Guest Post: English History Authors blog

Guest blog post on the English History Authors blog: Literary Genius in the ‘Long Eighteenth’ Century

Over many decades I have been a biographer and literary-historical critic of the long eighteenth century. Some of my earliest work helped to promote women writers who, at that time, were largely obscure, writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, Mary Hays, Frances Sheridan – and indeed Mary Shelley, who was not always known even as the creator of Frankenstein, let alone of her other historical novels.

Happily, times have much changed and these writers are now so appreciated that they form the basis of many university courses devoted to the literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But far more obscure are the large number of other women who entered the scribbling marketplace during these years. They came in such a crowd that for a time they even outnumbered their male colleagues.

Some of these women wrote short moralising tales for the poor or for children, but the majority fed the taste for Gothic and sensational fiction which had been so brilliantly accelerated by Mrs Radcliffe with The Romance of the Forest (1791)and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). They were jobbing writers supplying the cheaper circulating libraries. These had sprung up in the late eighteenth century to feed a public desire for inexpensive fiction that needed to be read only once and at speed, then passed on or discarded. The works were published by presses such as the notorious Minerva Press that were unperturbed about quality, not even worrying about repetition or the use of identical material across books with only different titles to differentiate them.

I read a lot of these novels and enjoyed the lurid woodcuts that often accompanied them. In the process I became especially fascinated by the women who wrote them. On the whole their lives are hidden from us but those whom we can hear across the centuries – from a few extant letters and some prefatory material – are keen to stress that they were not presumptuous, were not encroaching on the male business of public writing, and did not regard themselves as ‘authors’. They never expected to be valued by the literary world or reviewed in respectable journals. Often they declared they wrote for money because there was no male breadwinner to support them and their children, either through the death of a husband or by his desertion of his family.

Far from these jobbing writers is of course Jane Austen, who very much regarded herself as an ‘Author’ and a highly skilful one.

She was not in the position of these women writers for, although she was never well off, she was never close to destitution. She always had a supportive family. So, although she was very eager to earn as much money as possible from her writings, she was not dependent on this income for a living.

During my last years in academics I have been studying Austen’s life and novels – I am the general editor of the Cambridge edition of all her works and I have written and edited four volumes dealing with her fiction. It is from this close involvement that I can assert that Austen well knew her worth: she was tart in her comments on other less skilled but popular writers and very careful in the revision of her own novels. She is quite different from the Gothic and sensational authors mentioned above: for a start, they would never have been allowed to publish with the prestigious press of John Murray. In Jane Austen’s lifetime Murray brought out Emma and the second edition of Mansfield Park.

Because of her superior talents and powers, we now couple Austen with Lord Byron, Murray’s most famous author, and in college courses put the pair together because they are from the same era. Yet at the time there were profound differences in public response. Despite the enormous fame Jane Austen now has, when she was alive she was very little known and any personal praise was usually directed at her as a home-loving and pious spinster. Byron, however, was part of the new cult of the natural and creative genius, a lone individual who had a link to the divine and whose art came more from inspiration than from craft. Although we know from surviving manuscripts that it was often not the case, Romantic poets such as Byron and his contemporary and friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, claimed sudden inspiration for their writing. By contrast, Jane Austen admitted to spending 15 or so years intermittently polishing and revising Pride and Prejudice.

The idea of the ‘genius’ as a separate and distinctive being took hold in the culture just as the communal ideas of the Enlightenment were being dashed by the bloody failure of the French Revolution. The ‘genius’ was almost invariably male. He was different from other people, and he lived by different rules: he was uninhibited by the morality that constrained the rest of ordinary humanity. But there was always a threatening shadow about him. For the man of genius had a demon within that could spur him on to great art or to his destruction. To sustain himself he required both enormous self-belief and enormous belief in himself from others.

Byron and Shelley both at times held this belief, Shelley rather more than Byron, and both men, as is well known, played havoc with the lives of the women who loved them or cared for them. My most recent biography, Death and the Maidens, described the effect of Shelley on my main subject, Mary Wollstonecraft’s eldest daughter, Fanny. It also showed his impact on her half sister Mary Shelley, whom he later married, and on his first wife Harriet. Byron and Shelley were indeed great poets, worthy of some of the adulation they received. What happens to the ‘genius’ if the adulation is there but the substance is not? What happens to the worshipper or lover when she realises the idol is hollow?

I have described a little of my past work and interests to suggest where some of my material came from when at last – in my mid 70s – I retired from full time academic and administrative work to become what I’d always wanted to be: a novelist. A Man of Genius has as a protagonist Ann, who resembles one of those many hack writers who produced the ‘horrid’ novels that so entranced Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Her writing of Gothic novels provides her with a reasonable living and above all makes her independent of family. She can avoid the usual role of the poor but ladylike young woman: as governess, teacher or companion. She turns to Gothic writing because in her lonely childhood she had already become enthralled by this kind of fiction, stories of fear, entrapment, illicit passion and desperate pursuit.

In the centre of my novel is a fatal attraction of a woman for a man admired by himself and his followers as a ‘genius’. My story does not follow the trajectory of my biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Fanny, both of whose passions led to suicide or attempted suicide. At the same time my reading of these star-crossed lives did, I think, inform my creation of Ann and her demanding lover Robert.

The historical background of my novel is the period I have long loved and studied: the Regency in England. In 1815 at the battle of Waterloo the English Duke of Wellington defeated the French Emperor Napoleon and brought to a close more than two decades of European war. A few years earlier, the intermittently mad George III had been declared irreparably insane and his debauched, dissolute and very extravagant son had become Prince Regent. Five years after Waterloo George III died and ended the Regency. This period between 1815 and the accession of George IV is a time associated with glamorous style, excess, and an unprecedented flowering of Romantic poetry. It is also associated with political repression, a clamping down on home-grown political and social dissent.

My male protagonist grew up under the shadow of the French Revolution when universal radical change seemed possible and when heroic men thought they might bring it about in Britain and Ireland with inspiring words and daring acts – as initially seemed to be happening in France. But they were adults in a time when these hopes had been much dashed by the Reign of Terror and the imperialistic conquests of Napoleon. Some men and women still held to beliefs and hopes, and on them the government kept a firm eye. From time to time they were questioned and imprisoned for sedition and plotting. Byron and Shelley were both disillusioned with the political mood in an increasingly conservative England and both left for continental Europe and remained there. In this respect alone, my character Robert resembles these Romantic poets.

As in most periods when there is a flourishing press and great cartoonists, the royal family provided much entertainment. To ensure an easy succession to the British throne and despite his private marriage to a Catholic- a forbidden union in this Protestant country – the Prince had been persuaded to marry a German princess, Caroline of Brunswick in 1795. He took an instant and deep dislike to her. Over the next years he persecuted this unwanted and rather foolish lady who took to travelling with a motley entourage around Europe. Her husband sent emissaries to find enough suitable evidence of imropriety to allow him a divorce. The ‘Delicate Investigation’, as the late phase of the investigation was called, much concerned the Princess’s time in Venice and her relationship with the Italian Bartolomeo Pergami. The fat, squat Princess and the tall be-whiskered Pergami do not feature in my novel as characters but, as they amuse all of Europe, so they intermittently amuse my heroine!

With the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 victorious England became the most powerful country in Europe and London, its bustling and commercial centre, flourished and grew richer. By contrast, Venice was in a sorry state. By the time Ann and Robert travel there, its glamour has been tarnished and its political hopes defeated.

It had been a great maritime and commercial power with a thousand-year-old history of independence as a republic, boasting an idiosyncratic system of government and laws, and a robust sense of itself as superior politically and culturally to other states. It had both opposed popes and created them, and it had bred and nurtured amazing sculptors and architects, as well as the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance, Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian. Its richness was legendary. But, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had suffered a long decline and Napoleon had an easy time of it when he chose to conquer it and make it part of his Italian empire in 1797. It was a dismal and shameful end to a great military and cultural history.

The following year Napoleon gave Venice to his ally, Austria, but by 1805 it was back in French hands. It stayed there until the battle of Waterloo crushed French imperial power. In the distribution of spoils that followed his defeat Venice was ceded once more to Austria and made part of its kingdom of Lombardy and Venetia. Some Venetians appreciated the changes the Austrians made to their city and some collaborated with them in bringing these about, while others preferred the French as conquering master for, although even more radical in the changes they wrought on the city – they tore down churches and convents and carted off many artistic treasures to Paris – they appeared more compatible to the Venetians in temperament. Still others mourned the loss of control and plotted for an independence that Venice would never see again: in 1866 it would become part of the independent kingdom of Italy.

The dilapidated – but still glamorous – city of A Man of Genius is not far from that described by John Ruskin thirty years later in his monumental study, The Stones of Venice. He likened the city’s decay to that of a wearied and aged human being. Although Venice had always been on the aristocratic grand tour and continued to be so after 1815, very soon it attracted as well more modest middle class tourists from northern Europe, armed with an increasing array of guidebooks. The era of mass tourism was, however, still in the future.

I end with a photograph I have just taken of the southern lagoon of Venice on a cold February day. My characters first sees the place in cold and dreary weather and never quite gets over the experience! But Ann in particular also succumbs to Venice’s special magic.

Janet Todd has just retired from teaching, mainly in the US and the UK. Her last positions were as Professor of English in the University of Aberdeen and President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her most recent published works have been introductions to the novels of Jane Austen and biographies of women writers from Aphra Behn to Mary Wollstonecraft. A Man of Genius is her first original novel.

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