Dear friends and readers,
My third and last blog report on our East Central Region meeting on the theme of liberty in the long 18th century at Penn State: late Saturday afternoon and early Sunday morning. This last afternoon I heard a book history type session on Thomson’s The Seasons, listened to a lecture on “the black Mozart,” Joseph Bologne, and on Sunday morning, heard an analysis of a novel by Edgeworth from the point of view of an anti-Jacobin, pro-Jacobin axis, while Jim heard an iconoclastic paper where the speaker argued against the attribution to Aphra Behn of Love-letters between a Noble-man and his Sister, and all her posthumous novels. And I thought of a topic for next year: Infamy, infamy, everyone has it in for me: paranoia in the novels of Sophie Cottin — I may not do that.
Except for the talk on Joseph Bologne (see African heritage site), again the theme of liberty came out most frequently from the point of view of people trying to curtail the liberties of others, this time by arguing against the concept in its new 18th century radical pursuit phase or appropriating someone else’s work to make money.
After a third session on professional women, and trip to Penn state library, I had come back to Nittany Inn to hear 3 papers on the editions of James Thomson’s Seasons: this was a book history session. Sandro Jung discussed the Scottish editions of the poem after the opriginal copyright lapsed: we saw the increasingly naturalistic readings of Thomson’s text; Kate Parker looked at the sexual and erotic relationships in the poem; and Kwinten Van De Wall showed us competing paratexts. All three focused on the differences between the different texts’ illustrations, discussed marketing, copyright issues. The session was refreshing because of the turning away from interpretive readings of the editions’ prefaces to pay attention to how marketing the text for different sets of readers was reflected in the physical characteristics of these books. The papers covered the English editions of Thomson and then 3 Scots editions (1178, 1792, 1793); Sandro’s three publications where much more detail was included were listed in the handouts (see comment). Afterward we did talk a little about interpretation of the poem and also Thomson’s life: although not super-rich, Thomson lived very comfortably on the fees he got from the publishers.
We then had a special lecture by Charles H. Pettaway, a Professor of Music, on Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier St-George (circa 1745-1799), sometimes called “the black Mozart.” My report here differs from my usual ones in that I’m not summarizing or retelling what Prof. Pettaway literally told us, but rather saying very briefly from what he said what I generally understood to be what we today know about Joseph Bologne (the same story more or less also re-stated in wikipedia). There are large problems distinguishing the actual events of this man’s life, much less understanding his character, and probably music, because so much legend has grown up around him, some of it dramatized in a recent biopic. Prof Pettaway’s story was of a man born a mulatto slave in Guadaloupe to a black slave mother and white French aristocratic father, who was eventually brought to Paris where he was educated according to European cultural and aristocratic norms. It’s said this man became an excellent swordsman, an equestrian, manifested musical genius: he played the violin, rose briefly as a musician and composer, and wrote and left music in the middle European tradition (Mozartian). You might say such a person would seek liberty because his position necessitated this. Born to a complete lack of freedom or status which can enable people to have some liberty, he had to assert the concept through himself in order to achieve anything. After the revolution, because he had been associated with aristocrats, and was yet black, he found himself without patrons and died in obscure circumstances. One very pretty piece of music attributed to Bologne was played on the piano by Prof Pettaway. He also showed scenes of music playing from the DVD of the biopic.
It does seem that up to now we cannot reach whatever this man was. Prof Pettaway cited no sources, no memoirs by Bologne (such as we have by Equiano). He could have died in despair, but if so, we do not know this.
It was this, the last evening of the conference that I went to dinner with a friend after a long friendly (exhilarating) reception for everyone between 6 and 7. I got back to the hotel around 11 and went to bed because the next day we were to get up early to listen to one paper each and then leave for home.
That morning after an half-hour’s conversational time over coffee (my friend, Erliss and I caught up on the year), the last sessions began. I went with her to hear Janne Gillespie’s analysis of Maria Edgeworth’s epistolary Leonora as a book exploring the French philosophe’s threat to institutional monarchy as Edgeworth saw it. Overtly the novel projects a distrust of sensibility, especially as seen in French novels (Stael’s Delphine) which Edgeworth parodies; at the same time Edgeworth alludes to anti-Jacobin authors (e.g, Hannah More, Elizabeth Hamilton) as exemplary. The book, though, is chock-a-block with allusions to French philosophes and French ideas and fascination with liberated love and radical ideals. At times the paper seemed to me more about anti-Jacobin novels and French ideas than Edgeworth’s novel, but there was a working out of the plot-design. The Lady Olivia who exhibits the bad behavior these ideals supposedly foster becomes the lover of Leonora, which provides the real interest of the book. She has misunderstood what these ideals were about, and Leonora who at the close of the book is contemptuous of Olivia and very English, is herself an amoral woman.
Aphra Behn (1640-89)
Jim went to a different session and he heard what was to him the most iconoclastic and stimulating paper of the conference, and this brief report is based on his notes and memory. Leah Orr, a student of Robert Hume, followed his footsteps: in a previous conference Prof. Hume had argued that except for Robinson Crusoe, we lack any authority for attributing to Defoe the novels we traditionally say are his, that Defoe never acknowledged these texts in his lifetime, unscrupulous publishers printed them, and we ought therefore at least to be uncertain about the attributions, or talk about Defoe’s works in a different way than we do.
Ms Orr went further: she argued against the attribution to Behn of all the novels published posthumously by Briscoe and the Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, published anonymously during her life and never acknowledged by her. Briscoe’s publications are wholly unreliable (he publishes works under the names of dead people). Why did Briscoe attribute these posthumous works to Behn? 1) Behn had written and stockpiled these, intending to publish them for money; 2) she had not finished them and they needed editing so she gave them to Charles Gilden (who I know was in the habit of publishing texts he got hold of apparently unscrupulously (Gilden is untrustworthy); or 3) Thomas Browne, a contemporary, is the link between Behn and Briscoe.
As to the famed Love-Letters (sometimes honored as the first or among the first novels in English), they show a radical switch in technique: after the hectic lurid epistolary opening, the text becomes a dog-trot narrative. They were republished several times during Behn’s life and they exposed people she would not have wanted to see exposed (Monmouth, Charles II’s son). The attribution goes back to Langbaum in 1691 who does not say why he attributes the novel to Behn. Janet Todd relies wholly on the signature “AB” at the close of the dedication, but many works in ECCO show “AB” as a signature to paratexts. The work is wholly unlike anything else that Behn ever wrote: all her five published novels during her lifetime are signed with her name and are concise semi-tongue-in-cheek narratives; three are consistent gems, Oroonoko (highly original and autobiographical, in effect an anti-slavery tract); The Nun and The Fair Jilt (both powerful romances). Ms. Orr questioned Todd’s use of subjective (read feminist) criteria.
Listening to this, I know that finally we do fall back on subjective criteria. Ms Orr uses her sense that these texts are unlike Behn’s others. I’ve also seen the term “subjective” used as a kind of underhanded or unacknowledged allusion to feminism which implies a tenacious agenda distorts whatever reading is at hand. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to remember how texts really appeared in the long 18th century, what our attributions are often so slenderly founded on, and book history analysis provides healthy scepticism, often finally cynical (nothing wrong with that) which appeals. I really should do a foremother poet blog for Behn.
We talked about this last paper as we settled our bill, put our cases in the car and drove away. It was a beautiful November morning and had been a splendid conference for both of us. I enjoyed being in the play on Thursday night and Jim had read some poetry aloud; we enjoyed the dinners, lunches, receptions and treat of good conversation; we had seen a new town and library, met with old friends and acquaintances. We had gone to the business breakfast for the first time because Jim is the webmaster and offered a short report. (I recommend Nittany Lion’s breakfasts, especially the exquistiely well-cooked rich French toast.)
We hope to come again next year to EC/ASECS. The general topic is to be scandal or infamy. It’s a topic that lends itself particularly to scholars of the scandal-ridden world of the French ancien regime, with its internecine backstabbing. At first blush in English novels I can think of when young women lose their reputations (has a baby out of wedlock especially) they vanish from the narrative, but a little consideration of the papers I heard this time reminds me that if one goes outside this narrow didactic imagined purview, one finds these women don’t go away after all. Far from it.
This year’s topic of liberty was so fruitful because it’s such a fundamental impulse and developing new norms across the whole era.