- The Cry: A New Dramatic Fable by Sarah Fielding and Jane Collier, edited by Carolyn Woodward
Kentucky, 406 pp, £86.50, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 8131 7410 5
Until the mid-20th century Jane Collier was known only for a clever satire on how best to irritate people, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753). After her death in 1755 it was considered a shame that she hadn’t tried writing something less rebarbative. Her younger brother Arthur ‘often lamented’, the 1804 editor of the Essay recalled, ‘that a sister possessing such amiable manners, and such abilities, should only be known to the literary world by a satirical work’. It would take another hundred years at least for it to sink in that a man or even a woman might have ‘amiable manners’ and still write a satire; but Collier in fact had written something else, and in a completely different genre – one she’d invented from scratch.
The Cry: A New Dramatic Fable (1754) was a collaboration between Collier and her friend Sarah Fielding, author of the sentimental novel The Adventures of David Simple (1744) and contributor to her brother Henry’s Joseph Andrews (1742). They had worked together before – Collier wrote a preface for the 1753 sequel to David Simple, and in 1749 they both produced critical responses to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Published in three volumes and running to almost a thousand pages in total, The Cry was a brave and unlikely venture for two women who relied on the generosity of friends to supplement their income. Neither had independent means. Fielding’s father disappeared to London to pursue his military career shortly after the death of his first wife, leaving their seven children in the care of their grandmother. He spent the profits of the family estate in Dorset and in late 1740 was committed to Fleet Prison for debt, where he died a few months later. Collier’s family had to move from her father’s Wiltshire rectory into lodgings in Salisbury when she was a year old; all their money was spent and the church living sold by the time she reached adulthood. We know Fielding had patrons during the late 1740s and 1750s (among them Pope’s friend Ralph Allen and the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu) and did well from the subscription sales of her novels, but it’s less clear how Collier managed.
The Cry was written and published during the years Fielding and Collier lodged together in London, in Beauford Buildings just off the Strand. The work they produced wasn’t a novel, they explained in their introduction, because everyone was writing novels. ‘Stories and novels have flowed in such abundance for these last ten years, that we would wish, if possible, to strike a little out of a road already so much beaten.’ It wasn’t a philosophical essay, because essays weren’t challenging enough to write, requiring ‘little more than what is called a fluency of words, and a vivacity of expression, to avoid dullness’. It wasn’t a romance, packed full of ‘surprising incidents and adventures’, ‘lions, tigers, and giants’, but a study of something closer to home: female psychology and the workings of the ‘inward mind’, the relationship between the intellect, the passions and the moral sense in women, and an exploration – as Carolyn Woodward argues in the introduction to her excellent new scholarly edition – of women’s capacities as ‘actors and speakers’ in civil society.
The genre Collier and Fielding invented to frame all this was a hybrid of narrative fiction, drama and allegory. The Cry is laid out in continuous prose like a novel and concentrates on interiority like a novel (‘much rather would we chuse that our reader should clearly understand what our principal actors think, than what they do’), but it is peopled by types and choruses rather than rounded individuals and has dramatic elements – scene divisions in place of chapters, characters who enter the story as if it were a stage to speak in their own person, a curtain that falls at the end of Part (or Act) V. Its plot is related by two characters called Portia and Cylinda, who tell a self-consciously Shakespearean story of the fortunes and romances of an improvident father and his three children. Running alongside and over the top of this is a series of exchanges and arguments between the speaking characters: Portia, Cylinda, an allegorical figure, Una, who represents Truth, and ‘The Cry’ itself, a squabbling, wrangling, hostile crowd. ‘Behold,’ the narrator says as the Cry come onstage, ‘a large assembly, composed of all such tempers and dispositions as bear an inveterate hatred to Truth and Simplicity … To this assembly, when clothed in mortal forms, we beg leave to give the general name of THE CRY.’ Throughout Portia and Cylinda’s stories, the Cry interrupt, mock, snigger, yawn, snore, ‘toss up their noses in sign of contempt’, and do their utmost to derail intellectual seriousness of any kind. Their rhetorical job is to represent a version of what in the mid-18th century you might have called ‘the Town’ – fashionable society, or the portion of society that invested deeply in appearances and codes of behaviour and gossiped viciously about those who didn’t – and to provide Portia and Cylinda with a foil for their thoughtfulness and self-reflexivity.
What irritates the Cry most is Portia and Cylinda’s questioning of the tacit rules that sustain conventional social and domestic hierarchies. Assumptions about the way women ought to behave exist for a reason, the Cry insist: being correctly ‘feminine’ is close to impossible for any woman to achieve, but the traps and snares built into the game are what keep polite society and the marriage market going. If a girl is too receptive to male advances she’s a whore (‘a creature’); if she turns down a man with a decent fortune she’s a fool; if she submits obediently to her husband she’s given herself up too easily; if she prizes her intellectual independence she’s arrogant and therefore unfit to be anyone’s wife; if she’s beautiful she thinks too much of herself; if she isn’t she doesn’t care enough (though here at least ‘she may thank God’, as Collier writes darkly in her Essay, ‘that her ugliness will preserve her from being a whore’). Portia and Cylinda have little time for the play-acting and suppressing of instincts this list of rules requires of women. The mixture of performative modesty and coquetry needed to ensnare a man in the proper fashion, they argue, teaches girls that they must passively await attention. ‘Little miss is taught by her mamma, that she must never speak before she is spoken to,’ Portia explains,
On this she sits bridling up her head, looking from one to the other, in hopes of being call’d to and address’d by the name of pretty miss, and of being asked some questions, for which her nursery maid perhaps hath furnish’d her with a smart answer: but if this should not happen, and no one should take any notice of her, she is ready to cry at the neglect.
Sitting and waiting in the drawing room to be taken notice of soon becomes sitting and waiting in the assembly rooms (‘the bigger miss seats herself in public at a ball, expecting every moment to be chosen by some man for a partner for that evening’); then sitting and waiting – perhaps for several years – to be ‘chosen out as a partner for life’. Old maids, ‘continually expecting great offers of marriage’, never stop waiting.
The ‘grand secret’, as Portia calls it, to escaping this nightmare of passivity is for a woman to ‘keep her mind independent’ by a sustained exercise of intelligence and willpower. Codes of femininity are built on neglecting the female intellect by developing a version of ‘learning’ which involves no active thought but makes young ladies look clever at parties. Being able to quote from ‘approved authors’ like Martial, knowing by heart the full pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses and parroting the ‘acknowledged authority’ on Homer are all forms of performative smartness that ‘the Cry think necessary towards shining in conversation’, the narrator observes; they are also yardsticks for judging and deriding the lesser brilliance of others. ‘If any person had forgot who was the father of Jupiter, should mistake in the proper office of Mercury, or should talk of the fine eyes of Cupid, whom fiction has pleased to represent as blind’, Portia says, the Cry would jump on the mistake: ‘All their sneers, and attempted witticisms, which they keep ready at hand upon such occasions, would be cast forth against such an ignorant blunderer.’ Here, there’s a glimpse of the narrative space Jane Austen would come to occupy half a century later, particularly in Emma (1815): vain, brittle Mrs Elton, misquoting Gray’s Elegy in an effort to one-up Emma (‘I dare say you have heard those charming lines of the poet, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/And waste its fragrance on the desert air”’), becomes the butt of the joke for ‘strutting in a borrowed phrase’, as Collier and Fielding put it; while Harriet Smith’s painful awareness that her suitor Robert Martin hasn’t read the right sort of books (‘I believe he has read a good deal – but not what you would think any thing of,’ she admits to Emma) shows the snobbery behind superficial learning.
What the Cry – and by extension polite society at large – despise in women is real learning born of deep thought and hard study, backed up by thoughtful and selective reading. The male dislike of female erudition, Collier and Fielding argue, is a consequence of pride and territorial jealousy. Portia describes being unable to convince a ‘very learned and ingenious’ male acquaintance of the truth of an observation she’d made, then finding ‘half a year afterwards’ that he had ‘entirely changed his opinion’ after finding a version of her point in Aristotle. The female members of the Cry, meanwhile, are suspicious and envious in equal measure. They mutter bitterly about ‘wits, women of sense, pretenders to penetration, &c.’, insist that ‘learning ever was, and ever would be, the ruin of all women who possess’d it,’ and claim (with Dryden, whose translation of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire describes ‘the Book-learn’d Wife’ as ‘of all Plagues, the greatest’) that intelligence in women ruins marriages. Portia’s discourse on logic, for instance, prompts horrified glances: ‘They were certain that a woman would never be married who pretended to such high learning; for men were not such fools as to burthen themselves with logical wives. A fine wife indeed would any woman make, who should chop logic all day with her husband!’ In the Essay, Collier has fun with the idea that ‘All Wits are slatterns’: ‘That no girl ever delighted in reading, that was not a slut … well might the men say they would not for the world marry a Wit; that they had rather have a woman who could make a pudden, than one who could make a poem.’
Choosing poems over puddings, though, as both writers argue, shouldn’t mean putting the intellect over kindness, or honour, or a sense of basic social obligation. In Part IV of The Cry, Cylinda tells the story of her rigorous education, her absorption in philosophy and gradual disregard for social and Christian virtues. ‘I therefore took a resolution to chuse my own religion, and to settle my own rule of life … I formed the object of my own worship, which was no other than my own understanding.’ Flitting distractedly from one branch of philosophy to the next, she embraces Shaftesbury’s natural theology, classical republicanism, Platonism, stoicism, scepticism and Epicureanism in turn, each time allowing herself to be distracted by the same impulses and passions that her veneration for the intellect tells her she ought to despise (what draws her to the idea of stoic magnanimity, for instance, is falling for the young actor playing Cato in Addison’s play). She becomes a dedicated Epicurean, falling into a pleasurable love affair with a man she has no intention of marrying, and takes a comically literal approach to scepticism, copying her model Pyrrho by ignoring the judgment of her senses and walking blindly into men, dogs and water: ‘I also, whenever I went out, walked strait forward, enjoying the discovery that there was no certainty in any thing, and I was not therefore to believe my eyes.’ Her most absurd encounter is with the stoic doctrine of apatheia, the idea that pain and other disturbing passions may be lessened or thought away by mental discipline. Sitting happily ‘in an arbour at the bottom of my garden’, ‘breathing the sweets of a calm summer’s evening air’, she compares her own triumph over suffering to that of the Greek stoic Posidonius, who endured vicious bouts of rheumatism:
I used to cry out, ‘Oh pain! I will never acknowledge thee to be a real evil.’ Nor did I exult a little, that I had gone one step farther than my philosopher: for; as pain was absent, I would not, as Possidonius did, even allow it to be troublesome.
Cylinda’s stoicism is a lesson in what not to do: it shows that a perceptive mind may become a source of pride and self-love. The word Collier and Fielding use to pinpoint what is most desirable in the cultivation of the intellect is ‘candour’ – a curious word in the 18th century that flickers between meaning something like ‘sweetness’ or ‘kindliness’ and something closer to ‘openness’ or ‘frankness’, and in Collier and Fielding’s gendered usage is perhaps a bit of both: throughout the book it describes – mainly in relation to Portia – ways in which women’s intellectual capacities may be released and nurtured by the virtues of humility and honesty, and explains that developing the understanding means being happy to admit ignorance and not clinging to favourite errors. ‘Candour exalts and enlarges the capacity, whilst the want of candour stifles and suppresses all its force,’ Portia says. ‘It is but to preserve candour enough to keep up an impartial attention, and … to know when properly to confess myself a learner; and I have it in my power, as far as my capacity will reach, to command any knowledge that is extant in the whole universe.’
The branches of knowledge Portia commands include philosophy, literary criticism, linguistics, logic and the ancient languages, and in each case the moral idea of ‘candour’ determines her approach. Logic, as she understands it, is merely an instrument of truth-telling, ‘an art of reducing the forms of speech into such a method, as from thence clearly to distinguish truth from falsehood’; for the Cry, on the other hand, it’s a vicious trick designed to confuse and embarrass, ‘something which men learned at the universities, in order to hinder themselves from being understood’. Allegory and metaphor, similarly, commonly attacked for mystifying and clouding their objects, are to her mind vehicles of imaginative communication, drawing on ‘outward objects’ and ‘things visible’ to help the reader perceive something the poet has in his mind’s eye (‘to deduce the evidence of things not seen’). Writing well, as she sees it, is a matter of conveying the truth of the world, which means that all the key terms in the 18th-century critical lexicon can be exchanged for one central idea: ‘After all that has been said in various shapes, by many various writers, concerning JUDGMENT, TASTE, INVENTION, &c. they all and severally mean no more than THE PERCEPTION OF TRUTH, which way soever it is offered to our view.’
Getting at truth is the point of language too. For Collier and Fielding – influenced by their close friend James Harris, author of a 1751 treatise on ‘language and universal grammar’ – words possess revelatory powers, elucidating ideas which would otherwise remain dark. Words aren’t abstractions from or mystifications of the external world but intimately tied to it, and this means that new ideas or new objects require new words, carefully and precisely chosen (as Portia puts it, ‘the change of words, and the adapting them to new purposes, doth but make language follow the fate of all nature’). More than once Portia infuriates the Cry by daring to coin words herself when she feels dissatisfied with the signifying – that is, truth-describing – ability of the ones available to her. In Part I, she comes up with the word turba to describe the warring of tumultuous passions in a person’s mind: ‘I want a single word, by which I can at once convey the idea of all the evil passions, such as wrath, hatred, malice, envy, &c. which sometimes altogether possess the human breast.’ She uses the word to describe the mental state of Oliver, the vicious brother in her story, who is forever ‘harbouring the turba in his breast’; and in Part III it’s joined by a second antithetical coinage, dextra, designed to convey the idea of ‘a bosom fraught with gentle peace; a heart casting out those tormentors which compose the Turba’. The Cry, of course, are deeply suspicious of both coinages. Their love of gossip and rumour is built on twisting words until they have no reliable signifying function, ‘wresting false conclusions from plain and simple expressions’, ‘mangling and worrying’ words about and straining to find incendiary meanings where none exists – taking particular pleasure in finding impropriety in some speech of Portia’s. ‘Recommend one’s self to a man!’ they shriek when she admits to having wished to ‘appear agreeable’ in the eyes of her lover, Ferdinand. The ‘expression was re-echoed and tossed about, till it was interpreted to be indecent, and they delighted themselves with discovering that Portia had … given up the modest dignity of her sex’.
The villains get the best lines, however, and it’s clear that Collier in particular – judging from the liveliness and bite of the prose in her satiric Essay – loved doing their voices. In The Cry the vicious interjections of the crowd act as light relief during Portia and Cylinda’s solemn speeches, animated by the archness of tone that runs through the satire:
They all sat down at once, shaking their heads … and as if seized with a sudden compassion for Portia, said, ‘’Tis pity – ’tis great pity! but we are all liable to think too well of ourselves! vanity is a sad thing! few of us are sensible of our own imperfections! we none of us are acquainted with ourselves!
Cant like this is worse than outright insult, Collier and Fielding suggest, because it draws on a rhetoric or way of thinking it doesn’t believe in – here, the language of religious piety – and smears both it and its object in the process of scoring a point. In the Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, the species of cant that comes under attack is false solicitude. Collier instructs wealthy women in the humiliation of their humble female companions. First, the women should tell their companions they have ‘sweaty feet, and a nauseous breath’, and follow this by making a long speech professing concern for their welfare: ‘You know, my love, I have often told you how dreadful a situation a girl of your beauty would be in, should you lose my protection: how many would be the snares then laid for your ruin! … You know I have often wept, from my dreadful apprehensions for you, lest you should come to walk London streets.’ Then:
But dry up your eyes; I have better hopes for you, Miss Kitty; for these ugly things I have been telling you of (and which, I assure you, are greatly taken notice of already) will, when they once come to be known, secure you more against the addresses of that destroyer man, than even extreme old age and ugliness.
Under the guise of being comforted, poor Miss Kitty is accused at once of bad hygiene, hopeless dependence (‘should you lose my protection’) and whorish tendencies (‘your ruin’), before being assured of her rejection by all eligible men. The last step for the tormenter, Collier advises, is to ‘take her by the hand; say you are sorry you had even mentioned such things … bid her take care to change her stockings very often, and not come too near you with her breath; and you would promise her, that you never would speak to her about either any more.’
The best bits of the Essay are the set-pieces. The chapter on ‘General Rules for plaguing all your acquaintance’ contains a section on the tormenting opportunities provided by the ‘party of pleasure’, a group excursion in which friends are ‘in a manner bound together’ as a captive audience. In the claustrophobic scenario Collier describes – the summer heat, the carriage ride, the card games, the sketching, the caprices, the spats – there’s again an intimation of Austen and the mechanisms she uses to bring her characters together in one place: Mrs Elton’s loud refusals to take part in Frank Churchill’s parlour game at Box Hill (‘I am not one of those who have witty things at every body’s service. I do not pretend to be a wit’) resemble the tactics Collier instructs her tormentors to employ in order to ruin everyone else’s pleasure in an artistic excursion: ‘You may say, “That, indeed, you don’t pretend to understand painting and history, and such learned things; you leave those studies to … wise ladies.”’ But in Collier there’s a vicious streak, an interest in the limits of civilised behaviour, that has more in common with Swift than Austen, and with a very different kind of social satire. ‘Should there be one amongst you, who, from a real weak constitution, is not able to undertake what the healthy part of the company may propose,’ she suggests, ‘make all sorts of proposals unfit for an unhealthy person to undertake; as walking in the heat of the day, staying out in the damps of the evening, hurrying from one place to another without any respite.’ This is a joke, but in one sense it’s not quite a joke, because behind the fun of ‘tormenting’ is a desire to pull at the loose threads of the social contract to see how much it will take. ‘If your proposals are complied with, you half kill your victim.’
The toughest lesson of both the Essay and The Cry is that nastiness – whether of a trivial or serious kind – is common and other ways of thinking and acting in the world are exceptional. The ideas Portia and Cylinda have to offer are lost on their audience; no one but Una takes them seriously. At the end of Part V, their lonely exceptionalism is symbolised by the falling of a stage curtain – not unlike the curtain Pope’s goddess Dulness lets fall at the end of The Dunciad (1743), bringing with it ‘Universal Darkness’ – which leaves them on one side and the squalling Cry on the other, separating them from the sublunary world in which their intellectual ambitions make no sense. With the right kind of partner, Collier and Fielding suggest, a woman can enjoy rational and candid conversation as one of the true pleasures of private life (as Portia does with her enlightened husband, Ferdinand); but the public sphere in The Cry is a place where the dissenting voices of the crowd make a lone female speaker very hard to hear.