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.

This still leaves the Secresy problem unresolved: why read this novel when there are others with more immediate appeal? Without much success either way, Isobel Grundy tries to make the case for Secresy on both ideological and artistic grounds. The Cornish-born Fenwick, about whose early life little is known, was active in her twenties and thirties in radical political circles, and along with her husband, John Fenwick, an Irish patriot and member of the London Corresponding Society, became friends with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft around the time of the French Revolution. One of the few – haunting – pieces of biographical information we have about Fenwick, indeed, is that she was present at the birth of Wollstonecraft’s daughter – the future Mary Shelley – and took charge of her for a time after Wollstonecraft’s sudden death of infection a few days later. Grundy makes much of these personal and intellectual ties, and finds in Fenwick’s novel a rousing assertion of themes – both feminist and freethinking – borrowed from her friend’s notorious Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Without a doubt, Fenwick’s negative portrait of Sibella’s uncle Valmont, the novel’s Rousseau-reader-cum-Gothic-villain, owes much to Wollstonecraft’s bitter critique of Rousseau and his misogynistic dismissal of female intellect in Emile. In turn, when Fenwick assails the corrupting power of ‘secresy’ – that ‘canker-worm’ eating away at the sympathetic bonds between men and women – she echoes passages in the Vindication on the hypocrisy and duplicitousness fostered by sexual and social inequality. But Fenwick pays an even more direct homage to her friend – who lived openly with several lovers before marrying Godwin – by having her heroine reject the erotic self-denial enforced on women in patriarchal society. Not only does she show Sibella, innocent child of the forest, freely ‘giving’ herself to the worldly Clement, she has her defend the union – which will result in pregnancy and her death in childbirth – with a strikingly Wollstonecraftian appeal to natural law. Society’s petty rules do not apply to them, Sibella tells her lover before their coupling: ‘’tis our hearts alone that can bind the vow.’

Out of such interesting but inconclusive detail, Grundy tries to convince us that Secresy is a great book. Fenwick’s ‘artful’ handling of the epistolary form is reminiscent of Richardson, she suggests; the novel’s plot has an almost ‘Shakespearean’ tragic force. Describing Fenwick’s exorbitantly melodramatic final scenes, in which Sibella, having finally escaped from her uncle’s castle, falls into a hysterical stupor on finding out that Clement has secretly married Caroline Ashburn’s wealthy, dissipated mother, Grundy enthuses over the ‘sublime’ handling of Sibella’s breakdown and the ‘extraordinary emotional power’ of the climactic tableau.

The boosterism here doesn’t convince – will never convince – because too much else is ignored: the absurd plot, the incoherent characterisation, the intrusive, often repellent didacticism (Fenwick also wrote rather grim children’s books), the impossibly stilted prose. A less sentimental and more rewarding approach would have been to acknowledge the novel’s awfulness at the start and go on from there; for it is precisely Secresy’s awfulness, paradoxically, that makes it – in a deep as well as a camp sense – worth reading. Not only is Fenwick’s novel a veritable compendium of the imaginative and stylistic tics deforming so much early English women’s fiction, and hence of diagnostic value, it starkly illuminates the larger individual and collective costs of ‘coming into writing’: the psychological price women paid for their swift and subversive entry into the world of English letters.

Were Fenwick’s novel a human being, one would be tempted to characterise it as autistic – as primitive and withholding in a profound sense. Its most striking feature is a kind of dissociation of sensibility. Within the novel certain characters are literally dissociated: Sibella, immured in the grounds of her uncle’s estate, is cut off from human society; her pathetic attempts at liberation, including the ill-fated passion for Clement, result only in alienation and death. Yet she and her friend Caroline, through whose more jaded eyes we see most of the action, also seem like dissociated parts of one another. Like Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (though with none of their charm) Sibella and Caroline suggest twinned, yet opposing styles of femininity – one spontaneous, sexual and full of ‘natural’ sensibility, the other reasonable, brittle and unromantic. But Fenwick, unlike Austen, seems unable to imagine any deeper connection between them. Despite the ‘violent friendship’ they are supposed to bear one another, they inhabit polarised fictional universes. Caroline, the rational one, is a supercilious bourgeois prig, given to eavesdropping and sententious comments on male moral turpitude; Sibella, the romantic one, is either weirdly exalted, a kind of Blakean pneumaton, or else like a crash victim or psychotic – glassy-eyed, dumb, and inert. (In the novel’s final pages, after she gives birth to a dead baby and is near death herself, she is ‘perfectly yet horridly calm.’) So deep in the end is the sense of imaginative incoherence, one loses faith in the shaping consciousness behind the fiction; it’s like trying to make eye contact with someone who can no longer recognise faces.

Yet this same psychic compartmentalisation – the autistic ‘splitting up’ of narrative and human function – is found everywhere in early female fiction. The melodramatic entombing of the heroine by a powerful, often paternal figure is a conventional, even obsessional topos in 18th-century women’s writing; one sees it in novels by Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, Sophia Lee, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Inchbald and numerous others. It is frequently amalgamated with a sort of Bluebeard motif: in Inchbald’s A Simple Story the heroine is kept prisoner by her father, whom she has never seen, in his own country house; she is not to enter his rooms, on pain of instant banishment. Another common topos is the splitting up of emotional possibilities into different characters. Female characters are particularly prone to this schitzy reductionism: impossibly virtuous young heroines are made to co-exist, for example, with spectacularly sinister or depraved older women – grotesque harridans like Madame Duval in Frances Burney’s Evelina, or unpleasantly sexualised mother-figures like Madame Montoni in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho or the disturbingly labile Lady Delacour in Edgeworth’s Belinda.

Indeed, mothers and fathers seem to be at the root of the problem. Nowhere is the dissociated quality of early women’s fiction more painfully apparent than in the appalling, seemingly pathological relations that obtain in such works between parents and children. Here again Fenwick’s novel is exemplary. Secresy has two parental surrogates – Valmont, the entomber, and the squalid Mrs Blackburn, seducer of Clement. Both are monsters: Valmont in the familiar Gothic bogeyman style (which Austen would slyly parody in the character of General Tilney in Northanger Abbey); Mrs Ashburn in a rather more modern mode, as the mother who won’t touch or let herself be touched. The generations are cut off from one another, and with such lethal finality – there is no question here of reconciliation – that one senses, at large in these novels, a kind of generalised psychic trauma: a feeling of authorial victimisation so deep and disordering as to preclude the more familiar gratifications of fictional narrative.

To speak of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ is to bring to mind, of course, T.S. Eliot’s classic deployment of the phrase in his famous essay on the metaphysical poets. At some point in the 17th century, Eliot argued, the ratiocinative and emotional functions were separated in English poetry: where there had once been integration and wholeness (Donne, Crashaw and Herbert) came fragmentation and division (Milton through Tennyson). The poet’s mind became increasingly like the ordinary man’s – alienated, diffuse, unable to bridge the chasm between intellect and feeling:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

Whether or not one accepts the elegiac languor here, Eliot identifies correctly the anomie attached to writing in a modern age. What he left out was the fact that poets became like ‘ordinary men’ in the 17th century precisely because ordinary men were now becoming poets: the ‘print explosion’ of the late Renaissance had meant a wholesale increase in male literacy and a sweeping democratisation of English literary culture, witnessed emblematically in the rise to prominence of deracinated figures like Milton and the radical pamphleteers. For women this coming-into-writing seems to have been delayed – women always lag about a century behind in the history of major cultural shifts – yet no less traumatic. For at the same time that it empowers, literacy inevitably brings with it self-division, ambivalence and an infantile element compounded of fear and rage: fear that one’s words may offend those who own writing already, rage at being cut off from discourse for so long. The wrenching Oedipal dramas played out in so much of modern literary history – for those who own writing already are always one’s parents or surrogate versions of them – suggest as much: that it is potentially as alienating as it is exhilarating to make oneself known as text.

In women writers of the 18th century, for whom the anxieties of textuality would have been exacerbated both by the cultural contempt in which their productions were held and the crippling contradictions of the female role itself (how do women reconcile reading Spinoza with the ‘smell of the cooking’ when they are supposed to be doing the cooking?), the impetus toward paranoia and fragmentation is especially acute. The unwillingness of writers like Fenwick to ‘meet the eye’, the psychic deadness and emotional rebuff one so often senses in their work (signalled in Secresy by the title), the murderous, estranging hostility to parental figures – all, paradoxically, may be part of the pathology of beginning, of trying to get over the birth-trauma of authorship itself.

How does one get over it? This is a miracle about which we know little: the outwitting of autism. Yet surely Austen – who invariably looks her reader in the eye – offers a key to the mystery. She seems to have overcome any sense of imaginative alienation early on: certainly by the age of five or six. Her disarming, affectionate, endlessly amusing juvenilia might indeed be seen as a kind of ritual exorcism of all the creative dead-ends writers like Fenwick got stuck in. Witness ‘The Mystery – An Unfinished Comedy’, one of several droll little playlets she wrote at the age of twelve or so and dedicated to her father:

Scene the first. A garden.

Enter CORYDON.

CORY. But hush! I am interrupted.

  [Exit CORYDON. Enter OLD HUMBUG and his SON, talking.]

OLD HUM. It is for that reason I wish you to follow my advice. Are you convinced of its propriety?

YOUNG HUM. I am, sir, and will certainly act in the manner you have pointed out to me.

OLD HUM. Then let us return to the house.

  [Exeunt.]

  Scene the second. A parlour in HUMBUG’S house.

  MRS HUMBUG and FANNY, discovered at work.

MRS HUM. You understand me, my love?

FANNY. Perfectly, ma’am. Pray, continue your narration.

MRS HUM. Alas! it is nearly concluded, for I have nothing more to say on the subject.

FANNY. Ah! here’s Daphne.

  [Enter Daphne.]

DAPHNE. My dear Mrs Humbug, how d’ye do? Oh! Fanny ’tis all over.

FANNY. Is it indeed!

MRS HUM. I’m very sorry to hear it.

FANNY. Then ’twas to no purpose that I ...

DAPHNE. None upon earth.

MRS HUM. And what is to become of? ...

DAPHNE. Oh! that’s all settled. [Whispers MRS HUMBUG.]

FANNY. And how is it determined?

DAPHNE. I’ll tell you. [Whispers FANNY.]

MRS HUM. And is he to? ...

DAPHNE. I’ll tell you all I know of the matter.

  [Whispers MRS HUMBUG and FANNY.]

FANNY. Well! now I know everything about it. I’ll go away and dress.

MRS HUM., DAPHNE. And so will I.

  [Exeunt.]

  Scene the third.

  The curtain rises and discovers SIR EDWARD SPANGLE reclined in an elegant attitude on a sofa, fast asleep.

  Enter COLONEL ELLIOTT.

  COLONEL. My daughter is not here I see ... there lies Sir Edward ... Shall I tell him the secret? ... No, he’ll certainly blab it ... But he is asleep and won’t hear me ... So I’ll e’en venture.

  [Goes up to SIR EDWARD, whispers him, and exit.]

  Finis.

Were it not for the fact that Austen wrote her little drama four or five years before Eliza Fenwick published Secresy, one might be forgiven for thinking that the precocious satirist had Fenwick’s inept fiction in mind. It’s all here: the assault on silly Gothic suspense-building, the anticipatory camp, the delightful adolescent-rococo send-up of exhausted conventions. But most important, perhaps, is the touch of grace, the inability to feel frightened, either of past or future. Parents here are humbugs – like oneself – but no more than that. One suspects that the admirable Reverend Austen, whose love for his brilliant daughter shines forth in all of her compositions, had something to do with this grace: did something well enough to make writing seem the most natural thing on earth.