Preceding Backwardness

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Women’s Lives and the 18th-Century English Novel by Elizabeth Bergan Brophy
    University of South Florida Press, 291 pp, $29.95, April 1991, ISBN 0 8130 1036 5
  • Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel by Ruth Bernard Yeazell
    Chicago, 306 pp, £19.95, August 1991, ISBN 0 226 95096 4

Both of these books are on ‘women’s subjects’. That is to say, they deal with the major arrangements of a society in its (usually uneasy) dispositions of property and power, including control over reproduction. Elizabeth Bergen Brophy’s book is a response to the question which must have occurred to every reader of 18th-century novels: ‘Are the novels really at all like life at the time?’ Were there ‘real life’ counterparts to Clarissa Harlowe and Sophia Western – and to the other ladies, old and young, married, widowed or single, who turn up in the pages of 18th-century novels? Brophy has undertaken an impressive labour in reading a couple of hundred separate (and often, one gathers, large) manuscript sources, collections of journals and letters by various women who lived between the late 17th and the early 19th centuries. She has also consulted the substantial number of such collections already published. Her strategy is to lay side by side the accounts of women’s lives in the novels and the accounts emanating from the women themselves.

The accounts are very literally laid side by side. The author gives us a section of information derived from the novels, restricted to the work of seven novelists: Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Scott, Clara Reeve and Frances Burney. (There are occasional references to other writers, such as Jane Austen.) A segment on, for instance, ‘Daughters’ will discuss daughters and the code of daughterliness as represented in the novels. But the much more interesting sections afford us a glimpse of women living their daughterly lives, as revealed in their letters and journals (all quotations modernised). The chapter most likely to interest the greatest number of readers is the chapter on ‘Courtship’ – we do like having a glimpse of other people’s love affairs, a nosiness on which novelists have long relied. The novels themselves are very interesting, but the reader is likely to weary of glorified plot summaries and any reader who already knows the novels in question would be well advised to skip to the ‘real life’ segments. There Brophy has done us a signal service in rescuing this multitude of voices from death and all oblivious enmity. Most of these women write well, and some very amusingly. It is rather reassuring to find out that housewives in the 1690s dealing with major renovations are likely to have the same experience as housewives in the 1990s: Jane Papillon was unable to join her husband in London ‘by reason of mending the ceilings’, a job ‘which might long since have been done, but that the workmen come for a day or half a day and leave me a week’. Jane Papillon seems to have been a woman happily married (a cheerful destiny in which Brophy takes much interest), but a great many of these women writing to other women voice a strong distrust of matrimony. Sarah Cowper, whose woes in marriage are here recounted, takes her caustic wit to the marriage ceremony: ‘I chanced to be present at a wedding, the most melancholy sight one can see ... To hear a simple woman promise to love without cause and obey without reason is amazing.’ The respectable and redoubtable Marthae Taylor wrote in 1736 to a suitor rejecting his offer of marriage, which she interprets as ‘the desire of being absolute master’ of herself and her fortune: ‘What? Shall I bribe high to enslave myself? Resign all and then cringe to my master’s purse for a pair of shoe strings?’ As Brophy does not point out, such sentiments are reserved, in novels, to wicked women, such as Lady Bellaston and Roxana.

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