing and rewarding to be a part of an academic exchange of ideas for a bit, and bask in the glory of just learning for learning sake!”

For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website janeaustensummer.org or follow the program at facebook.com/janeaustensummer or via twitter, @JASPhotline.  You may also contact us at [email protected]

Middle- and high-school teachers are encouraged to visit the website for information on available scholarships and continuing education credits.

Media interested in attending the program and interviewing the participants should reach out to Suzanna Geiser at [email protected] or (919) 848-3454.

(Original piece provided by Carlie Wetzel, SITES Lab, UNC-CH).

Austen and the Anthropocene

“Jane Austen Populaire 3” (2016) by Eymery. Wikimedia Commons.

Modern adaptations of Jane Austen’s works rarely emphasize climate change.  The intrigues of Austen’s protagonists are capacious enough to accommodate murder mysteries, high school dramas, and even zombies.  Yet climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” has yet to re-imagine Longbourn, Mansfield Park, or Donwell Abbey.  While those adaptations would be welcome, they may not be necessary, as Austen’s works might already show the traces of the human modification of climate.  Austen’s fictions and, more broadly, works of British literature from the long eighteenth century come from a significant moment in history:  the start of the Anthropocene.

Since at least the early twentieth century, scientists and scholars have noted the increasing ways humanity has altered the environment.  In 2002, Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen argued,

It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene — the warm period of the past 10–12 millennia.  The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.  This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.  [1]

Crutzen is not the first scholar to call for a geologic period defined by human activity.  He is not even the first person to coin the term “Anthropocene.”  But Crutzen’s call galvanized scholars and the public.  Now a piece of geologic jargon is a growing field of study across disciplines and even has entered the public sphere, earning attention from The Economist, The Guardian (twice), and The New York Times.

The dating of the Anthropocene (i.e., when this new epoch begins) is a point of disagreement among scientists, social scientists, and historians.  Crutzen argues that 1784 should be considered the inception of the epoch.  Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin argue that the beginning of the Columbian Exchange, in the 1600s, should mark the start of the Anthropocene [2].  Recently, Colin N. Waters and his colleagues have argued the starting date for the Anthropocene should be in the mid-twentieth century because of the dramatic evidence of humanity’s effects on the environment, such as a radical increase in carbon emissions and the traces of nuclear weapons use [4].  Unsurprisingly, the dating of the Anthropocene is a political act:  who is to blame for the widening gyre of climate change? [5].  Is the developed world to blame?  The West?  The United States of America?  The wealthy?  Those question are significant, but for The 18th-Century Common let us focus one suggestion put forward by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene (2016).  These authors wryly note that the Anthropocene might be better labeled the “Anglocene,” given that the United Kingdom and the United States together produced more carbon dioxide than the rest of the world combined before the twentieth century (116) [6].  The United Kingdom, and England specifically, are a significant locus for the Industrial Revolution and therefore carbon dioxide production.  As E. A. Wrigley shows, the English and Welsh consumption of energy, especially coal, increased rapidly from the mid-seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century [7].  The advent of steam engines, thanks to efforts of engineers like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, help drive this widening hunger for coal.

An Atmospheric Engine from A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734) by John Theophilus Desaguliers, vol. 2, Plate 37. Wikimedia Commons.

The Newcomen atmospheric engine was one of the first successful steam engines.  Invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, the engine was both simple and complex.  Water was heated with coal to create steam.  The steam would rise, entering the chamber under the piston and pushing the piston up.  Then the steam was cooled rapidly, creating a partial vacuum, causing the atmospheric pressure to push the piston down.  The Newcomen engine was primarily deployed to pump water out of mines although it was used in a few other industrial and civic applications.  At coal mines the Newcomen engine facilitated a positive feedback loop:  miners could mine coal to fuel the engine, which allowed them to drain inaccessible areas of the mine, which allowed them to mine coal to fuel the engine, and so on.  Coal became self-propagating as burning coal allowed the mines to extract more coal.  And even though the Newcomen engine was quite inefficient, the collieries used coal they would otherwise be unable to sell.  The Newcomen engine helped make coal even more accessible to both miners and consumers.

Extracting the coal was not enough though; it needed to be moved to the consumer.  Coal was transported by roads, then ships, then canals, then railroads.  Turnpikes made it easier to transport coal overland, ultimately to rivers or the coast.  Ships moved coal from the north of England towards the south, although threats from foreign navies and privateers made overland transport more attractive.  Some of the first canals were built to facilitate the movement of coal, like the Sankey Canal, which connected collieries in St Helens with the River Mersey and thus manufacturers in Lancashire.  In some cases the infrastructure started at the pit mouth and extended out, like the first railroads.  This is not to suggest that all infrastructure served coal, other commodities and people also drove these innovations.  Eventually though infrastructure, especially the railroad like its progenitor the Newcomen engine, became inextricably linked to coal.

“Viaduct across the Sankey Valley” (1831) by Thomas Talbot Bury. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, manufacturers were beginning to adopt new mechanical modes of production.  Famously, Richard Arkwright helped create a new system of water- then steam-powered textile manufacturing.  James Watt’s improvements upon Newcomen’s engine, specifically adding a separate condenser, greatly improved efficiency.  These revolutions in industry do not indicate the embeddedness of coal in British society though; Newcomen and Watt merely found a new way to utilize a fuel that was already in widespread circulation.  Due to a perceived wood scarcity in the Early Modern period, inhabitants of London began burning coal to heat their homes (Cavert 18-22) [8].  Additionally, even though most coal use was domestic in the Early Modern period, it was burned for a range of industrial applications:  iron, salt, glass, bricks, pottery, beer.  Coal was important enough that as the British fought in the War of Spanish succession, Queen Anne articulated only two significant policy positions for the new session of Parliament in November 1703:  a further recruitment of sailors for the Royal Navy and a reduction in the price of coal to keep London from experiencing unrest (Cavert 143).  Coal was increasingly integrated into the British economy throughout the long eighteenth century.

Coal does not seem to play a large role in any of Austen’s works, although I would suggest the fossil fuel is like Sir Bertram’s plantation and its slaves in Antigua:  unseen but still significant.  Coal does make a brief appearance in Mansfield Park (1814).  Late in the novel, when Fanny has been sent back to her parents, she is welcomed by Mrs. Price, who understandably wants to make her daughter comfortable after her long journey,

“Dear me!” continued the anxious mother, “what a sad fire we have got, and I dare say you are both starved with cold.  Draw your chair nearer, my dear.  I cannot think what Rebecca has been about.  I am sure I told her to bring some coals half an hour ago.  Susan, you should have taken care of the fire.”  (Austen 257) [9]

Mrs. Price’s request for coal is innocuous:  the fire is low and needs more fuel.  But Austen does not often mention what is being burned in the fireplaces her protagonists gather around.  Her acknowledgement of coal here is telling.  The mention of coal is likely not to highlight that the Prices are using coal.  Coal was burned at all social strata.  The wealthy just burned more coal, burned less noxious coal, and burned other fuels too (Cavert 26-27).  Rather, Austen likely is drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that the Price’s daughters have to attend to the fire, rather than the servants at Mansfield Park, and that the daughters have failed in that task, again unlike the mostly unseen servants.  In twenty-first century terms, Mrs. Price is telling her daughters to turn the thermostat up now that company is over.  This moment is one of Fanny’s many significant interactions with fire throughout the novel.  The warmth of a fire or the lack thereof is a metonym for her feelings of comfort:  the excitement of planning the Lover’s Vows in a cozy fire-warmed room (Austen 101), the sadness of being denied a fire in her room by Mrs. Norris (106), the joy of being granted a fire by Sir Bertram (202), and ultimately sitting without a fire in Portsmouth (270).  Her relationship to warmth, fuel, and heat—an aesthetic motif which coveys her social desires—is predicated on a developing carbon infrastructure, an infrastructure that was already obscured because of how commonplace it was.

“‘Am I to understand’ said Sir Thomas, ‘that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?’” (1908) by C. E. Brock. Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Austen’s works ultimately are not climate fiction.  Her novels and the works of other British writers in the long eighteenth century though do merit examination as existing among the first texts of the Anthropocene or proto-Anthropocene.  Those works are the product of British cultures which were being transformed by the expansion of coal usage.  Concurrently, these British cultures were impelling and impeding the expansion of coal use:  driving miners deeper into the ground while also decrying the costs to the environment and people.  The ultimate definition of the Anthropocene will likely rest with future geologists and stratigraphers.  The evidence for an Anthropocene that begins in the middle of the twentieth century is fairly persuasive.  Although, as Matt Edgeworth and his colleagues argue, selecting a single moment of time for the inception of the Anthropocene is difficult due to the ways that sediments are deposited, shifted, and altered over time through geologic and anthropomorphic forces [10].  But in Jane Austen’s world, England and zones connected to England through political, military, or commercial reach were already dependent on fossil fuel use.  Now is the time to re-evaluate the ways eighteenth-century cultures and peoples acknowledged or ignored this energy transition, the promethean steps of a species-cum-geologic-force.

Notes

[1] Crutzen, Paul J.  “Geology of Mankind.”  Nature 415.6867 (2002):  23.

[2] Lewis, Simon L. and Mark A. Maslin.  “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519.7542 (2015):  171–80.

[3] Waters, Colin N. et al.  “The Anthropocene is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene.”  Science 351.6269 (2016).

[5] Malm, Andreas, and Alf Hornborg.  “The Geology of Mankind?  A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.”  Anthropocene Review 1 (2014):  62–69.

[6] Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.  Shock of the Anthropocene.  Trans. David Fernbach.  London:  Verso, 2016.

[7] Wrigley, E. A.  “Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A:  Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 371.1986 (2013).

[8] Cavert, William M.  The Smoke of London.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2016.

[9] Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. Claudia Johnson.  New York:  Norton, 1998.

[10] Edgeworth, Matt.  “Diachronous Beginnings of the Anthropocene:  The Lower Bounding Surface of Anthropogenic Deposits.”  The Anthropocene Review 2.1 (2015):  33–58.

The Secret History of The Crown

The Crown (2017); Photo Credit:  Alex Bailey, Netflix

With the premier of the second season of The Crown (2017), Netflix’s extravagant costume drama about Elizabeth II, the show has again occasioned debate among media critics and British historians.  Everyone seems to agree that the acting, the settings, the lavish decor, and the meticulously detailed period clothing are all enthralling, but this is also the problem:  according to Sonia Sodha, the show “may be good fun, but it’s not always good history” (The Guardian Online).  Peggy Noonan admonishes The Crown for its “cheap historical mindlessness,” for taking extreme liberties with the private lives and intimate relationships of ministers at a time when so-called fake news has undermined truth in politics.  In other words, the show’s writers and creators adventure to invent what they cannot possibly know.  “In its treatment of history,” she claims, “there’s a deep clueless carelessness” (The Wall Street Journal Online).

Furthermore, academic historians of Britain and the independent nations that were part of the former British Empire criticize the show for glossing over brutal aspects of the imperial and industrial pasts.  Kenya, Ghana, Malaya, New Guinea, and Tonga are reimagined as playgrounds for patrician globetrotters.  The complexities of postcolonial politics are neglected; Southeast Asia and the South Pacific are problematically portrayed as spaces of exotic sexual spectacle for the white male colonial gaze.  Viewers are offered a kind of Bildungsroman narrative about a reluctant but responsible queen coming into her own as wife, mother, and sovereign.  We are asked to “sympathize with aristocrats and an unelected head of state,” Sam Wetherell writes, “The endurance of the monarchy in Britain is an open political question, but it goes unasked in The Crown” (Perspectives).

While I want to echo Rebecca Rideal’s recent argument that the show is fiction—it does not claim to be “real” history—and therefore it should be evaluated as drama, here I also want to suggest that it is actually doing something much more compelling in its engagement with historical evidence and narrative (New Statesman).  The Crown, I think, should be understood as a secret history of monarchy.  Secret history is a revisionist mode of historical writing that became fashionable in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England, at a particular moment when popular anxieties about the lack of truth in partisan politics were at a crescendo.  Analyzing it as such reveals that the show’s central question is precisely the one that Wetherell claims it fails to ask:  How do we account for the affective appeal and almost perverse persistence of the British royal family in a world where, as Lord Altrincham reminds the queen in the sixth episode of season two, “republics are the rule and monarchies are very much the exception”?

With the rapid expansion of the ephemeral press in England following the end of pre-publication censorship in the late seventeenth century, the private lives of kings, queens, and other royal subjects became increasingly open to public representation and debate.  One group of texts that dealt explicitly with issues of regal privacy, state secrets, and the domestic politics of royalty were secret histories of the crown.  As the literary historian Rebecca Bullard contends in her book The Politics of Disclosure, 1674-1725:  Secret History Narratives (2009), these texts challenged authorized accounts of the recent political past by exposing the private lives of ministers and monarchs to public scrutiny.  They originated as a genre of writing popular with Whig authors and audiences:  they reflected contemporary concerns that there were plots afoot to introduce absolutism and undermine political liberties within Britain, and they aimed to disclose conspiracies by teaching readers how to see through political deceit.  Secret historians dramatized questions of truth in politics and media, encouraging audiences to adopt a skeptical stance toward print and political culture, often claiming to disclose hidden “facts” about the past that were, nonetheless, dubious. [1]  After the 1688 Revolution, most secret historians focused their efforts on the revelation of political and sexual intrigue under the later Stuart kings, Charles II and James II, as well as France’s Louis XIV.  Such texts, Michael McKeon argues, disrupted absolutism by publicizing the designs and misdeeds of monarchs. [2]

Other secret histories, however, do not fit this pattern:  they are not overly partisan and they aim to allow readers access to the affective lives of royal figures even while their narrative structures reinforce the implausibility of their claims.  These are the secret histories of Queen Elizabeth–the first, not the second.  In 1680 The Secret History of Q. Elizabeth and the E. of Essex was anonymously printed in London, while The Secret History of the Duke of Alancon and Q. Elizabeth was first published in 1691. [3]  Both continued to be widely reprinted in cheap editions across the eighteenth century, and the accounts they offered were reimagined in chapbook romances, plays, and operatic songs.

Both books call into question the celebrated history of Elizabeth’s reign and her status as an exemplar of Protestant queenship.  The Secret History of Elizabeth casts the queen as exceptional but amorous, ruled by her love for Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, reinterpreting his rise, rebellion, and subsequent execution in 1601 as a consequence of the queen’s jealousy and manipulation by courtiers.  In The Duke of Alançon, the marriage negotiations that took place between Elizabeth and the French prince in the late 1570s are reimagined to depict the queen as a power-hungry ruler whose love of independence leads her to reject all possible suitors and murder a made-up member of the royal family.  Inexpensive and widely available, these stories perhaps invited middling readers to compare themselves favorably to Elizabeth.

But, more importantly, the books commoditize the representation of Elizabeth’s personal life in an attempt to appeal to a public that increasingly desired personal access to and connection with celebrated royal figures.  Their plots hinge upon the conflicts between queenship, love, and marriage, and they raise questions about how to distinguish between true affection and artifice, and about the kinds of authority the queen must yield to her husband if she marries.  For instance, in The Secret History of Elizabeth, readers are privy to implausible conversations that take place between the queen and the Countess of Nottingham, to whom she divulges her secrets in a long narrative that takes up almost the entire first half of the novel.  “You do not yet know Me, the Force I have long put upon My Self, hath made you think with the rest of the World, that the Height of my Spirit, hath raised Me above the Infirmities of Nature; and the Greatness of my Thoughts, secur’d Me from the troubles of Life,” the queen declares, “But, Alas! poor Elizabeth is a Slave to Her Weakness” (4).  Her weakness, of course, is love.  Similarly, after the French prince proposes to the queen in The Secret History of the Duke of Alançon, the narrator describes that she “began to tremble at the prospect of her condition to which she saw herself reduced, not unlike a Person who unexpectedly finds himself upon the brink of a Precipice” (40-41).  At other moments, Alançon has an extended debate with a rival lover about the division of authority in marriage, about whether a husband should be his “Wife’s slave” or her “Tyrant” (47).

These books therefore reach into the domestic realm. They feign to represent the emotional lives of royal subjects in an invitation for readers to work through their own ideas about love and marriage through the sensational history of a queen—an extraordinary but nonetheless ordinary woman.  The monarchy is here cemented into the affective history of the family, made central to conversations about emerging ideals of companionate marriage.  These texts never claim to be true histories, nor were they seen as such.  As one anonymous critic of secret history alleged in 1691, such books were mere romances, full of malice and forgery, contrived to snare “young Gentlemen and Ladies, who are addicted to such kind of Foolish Toys.” [4]  Thus, much like other criticism of early novels, secret histories were thought to cause a kind of reading addiction among overly credulous readers, not for the revelation of political plots but for their false and morally suspect content, especially dangerous given their low cost.

The Crown, like the secret histories of Elizabeth that I have been discussing, draws attention to the contradictions between the public image and the private reality of queenship, and in so doing it highlights the enduring sway of emotion in contemporary politics.  Much of the series focuses on the struggles within the royal family and tensions within the royal bedchamber.  “What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family?,” Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh demands of the queen after she reveals that she will retain her own surname in season one.  The new season ends with a contrite Philip confronting a heavily pregnant Elizabeth as she hides away at Balmoral from the unfolding Profumo Affair, which threatens to engulf the prince.  “We both know that marriage is a challenge, under any circumstances,” the queen states as the prince moves to rest his head in her lap, before the show suddenly cuts to her giving birth to Prince Edward.  No witnesses, aside from viewers, are present at these intimate moments when sovereignty and conjugality collide.  Rather than asking us to believe that these conversations actually happened, the show instead spotlights the ways in which the English royal household remains a space for the popular negotiation of domesticity and the affective bonds of the family.  By anxiously condemning The Crown for lying and for misleading viewers who are thought to primarily get their history through popular culture, we replicate the same snobbish discourses with which eighteenth-century critics blasted secret historians:  audiences are credulous, we worry, and they mistake the spectacle of romance for the truth of history.  This attitude seems patronizing at best.

Finally, seeing The Crown as a secret history of monarchy allows us to appreciate how the show self-consciously calls attention to the role of media in the cultural nostalgia of English royalism.  The writers repeatedly point out that the magic of regality is a commodity, delicately manufactured through public audiences, radio addresses, and, since the late 1950s, television broadcasts.  Elizabeth’s coronation is an exercise in “Smoke and Mirrors,” the title of that particular episode declares, and we follow the camera lens as it reveals (and shields) the spectacle at Westminster Abbey.  In the new season, Lord Altrincham criticizes the clipped tone and remoteness of the crown, quoting no less than the Victorian journalist Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1865-67).  Bagehot emphasized the constitutional role of monarchy as a kind of innocuous but vital entertainment for the masses.  He attributed the sentimental appeal of royal figures to their celebrity status as the public face of the government, allowing subjects to form intimate attachments with individuals they would never meet in real life.  “A royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events,” he wrote, “It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to ‘men’s bosoms’ and employ their thoughts” [5].  By exploring how sovereignty is staged for public consumption, by using theatrical drama to unmask royalism as mere theater, and by probing the gap between the public history and fictionalized private lives of Elizabeth II, The Crown presses audiences to consider the political endurance of English monarchy.

Notes:

[1] Rebecca Bullard, The Politics of Disclosure, 1674-1725:  Secret History Narratives (London:  Pickering & Chatto, 2009).  See also Rebecca Bullard and Rachel Carnell, eds.  The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[2] Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity:  Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

[3] Anon., The Secret History of the Most Renowned Q. Elizabeth and the E. of Essex.  By a Person of Quality (Cologne:  Printed for the Will of the Wisp, at the Sign of the Moon in the Ecliptick, 1681); Anon., The Secret History of the Duke of Alançon and Q. Elizabeth.  A True History (London:  Printed for Will of the whisp, at the Sign of the Moon in the Ecliptick, 1691).  All quotations from these editions.

[4] N. N.  The Blatant Beast Muzzl’d, or, Reflexions on a late libel entituled, The Secret History of the Reigns of K. Charles II and K. James II (London, 1691), “To the Reader” (8).

[5] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, ed. Paul Smith (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001).  37.

The Restoration Printed Fiction Database

Restoration Printed Fiction

Bibliographers have done much important work on the history of the novel in the long eighteenth century. Scholars are indebted to bibliographies from McBurney’s Check List of English Prose Fiction, 1700-1739 to Beasley’s Novels of the 1740s to Raven’s British Fiction, 1750-1770 and Garside et al.’s The English Novel, 1770-1829; these works form the foundation of a great deal of scholarship. But there are some things that bibliographies cannot do. When I set out to plan a book chapter on fiction in the years 1660-1700, I found very little that could serve as a guide to help me identify which texts would be most useful and important to read. The Early Novels Database was promising, but was not then available, and in any case was focused on texts held in one particular library. So I began compiling what was at first a simple list of titles drawn from older bibliographies and gradually became a spreadsheet and then a database. As I worked on the initial list, it became clear that in order to decide what to read, I needed to know more about each text’s material and paratextual features: which texts, for instance, were fully epistolary, and which included letters in the fiction? Which texts had addresses to the reader, and which had dedications? And of course, as I began consulting EEBO scans to identify these features, other features also struck me as worthy of note: indexes, chapters, tables of contents, and so on. And as I gathered this information, it occurred to me that other scholars might be interested in a resource like this.

Thus was born the Restoration Printed Fiction database, now available online. It catalogs metadata for the 394 works of fiction published between 1660 and 1700. To generate this list of fiction, entries were drawn from three main bibliographic sources (with some additions): Paul Salzman’s English Prose Fiction 1558-1700, Robert Letellier’s The English Novel, 1660-1700, and Robert Adams Day’s Told in Letters. For the purposes of the database, fiction was defined very broadly; given the novel genre’s emergent status at the time, it makes little sense to apply any kind of strict definition that would not have operated for contemporary readers. If one of the bibliographies (or another scholarly source) treated it as fiction, it was included in the database. This broad approach makes it possible for scholars to cast a wide net when considering the nature of fiction. Also, I’ve only included the first printing in this period of a given text: If a text was first published before 1660, I included the first edition that was published after 1660; for texts first published after 1660, only the first edition is listed. In a later phase of the project, it may be possible to include subsequent editions, which would be helpful in gauging the popularity of texts.

Each entry includes basic bibliographical information about the text, such as author (when known), title, bookseller and printer (when known), and date. This kind of metadata allows users to search for particular booksellers or even particular printers, thus making it possible to begin to answer questions such as whether any booksellers may have begun to specialize in fiction in this period, or whether it was more common for a bookseller to publish only one or two works of fiction. How significant is it, for example, that Samuel Briscoe appears as bookseller on fourteen title pages? Do the fifty-four texts not listing a bookseller have anything in common? Other kinds of metadata, of course, make possible other kinds of research questions. The RPF database also includes metadata about several kinds of paratexts, such as dedications, prefaces, addresses to the reader, and prefatory poems. This metadata becomes especially interesting when we search for texts that have more than one of these paratexts. Are dedications more common in conjunction with prefatory poems, for instance, than with other paratexts? Interestingly, of these 394 fictions, sixteen have three paratexts, but none have all four types — and 120 have no paratexts at all. Other researchers might be interested in fictions that are divided into chapters, or fictions that appear with a licensing statement, or fictions that give errata; all of these things are discoverable in the RPF.

A crucial part of the process of producing the RPF was finding a way to make it available to others. Dr. Michael Faris, my colleague at Texas Tech, and then Director of the English Department’s Media Lab, made this possible. Dr. Faris did the coding that makes the searchable database available to others, a process which entailed meeting to understand the content and aims of the database, teaching me how to generate something he could then use as a basis to work with, and writing the code that allows the resource to be useful to scholars. Such collaborative work is especially important in digital humanities work because bringing different skill sets together enables new kinds of work and new kinds of resources that, we hope, will continue to generate new scholarly questions and work.

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.