The “Royal” Wedding: An Eighteenth-Century Invention?

In some senses, English subjects have always cared about whom their queens, kings, princes, and princesses chose to marry, and speculations about marriage agreements and relationships have long preoccupied courtiers, members of parliament, and the wider public. Despite popular anxieties about her authority and the perpetuation of the succession, for instance, Elizabeth I chose not to marry, although she engaged in delicate courtship rituals and marriage negotiations as tools of foreign and domestic policy. Charles I, when still Prince of Wales, undertook a disastrous trip to Madrid to negotiate an ultimately unsuccessful (and unpopular) match with the Infanta Maria, daughter of Philip III of Spain. Instead he wed the French Catholic Henrietta Maria by proxy in 1625, and despite their union getting off to a rocky start, by the late 1630s Parliamentarian critics satirized the king as an uxurious husband who put the interests of his papist wife above the welfare of the kingdom. During the Succession Crisis and debates about Exclusion in the later 1670s and early 1680s, some Whig-leaning writers insisted that Charles II had secretly married the Duke of Monmouth’s mother, Lucy Walter, in 1649, thereby establishing the Protestant Monmouth as the legitimate heir in place of the king’s Catholic brother James, Duke of York. Others urged Charles to divorce his Catholic, childless queen, Henrietta Maria, and remarry. Indeed, any list of royal matrimonial escapades must mention George I’s ill-fated marriage to Sophia Dorothea, whom he locked away in a castle in Ahlden in 1694 after he discovered she had been unfaithful (possibly also ordering her lover to be murdered and tossed into the Leine river). And who can forget George IV’s secret marriage to the widowed Catholic Maria Fitzherbert in 1785 when he was still Prince of Wales, or his public estrangement from Caroline of Ansbach and his infamous (and unsuccessful) attempt to divorce her amid widespread criticism and out-of-doors demonstrations of loyalty for the wronged queen? [1]

But when we search for historical antecedents to the rise of the “royal” wedding as a mediated cultural phenomenon that disseminates the spectacle of monarchy and the romance of regal conjugality to an increasingly mass audience, we usually look to the nineteenth century, especially the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. In the weeks prior to the ceremony, newspapers carried effusive stories about court preparations and the queen’s chosen bridal color—“Lily, or English Pure White,” of entirely British manufacture—which was predicted to become the “prevailing colour of the season.” [2] Victoria’s dress, stitched of Spitalfields silk and Honiton lace, included a long train trimmed with orange blossoms, and journalists reported that the lace alone cost more than £1000. [3] Houses along the queen’s procession route between Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Palace were decorated with flags, banners, and illuminations. Despite the rainy February weather, throngs of anxious spectators lined the city streets or purchased tickets to watch the couple pass from windows, balconies, and the roofs. “Every eye was directed to the state carriage,” one newspaper reported, “and as soon as it was in motion, the sounds of loud huzzas, and the strains of the national anthem rent the air, while on every side the waving of hats and handkerchiefs greeted her Majesty.”[4] Those unable to witness the marriage in person, of course, purchased broadside renderings of the royal couple, delicate engravings of Victoria in her wedding clothes, and panoramas of the marriage procession. [5]

Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange and William Charles Henry Friso Prince of Orange.

I want to suggest, however, that the most promising place to look for the origins of the royal wedding as a celebrated event that also turned the royal family into quasi-celebrities is in the eighteenth century, and specifically the 1730s. This was a moment shaped by the continued maturation of London’s newspaper and periodical press after the expiry of print licensing in 1695, and the emergence of the patriotic opposition to Robert Walpole’s ministry, which overlapped with emerging divisions within the royal household. Although George II is still remembered as a rather frugal but staunchly Protestant ruler, adverse to large crowds and baroque spectacle, the Hanoverian court continued to function as a center of elite cultural life within London. [6] And a brief examination of the printed representations of the weddings of George II’s two eldest children—Princess Anne to William IV, Prince of Orange, in 1734, and Frederick, Prince of Wales, to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in 1736—reveals the ways in which the royal nuptials had become a space of popular longing, partisan criticism, commercial celebration, and affective political drama, especially as the events became the focus of new journalistic practices. Newspapers eagerly covered all aspects of each wedding, offering their readers vivid descriptions of the activities and engagements of the betrothed, the decoration of palace buildings and apartments, and the au courant fashions worn by courtiers and royals at each marriage ceremony.

The Prince of Orange was small of stature with a misshapen spine and slumped right shoulder, and when he arrived in England in November of 1733, he immediately contracted a fever, delaying his marriage with Anne until the following spring. London newspapers eagerly reported on William’s recovery, though, and his subsequent travels through Bristol, Bath, Oxford, and Windsor the following February, with some writers intending their glowing coverage of the prince’s popular acclaim as a dig at the king’s seeming inaccessibility and frequent trips to Hanover. Upon his arrival in Bristol, the Daily Journal and the Penny London Post, among other newspapers, reprinted lengthy extracts from a letter detailing the prince’s entry and entertainment in that city of pleasure. Met on the main road into town by two sheriffs in a chariot and six, over eight hundred horsemen, and gentlemen and merchants in private coaches, the procession marched to the common led by the Company of Wool-Combers dressed in white shirts and “Orange-Coloured Wool-Perriwigs.” “The Streets and Houses being so thronged with Spectators,” the correspondent reported, “that the City appeared as one great living Body bespangled with Eyes.” [8]

Anne and William’s wedding was held in March at St. James’s Chapel, which had been richly decorated for the occasion by the celebrated architect and painter William Kent. A contemporary engraving of the ceremony captures the prince and princess with hands clasped in the act of exchanging vows before the Archbishop of Canterbury, while ostentatiously dressed courtiers fill the chapel, gossiping and fanning themselves flirtatiously. [9] The wedding was thoroughly documented in almost every London newspaper, and writers emphasized the size of the crowds at the palace, the rich appearance of the nobility, and the voluntary festivities of London’s citizenry, which included the illumination of the Monument and Ludgate with glass lamps, plentiful bonfires, and fireworks. The Daily Journal published a laboriously detailed narrative of the entire wedding procession to and from the chapel, concluding with a public dinner in the State Ballroom, before the nobility filed through the prince and princess’s bedchamber to view them sitting up in their marriage bed “in rich undress.” The London Evening Post and the Penny London Post offered rambling descriptions of the wedding costumes and other finery observed at court. The bride wore diaphanous “Virgin Robes of Silver Tissue, having a train six Yards long, laced around with a massy Lace, adorn’ed with Fringe and Tassels; on the Sleeves were several Bars of Diamonds of great value; the Habit was likewise enrich’d with several Rows of oriental Pearl.” The women of the beau monde donned “fine laced Heads, dress’d English,” and their dresses featured “treble Ruffles, one tack’d up to their Shifts in quil’d Pleats and two hanging down; the newest fashion’d Silkes were white Paduasoys, with large Flowers of Tulips, Peonies, Emmonies, Carnations, &c. in their proper Colours, some wove in Silk, and some embroidered.” Other papers claimed that the “Embroidery and Beauty” of the princess’s wedding clothes “exceed any thing that has been ever seen here, tho’ all of Manufactures of this Kingdom.” [10] These lengthy and exacting descriptions of fashionable and fine court costume as reproduced in metropolitan newspapers broadcast important political messages. Expensive and newly purchased court attire was used to demonstrate allegiance to the crown and respect for the person of the monarch, while careful accounts of hairstyles, dress cuts, and fabric patterns portrayed the court and royal family as taste leaders who followed fashion trends and encouraged native industry. [11] At the same time, the wedding inspired the production of a whole range of commemorative commercial objects for consumers in Britain and the Netherlands, including medals, highly ornamental engraved paper fans, and enameled porcelain bowls decorated with the portraits of Anne and William, who seem to gaze into each other’s eyes. [12]

The broad journal coverage of Anne and William’s wedding evinces both desire for accessible royal figures and readers’ fascination with the theatrical spectacle of British court culture. Although newspaper coverage did not spotlight individual personalities or the intimate side of the royal family in the same way that later eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century journalists and periodical authors would, this reportage, nonetheless, opened the royal palace to the public gaze, inviting spectators and entire cities “bespangled with Eyes” to take part in the drama of royal romance.

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales

Frederick’s 1736 marriage follows these same journalistic patterns, with newspapers offering glowing coverage of Augusta’s arrival at Greenwich in late April. “Several thousand people” were reported to have flocked to glimpse Britain’s new princess at the Queen’s House—the editor of Read’s Weekly Journal estimated that the crowds numbered no less than 10,000 persons—and Augusta was described as having “very beautiful features, a fine complexion” and “a very Majestick and becoming Air.” The press circulated rumors that the wedding would take place not at the chapel at St. James’s Palace, but at the much larger St. Paul’s Cathedral, which could accommodate additional spectators and would allow a state procession through the City in full regalia and coronation robes. [13] Ultimately, this story proved false, a mere reflection of public desire for access to the pageantry of royal romance that would have represented a far-reaching departure from the precedents governing state marriages. Newspapers printed encomiastic verses about the princess’s august Protestant pedigree, plays were performed in honor of the royal couple, and the wedding gave enterprising churchmen an excuse to publish sermons on virtuous love and conjugal duty. Church bells rang, bonfires were lit, and toasts were given throughout cities and villages in England, Scotland, and Ireland, all of which was reported in the metropolitan press. And again journalists offered tedious descriptions of court dresses, stockings, shoes, jewels, and hairstyles worn for the wedding celebrations, with entire pages dedicated to reproducing the lavish spectacle of the British crown and the beau monde. [14] The bride’s dress and the court costumes of her ladies in attendance were embroidered by a Mrs. Ganderoon, Her Majesty Queen Caroline’s appointed embroideress, requiring “above 120 persons at work in making the rich cloaths.” “There’s the greatest Demand at this Time for Gold and Silver Stuffs (against the Prince of Wales’s Wedding) that ever was known,” the London Daily Post announced, “and those that are now made, are reckon’d the richest Patterns ever seen.” Indeed, individuals of rank were invited to view Augusta and Frederick’s wedding clothes displayed in their newly renovated apartments at Kensington Palace in the week prior to their betrothal. [15] Charles Philips also painted a three-quarter-length portrait of England’s newest princess in her heavily embroidered couture silver dress, topped with ermine-lined state robes, and the acclaimed engraver John Faber Jr. soon after produced a mezzotint copy of the picture for consumers. [16]

By the 1730s, then, the royal wedding was invented as a theatrical and theatricalized spectacle of statecraft and romance, fostered through the commercialized newspaper and periodical press and a growing marketplace in regal pictures and objects. The eighteenth century was the great age of celebrity, Joseph Roach has argued, engendered through media representations, especially the circulation of charismatic stage icons and cultural luminaries who stoked desire by offering spectators the illusion of intimacy despite the reality of physical inaccessibility. [17] Whereas we are quick to recognize the theatricality and affective appeal of Victorian monarchy, which permitted consumers to imagine personal attachments to individuals whom they would never meet in real life, I want to draw attention to the ways in which the early Hanoverian royal family was adapting to and adopting the characteristics of celebrity culture (whether they were entirely reluctant to do so, like George II, or eager to chase popularity, like Prince Frederick). Newspapers offered new possibilities of royal publicity, allowing spectators access to exclusive palace rooms, court finery, and the nuptial bed in completely novel ways that mark an abrupt departure from discussions of state weddings in the later Stuart period. At the very least, we should recognize that our contemporary fascination with royal engagements and the extravagant wedding dresses worn by English princesses has an eighteenth-century origin—for better, (or) for worse.

Notes

[1] For further reading, see Carole Levin, Heart and Stomach of a Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), chapter 3; Kevin Sharpe, The Personal Rule of Charles I (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Laura Lunger Knoppers, Politicizing Domesticity: From Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Andrew C. Thompson, George II: King and Elector (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), chapter 1; Marilyn Morris, Sex, Money, & Personal Character in Eighteenth-Century British Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Thomas Lacquer, “The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV,” Journal of Modern History 54 (1982): 417-66.

[2] “Queen Victoria’s Bridal Colour,” Woomer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 11 January 1840, 2504. On the tension between domesticity and sovereignty in representations of Victoria as bride, wife, and mother, see John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 29-35; Margaret Homans, Royal Representations: Queen Victoria and British Culture, 1837-1876 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 17-32.

[3] “Marriage of Queen Victoria,” The Bradford Observer, 13 February 1840, Issue 314.

[4] “Royal Marriage,” The Blackburn Standard, 12 February 1840, Issue 265. See also “Marriage of the Queen,” The Morning Post, 11 February 1840, 21542.

[5] See, for instance, British Museum: 2006,U.2079; 1902,1011.886; 1894.0516.59; and 1902,1011.8909.

[6] See Hannah Smith, Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture, 1714-1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Hannah Greig, The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 99-130.

[7] For excellent discussions of William’s recovery and his wedding to Princess Anne, see Marilyn Morris, Sex, Money and Personal Character, 103-09, and Thompson, George II, 108-13.

[8] The Daily Journal, 26 February 1734, Issue 4091; Penny London Post, 27 February 1734, Issue 80.

[9] Jacques Rigaud after William Kent, The Wedding of Princess Anne and William of Orange in the Chapel of St. James’s as Decorated by William Kent, 1734. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D32900.

[10] Daily Journal, 16 March 1734, Issue 4107, and 18 March 1734, Issue 4108; London Evening Post, 14-16 March 1734, Issue 986; Penny London Post, 18 March 1734, Issue 88; and Penny London Post, 19 October 1733, Issue 24.

[11] Greig, The Beau Monde, 119-25; Hannah Smith, “The Court in England: 1714-1760: A Declining Political Institution?” History: The Journal of the Historical Association 90.297 (January 2005): 23-41.

[12] See British Museum: Anonymous unmounted engraved paper fan, c. 1734-35, 1891,0713.375; Martha Gamble, Unmounted fan-leaf with orange tree, rose bush, and poem celebrating the marriage of Princess Anne, c. 1734-35, 1891,0713.426; Qing Dynasty Porcelain Bowl, c. 1734, Franks.1447.

[13] Daily Gazetteer, 27 April 1736, Issue 260; Reads Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1 May 1736, Issue 608; Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal 28 February 1736, issue 386. See also 20 March 1736, issue 389.

[14] For instance, see Reed’s Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1 May 1736, Issue 608; London Evening Post, 27-29 April 1736, Issue 1318.

[15] London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 2 April 1736, Issue 443, and 17 April 1736, Issue 456; London Evening Post, 13-15 April 1736, Issue 1312.

[16] Charles Philips, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales, c. 1736, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2093; John Faber Jr, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, after Charles Philips, c. 1750, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D10778.

[17] Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007).

“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

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.

Humanities Viewpoints: Hamilton

HumanitiesViewpointsLogoHumanities Viewpoints is a monthly podcast from the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute.  It features short conversations between host Aimee Mepham, Humanities Institute Assistant Director, and a WFU faculty member working in the humanities.  The conversations focus on a timely subject – a current event, holiday, cultural moment – and how this subject connects to the faculty member’s field, teaching, and expertise.  The podcast debuted in 2014, and WFU faculty members from Art History, English, German, History, Religious Studies, and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies have participated.

The September episode, the first of the 2016-2017 academic year, features a conversation between Mepham and Jake Ruddiman, Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest University, on Hamilton, the man and the musical.  Ruddiman, a scholar of the American Revolution, received his PhD from Yale and joined the WFU faculty in 2010.  His first book, Becoming Men of Some Consequence, presents the experiences of young men fighting in the Revolutionary War.  His next projects explore the Revolution in the Southeast.

Hamilton:  An American Musical tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton.  It was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also starred in the title role.  It debuted Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre to critical acclaim and transferred to Broadway in August 2015.  Since then it was nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony Awards, winning 11, including Best Musical as well as awards for Best Book and Best Score for its creator, Miranda.  It was also the recipient of the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  It’s even made its way into Wake Forest University’s undergraduate admissions application as a short-answer question.

During the conversation, Ruddiman discusses the Hamilton phenomenon, including what Hamilton, the musical, gets right, what it leaves out, and what may have captivated Lin Manuel-Miranda’s imagination, inspiring the creation of his version of this “Founding Father without a father.”

One of the things Ruddiman commends the musical for is the ideas it presents about history itself.  He says, “Lin-Manuel Miranda gets something profoundly correct about history, and that history, the story, first is contingent . . . and the second thing is that history, as a record of the past, of events, is incomplete.  The line that I love and that other historians have loved is, ‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’  That is a historiographical statement, a philosophical statement about history if there ever was one.”

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.

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Notes

1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,” Common-place.org, February 2002, http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml.

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

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Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

Blurred Lines: When Fiction Tells the Truth

Olaudah Equiano was most certainly a key figure in the abolition movement of the eighteenth century.  His narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789), is one of the best known of the ere and represents the story of thousands of Africans captured and forced to live a life of misery and captivity in foreign lands.  However, in a 1999 issue of Slavery & Abolition, Vincent Carretta argues that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina and therefore falsified the parts of his narrative that described his journey across the Atlantic.  I argue that the information, if true, does not detract from the value of the narrative.  In fact, I suggest that Equiano’s representation of the truth is merely a reflection of how difficult it is to make a distinction between fact and fiction.  What Equiano testified to is the traumatic experience many of his friends and family had to experience; he was simply the most proactive and vocal in sharing the truth.  Writing his story while including small embellishments based on the honest and painful truths of others around him does not make him a liar.  They make him an author of historical fiction.  Authors of historical fiction desire to tell the truth, and in order to do so, they must exist slightly outside the realm of known fact.  In his novel Someone Knows My Name, originally published as The Book of Negroes (2007), Lawrence Hill reveals heart-wrenching details of the slave trade and ends up portraying history authentically.

Set in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, Someone Knows My Name begins with an aged Aminata Diallo (an African who was captured and sold into slavery at age 11) looking back on her life.  She has found herself in London working with the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  They have asked her to write a memoir in the fashion of historical author Olaudah Equiano.  This frame for narration allows Aminata to recall painful events in her past with accuracy and with the wisdom of age.  We learn that as a young child she watched both of her parents brutally murdered by her captors.  She travels months on foot to a port on the coast of Africa, where she then experiences the horrors aboard a slave ship.  Once she arrives in America, she is sold to a South Carolinian indigo plantation owner.  Her memories include both beautiful and painful recollections as well as her impression of the world as a child.  For authors of historical fiction, including Hill, the overall goal is to create an authentic representation of life in the past.  Much of the authenticity in a novel comes from a recreation based on fact, artifacts, and firsthand accounts.  Difficulty arises when the author includes too much historical description and overwhelms the reader or not enough knowledge and the novel thus loses some of its desired impact.  In order to include authentic details of the slave trade, Hill must address controversial issues like imperialism, religion, and rape.

Lawrence Hill does not hesitate to address the tough and often gruesome aspects of slavery.  The authentic portrayal of life as a slave, from capture to eventual freedom, creates a dynamic backdrop for the character-driven novel; however, his attention to detail does not derail the effect of the novel.  On the contrary, the authenticity enhances the novel’s aim.  Fortunately for historians, the slave trade industry kept detailed and extensive records.  Upon investigating many of the specific details about slavery in the novel, Hill’s research becomes evident.  The description of the slave ship Aminata travels on is a perfect example of the type of authenticity Andrew Beahrs describes [1]:

Everywhere I turned, men were lying naked, chained to each other and to their sleeping boards, groaning and crying. Waste and blood streamed along the floorboards, covering my toes…Piled like fish in a bucket, the men were stacked on three levels—one just above my feet, another by my waist and a third level by my neck…The men couldn’t stand unless they stooped—chained in pairs—in the narrow corridor where I walked. On their rough planks, they had no room to sit. Some were lying on their backs, others on their stomachs. They were manacled at the ankles, in pairs, the left ankle of one to the right ankle of the other. And through loops in these irons ran chains long enough for a man—with the consent of his partner—to move only a few feet, toward the occasional cone-shaped bucket meant for collecting waste. (63-64)

The passage above is an example of Hill’s authenticity in the novel.  Details like the exact location of the chains on the men’s ankles and the horrific conditions match descriptions found in history books.

Very few firsthand accounts exist describing life as a captured African aboard the slave ships, but Equiano shares the collective experience of many Africans in his memoir:  “The closeness of the place, and the heat and the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable.”  As Carretta concludes in Equiano, the African: Biography of A Self-Made Man, the memoir is enhanced by the apparent fabrication because Equiano becomes the voice of the voiceless.  While he might not have experienced firsthand a slave ship, the power of his written voice moved people into action.  His purpose was to tell the truth of slavery, and whether or not he experienced every single gruesome detail is irrelevant in the end.  In order to tell the truth, Equiano needed to move outside the lines of personal history for an authentic representation of the entire slave journey.

In the same way, Hill romances history in order to tell the overall truth of the slave trade; the detailed and fictional accounts of Aminata’s thoughts and feelings humanize an often number-based representation of history.  Someone Knows My Name fleshes out the skeleton  that history books give us; Aminata’s journey resonates because she is human.  We can picture the young girl raped and forced to carry on working as if nothing happened (Hill 161) in a way not permitted through the statistics presented in textbooks.  Using Aminata’s life as a framework, Hill demonstrates the devastating effects of each part of the slave trade industry.  The novel exists successfully in the realm of historical fiction because Hill balances authenticity with accessibility and creates an accurate portrayal of life as a slave and, subsequently, the freed slave.  The familiar human emotions of fear, love, and hope enhance the experience and are not outweighed by the strange elements, like slavery or life in the 1700s.  Delicately interwoven with fact, the romance of history in Someone Knows My Name brings to life a difficult and often obscure part of history.  Hill’s novel is a work of historical fiction that reveals more about historical events than any textbook ever could.

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Note:

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

The Eighteenth-Century Settings of Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 - 1832

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 – 1832.  National Galleries Scotland

This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Waverley, Walter Scott’s novel about a naïve English soldier’s involvement in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745.  Scott’s first novel and the nearly 30 works that constitute the Waverley Novels had a dramatic effect on the course of not only fiction, but history writing as well.  Scott’s synthesis of historical subject matter, supernatural mystery, and romantic intrigue made his novels both enormously popular and critically acclaimed—no small feat considering the depths to which the genre’s reputation had sunk by the early nineteenth century, as Ina Ferris has shown.

Scott’s influence extended across Europe and into the United States.  His works inspired paintings by (among many others) J.M.W. Turner, John Everett Millais, and Eugène Delacroix, as well as operas by Gaetano Donizetti and Arthur Sullivan.  When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he chose his new name based on a character from Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake.  In the Virginia town where I grew up, there is a street called Waverly [sic] Way, not far from Rokeby Farm Stables; I currently teach about 100 miles away from the town of Ivanhoe, VA.  Along Central Park’s Literary Walk, a statue of Scott accompanies ones of Shakespeare and Robert Burns.  Even his critics acknowledged his enormous influence: Mark Twain blamed the Civil War on Scott, “For it was he that created rank and caste [in the South], and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them.” To illustrate his distaste, Twain named the wrecked steamboat in Huckleberry Finn the Walter Scott.

In short, Scott was enormously popular and influential as both a poet and a novelist—but few people today read his work for pleasure. [1] Go to a bookstore, and you’ll find maybe one or two of his novels, while his contemporary Jane Austen has rows and special displays devoted to her work, not to mention sequels and rewrites featuring zombies and vampires.  Scott’s broader cultural presence has declined as well.  Although Season 3 of Downton Abbey included a couple of references to his poetry, to my knowledge the BBC hasn’t adapted a Walter Scott novel since it produced Ivanhoe in 1982. The 1995 film Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, bears no relation to Scott’s novel of the same title.  Perhaps the most recent popular film at all relevant to Scott is the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, in which Andie MacDowell’s character scolds Bill Murray’s with lines from Lay of the Last Minstrel.  (Murray, who plays a weatherman, expresses surprise when she tells him the author of the lines: “I just thought that was Willard Scott.”)  Outraged politicians occasionally recite Scott’s lines from Marmion—“O, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!”—but invariably attribute them to Shakespeare.

Why is Scott so forgotten?  The scholar Ian Duncan explains that he “tell[s his] students: everybody loves Jane Austen.  The real challenge is to say you love Walter Scott.” [2] And a challenge it can be, for a handful of reasons, including Scott’s convoluted plots, digressive narratives, and heavy use of dialect.  But perhaps what deters most general readers from picking up a Scott novel is precisely why most readers of this website would be interested in doing so: the novels draw their dramatic intensity from specific historical events—and very often these events are rebellions, riots, invasions, and other crises of the eighteenth century.

It’s only a slight overstatement to say that the Waverley Novels can be understood as a fictional history of the eighteenth century, albeit from a distinctively Scottish perspective rather than the England-centric model to which most readers may be accustomed.  Scott himself explained that his first three novels were meant “to illustrate the manners of Scotland at three different periods. Waverley embraced the age of our fathers, Guy Mannering that of our own youth, and the Antiquary refers to the last ten years of the eighteenth century.”  Scott’s interest in the eighteenth century continued after this initial trilogy and he would return to Jacobite intrigue.  His fourth novel, The Black Dwarf, involves James III’s failed effort to invade Britain in 1708; the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 lurks in the shadows of Rob Roy; and Redgauntlet concerns a fictional aborted Jacobite conspiracy of the 1760s (and, unlike his other novels, is told in the very eighteenth-century epistolary style).  But Scott wasn’t exclusively a chronicler of various Jacobite failures.  The historical event behind The Heart of Midlothian is the more obscure 1736 Porteous Riots in Edinburgh, and The Bride of Lammermoor depicts the contrasting consequences of the Act of Union for two Scottish families.  (In the original edition of The Bride of Lammermoor, published in 1819, Scott set the action around the time of the Glorious Revolution.)  “The Highland Widow” and “The Two Drovers,” stories from Chronicles of the Canongate, portray Scottish characters struggling to reconcile their beliefs and customs with their nation’s union with England; the third and longest tale, “The Surgeon’s Daughter,” revolves around characters’ attempts to find fortune in India in the late-1700s.

Scott’s eighteenth-century résumé expands if you follow the lead of many scholars and broaden the timeline to include the Restoration.  Old Mortality concerns the Killing Time of the late 1600s, when Scottish Covenanters clashed with the government of Charles II; The Pirate is set in the Scottish islands of 1689 (and contains countless references to John Dryden and Restoration theater); and the Popish Plot is a major plot device in Peveril of the Peak.  These settings and events afforded Scott opportunities to explore his favorite themes, including the contentious and often violent transition from one set of laws and traditions to another, whether it be the last gasps of Highland feudalism in Waverley or efforts to reform the Northern Isles in The Pirate.

Although I have been emphasizing Scott’s interest in eighteenth-century subject matter, his interest in the period extends beyond that.  He was informed by eighteenth-century thinkers, particularly Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, and devoted much of his career to the study of eighteenth-century poets and novelists.  He published editions of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift, for which he also wrote biographies; and he was involved in an early attempt to canonize the British novel, contributing biographies of Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole, and others to Ballantyne’s Novelists’ Library.

I don’t expect Walter Scott’s novels to be re-imagined to include kilt-wearing vampires any time soon.  But I am confident that readers interested in the eighteenth century would be drawn to Scott’s representations and interpretations of what he recognized as a tumultuous and exuberant age.

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Notes

[1]   My point about Scott’s lack of an audience pertains to general readers; among scholars, he has been enjoying a revival for some time.  Edinburgh University Press recently completed its new scholarly editions of the novels and has begun work on editions of the poems.  This is in addition to the many scholarly books and articles about Scott’s work that have been published in the last two decades.

[2]  Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels, 19.