Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. The opinions are mine, but I don't claim originality. Much has been written about Austen. Click here for the first in the series.
"I own I do not like calling [Camilla] a Novel: it gives so simply the notion of a mere love story, that I recoil a little from it. I mean it to be sketches of Characters & morals, put in action, not a Romance." Frances Burney (1795)
“Novels are read so generally and with such avidity by the young of both sexes, that they cannot fail to have a considerable influence on the virtue and happiness of society. Yet their authors do not always appear to be sensible of the serious responsibility attached to their voluntary task.”
The problem with the novel Amelia Mansfield was that it glorified romantic love over everything else in life. The hero and heroine bring tragedy upon themselves and everyone around them -- not something that parents would want their sons and daughters to emulate.
As I discussed in my previous post, concerns about the consequences of reading novels were widespread in Austen's time, so much so that the morality of books was a constant theme in novels and reviews of novels. For example, an early review of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein sniffed that whatever might be the talents of the author, the book "inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality."
The famous eating scene from the 1963
movie version of Tom Jones
The Quarterly Review article goes on to mention Henry Fielding in particular of being “notoriously guilty” of impropriety: "other writers also, from whom better things might have been expected, have stained their pages with indelicate details."
Henry Fielding wrote the bawdy comedy The History of Tom Jones (1749). Jane Austen’s brother said of Austen that “She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high [as she did the novelist Richardson]. Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from every thing gross. Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals.”
So Austen agrees with the Quarterly Review according to Henry (and not everybody believes everything Henry had to say about his sister).
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?
Adela thanks him and promptly wraps up the novels to return them to Mrs. Elmer.
Adela takes a moderate view of novels in general; they are fine for occasional relaxation. But alas, her mother doesn’t exert herself to read anything better than novels: “The indolent and unhappy recluse [Adela’s mother], incapable of bestowing upon superior works the degree of attention, and the spirit of perseverance which they demanded, had long accustomed herself to the exclusive perusal of Novels and Romances. Adela could with pleasure, occasionally in an evening, after a day more usefully spent, have read aloud some of these, and interested herself in the ingenuity of their fictitious perplexities: but, from morning till night, and week after week, to pursue no other species of lecture, was a punishment to her of the most mortifying kind.”
What's worse, her mother's friend frequently visits to read improper fiction and poetry, which makes Adela uncomfortable. Mom becomes defensive: “Adela grieved at these symptoms of diminished affection [from her mother]; but she could not, even in her humblest moments, condemn herself... and was persuaded, that whatever might be the rights and privileges of a parent, it was impossible they should be so unlimited as to authorize the contamination of that mental purity which it was every woman’s duty to preserve unblemished…."
In the Pharos, a collection of essays, the conservative writer Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins includes an essay in letter form from a fictional husband whose wife becomes addicted to novel reading. She grows pale, sick and weak and sunk in “causeless sorrow,” over the imaginary tribulations of the heroines and heroes. “She had no tenderness for the real misfortunes of anybody; had a girl died of a broken heart… perhaps my Mimosa would have wept for her; but when her maid was at the point of death in a fever, her mistress [assumed she didn't need help] such strong vulgar creatures could battle any disease; but however the poor girl died."
Mimosa even dislikes her new-born son because he is healthy and therefore vulgar. “She saw her child at a stated hour once a day, and the whole of her leisure was again devoted to that infernal rhapsody the Sorrows of Werther and half a hundred such books."
The letter concludes, “Surely it is the duty of every moral writer to endeavor the extirpation of this silly, this noxious taste, or we shall, in the next age, not have one woman untainted by the infection. What wives, mothers and daughters we may see, when this rage is at its height, I tremble to think on."
In Austen's time, however, novels provided plenty of fictionalized examples of girls who read too many novels and developed an unrealistic view of life. I'll share some examples in the next post.
Previous post: The Dangers of Reading Novels, part one Next post: The Dangers of Reading Novels, part three
A Contrary Wind, the first novel in my Mansfield Trilogy, has some "indelicate details," I must confess. But what can a writer do when Henry Crawford is on the loose in London? Click here for more about my books.