Sublimely Bad

Terry Castle

  • 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.

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