Contributed by Christina Morin:
I am beginning to discover that the great thing about being part of a blog is that you can throw a question out and get a response almost immediately. In reply to Monday’s post on the eighteenth-century novel Christina Morin, whose research interests centre on late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Irish fiction, romantic literature, and the gothic novel, offered to share her knowledge of the genre with us and give us her top three recommendations.
Here are three of my favourites for budding eighteenth-century fiction fans: Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote (1752): An entertaining novel seriously engaged with the contemporary debate over how to define the developing novel, The Female Quixote focuses on the adventures and misadventures of its young and beautiful heroine, Arabella. As you might expect from Lennox’s title, Arabella is modelled after Cervantes’ Don Quixote and is, accordingly, immersed in a kind of fantasy world produced by her misguided reading of badly translated seventeenth-century French Romances. Believing her Romances to be realistic representations of the society in which she lives, Arabella is fundamentally unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. As a result, she dramatically misinterprets the people she encounters as well as her own experiences. The ensuing contrast between Arabella’s imaginary world and the real world provides a great deal of humour in the novel, as when, for instance, believing herself pursued by a man intent on raping her, Arabella calmly jumps into the Thames, much to the astonishment and consternation of friends and family. Such incidents are frequent in the novel and will definitely have you laughing out loud, even as the text enacts a very serious defence of the developing novel and issues a warning about the dangers of ‘useless’ reading (i.e. the Romance).
Matthew Lewis, The Monk (1796): A wonderful precursor to modern day horror films, The Monk was a hugely controversial novel in its day. Written in response to Ann Radcliffe’s immensely popular Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which offered rational explanations for its many apparently paranormal events, The Monk refuses to explain any of its bizarre events, allowing full reign to the reader’s terrified imagination. Although this was deemed dangerous in itself, especially in relation to the innocent minds of young, female readers, what was even worse was the novel’s frank depiction of incidents of rape, incest, homosexuality, and premarital sex. Combined with the surprising fact that Lewis – then only in his early twenties – was an MP, these factors resulted in the critical condemnation of the novel, which, in subsequent editions, was subject to severe censorship. Although perhaps tame in comparison to the explicit sex, blood and gore of the horror films of the last twenty or thirty years, The Monk will definitely have you sitting on the edge of your seat, wide-eyed with astonishment, if not fear, at the terrible and mind-boggling escapades of its eponymous villain.
Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent (1800): Published on the eve of Anglo-Irish Union (1801), Castle Rackrent is a short work divided into two sections – the narrative proper, which tells of the continued degradation and final fall of the Anglo-Irish Rackrent family, as seen through the eyes of the apparently loyal family servant, Thady Quirk, and a Glossary meant to explain to a largely English audience the peculiarities and idiomatic phrases of Thady’s Irish inflected speech. Entertaining and engaging, Thady’s narrative details the laughable foibles and flaws of the successive Rackrent landlords and keeps us constantly guessing about Thady’s true loyalties – is he really as devoted to the Rackrent family as he says, or should we read his tale as the tongue-in-cheek assessment of a band of stupid, greedy, Anglo-Irish landowners who ultimately manufacture their own demise? Either way, the evident irony produced by the contrast between Thady’s supposedly innocent narration and the reality he inadvertently reveals is both amusing and indicative of Edgeworth’s political and historical perspectives. Although a light-hearted tale on the surface, Castle Rackrent consistently engages with issues of great social, cultural, and political importance at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century in Ireland, including, among other things, absenteeism, the merits and potential demerits of Anglo-Irish Union, and Catholic unrest.