- Secresy; or, The Ruin on the Rock by Eliza Fenwick, edited by Isobel Grundy
Broadview, 359 pp, £9.99, May 1994, ISBN 1 55111 014 8
How bad are most of the novels produced by English women writers in the decades before Jane Austen? Sad to say, just when one thinks one has read the very worst of them, another comes along to send one’s spirits plummeting further. Eliza Fenwick’s excruciating pseudo-Gothic epistolary novel, Secresy; or, The Ruin of the Rock (1795), is hardly the first ‘lost’ 18th-century woman’s novel to be resurrected over the past decade by feminist literary historians. Other recent finds include Eliza Haywood’s snooze-inducing The British Recluse from 1722 (‘a sad Example of what Miseries may attend a Woman, who has no other Foundation for belief in what her Lover says to her, than the good Opinion her Passion has made her conceive of him’); Sarah Fielding’s deeply unpleasant David Simple (1744), in which characters with names like Spatter, Lady Know-All and Mr Varnish assail the gormless hero until he drops dead of despair; and Sarah Scott’s thoroughly demoralising Millenium Hall (1762), on the supposed consolations of living in a grim all-female community where one does nothing but sew all day and read aloud from Scripture with one’s pious fellow virgins. Whether, given the competition, Secresy is so ‘sublimely bad’ – in Pope’s phrase – to take the crown of ultimate badness, remains to be seen.
Which isn’t to say, paradoxically, that works like Fenwick’s are uninteresting or unimportant or – in a funny way – not worth reading. Badness often has its own somewhat decadent pleasures. For the reader effete enough to venture, the very ineptitude of much BJ (Before Jane) women’s fiction can make for a certain super-civilised enjoyment. In Secresy, for example, connoisseurs of kitsch will undoubtedly take pleasure in the exquisite character of Nina – a Bambi-like ‘little fawn’, who for long stretches of the novel is the orphaned heroine Sibella’s only companion. (Fenwick’s plot is a kind of knock-off of Bernardin de St Pierre’s Paul et Virginie: Sibella Valmont has been kept in semi-feral isolation since childhood by a cruel uncle obsessed with the educational theories of Rousseau; she will fall in love with – and be betrayed by – her uncle’s natural son, the libertine Clement Montgomery.) When the other heroine of the novel, Caroline Ashburn, first comes across Sibella, she is perched like a ‘Wood Nymph’ on a tree stump, with Nina curled in her lap ‘in an attitude of confidence and affection’. Yet the tiny, sure-footed Nina is as helpful as she is devoted. When the plot veers into melodrama – which is almost right away – the plucky little beast carries letters back and forth between characters, shows Sibella where a supposed ‘Hermit of the Rock’ is hiding and alerts her to interlopers and would-be kidnappers by bounding over various rocks and hillocks.
Yet one wants more in the end, perhaps, than silly-pastoral and the fleeting satisfactions of camp. The case for reading Secresy has to be made on more compelling grounds. One might begin by pointing, as Fenwick’s editor Isobel Grundy does (somewhat briefly) in her Introduction, to Secresy’s broader historical significance: what it reveals about the rise of female authorship in 18th-century Britain. Problematic though works like Secresy may seem today, the enfranchisement of women writers was undeniably one of the great cultural achievements of the epoch. Thanks to gains in female literacy and the rapid expansion of the middle-class reading audience, more women than ever before began writing professionally, and by Fenwick’s time (1766-1840) had come – despite the fierce misogynistic resistance sometimes marshalled against them – to dominate in the field of popular fiction.
Over the past twenty years, English and American scholars have documented, often poignantly, this remarkable, unprecedented coming into writing. Many female-authored poems, plays, essays and novels have been restored to view – some for the first time since their original publication – and our general picture of 18th-century English literature has been transformed and enriched. Among cognoscenti, it is now considered intellectually backward, as well as a bit vulgar, to speak only of the period’s male classics. Perhaps most strikingly, the novel – as the form overwhelmingly favoured by female authors – has come increasingly into focus, far more than satire or the Spectator-style essay, as the pre-eminent literary genre of the century.
Vol. 17 No. 5 · 9 March 1995
Terry Castle’s review of the ‘sublimely bad’ Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy (LRB, 23 February) returns us, via a psychoanalytic route, to the status quo ante Elaine Showalter’s now twenty-year-old A Literature of One’s Own. We revisit the landscape of the female novel as a swamp of the third-rate punctuated by the snowy mountain peaks of Jane Austen and George Eliot. It is surely in the tradition of Eliot’s own ‘coming-into-writing’, the article called ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, that Castle herself writes.
Her suggestion that infantile fear and rage at the parent (especially the male one) overwhelms the first generations of sensational women novelists and condemns them to ‘psychic deadness’, hence rubbishy writing, begs an almost clinical resolution and certainly rises above mere literary history. What are we to make of later women novelists’ strenuous attempts to escape their paternity: the Brontës’ always orphaned heroines, Virginia Woolf’s notorious diary entry on the anniversary of the death of her father, whose ‘life would surely have extinguished mine’?
Perhaps it is more important to look at the stresses Austen’s novels themselves show, with their painful pattern of paternal weakness and the search for a substitute father to provide the law. It is surely this search which marks Austen as a crucial contributor to the terrain of English conservatism as well as to the novel in English. Perhaps we can also then see how Jane Austen could write so compellingly and uncomplainingly of women’s dependency while ridiculing the possibility of freedom for the slave.
Briefly, a list of fathers: Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Bennet, almost ruining the daughters he loves through his neglect of one he dislikes; Mr Woodhouse in Emma, easily recognisable as an excellent portrait of clinical depression, so helpless that the daughter turns for the support of marriage to her father’s oldest friend; the patriarch Sir Thomas, brought back from his plantation in Antigua to establish right order at Mansfield Park. None of these figures fits Castle’s picture of a happy father-daughter dyad, bathed in healing laughter that frees them from the dark feminine histrionics of the Gothic. If we look at Austen’s paternal loyalty in terms of what it cost her to keep the equanimity of her writing’s comic tone, we can not only look back more appreciatively at her Gothic-novelist maternal line but also look forward to celebrating what Virginia Woolf called the ‘jerks’ and ‘spasms’ of Charlotte Brontë; and then on to the jerks and spasms of Woolf’s own ‘Clarissa’, Mrs Dalloway. It seems a pity to miss all this for the sake of pointing out that some lady novelists have occasionally written silly novels.
Vol. 17 No. 7 · 6 April 1995
In her response to my review of Eliza Fenwick’s 1795 novel Secresy (Letters, 9 March) Amanda Sebestyen accuses me of Being Mean (à la George Eliot) to ‘silly lady novelists’ of the 18th century like Fenwick. In turn, I am Not Mean Enough, it seems, to Jane Austen, that ‘crucial contributor to the terrain of English conservatism’ who wrote ‘uncomplainingly of women’s dependency while ridiculing the possibility of freedom for the slave’. In particular, in touching on Austen’s very real love and liking for her father, I am said to project into her novels ‘a happy father-daughter dyad, bathed in healing laughter that frees them from the dark feminine histrionics of the Gothic’. The Manichaeanism here is precisely the sort of thing I was speaking against. No one can doubt the complexity of Austen’s fictional portraits of family life, or the often ambiguous treatment of fathers (along with mothers and children and everyone else) in her novels. What separates Austen from a writer like Fenwick, I was trying to suggest, is her refusal to engage in symbolic violence for the sake of making a point. Emma’s Mr Woodhouse, for example, may behave like a tiresome infant, but Austen does not feel compelled to kill him off because of it or subject him to the kind of mutilating, cartoonish ‘revenge against the father’ so symptomatic of the female Gothic. Not only is there something appealing about this lack of sadism, it may have something to do with – yes – her artistic genius.
Vol. 17 No. 9 · 11 May 1995
Please, LRB readers, don’t accept Terry Castle’s judgment (LRB, 23 February) of Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy as ‘sublimely bad’. Read the novel yourselves: you’ll see. Having edited it, I admit to prejudice, but I am not alone in my admiration. As it happens, I read Castle’s review just the day after spending a three-hour session on Secresy with a group of highly critical graduate students – the second time in four years I have had that experience. Emboldened by the responses of these students (various and hotly debated in detail, but uniform in their respect), I find Castle’s dismissal reminds me of a famous thumbs-down by a critic I respect even more than I have hitherto respected her: Johnson’s ‘Tristram Shandy did not last.’
How can Terry Castle have written a review like this? She is not usually prone to sloppy misreading and ideological parti pris. We know from her work on Richardson that she can appreciate sensibility, and from her work on Burney that (despite what this review might suggest) she is capable of admiring novels by women. Perhaps she reckons herself allergic to Gothic? Something, in any case, has produced a weird blindness to Secresy’s complex and convincing characters, its politically-charged situations, its inexorably unfolding plot, and its range of wholly unstilted prose styles, from flashes of hilarity to the most powerfully restrained emotive passages in the language since Clarissa. I rest my case in the file marked ‘pending: posterity’.
University of Alberta