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Archive for February 18th, 2010


Thomas Holcroft by John Opie


Memoires of Francoise de Motteville, 17th century historian

Dear Friends and readers,

Here is my second blog about panels and papers at this year’s MLA in Philadelphia. Here I stay with long 18th century matters. You will learn about the radical Jacobin writer, Thomas Holcroft, his life, translations, and memoir (as revised by William Hazlitt). More briefly: Johnson’s aesthetic ideals and how he was used in the marketplace, a Bengali rewriting of Defoe’s Crusoe by a woman (and a rape in The Further Adventures of Crusoe where it’s ignored); two French women romancers, Mesdames de Scudery and LaFayette. Then again more detailed the remarkable histories of the Fronde told by Mesdames de la Motteville and Guette, one a kind of Machiavelli, the other a 17th century Lady Brilliana Harley as crossed by the spirit of Christine de Pizan.

First up, perhaps the best session (for me) that I attended this time: a Monday afternoon session (3:30-4:45) on the English Jacobin writer, Thomas Holcroft.

The first paper, by Miriam Wallace, “Translating Culture: Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and Holcroft’s theories of translation,” thrilled me because she talked at length — at length — about Isabelle de Montolieu’s epistolary novel, Caroline de Lichtfield, for which I have made an e-text edition of the net, together with a biography, bibliography, account of other of Montolieu’s works, and an e-text of a selection of her meditation-walks from her travel book, Les Châteaux Suisses, Anciennes Anecdotes et Chroniques.


Woman on a Balcony (1824), by Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869)

The son of a shoemaker, wholly self-educated, Holcroft came to London and, as a writer and radical, became a close friend of William Godwin, Tom Paine, Joel Barlowe. To support himself he had worked at a race course, been a prompter for small parts at theaters, and, having taught himself mathematics, French and German, lost himself (as it were) in books, in the 1780s he sought a respectable living as a translator. He translated French texts, among them The Marriage of Figaro (it’s said from memory) and German, and there has been some scholarship on his translations from German.

Prof Wallace then outlined the story of Caroline de Lichtfield, its nature as an epistolary novel of sensibility with a woman-centered point of view (about the education of a young girl). See my Note on the E-text, the novel’s source. Prof Wallace saw elements in the novel which anticipate Holcroft’s 1792 epistolary Anna St Ives.


“Le comte de Walstein retrouve sa soeur Matilde et son ami le baron Lindorf s’aimant enfin”

She then compared the first volume of the translated text with Montolieu’s first volume. Holcroft is much harder on the courtier-father who, and ancien regime values which, coerce Caroline into marrying Walstein, though in both there is a clear judgement against parental tyranny. Holcroft has less idyllic passages. She saw this book as serving transnational purposes in Holcroft’s mind. I’ve argued in a paper and will in my book, The Austen movies, that it was this book which inspired Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. See my note on the contemporary reviews. At this point because of the proliferation of facsimile texts by google, you can buy all 3 volumes Holcroft’s text for around $90.

There was some brief talk after the paper and I asked her if she knew what Holcroft’s translation of Felicite-Stephanie’s Adele et Theodore was like — I own a copy of Genlis’s French text. She had not compared these texts but she did talk about the importance of these women’s texts, and how his translations of them were seen as a sign of his revolutionary sympathies.

Hilary Freezer’s paper, “Thomas Holcroft’s Translation of Male Desire in Anna St Ives,” was of intense interest to me because she articulated for the first time what I have left to be true: the homosocial loving friendship between the suitor-rivals for Caroline’s hand, Walstein and Lindorf is far more intense than the love of either man for Caroline; she then found a parallel for this in first Jacobin Anna St Ives. Frank Henley is working class, sone of a gardener, and becomes close to the predatory rake, Coke Clifton; in this depiction Holcroft comes closer to delving real male sexuality intimately inwardly and candidly in an earnest way than anyone else in the era. For example, Frank becomes impotent before Clifton. As in Caroline de Lichtfield, both men are competing for one woman, and the passages Prof Fezzey quoted reminded me of the French novel.

Clifton and Frank debate idealistic morality, and Clifton calls Frank visionary (naive). Clifton says “I was born to rule, not to be ruled.” There is much sexual tension between them: one says of the other: “I could kiss him one moment and kill him the next. Tellingly, Coke slaps Frank after seeing Frank come out of Anna’s room. Frank does win the contest for Anna’s love, partly because he’s feminized. An Irish character is called black, boisterous, is presented as the “other” and it’s he who abducts Anna and almost rapes her. Coke plans the crime, but does not act.

Holcroft also means to redefine what is a gentleman, and this is an egalitarian ideal which includes sensibility traits. Consciously, though, Prof Fezzey said, the novel does include surprisingly conservative or establishment views. Holcroft’s concept of manliness excludes drinking, gambling (as in life he had seen how destructive these can be). His hero, Frank, is against sexual promiscuity, for balance, benevolence. He hesitates to court Anna not because he’s of a lower class, but because he wants to keep his passion under control. Holcroft saw the Gordon riots as the result of people losing control over their baser passions, as an unparalleled daring outrage which led to desolation and destruction. Holcroft does not seem to blame catholicism here either: for example, Clifton is the one who pursues Anna; yet it’s he and not Frank who criticizes the murky climate (so to speak) of Catholicism. Holcroft’s most basic instincts were for moderation; he presented a heteronormative story for Anna and Frank; concludes with a bourgeois marriage story.


A 1792 painting: Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthé by H. P. Danloux

Arnold Markley’s excellent paper was on Holcroft’s memoir of his life, which exists nowadays only in the revised and censored form Hazlitt made it into under Godwin’s orders: Holcroft, Thomas and William Hazlitt (1852). Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft: Written by Himself; and Continued to the Time of His Death. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. Holcroft had dictated these memoirs, and had gotten up to Chapter 17 and his seventeenth year when he died. Holcroft wished to show how his specific experiences of a childhood of abject poverty led him to become a strong reformist. Hazlitt was hired to finish it because Hazlitt knew Holcroft and was felt to sympathize strongly with Holcroft’s ideals. The money they made was to help Holcroft’s widow.


William Hazlitt, a Self Portrait

Hazlitt supplemented the 17 chapters with letters, interviews of Holcroft’s friends and passages from Holcroft’s books. He finished the new book in 1810, but, having been castigated for his truthful memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin insisted in alterations which were expurgations. Hazlitt remained committed and tried to do his best. He sought interviews with people who turned him down, including Wordsworth and Coleridge.

What can we tell about Holcroft from this memoir that has come down to us? Holcroft passionately wanted to tell the pure truth of this life, to show how he had ovecome difficulties by endurance and developing (not stifling or ignoring) his hidden talents, even if they did not seem to be remunerative to others at first. He shows how an adult emerges from a child. Specifics include how he taught himself math, acted in pantomimes, and taught himself not to be gulled (cheated, deluded). He wants to teach the reader never to gamble. Somehow he had taught himself how to care and trains race horses at the new market races where he saw such cheating, gambling. He was passionately against capital punishment: we see this came from his experiences his tramping of roads with his parents where they would sell tiny things; he saw the turmoil of such a life, the “singular wretchedness.” At age 15 he saw a man hanged and never forgot it; it was “intolerable” to him to look at the gloating mob.

How great the irony that this moderate man who worked so hard to improve himself was accused of treason in 1794 and for a while was waiting to be hung. What must he have thought and dreamed while this coming punishment was about to be inflicted on him. He and the others with him were reprieved; he was one of those released as not guilty; others were transported. But afterwards for a long while Holcroft was shunned, felt himself the target of venal manipulation and ugly tongues and left England. Hazlitt offers a length treatment of this trial. The whole experience was a particularly painful stigma for Holcroft to have to endure.

Hazlitt’s book includes accounts of Holcroft’s novels and plays which mirror Holcroft’s life and political goals. An early comedy, Duplicity, is on gambling; soo The Road to Ruin. A later novel (Hugh Trevor, 1797-8?) shows with horror the ugliness of a gambling life. We have a social climbing hero who is expelled from school for cheating; it’s a kind of map and dictionary of common vicious behaviors, cant language, showing criminals stealing big sums. Holcroft criticized capital punishment nonetheless, for it was meted out for tiny thefts too. He insisted people can be rehabilitated, and can be turned into useful members of society. Holcroft’s memoir, a major effort by a dying man, was his last effort to reach people with his exemplary life story and belief in the power of virtue.

There were not many people in the audience and the papers had been long; we had some comments right after each paper and then, alas, it was time to stop.

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Unfortunately, my hands seem not to have been firm for two of the other three sessions, and my notes are too poor for me to do more than summarize the papers briefly except when it came to the Bengali Crusoe by a woman writer and the material on women historians. For the latter I was helped by my own knowledge of the era and woman historians so could get down more.

Earlier on Monday (10:15-11:30 am) I heard three superb papers on Samuel Johnson, part of the ongoing celebration of his three hundredth birthday (he was born in 1709). Molly O’Hagan talked about Johnson’s involvement in the production of the Lives of the Poets from the point of view of conflicts and struggles between Scots and British publishers over control of the texts of poets; Johnson’s name wanted for respectability. The publishers had only wanted the briefest introductions; in the event Johnson produced gems of biography that became a separate great work in its own right. She read a letter by Johnson where he eloquently defended the author’s ownership of his text.


Samuel Johnson intensely reading by Joshua Reynolds

Carrie Shanafelt showed how Johnson was critical of strong demands for realism and personal egoism in imaginative work. Thus Johnson praises Thomson’s visions in his Seasons and the beauty of ideals as well as detachment in Addison’s work: both understand the limited nature of an individual’s observations; the writer must move beyond the solitary nature of judgement (writing and reading too) to the outside world, avoid isolation. He wanted realism to be tempered by having ideals shape what is created; amoral fiction destroys out hope for bettering ourselves. Johnson attempted to maintain hope in literature as a guide, support, and expansion of experience.


Nicolas Poussin, Winter; or, The Flood

I have to admit that Sara Landreth’s “How Doctor Johnson broke the laws of motion,” went over my head. The admiral was with me; in case you don’t know, gentle reader, Jim is ABD in math and had many courses in physics, and he said the paper was superb, better than any of three he heard in a session on 18th century science.

The talk afterwards was lively and led us into Defoe. Somehow Defoe’s Moll Flanders came up as work intendedly realistic where there is no sense of consistent shaping ideal, and someone said how students enjoyed it from an unconscious or unexamined cynical perspective. I wondered how cynical they were since both 1996 Moll Flanders movies show the film-makers shaping the story to promote a moral outlook consonant with our own time: Pen Densham makes her into a poignantly good mother and anti-racist as his version of ideal feminism; Davies turns her story into a parable of survival in a hard capitalist world. The talk then turned to films — which people usually enjoy talking of. Not that Johnson was forgotten altogether 🙂

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The third 18th century session I attended devoted to an individual was on Daniel Defoe (Wednesday, 10:15-11:30, shortly before we left to return home). The papers attempted a new perspective on Defoe’s work caught up in the title: the Global Defoe. Jeongoh Kim discussed how Defoe’s works are filled with the power networks, information and commodities of human geography in his era. Rivka Swenson discussed The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; she suggested that Defoe was writing to promote the union of Scotland and England but his texts shows how communities are becoming refragmented despite all efforts to join them nationalistically.


Moll (Alex Kingston) and her third husband, her brother as it turns out (Tom Ward) sail to the US (1996 Moll Flanders)

Christopher Loar dwelt on the importance of technology and violence in the same book: an island is discovered by colonizers; the two different groups want control, and a massacre ensues. Crusoe dreams of a neutral space where trade and improved lives can take place; it is quickly shattered when someone kidnaps a woman, and a group of people seek revenge, a rampage using guns erupt so a free peaceful place becomes a murder zone. Loar dwelt solely on the nature of the warfare.

At the end of the session when I asked him about the woman, who she was, why did it matter so much, was she raped, was she returned to her original tribe or did she stay with the new group, he appeared startled at the questions. He had not thought about this central event which began the barbarism. At first he made a slight joke, well, it seemed someone had “taken liberties” with her, but he changed his tone partly because of the next and last paper and partly because it was obvious he had omitted a significant part of the event and suffering.

Consider, gentle reader, the massacre is begun when “a woman” is “kidnapped” or raped. Neither speaker Knew for sure what had happened. I asked if she survived. Neither had noted that detail.

Women’s experience in the Global Defoe was represented by Rashmi Bhatnager’s paper on “Heroines in the Bengali Muslim Robinsonade in Colonial India, 1908.” Robinsonades refers to a multitude (really) of rewritings, elaborations, free translations and adaptations of Robinson Crusoe since it first was published. Isabelle de Montolieu did one of the free translations: Journal d’un père de famille naufragé dans une île déserte avec ses enfants.

The novel Prof Bhatnagar discussed is Englished as The Sultana’s Dream (translated by Barnita Bagihi, a 2005 Penguin paperback). It’s a story of a girl’s rebellion against a coerced marriage. A non-European woman is imitating Crusoe’s rebellion against his father, and she gains a sense of power by imagining herself a castaway on an island. The heroine’s brother teaches her English when her father is asleep. Language, the vernacular Bengali becomes a place and way for one to fight one’s predestined fate. Urdu was identified with Islam and oppression. In the book the heroine does marry an enlightened husband and becomes Begum Rocaca; her husband encourages her to go to the library as an act of liberation; he and her brother support her against her father.

It was the public libraries with English books (some in translation, some not) set up in Bengal in the 1840s which allowed this, a sphere of freedom for the reader to formulate an identity for herself by reading and translating. In these places there was a readable translation of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. These readers also enjoyed Victorian melodramas which when translated into Bengali with memories of Defoe’s book plus Defoe-like Robinsonades took on Indian values too. A new amalgam emerges. Defoe’s book is thus opening new worlds and ideas and freedoms.

Such a book presents the condition of Indian womanhood indirectly. We are in a female imaginary which escapes the narrowing of Purdah society. The heroine is exhilarated and awkward as she walks the streets and public space. Often, though, these dreams have not a single man on the street too. Still this is a place or text where female subjectivity can be expressed, a kind of Utopia where women are not secluded.

I asked if the book dealt with the fear of rape. She said yes, the heroine is nearly raped. I wondered why she had not brought that up herself as women are secluded precisely to prevent them from having sexual experience their families can use for themselves. I never got a chance to ask as the session ended.


Again Moll (Kingston) stirred deeply as she looks out at sea and imagines the adventure before her

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The last 18th century session I went to brought me back to multiple writers, two of whom were women historians of the Fronde. This area is of particular interest to me since I’ve read so much about the English civil war, and especially books by English women, memoirs, letters, biographies, poetry, recording their experience of what happened — and 20th century studies of this literature too. It was called Histories/Histoires (held on Tuesday, 3:30-4:45 pm).

The first paper was Helene Billis’s on Corneille. She saw Corneille as engaging in the real politics of the day through the themes and characters of his idealized tragedies where he supported the absolute state as the only way to stave off war and have grandeur (experience beauty?) in life.

Emily Kugler also discussed romance and historiography in the work of Mesdames Scudery and Marie-Madeleine LaFayette. She spoke of a similar movement froma God-centered history to one concerned with human motivation. She said stylization, character development and plot-design shaped the partly romances they wrote so when they wanted to include history and signficant themes the problem was how to weave history in.

Prof Kugler then quoted a funny passage from Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote. Lennox had made money by translating French letters and publishing editions of Madame de Maintenon (among others). We see our heroine is having a hard time distinguishing romance from reality because she is viewing the world through Scudery romance eyes.

She then quoted Devoney Looser’s book on history in England in the 18th century, a book I haven’t been able to see as about history since it’s mostly about novels. A new definition of history and respect for the subjective approach of memoirs, the fragmented nature of letters and autobiographies, as well as travel books has to come in before any new understanding can be achieved. Since Prof Kugler too did not seem to have thought about considering a non-fiction text as history which male chroniclers, and objective historians since don’t think of as history, she really couldn’t get say much that was new beyond see how romance and historical memory mix.

I have read parts of Clelia (in a 17th century English translation), La Calprenede’s Cassandra, which purports to tell the private lives of post-Republic classic heroines and heroines; also read several times and taught the masterpiece novel, La Princesse de Cleves twice. I read Zayde once and remember thinking of how beautiful and still it was; a distillation in little of the enormous books of Scudery. All these books are women’s novels, very different from Lafayette’s history of Charles II’s sister, Henrietta, and Scudery’s letters, or say Lucy Hutchinson, Anna Halkett or Catherine Macaulay.

I did enjoy listening to Kugler quote some passages from these books aloud in French with an English translation (provided by her). The famous map of tender love by Scudery (above) and the quietly erotic cover of the recent edition of Zayde epitomize the tone of these romances she concentrated on.

Mihoko Suzuki discussed the memoirs of Mesdames de Francois de Motteville and Catherine de Meurdrac de la Guette. Her paper was lucid, well thought-out, informative, in short excellent. She began by telling us that these two memoirs are ambitious books with events told from the subjective point of view so often taken by women; they are consulted by historians and read today.

Like Lady Brilliana Harley, Guette was a provincial wife and mother protecting her property. She supported Mazarin and the Regent and involved herself successfully in negotiating on behalf of peasants as a mediatrix, and she presents herself as having a gift for negotiation between opposing parties. Her credibility derives from her distance from the court and knowledge of local conditions and nobility, her grandfather having been a nobleman of the robe. She does exaggerate her mother’s education.

In Catherine de Meurdrac de Guette’s work we find extreme violence; she remembers scenes of rapine, solders breaking down and destroying all before them, pillaging. She experienced hunger herself and as someone who had to cope with the results of the violence afterwards. She does try to mitigate the inferences one might draw from such scenes but she is resolute against any praise of them. Like Brilliana Harley, she copes with a seige; in her case, she persuades a Duke and his army not to attack her land and people. She is of course the heroine of the piece (she tells us she read widely — and she apparently did as this book shows it), but the overall result is an exposure and critique of the violence of the era.

Francoise de Motteville was a woman in the court itself, and her memoirs may be read something in the spirit of Madame Campan’s on Marie Antoinette. Motteville is witty, satiric, fills her book with aphorisms. Her purpose is to explain and justify the private motives of powerful people in public dispassionately; she assesses Richelieu, deconstructs state-level rhetoric. She shows he was working for himself, not the public good at all. She was Anne of Austria’s confidant, but when her judgement is not in accord with the queen, she criticizes her. She displays real independence of thought.

She also renders character sketches with credibility, men and women both, and uses the interpolated tale in the manner of Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette as a way of ironically commenting on her major story and characters. In her book women as centrally causes of what happens as men. She insists on the truth of what she has written. She retrieves for us what happened behind the public scenes, outside the documents, thus explicating enigmatic pamphlets.

Prof Suzuki suggested that Motteville is the closest historian of the French 17th century to Machiavelli in his Discourses. Guette is a 17th century Christine de Pizan in her gravity, morality, and woman-centered perspective.

I asked if she thought any particular woman beyond Brilliana Harley was analogous to Motteville or Guette. She felt perhaps Lucy Hutchinson was an historian equal to Motteville but her tone and outlook were so different that the books can’t be compared fruitfully. She thought we needed to move to the 18th century (say Catherine Macauley and Mary Wollstonecraft) to find equivalent broad and sceptical views like those we find in Motteville.


A 19th century illustration for Alexandre Dumas’s romancing of these women historians (Le collier de la reine): the illustator has imagined the intelligent woman being appealed to by a subordinate court male; notice the powerful body she’s given

My friends, I relearned a lot by transcribing out these notes tonight.

Ellen

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