Sunday, April 18, 2010

Lost Lady Writers Found

Sunday, April 18, 2010
Susan reports:
There's much talk of e-books in publishing these days, and of how the format will affect writers. But for long-forgotten writers,  e-books and books on-line offer a literal life-line to modern readers, and their only chance to be rescued from dusty obscurity.

Women writers of the past are among the most neglected. While everyone knows Jane Austen, there were many others who were dismissed as "scribblers" in their time, and ignored by ours. Fortunately, there are libraries determined to change this. One of the more noteworthy is the Chawton House Library, whose mission is to promote the study and research of early English women writers. (It's a splendid coincidence that the beautiful Chawton House was also the home of Jane Austen's brother.)

The library's collections focus on writers from 1600-1830, and slowly but surely, they are putting more and more of these collection on line. How about dipping into The Princess of Cleves (1777) by the extravagantly named Marie-Madeleine Ploche de la Verne La Fayette? Or Paris Lions and London Tigers (1825) by Harriette Wilson, better known for her less literary endeavors?

Of course I had to check out the irresistibly titled Romance Readers and Romance Writers: a Satirical Novel (1810).  The author, Sarah Green, is long neglected, but unjustly, as the opening paragraph shows:

"It is very strange," said Uncle Ralph, with evident impatience and vexation, as he threw down on the table with great force a romance of the last century, "that a writer must use so many words, only to tell us, that a woman got up and sat down again! No, they must inform us in high-flown-poetic language, that she rose from her mossy couch, and then thoughtfully reseated herself, and resumed her pensive posture! and then, if the wind happened to blow her thin clothes about, and made her ribbons flutter and fly, we must be entertained through half a page with her silk scarf floating in the wind and the rude zephyr discomposing her light and nymph-like attire!"

Personally, I'm hoping for the on-line version of another of Mrs. Green's novels: Scotch Novel Reading; or, Modern Quackery; a Novel Really Founded on Facts (1824).

Above: Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1775. Mrs. Lloyd elegantly carving her husband's name into the bark of the tree makes for a beautiful painting, if not for a very accurate one of a lady writing (though I doubt even Sir Joshua could make great art of a current lady-writer, hunkered down over her laptop.) But we'll let it stand in for Ms. Green, for whom, alas, I could find no portrait.
Digression alert: Mrs. Lloyd's picture, however, does turn up in the work of another, more famous women writer. In The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, heroine Lily Bart scandalously chooses to recreate the painting as a tableau vivant at a late 19th c. house party: "Deuced bold thing, to show herself in that get-up." 


Pauline said...

Wonderful post on a wonderful subject! E-books could potentially save many fine writers for hungry readers that are unwitting (and many times unknowing) victims of the unnecessary extension of copywrite laws perpetrated in the name of a cartoon mouse.

On a seperate but similar note, more modern writers could benefit from the proliferation of e-lit as well. I believe the publishing industry needs to pull it's collective head out of the sand and use the available technology rather than ignore it. Just a thought.

Claudia said...


thanx for the post and the new reading stuff. going to download the ebook and read it happily in my garden retreat...

Anonymous said...

La Princesse de Clèves by Mme de la Fayette is exactly one century older than you said. It's a very famous French novel from 1678, still praised and read to this day. Deservedly so because it's a very well made psychological novel. It was a scandal then, because the protagonist told her husband that she was in love with another man (not that she did anything but die of sorrow, mind you).èves
1777 must refer to the English version.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Pauline, e-publishing isn't just the wave of the future; it's already here. Loretta and I both have noticed the shift in our royalty statements: each statement shows that more and more sales are coming from ebooks over the traditional print copies. But I do love that long-lost titles like the ones at Chawton are finally becoming available to a wide audience.

Emmeline, I glad you have some new reading material for the garden.

Silvia, I'm sorry for the confusion about "The Princess of Cleves." Of course you are right about the original French version - it was hugely popular during the reign of Louis XIV, and so scandalous in its story that its author chose to be anonymous. As you guessed, this e-version is the first English printing of the English translation in 1777, and it's interesting, too, that by then Madame de La Fayette's name is on the title page.

nightsmusic said...

*blinks* Holy Crow! You do realize that second sentence uttered by Uncle Ralph is technically 70 words?

If an author did that these days, they'd be chastised out of the fraternal order of wordsmiths.

But I bet it's a ripping good tale :D

Lady Burgley said...

What a wonderful resource! It's impossible to find most of these books in print. How generous of Chawton Hall to put these books on line for free. Most university libraries charge for non-students to use their collections like this.

Heather Carroll said...

Ironic timing, I just finished, with the help of Laura from Gorlebooks, creating an ebook out of the Duchess of Devonshire's 1778, and long-forgotten novel, The Sylph for a group read! I am not an ebook reader myself, but it's a good way to reintroduce old classics to the masses.

Undine said...

What a great site! Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

Vanessa Kelly said...

It's so wonderful to see these books coming out in e-editions. I'm hoping we see more of the works of writers like Maria Edgeworth, Eliza Haywood, and Frances Brook. What's interesting is that many of these women were very well-regarded in their day. Most of them seemed to have dropped off the map in the 19th-century, when novel writing became more consciously literary.

As for for e-publishing, I think most pub houses are very aware of the fact that it's the future of the industry. Harlequin's creation of Carina, their new e-publishing imprint, is only one example of that.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Nightsmusic, I'm pretty sure that Mrs. Green knew exactly what she was doing by describing Uncle Ralph's indignation in exactly the same language as that which he's scorning. At least I *hope* she is -- but since the critical intro describes the book as "a brilliantly amusing burlesque noir, lampooning the absurdities and affectations of the contemporary novel," I think it's a pretty safe bet. As you say, ripping!

Lady Burley and Undine -- Glad you found it useful!

Heather, I was just looking over your group read of "The Sylph", and wondering if I could squeeze this into my day. I'm sorely tempted!

Vanessa -- It is fascinating to see how fast publishing is changing! Looks like in the next few years we're all going to have a new definition of a "book."

Heather Carroll said...

I hope you are tempted! I know how hard it is to find time, but it would be great to have you!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

OK, Heather, you've got me hooked (though I can't promise I won't fall behind if/when deadline-itis kicks in.)

For anyone else interested in joining the reading group for the Duchess of Devonishire's novel "The Sylph" that Heather has mentioned - here's the link:

Also, here's the direct link to the site, Girlebooks, that is offering the book. Another excellent source for lesser known works by women of the past (plus many writers from the present as well):

Anonymous said...

Currently teaching a course on Women Characters in American Literature, currently "House of Mirth," I was wondering what the devil Mrs. Bennet Lloyd was carving into that tree. You state it's her husband's name, given Lily's quest for such, and Selden's appearance at the event, it makes sense thematically. Writers so love the Chinese puzzle, a symbol, within a symbol. However, perhaps Mrs. Bennet Lloyd was carving something else perhaps . . .

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