Dear friends and readers,
On the last day of the Christmas MLA conference this past Xmas, I managed to buy for myself Eileen Fauset’s excellent literary biography of Julia Kavanagh, a 19th century Irish woman of letters: The Politics of Writing. Fauset’s biography shows Kavanagh to have been a courageous woman, good novelist, and significant critic in the history of women’s literature. For the past few weeks I slowly read Fauset’s book, interspersing it with reading in Kavanagh’s French Women of Letters (1862)
and English Women of Letters (also 1862)
which treasures I own facsimiles of, due to Elibron reprints. Below I’ve summarized Fauset’s book and commented on Kavanagh’s writing as well as that of her 18th century subjects.
To begin with (Chapter 1), Julia Kavanagh was a woman who lived a hard but successful life as a writer: crippled when young (spinal curvature), she was Irish Catholic and her parent separated sometime after the three moved to London (there were no other children). Her father was useless as a partner or companion for life: he never made a living, was continually involving himself with other women, a promiscuous ne’er-do-well philanderer. She and her mother made their way through their connections and her genius into the writing world and she published novels, books about women of letters, travel writing. They lived in London, eventually made their home-refuge, France, and travelled in Italy. Kavanagh became fluent in both Italian and English. She died relatively young. How her mother managed after her death we are not told. This chapter is not well written; it’s faults are awkwardness, overlong paragraphs, uninteresting style. But it is rich in genuine new content. From it I’ve learned that Anthony Trollope’s somewhat unkind but astonished portrait of “Josephine de Montmorenci” combines George Eliot with Julia Kavanagh.
Chapter 2 consists of full-scale summary, analysis and interpretation of six of Kavanagh’s at the time (19th century) wide-selling and reviewed novels: Nathalie (1850), Adele (1858), Daisy Burns (1853), Sybil’s Second Love (1867), Grace Lee (1855), and Rachel Gray (1856) [in this odd order]. Fausset brings them alive, retelling them with gusto, lots of quotations and providing an insightful reading which shows how they are like books well known today (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Oliphant’s lesser known novels) but go much further in their frankness, iconoclasm (the heroines often don’t marry, realities of real family sexual life brought out, the heroines professional lives too). At one time these were wholly unavailable except at huge prices or in specific rare book rooms; now they are available (for not such cheap prices, but not even in the hundreds) as google repeat books on the Net.
Jodhi May as 19th century governess on her way to an interview (1999 Turn of the Screw, screenplay Nick Dear)
The first of her three extraordinary works of biography and criticism, Woman in France during the 18th Century is the subject of Chapter 3. Kavangh’s study combines original research on so many of the women we have discussed in passing or details by Fauset, research on Kavanagh’s “take” as well as Fauset retelling the story as Kavanagh does, and then a brief description of how the original materials and Kavanagh’s take influenced the depiction of these women afterwards. The book was translated into French — I should have said that way before. So last night I read interesting accounts of what we know of and how treated were Maintenon, Liselotte (again Elisabeth Charlotte, wife of Louis XIV’s brother and mother of the regent, she left wonderful letters), de Berri, du Maine, de Launay (later de Staal), Aisse, Lespinasse — niece of Madame du Deffand.
The blind Du Deffand (engraved late in life), aunt
Julie de Lespinasse, the niece
Lespinasse is a “favorite” of mine since I read her stark desperate poiganant letters to Count Gilbert (a cold man who regarded her with indifference and I suppose amazement). It’s very like Marilyn Yalom’s Blood Sisters in the length of the portraits, somewhat better because there is no rightest point of view (as comes out of a book dependent on memoirs of those who loathed the revolution). The larger question is (again) how all this relates to the appearance of strong feminism in the women themselves and French society at the time.
On the individuals covered: Alas, Fauset and Kavanagh know and knew nothing of D’Epinay’s masterpiece hugh Richardson epistolary novel, Montbrillant. It was published in 1929 in French (for the first time) and Fauset ought to know it. But such is the barrier of not knowing the original language. On Chatelet though Fauset and Kavanagh are very good. Both she and D’Epinay deserve much much more attention than they’ve gotten. Both so indicative (Chatelet dead of miscarriage, Epinay in her earlier life apparently hounded by someone to cough up sex to pay his debts and the story is not uncommmon and put in Montbrillant) and interesting and ambitious too. There are biographies of Chateauroux (earlier mistress) Pompadour, du Barry, Marie Antoinette, and Madame Roland, not to omit Madame de Genlis (who wrote an enormous number of books and a gigantic memoir). She also offers an account of salon life: very sceptical, she didn’t believe they had all these great insights gong on all the time (and in Montbrillant Epinay agrees). In the juxtaposition of Antoinette with a series of mistresses, Kavanagh is interested as we are in the gains and losses of the mistress position. She dislikes Pompadour as cold, selfish, a pimp; she gives a complicated portrait of Antoinette, very sympathetic to her as a mother and showing her as an inept politician. Fauset says that Antonio Fraser has proved to Fauset’s satisfaction that Fersen was Antoinette’s lover for a while, and when it cooled, faithful friend. Very great sympathy for Roland: the politics, the memoir, the downfall, her lovers (though Kavanagh choses the wrong guy for Roland’s lover).
Chapter 4 takes us through French and English women of letters. Fauset sets out to say why Kavanagh was attracted to the later 17th through later 18th century French and English women of letters. First, she did find in their work a new tone, a new attitude of mind so general and dominant as to be persuasive, as well as new genres coming out of that attitude. In short, the first women’s books, literature.
She saw that in their lives many transgressed, especially sexually, but she was fascinated by how they managed this and navigated (so to speak) these social restraints, how they spoke out from the margins, and that they made a stand “against sexual difference.” Again this is academic fashion to say gender is undermined: I’d put it they made a stand on behalf of the value of sexual difference. Fauset first deals with the French volume and then the English (in general). She brings to bear on Kavanagh modern scholars on 18th century women’s books (Joan DeJean) and the effect is of a real dialogue between 19th and 20th century voices on this 18th century material.
I’ll begin with the volume on French women too as that’s the one Kavanagh wrote first. She begins by defining romance, as central for women and (rightly in my view) dismisses Clara Reeve’s novel as the first gothic romance: it’s wooden, does not give the truths she is looking for, it’s the outer customs but not the inner self. French women she saw as at the center of the discussion of what counts as realism, in other words what counts as the subject we want to talk about, the conversation we want to have. This book was her first and she began with a general account for the sudden growth of women writers and the new kind of fiction they were writing. Beyond the qualities of delicacy, sympathy and tenderness to the fore, the very lifestyle of women made them write of different content and they wrote subjectively of it.
She sees this. Also the importance of memoirs and letters and the salon life to those who write and could go there. If you could not go, you got to read about its results in part through the memoirs and letters and new “private lives” being printed for the first time. All breaking boundaries. Allow me to dwell on the individuals, gentle reader.
Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin (recently the subject of a fine biography by Caroline Moorehead, an 18th century memoirist, letter-writer (not treated by Kavanagh) who lived into the first half of the 19th century)
She concentrates on a few, begins with Madeleine de Scudery and there (again right) says how central are the conversations in these enormous books. Dialogues between characters and what they say is what’s important.
Madame de Lafayette is a shorter section. Kavanagh recognizes she brought something very new to the novel, but appears not to value this that much: the delicate subjective approach would seen not that important to the later Victorian where the historical, political, and larger social novel had trumped the woman’s book. She says that Lafayette shows how women are constained by the norms of their era; the first to reveal this in this way, but then moves on as if this is not important. She values Lafayette for her valuing women’s friendship and how she connects on the one hand to the Hotel Rambouiillet and 17th century learned women — and here Madame Scarron, aka Madame Maintenon turns up in a very different guise. Later on when Francoise d’Aubignac went to court, Lafayette and she became estranged. Also Lafayette was good friends with Madame de Sevigne. Lafayette certainly had an impeccable style, but it’s an insight beyond that or Genlis’s similar romance (quite close) would be as good. For those who can read French and loved Princesse de Cleves, Mademoiselle de Clermont is closely analogous and has a conclusion which anticipates the ending of Persuasion (the writing of that letter and coming together over it).
Joan de Jean finds Princess de Montpensier the more important book than Princess de Cleves because of the range of issues, and the bringing out of what a coerced marriage does to a woman’s inner life. We see a woman subjected to the politics of the state.
A very fine and perceptive long section on Madame de Stael, interweaving Kavanagh’s chapter with what was thought by significant (powerful or intelligent) people then, some of whom knew her, interwoving with what’s thought today, and Fauset’s own views. I’ve not got time to summarize it just now but hope to come back this evening (with more on LLD).
I’ll just say Fauset uses different books than those usually quoted and perhaps they are more insightful. One is an author we read while we were reading Vigee-LeBrun and about Angelica Kauffman: Angelica Gooden: Madame de Stael: Delphine and Corinne; the other a new Twayne type: Gretchen Rous Besser, Germaine de Stael Revisited. Also two 19th century women wrote interestingly: Diana Craik rewrote Corinne as Olife, and Geraldine Jewsbury reviewed Kavanagh’s volume concentrating on Stael. Alas Stael’s novels died for most of the centruy: they were outside the taste of the era, not only as woman’s books which expose “le malheur d’etre femme,” but are deeply sceptical, not mystic, not religious, insistent on seeing clearly into the sources and reality of manipulations.
IN the Madame de Stael section Kavanagh says the problem with Stael as a novelist is she is too analytic and too disillusioned, too cold, oddly enough that she refuses to be romantic. To write novels requires that we lose ourselves in passion is Kavanagh’s view. She finds the epistolary form one which allows the writer to develop principles and passions though in a way no other format can — we are freed from chronology and also the implied author. She also sees that Stael deals wtih “some of the saddest and most perplexing problems of society and life.”
Fragonard’s Gardens at the Ville d’Este at Tivoli (The Little Park)
Now for English women of letters: The English one, the second does not have a preface. It’s conceived of as volume 2 of a set (if not sold that way). She recognizes the importance of Aphra Behn by beginning with her. While Austen is there, she does not stand out except for greater subtlety and characters and a sense of deep pleasure, but not as different and doing something new or great the way Scudery, Lafayette and Stael do for Kavanagh. The longest sections are for Radcliffe and Smith and they are not set up to highlight these two women either.
Kavanagh is highly unusual for even writing of Behn, and while she’s embarassed, she writes at length and defends her. Kavanagh particularly admires Oroonoko, the delving of Surinam, and Behn’s eloquent defense of this slave. She sees that Behn is blamed for what men wrote regularly and makes this plain. Behn put into the novel a fresh vision of just the hidden sexual material of the Restoration from an often angry ambitious woman’s point of view.
It’s apparent Fauset agrees with Maureen Duffy’s biographical portrait of Behn. I’m struck by how Kavanagh intuits German Greer’s stance; there is something here of the woman selling herself recklessly as the only way to nearly (and not quite) surviving. She defends Behn as a learned woman too, reveals the world of secular nunneries, and attacks Moliere’s Precieuses Ridicules (later seeing that Burney boought into this with her Witlings).
She does scant Sarah Fielding as someone who didn’t really write women’s novels: it’s apparent that Kavanagh has missed out much of Fielding’s work, read only David Simple, and argues Fielding’s talent was more for the essay. She has read Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa (which are important for their empathy with the main character and understanding and respect for Clarissa’s behavior post-rape).
Kavanagh and Fauset are very good on Fanny Burney and her importance — as well as limitations. Not much new or different form modern scholarship here. There is an emphasis on circulating libraries which Kavanagh is concerned to show the importance of for women (she conceives of herself as writing to other 19th century women).
The section on Ann Radcliffe is a very strange: Fauset never once cites Rictor Norton; his book does not appear in her bibliography nor the recent intelligent studies by Robert Miles, Pierre Arnaud; she does not know of Deborah Rogers (1980s) huge bibliography; not even Murray’s Twain book. Her source is McIntyre, a book written in the 1920s plus (yes) all the works of Radcliffe thus published including the memoir in front of Gaston de Blondeville. Without these newer findings and readings, no wonder the section is impoverished. It’s a testiment to the strength of Kavanagh’s text which Fauset does repeat that it is as insightful as it is at least on Radcliffe’s texts. Fauset stays with Kavanagh’s Victorian insights into the description and effective landscape projected psychology but says she knows little about the life. Too bad she had not read Norton who at least makes an outline.
But until now she’s been so up-to-date — or seeming so — I was startled.
Then I realized she had never quoted Gurwirth on de Stael. And as I read on, I see she also lacks the latest good biographies and essays on Elizabeth Inchbald. She has read A Simple Story and Nature and Art, but again without the recent work on the plays and biography she is left to Kavanagh: who for her time is at least adequate: Kavanagh saw the Catholicism, miserable first marriage, Inchbald’s dislike of marriage after that, her independence, her brave rise (very like Holcroft) from very humble background to real intelligence and a cultured life worth living. Kavanagh is also insightful on the vulnerable and shattered heroines (even Miss Milner) in a simple story, their relationship to the tyrant hero
My conclusion is Fauset has not read the English sources the way she should have, and I see has neglected recent feminist accounts too. So for the second time her book falls away The first was the awkward graduate-student wooden style of her chapter on Kavanagh’s biography. Probably an insufficiently revised dissertation there. The section on Radcliffe is strange because Kavanagh sensed a deadly distressing story and the wild insights into sexuality that Radcliffe puts before us, and shied away and Fauset doesn’t make up for it. Indeed pretends or does not see. How could she not even read Arnaud is a great puzzle. Radcliffe is seen as masochistic there, but also a brilliant inventor of the female gothic. Inchbald she is workman like because Kavanagh was: Kavanagh would not be taken by the frivolous comedies and more masculinist stories of the stage, and so there’s just A Simple Story.
Charlotte Smith in the 1790s
Alas, on Charlotte Smith, she’s not as good. She has only read the earlier novels, apparently up to Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake. They were so hard to get, fell out of print, and so she hasn’t got Smith’s disillusion with the French revolution and adherence to its principles. Again she’s fooled by the denigation and only read the sonnets and not with the insight and pleasure she ought to have brought to them. No Beachy Head, no Emigrants (blank verse poems of great power). But as far as she goes, she sees the genius and strength of Ethelinde — that’s remarkable as it is the best of the three early women’s novels (the way George Sand’s Indiana through Lelia are); Kavanagh inveighs against Old Manor House for its insipid heroine. You can see how fond of Kavanagh I’m getting when I say I smiled at that. She feels for Smith’s private agon and miserable life but Victorian like feels Smith should not have brought it into her novels — maybe because she, Kavanagh, kept her private life out.
However, the end of the section captures why this book is so inspiriting to me: Fauset sums up Kavanagh’s achievement in her women of letters volumes (and I’d say the novels probably too) thus: “[Kavanagh's] sincerity of purpose, a phrase she could have applied to her subjects, is beyond refute.” How refreshing to my soul (p. 172).
Kavanagh argues that despite Inchbald’s supposed amorality and radical thought, she is an important writer for women; this is going far for a Victorianist. Kavanagh says that through this lens we see the sexual injustices of the earlier and her own period. Most important Kavanagh sees “the sense of delivery” — the actual text and details of a given story — are part of Inchbald’s power so that in Nature and Art when she presents a scene of a young girl accused of infanticide by the father of the child (unknown to anyone else) who is the judge in the court, we are wholly engaged in the agon.
Kavanagh on Maria Edgeworth is very strong for other reasons: Edgeworth’s novels set in Ireland, about social change and with wide ranges of interest in topics partly the result of her relationship with her father was seen as an important progenitor of the 19th century novel (by Trollope too by the way). Kavanagh is dubious though about this father’s influence, and Fauset notices that the dearth of real information at the time about Edgeworth’s life (how much was censured of the father’s four marriages, behavior to his wives, and in effect emotiona incest and use of his daughter was suppressed) hinders Kavanagh. At the same time she is aware she is missing something — to us today she misses entirely the lesbian qualities and homoeroticism of Edgeworth and loses much of its complexity for without that the didacticism seems all that is consciously taught.
Jane Austen. Kavanagh is one of the earliest people to see the greatness and importance of Austen’s texts – for women. She does not see these texts as earth-shaking equivalents say of Shakespeare’s vast canon, but in their place they are powerful and she tries to say why. Each time I’ve stopped to read her essay on the particular women in her book, and then returned to Fauset’s analysis and this time I found Fauset too short, and not having read enough of the Austen criticism.
Kavanagh’s section on Austen is long too — as long as the ones on Stael, Lafayette and Scudery and she says little of Austen as a person. Her only source was Henry Austen and she does pretty well — sees the absurdities of it and takes what she can; she dwells on the six novels. I can only point out or summarize for a record a couple of utterances or ideas. Kavanagh sees this central tortured figure of a woman who has to hide her love because it’s socially not acceptable in her circle or will humiliate her beyond endurance. She contends Austen’s superior is in her delicacy (also tenderness and sympathy as well as quiet satire — but the first two she finds in all superior women’s art). By delicacy she means insight into character “the windings of human nature.” She can follow the “foolish logic” of average minds and imitate this. at the same time she finds Austen uses an inspired silliness for some of her characters — she bathes them in this (say Mrs Bennet, Mr Woodhouse). She does find Mansfield Park to be Austen’s closest to perfect novel. About Harriet (since on WWTTA we’ve been talking of this) Kavanagh says she has a “light, cheerful and unsentimental disposition” which we see can enable her to endure her lot not just silently but without continual depression. This makes her different from Jane Fairfax in the book Emma. This makes her different from Jane Fairfax in the book Emma. Harriet can also be led by Emma (why Emma likes her); she can be made to behave as if she thinks, acts, and feels like Emam to the point she will make serious decisions based on Emma’s judgements. She can be silly too, but not in the inspired superamusing way (not bathed in it) of say Mr Woodhouse and his gruel.
She loves the subtlety of the books, the moral depths and the intelligent entertainment. She testifies to many people at the time really enjoying her — now this is 1862.
Turner’s Tintern Abbey: Austen’s Fanny Price kept a transparency of this on her attic-school room window (her “nest of comforts”)
Amelia Opie and Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan who bring us into the 19th century
Amelia Opie is treated oddly: Fauset said it’s very apologetic, backhanded praise, with Opie’s life treated as a romance. I went over to read the text itself and discovered Fauset is accurate. I am beginning to think that these little lives were written over a period of time in different moods and palaces and perhaps all brought together when they mounted up. Opie was a contemporary nearly, her poetry was known, and her later life as a quaker. The novels are treated autobiographically and a great deal made of John Opie’s early death. Probably too Adeline Mowbray represented a problem for Kavanagh as it openly urges living outside of marriage, even if at the end the heroine is so severely punished for this. Father and Daughter is the novel Kavanagh prefers to discuss, and keeps apologizing for the style.
I’ve never read any novel through of Owenson, Lady Morgan. What I read of Wild Irish Girl seemed to me shallow and hastily done. Since reading Nancy Paxton on rape in colonial novels (Writing in the Raj), where she discusses Owenson’s Missionary (also a gothic book), I’ve been led to see I ought to return to Owenson, Kavanagh’s account here is shaped by her own Irishness; she just loves Lady Morgan’s books and provides strong praise for her independent life, her individuality and her high socialability. She admires how Owenson includes strong politics in her books (and also Maria Edgeworth).
Kavanagh says that this political frankness brought Owenson strong enemies and vitriolic criticism.
Here is where Kavanagh’s English Women of Letters ends; her French Women of Letters ends with Stael, not George Sand as probably she thought of Madame Dudevant, the name by which Sand was known and discussed in the Victorian periodicals, as contemporary, a French counterpart to the Brontes.
The point of Kavanagh’s books was to keep the memory, to keep these important Enlightenment women alive. A deep sense of hope fuels the project, and the earnest attention she gives to their perception of experience, woman’s difficulties and “human mind, its toils, its pleasures, are worth noting, that trace, however fine and often invisible” the important deep past.
Fauset’s concluding chapter is on Kavanagh’s travel book, A Summer and Winter in the Two Sicilies. In line with the rest of the book, Fauset dwells on what is apparently the emphasis in these books: the position of women in Italy. Kavanagh was appalled at the lack of choices for a fulfilled life for Sicilian women. In brief, the middling to upper class woman who did not marry, was put away in a convent or coerced into leading a repressed life as a kind of upper servant where the house becomes a prison. Many rather than do that, entered nunneries. It sound like an exaggeration, but books about customs at the time insist on thow women were pushed into arranged marriages, nunneries, or held tight within a family system; that beating was approved of, also overt jealousy. Kavanagh tells of incidents she saw that frightened her (one woman terrified to leave her house lest she displease her husband) — all this reminds me of Catherine Delors’s heroine in Mistress of the Revolution (original or real title: Lecons de Tenebres) as long as her husband was alive; she escapes because it’s a romance and she is able to find a place as a lady’s companion (but there will be problems like those outlined by Betty Rizzo in her Companions without Vows). Such women could never have travelled as she is doing — though she is herself aware of all the constraints and troubles she has in travelling. She mentions hintingly problems of sexual harassment.
And what about lower class women? apparently Kavanagh doesn’t much deal with them. They look impoverished as individuals but live in a large community where poverty is not the disgrace it is in England and where there are many holidays, festivals and community provisioning of everyone so the kind of near starvation and shame seen in the UK (England, Ireland) is not known. Kavanagh says “there is a sense of acceptance without repulsion of the poor” and so lower status is not so wretched or misery-producing. “The mildness of the climate, fertility of the country” and lack of a demanding continual work ethic makes life softer and happier. She writes that this kind of “social freedom” for the lower classes “compensates for the lack of political liberty.”
Town of Berat, Sicily, early 19th century: Kavanagh probably went to Italy to improve her health
I looked at the google excerpts from this book online and yes, it’s a far more anthropological, and sociological and less personal book that most of the travel books of the era — more like Harriet Martineau’s magnficently entertaining and insightful travel books in America. The customs and prejudices of the people are put before us. I was impressed by her pity for a poor pig “frightened” and “screaming with all its might” during one festival; perhaps he was to be murdered. She did see herself as a guest in this country too, and praises its art.
The book then comes to a sudden end with a half-page postscript summing up its main themes and Kavanagh’s extraordinary achievements, especially considering where she started out and her handicaps.
To sum up, to read this book is to learn about a 19th century life, 18th century women of letters and their books, and a 20th century take on it all put together. It is an extraordinary and original achievement.
It’s uneven because the writing is sometimes weak and wooden (Chapter 1), Fauset’s scholarship is often not up-to-date, but what she knows she knows as well and deeply in her heart as Kavanagh. Fauset (not Kavanagh) shows much more strengths in French 18th century literature than English. One of the most attended sessions at the ASECS conference I was at last month (see next blog) was one where the topic was the obstacles and difficulties of writing women’s literary history. This book shows one: to go to one of the important origins of what we say and how we look at 18th century women you have to be a Victorianist. Jobs go for people expert within a period. Jobs go to people expert within one language and to study women as a group as writers you must transcend nationalities as well as periods.
My next blog will be on three of Kavanagh’s subjects which were the subjects of ASECS panels: Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni’s, epistolary fiction Germaine de Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie and Fanny Burney.
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