“Daily Life and Immediate Perspectives”

In “The novel and social/cultural history” (Chapter 2 of The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel), J. Paul Hunter discusses what he terms “the New Cultural History” of the eighteenth century. Hunter explains that approaches to studying the eighteenth century have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. This “new, more integrated ‘cultural’ history considers all kinds of documents, texts, and material artifacts” from that period, and gives “more attention to daily life and immediate perspectives and less emphasis on patterns that emerge retrospectively” (Hunter 14). This broadened perspective of life in the eighteenth century is particularly useful when reading novels from that period. As Hunter notes, life in the eighteenth century was a radically unstable thing, with “change – often rapid change – as the one constant” it possessed (Hunter 18). As such, it is necessary to know “what particular decades, or years, or days were like” if we want to truly understand the context in which these novels were written and disseminated.

Interestingly, the focus of the New Cultural History on “daily life and immediate perspectives” parallels a shift in literary tradition that is often associated with the rise of the novel (Hunter 14). While more traditional literature “promised universal solutions because human nature was constant across culture and times”, eighteenth-century novels depicted “a present-day individual in a recognizable social and cultural context” and then “offered varied, circumstantial, and individual outcomes” (Hunter 9-10). This shift from the universal to the individual as literary subject matter mirrors the current shift from the public to the private as historical subject matter.

Hunter asserts that the New Cultural History is “more conscious of the domestic, the material, the everyday, and the interconnected, and more ready to study ordinary people who seem powerless and neglected” (Hunter 17). The same can be said of novels we have studied in this course. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko tells the story of a slave, illustrating in acute detail his personal experiences and simultaneously offering a unique insight into perceptions of the slave trade in the late seventeenth-century. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana tells the story of one woman’s experience with the problematic marriage laws of the time, and there is a significant focus on material objects (money, clothes) within the text. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey depicts an individualized journey through Europe. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is acutely “conscious of the domestic” and the narratives that can take place within a single home. All of the novels we have read focus on individual characters whose circumstances and experiences give us as readers a glimpse into the everyday life of their time.

One issue mentioned by Hunter that I found particularly interesting was his discussion of the significance of the city of London in eighteenth-century culture. He notes that “one reason that the social norms of novels had such cultural power in the eighteenth century was that they usually reflected the values of ‘modern’ London life” (Hunter 23). This point immediately made me think of Evelina, and how London seems to represent the high society to which Evelina rightfully belongs, as opposed to the lower status associated with her life in the country. According to Hunter, “Older Britons tended to hate [London’s] trendiness and distrust its fickleness and shifting standards; younger ones looked to it hopefully for their own futures…” (Hunter 24). Reverend Villars’ attitude toward London and his uneasiness about Evelina’s travelling there aligns him with those “Older Britons”, and Evelina’s youthful hopefulness for her future mirrors the appeal felt by the “younger ones”.

Hunter, J. Paul. “The novel and social/cultural history.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John J. Richetti. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. p. 9-39. Print.

Social Norms in Evelina

Through various characters in Evelina, Frances Burney demonstrates the preoccupation with reputation and propriety that is often associated with England in the eighteenth century. This theme is made evident in the first exchange of letters between Lady Howard and Mr. Villars. In her account of Madame Duval’s letter, Lady Howard acknowledges Madame Duval’s concerns for her own reputation: “she is totally at a loss in what manner to behave; she seems desirous to repair the wrongs she had done, yet wishes the world to believe her blameless” (Burney 11). Lady Howard goes on to condemn Madame Duval’s faux pas of writing to her at all: “it is evident, from her writing, that she is still as vulgar and illiterate as when her first husband, Mr. Evelyn, had the weakness to marry her; nor does she at all apologize for addressing herself to me, though I was only once in her company” (Burney 12). Lady Howard’s disdain for Madame Duval is obvious, and it seems that Duval’s failure to uphold social mores plays a key role in Howard’s categorization of her as an “unworthy woman” (Burney 12). Meanwhile, the mutually apologetic and gracious tones employed by both Lady Howard and Mr. Villars present these two as being very much aware of (if not obsessed with) social norms, and an urgent desire not to offend one another at any cost.

While this emphasis on manners is attributed to multiple characters, it is arguably the most significant trait of the protagonist, Evelina. She is constantly worried about offending others or embarrassing herself by going against social norms that she is unfamiliar with. She uses the word “shame” or “ashamed” numerous times when describing these anxieties: when asking Mr. Villars for permission to go to London (“I am half ashamed of myself for beginning this letter” [Burney 25]), when she can’t afford to buy anything from the mercers in the shop (“they took so much trouble, that I was almost ashamed that I could not” [Burney 30]), her anxiety during her first meeting with Lord Orville (“I was seized with a panic, that I could hardly speak a word, and nothing but the shame of so soon changing my mind, prevented me returning to my seat” [Burney 32]). Evelina describes her own self-consciousness as being a result of her upbringing as a “simple rustic… one whose ignorance of the world makes her perpetually fear doing something wrong!” (Burney 33). Of course, this ignorance is the impetus for the entire plot of the novel. As Burney explicitly states in her preface to the novel:

To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times, is the attempted plan of the following letters. For this purpose, a young female, educated in the most secluded retirement, makes, at the age of seventeen, her first appearance upon the great and busy stage of life; with a virtuous mind, a cultivated understanding, and a feeling heart, her ignorance of the forms, and inexperience of the manners, of the world, occasion all the little incidents which these volumes record, and which form the natural progression of the life of a young woman of obscure birth, but conspicuous beauty, for the first six months after her Entrance into the world. (Burney 7-8)

By having a protagonist who is very much unaware of many of the social customs that governed British society in the eighteenth century, Burney has the freedom to comment on established conventions in a way that calls attention to them without actively condemning them. I’m curious to see how this plays out in the novel (at the moment I’m still reading Volume I), and how much Evelina assimilates into life according to these rules (if at all).


Works Cited

Burney, Frances. Evelina. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

 

The Exchange of Sentiments

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of A Sentimental Journey, Paul Goring explains that the term “sentimental” was still fairly new during Sterne’s lifetime. While its definition was somewhat ambiguous, Goring provides the reader with a basic idea of the concept: “‘Sentiment’ was generally used to mean a thought or a reflection which was produced from or informed by emotion; it conveyed a ‘mental feeling’ – an attitude which is at once intellectual and emotional, and typically this attitude concerned moral conduct” (Goring xxi). One pattern that I found interesting in Sterne’s novel is the association between such ‘mental feelings’ and their physical manifestations. In the second chapter (“CALAIS.”), Yorick discusses the physical effects of being in good spirits:

When man is at peace with man, how much lighter than a feather is the heaviest of metals in his hand! He pulls out his purse, and holding it airily and uncompress’d, looks round him, as if he sought for an object to share it with—In doing this, I felt every vessel in my frame dilate—the arteries beat all chearily together, and every power which sustained life, perform’d it with so little friction, that ‘twould have confounded the most physical precieuse in France: with all her materialism, she could scarce have called me a machine— (Sterne 6)

According to Goring’s note on this passage, Yorick seems to be echoing the materialistic philosophy that was popular in the mid-eighteenth century. This association between physicality and mentality reoccurs throughout the novel, frequently in regards to communication. In the chapter titled “PREFACE IN THE DESOBLIGEANT.”, Yorick seems to imply that communication between people of different backgrounds is difficult because their experiences are incommensurable:

‘Tis true we are endued with an imperfect power of spreading out happiness sometimes beyond her [nature’s] limits, but ‘tis so ordered, that from the want of languages, connections, and dependencies, and from the difference in education, customs and habits, we lie under so many impediments in communicating our sensations out of our own sphere, as often amount to total impossibility. (Sterne 11)

As the novel progresses, however, we witness Yorick have numerous meaningful interactions with people from ‘out of [his] own sphere’. These encounters demonstrate the power of physical actions and body language as aids to communication. To name a few: the physical exchange of snuff boxes with the monk in Calais; the first encounter with Madame de L*** at the remise door (“I felt a pleasurable ductility about her, which spread a calmness over all my spirits” [Sterne 18]); the discussion of “making love by sentiments” inside the remise (Sterne 26); Yorick’s decision to hire La Fleur at first sight (“the genuine look and air of the fellow determined the matter at once in his favour” (Sterne 31); his displeasure at the postillion’s rapid departure from the man lamenting his dead ass (“the fellow gave an unfeeling lash to each of his beasts, and set off clattering like a thousand devils” (Sterne 41); the scene where Yorick feels the pulse of the woman in the shop in Paris (“if it is the same blood which comes from the heart, which descences to the extremes… I am sure you have one of the best pulses of any woman in the world” (Sterne 50); the list goes on. In the scene in the opera box (from “THE TRANSLATION. PARIS.”), Yorick acknowledges the power of non-verbal communication:

Translate this into any civilized language in the world—the sense is this:

“Here’s a poor stranger come in to the box—he seems as if he knew no body; and is never likely, was he to be seven years in Paris, if every man he comes near keeps his spectacles upon his nose—‘tis shutting the door of conversation absolutely in his face—and using him worse than a German.”

The French officer might as well have said it all aloud, and if he had, I should in course have put the bow I made him into French too, and told him, “I was sensible of his attention, and return’d him a thousand thanks for it.”

There is not a secret so aiding in the progress of sociality, as to get master of this short hand, and be quick in rendering the several turns of looks and limbs, with all their inflections and delineations, into plain words. (Sterne 54)

This “short hand” plays a valuable role for Yorick in his travels, and these seemingly trivial interactions make up the meat of his narrative. Yorick’s truly is a “sentimental” journey.


Works Cited

Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick. Ed. Paul Goring. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

 

What does Pamela deserve?

One interesting thing that I’ve noticed in the novels we have read so far this semester (Oroonoko, Roxana, and now Pamela) is the way in which the protagonists are presented. In class we noted that one major factor in the development of the novel as a literary form was the transition from subjects from the higher classes (kings, nobility, etc.) toward more “common” characters with individualized experiences. Oroonoko is a slave, Roxana is a destitute woman who turned to vice to survive, and Pamela is a house servant from a poor family. While these protagonists all purport to represent the lower tiers of society, they each are presented as standing out in their respective social class or as not belonging there. Oroonoko is a slave, but he is also a prince. Roxana is destitute, but she comes from wealth. Pamela is a poor house servant, but her beauty and grace suggest that she is above the station she was born into. In the Introduction to the Second Edition of Pamela, one gentleman writes:

[Richardson] has reconciled the Pleasing to the Proper. The Thought is every-where exactly clothed by the Expression: And becomes its Dress as roundly, and as close, and Pamela her Country-habit. Remember, tho’ she put it on with humble Prospect, of descending to the Level of her Purpose, it adorn’d her, with such unpresum’d Increase of Loveliness; sat with such neat Propriety of Elegant Neglect about her, that it threw out All of her Charms, with tenfold, and resistless Influence– And so, dear Sir, it will be always found. — When modest Beauty seeks to hide itself by casting off the Pride of Ornament, but displays itself without a Covering, And so, becoming more distinguished, by its Want of Drapery, grows stronger, from its purpos’d Weakness.

Pamela is presented as possessing some qualities that put her above her fellow house servants. She is not just any, “typical” house servant, she is somehow different (read: better). What is it that makes her stand apart? Maybe it’s her morality/virtue (which, from a modern perspective, is questionable), maybe it’s her physical beauty. In any case, it seems as though Richardson made an effort to present Pamela as belonging to the nobler class that she ultimately winds up in, and that the events of the narrative simply constituted the process of her making her way there.

The Commodification of Sex in Roxana

This blog post is in response to the first half of Defoe’s Roxana and was posted nine days late (due 1/26, posted 2/4).

In the past few years, the issue of protecting sex workers’ rights has garnered much attention and become an important cause for many feminists and advocates for women’s rights. Numerous global organizations have offered their support for the decriminalization of sex work, including Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and the International Labour Organization (Murphy). The possibility of passing such legislation has sparked debate and controversy across the world, and the logistics of doing so have proven to be quite complicated. Even so, as a feminist, I believe strongly in the notion behind the call for these policy changes—a woman’s (or man’s) body belongs to her, and she should be free to do with it as she pleases. If that involves exchanging sex for money, then she should have the right to do so without any legal ramifications.

When I first read the synopsis on the back of the Penguin edition of Roxana, I was under the impression that the protagonist would demonstrate an impressive agency and empowering determination to provide for herself: “Embarking on a career as a courtesan and kept woman, the glamour of her new existence soon becomes too enticing and Roxana passes from man to man in order to maintain her lavish society parties, luxurious clothes and amassed wealth” (Blewett). Honestly, she sounded like kind of a badass. Being aware of the current controversy surrounding the decriminalization of sex work, I was interested to see how Roxana’s commodification of her self played out in the novel. I’ve read Defoe in the past, so I expected Roxana to face moral consequences for her actions, but I hoped that the narrative leading up to her inevitable damnation would be at least a little bit interesting. I was disappointed. By having Roxana tell her story retrospectively, the entire narrative is overshadowed by her own regret and Defoe’s heavy-handed moralizing. Before recounting the moment in which she slept with the landlord/jeweler/quasi-husband, Roxana tells the reader:

Had I now had my Sences about me, and had my Reason not been overcome by the powerful Attraction of so kind, so beneficent a Friend; had I consulted Conscience and Virtue, I shou’d have repell’d this Amy, however faithful and honest to me in other things, as a Viper, and Engine of the Devil… The ignorant Jade’s Argument, That he had brought me out of the Hands of the Devil, by which she meant the Devil of Poverty and Distress, shou’d have been a powerful Motive to me, not to plunge myself into the Jaws of Hell, and into the Power of the real Devil, in Recompence for that Deliverance… I did what my own Conscience convinc’d me at the very Time I did it, was horribly unlawful, scandalous, and abominable. (Defoe 72-73)

The language and tone with which Roxana describes this and her other relationships with men make it clear that she does not look back on her decisions with pride, and she is quick to assert that she was equally ashamed at the time that she did these things. The nature of Roxana’s exchanges with the men who take care of her remove her entirely from any conversation about the rights of sex workers as they are being discussed today. One of the most important aspects of the push for the decriminalization of sex work is that it be made explicitly clear that it only apply to cases of consensual sex. In the first half of the novel, at least, Roxana’s decision to sleep with men is directly related to a sense of obligation or a need to express her gratitude for them having saved her from poverty (Defoe 68-69). The fact that the men give her money and assistance first, without her soliciting it in any way, puts Roxana in a position of unequal power. They have already helped her, and now she feels as though she has no choice but to pay them back with the one thing she has: her body. Defoe skirts around this issue and tries to suggest that this isn’t really a case of coercion (Defoe 68), but I think that’s bullshit.


Works Cited

Blewett, David. Roxana. London: Penguin, 1987. Print. Back cover.

Defoe, Daniel. Roxana. Ed. David Blewett. London: Penguin, 1987. Print.

Murphy, Catherine. “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.” Amnesty International. N.p., 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Honorable Conquests

In class last week we discussed the significant social and cultural changes that occurred during the Restoration and the eighteenth century, both within Britain and on a global scale. Two critical factors in those changes were the expansion of the British empire around the world and Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn calls attention British imperialism by describing the various experiences of slaves in the South American colony of Surinam. One interesting pattern that I noticed in my reading of this novel was Behn’s use of the discourse of imperialism and conquest in her depictions of love and romance. Oroonoko and Imoinda’s relationship is described with language which is evocative of the colonial expansion associated with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I first picked up on this connection between romance and conquest on page 16 of the novel. Behn draws an explicit comparison between Imoinda’s effect on Oroonoko and a military triumph:

[Imoinda] gained a perfect conquest over his fierce heart, and made him feel the victor could be subdued. So that having made his first compliments and presented her a hundred and fifty slaves in fetters, he told her with his eyes, that he was not insensible of her charms; while Imoinda, who wished for nothing more than so glorious a conquest, was pleased to believe she understood that silent language of new-born love… (Behn 16-17)

In this passage, Imoinda is described as gaining control over Oroonoko in such a way that calls to mind British conquests of various native peoples. Behn goes on to describe Imoinda’s “eternal empire over [Oroonoko]” (18). These comparisons between the relationship between Imoinda and Oroonoko are coupled with frequent allusions to virtue and morals. Oroonoko is described as an honorable hero who “knew no vice” (17), while Imoinda is “female to the noble male, the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars, as charming in her person as he, and of delicate virutes” (16). The young lovers clearly feel passionately for one another, but they do not allow their feelings to prevent them from going about their union properly. The narrator describes a “certain ceremony” which mandates that “the grandfather was to be first made acquainted with the design; for they pay a most absolute resignation to the monarch, especially when he is a parent also” (18). This respect for tradition demonstrates Imoinda and Oroonoko’s moral integrity, and effectively portrays the two as honorable characters.

Based on Oroonoko, it would seem that Aphra Behn was not opposed to slavery in and of itself. She seems to have believed that there were benefits to slavery, and while Oroonoko illustrates the gruesome experiences of one slave in particular, Behn did not appear to be calling for an end to slavery all together. Rather, she effectively called attention to the fact that there are proper ways to go about the slave trade. I think that Behn’s use of the discourse of conquest in her descriptions of Imoinda and Oroonoko’s relationship demonstrates this notion. Imoinda “gained a perfect conquest over [Oroonoko]”, but the pair was prepared to follow the appropriate steps to ensure that their union was consummated legitimately. This union is ultimately destroyed by other characters who are deceitful and who fail to honor the traditional customs of war.

 

Works Cited:

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Ed. Janet Todd. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Hi!

This is Kaitlyn. I’m in my second semester of the English and Humanities Graduate Program here at Marymount, and I’m focusing my studies on Literature and Language. My major interests are in Romantic and Victorian British literature. I got my Bachelor’s Degree in English at Fordham University in New York. I have an almost-two-year-old daughter named Willow who really likes to keep me on my toes. I’m looking forward to this semester!

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