The Female Rambler

"Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little." -Samuel Johnson, "Letter to Dr. Taylor" (13 Aug 1763)

An Adaptation of Richardson’s “Clarissa,” and Fangirling

It is rather embarrassing to admit, but my first actual encounter with Clarissa — other than an occasional glance at the Wikipedia page or hearing an off-hand comment from a fellow 18th-centuryist about their (always failed) attempt to read the unabridged version — was with the 2010 radio play adaptation of the novel for BBC’s Radio 4 starring Richard Armitage and Zoe Waites.  To be entirely honest, I only began listening to it because I’d just finished listening to Armitage’s audiobook recording of one or another of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance novels and wanted to hear more of his lovely reading voice (really, I am a bit of a fan-girl; he speaks beautifully and is a costume-drama-addict’s dream man (watch him in the BBC’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian Pride and Prejudice, “North and South” (#swoon))).  I can still remember where I was listening as Clarissa Harlowe met Robert Lovelace for the first time, and I can clearly remember the feeling of being instantly transfixed.

Ask me about Clarissa today and I will lie and tell you I have since tried valiantly to read the unabridged work (I haven’t really).  And yet, something about the adaptation struck me so forcefully that I am now able to read excerpts of the novel, or reader receptions, and understand the psychological pull of Richardson’s story.  An adaptation has enabled me personally to access a deeper level of understanding of the original material, and also distributes the story to (possibly) millions of people who aren’t specialists in English literature.  The BBC Radio 4 version was made, presumably, not for profit (I assume this pretty safely because it is not available to purchase anywhere (most of the BBC’s fine radio adaptations never are released)), although the BBC receives public funds in order to continue producing content.  The fact that I cannot find an actual streaming version of the entire, four-part adaptation is not particularly shocking, then.  The work is still copyrighted, but the distribution is poor (BBC radio programs are broadcast only once on the radio (usually) and are then available for seven days after that, online (luckily, everyone in the world has access to these radio programs)), and buying the content afterwards is basically impossible.

Of course, there are numerous blogs which contain links to the mp3 files on file-sharing websites; just another way that fans in the Age of the Internet are able to control the circulation of goods and services to a wider audience than authors and creators may have desired.  Here is one of the only uploads I could find of the radio play (Armitage is the voice of Robert Lovelace, and creates, through his voice, the tension between the two “Lovelaces”: the glib Libertine and the obsessed, transfixed (soon to be) rapist of our heroine):

The user who has uploaded this clip is also the person responsible for a fan-made video of Richard Armitage talking about his fans (#meta).  He says (in reference to his appearing in “North and South”):  “It’s quite difficult with television to get feedback . . . so for me the online forum is a way of sort of really getting in contact with fans and what they think of your work.  It’s really lovely.”  After this interview the video creator has a slide with part of the Wikipedia entry for the word “fan” which ends:

It comes from the Modern Latin fanaticus, meaning “insanely but divinely inspired”.

With all this talk about the sanctity of the “genius” of the author, it is refreshing to see someone appreciating the work of the fan (obsessive as it may be).


Fans, Fanfiction, and Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa”

For people who don’t recognize themselves in the media they watch, it’s a way of  taking those media into their own hands and correcting the picture. “For me, fanfic is partially a political act,” says “XT.” [source]

The article from which this quote originates is about the fascinating genre of literary transformation that, with the internet, has evolved into a cultural phenomenon.  The first examples given, suggested as the earliest example of this phenomenal form, are fanzines for the TV show “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “Star Trek” magazines designed by fans which included the first example of so-called “slash fiction.”  However, as I am so frequently wont to do, I must bring up an eighteenth-century predecessor of our modern fanfiction.

Samuel Richardson’s infamously long, and monstrously popular 1748 epistolary novel, Clarissa, naturally attracted a great deal of public interest.  As the story was unfolded to readers in installments, these eighteenth-century readers became so involved in the dramatic storyline that, when the heroine dies, they wrote to Richardson in sincere sorrow and outrage.  One anonymous commenter stated that, “[I] read the Account of her Death with as much Anguish of Mind, as I should feel at the Loss of my dearest Friend.”  And the critic Tom Keymer mentions Richardson’s suspenseful breaking up of installments as an opportunity for readers to imagine their own continuances of the story — with Richardson, ultimately, “punishing” them for their presumption with Clarissa’s death [cf. Keymer, Richardson’s Clarissa and the Eighteenth-Century Reader (Cambridge UP, 1992), pp.201-202].  Does this sound like a similar argument to those given by the writers who, today, take so much umbrage with fans “usurping” their line of work and changing their “vision”?

Several fans of Richardson’s novel actually went further than just imagining alternative storylines, some wrote alternative endings to the novel that they sent to Richardson himself.  One such alternative version came from Lady Bradshaigh, who planned to write an ending where goodness and reformation would succeed and Clarissa could marry her rapist as an example of ultimate redemption.  Her sister, Lady Elizabeth Echlin, rewrote the ending so that, while both the main characters still died, her personal notion of “justice” was preserved (and the notorious rape scene was deleted as it was too much).  Lady Echlin felt that the ending of Clarissa “‘serve[d] only to wound good minds’, had ‘agitated’, ‘oppresst, or distracted’ her own, and was ‘horribly shocking to humanity'” (qtd. in Keymer 214).

I chose the quote which opens this post because I think it coincides brilliantly with the feelings of Richardson’s respondents, and eliminates the idea of a nerdy teenager, writing fanfiction in their basement.  Fanfiction isn’t a 20th-century phenomenon born out of sci-fi, fantasy, and misplaced sexual desire, but, rather, it’s the natural outcome of a public who is so invested in works of fiction, they can’t help but have their own say.

Jane Austen and the Conventions of the Novel

It is largely known that Jane Austen’s 1817 novel Northanger Abbey is a criticism of the Gothic genre that became so popular during the end of the 18th century.  Yet its late publication date in the second decade of the 19th century (20 years after Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian was first “brought out”), obscures the fact it was the very first of Austen’s novels to be completed.  Originally titled Susan, the work was written during 1798-9, and would have been extremely timely, as most of Radcliffe’s most famous novels were published in the 1790s.

Even before Susan, it is clear that the young Jane Austen was extremely concerned with the conventions of popular novels.  In her “Juvenalia” — all written between 1787 and 1793, when Austen would have 12 to 18 years old — her story “Frederic and Elfrida” pokes fun at the ridiculousness of certain of these unrealistic conventions:

It was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, and to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunt’s pleasure Grounds in Portland Place.

She floated to Crankhumdunberry where she was picked up and buried; the following epitaph, composed by Frederic, Elfrida and Rebecca, was placed on her tomb.


Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body and her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.

These sweet lines, as pathetic as beautifull were never read by any one who passed that way, without a shower of tears, which if they should fail of exciting in you, Reader, your mind must be unworthy to peruse them. (7-8, in Catherine and Other Writings, edited by Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray.  Published by Oxford UP, 1993.)

An overly dramatic heroine who dies a pathetic death, only to be praised by a “beautifull” and utterly horrible epitaph, is just the sort of quick-witted lampoon a well-read young woman might write for the amusement of herself and her friends.  It is short enough to read aloud, and the satire is broad and obvious.  The “author’s” pushy address to the reader is yet another object of Austen’s ridicule.  Even in this short, early piece, her criticisms of the novel are of its divergence from the actualities of everyday life, and the stereotypical behaviors of its characters.

Thus it is, that Austen’s criticism in Northanger Abbey lies most heavily on the elements  that lack a basis in the real-world, and not with the novel itself.  Austen “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” (58, 2004 Broadview Literary Texts edition).  Contemporary female writers are themselves the object of Austen’s censure here, and she may even have in mind Maria Edgeworth’s “Advertisement” to her novel Belinda.  Perferring to call it “a Moral Tale,” she objects to the “denomination” of novel: “. . . so much folly, errour, and vice are disseminated in books classed under this denomination, that it is hoped the wi[s]h to assume another title will be attributed to feelings that are laudable, and not fastidious.”  [source]

Indeed, Austen agrees with Edgeworth’s criticism of the folly and vice in some works, but she does not believe that this is the fault of the form, but rather simply the difference between bad novels and good ones.  The best novels are those “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the nest chosen language” (60).

Catherine Morland’s “lesson” is not not to read novels, but to learn to “read” (properly) the people and situations in her own life.  Her error is believing that life imitates the unrealistic Gothic fictions she has been consuming.  When Henry Tilney discovers Catherine’s suspicions about his father, he is horrified — not by her excessive reading — but by her seeming inability to judge reality rationally.  He tells her:  “[c]onsult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you . . .” (195) — to, in a sense, read the real world in the same way she would read a novel.  If certain things are bound to happen in a Gothic novel — which are set in Catholic countries, and very often, in the archaic Middle Ages — then certain things are proper to Regency England and certain things are absolutely impossible.

It would be a mistake to think Austen’s criticism is of the Gothic alone, or that there is criticism without praise.  Henry Tilney himself puts forward his enjoyment of Radcliffe’s work in Chapter 14, and claims that the person “who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (120).  The distinction lies between a good reader, and a bad one, and an author who uses their powers to write a good novel, or who fills their work with bad poetry and improbable characters.

An Angel in the Kitchen, a Lady in the Living Room, and a Whore in the Bedroom

Thinking about authorial self-fashioning and its importance to the writers of the eighteenth century, I have often returned to the connection that Aphra Behn made between the courtesan, Angellica, in her 1677 play The Rover, and her own status as author.  In the “Post-Script” to the play, Behn defends her borrowing of certain plot details, saying,

“. . . I, vainly proud of my personal judgment, hang out the Sign of ANGELICA . . .”

Behn isn’t directly connecting herself to the figure of her prostitute (although it has often been misused to support this statement), but rather to her borrowing of the “sign” as an example of how she has taken the elements from an inferior playwright and made them her own.  She finishes her defense,

“Therefore I will only say in English what the famous Virgil does in Latin: ‘I make Verses and others have the Fame.‘”

The connection, then, is between Angellica’s display of her “work” (by displaying the painting of her physical appearance) and Behn’s display of her “work” (the poetry of the play).  Angellica’s display is a display of sexual proficiency, and Behn’s is a display of her superior literay skills.  Though the exactness of the quote is often bent by scholars (and even yours truly) to show Behn equating women’s writing to prostitution (“selling oneself for money”), the essence remains the same in context.  Behn is placing her genius out into the public sphere for all to see, and it is not being properly appreciated.  Indeed, others criticize her for (in her eyes) the most minor borrowings from her source text.

The reason that this positioning by Behn has been resonating in my mind is that I recently saw a picture of writer and comedienne Tina Fey on the cover of “Entertainment Magazine” in the guise of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”  I have always been fascinated by Tina Fey’s extremely enthusiastic adoption of the “ugly, lonely spinster” persona (most pronounced in her character “Liz Lemon” on “30 Rock”), and her repeated insistence that she is nerdy, unattractive, and hopelessly uncoordinated.  Obviously, she is an unequivocally attractive woman.  The most-searched phrase when Googling images of Tina Fey is “Tina Fey hot.”

No one is fooled by her assertions that she fits the persona she so completely adopted.  Her October 5th magazine cover is a testament to the dichotomy between her persona and society’s (or the media’s) view of her as a woman.

In the picture, she is “channeling” Audrey Hepburn as “Holly Golightly,” the quirky prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, and Hepburn’s character has become an icon of the gorgeous yet troubled young woman in our society.  Golightly (and Hepburn herself) is often viewed by young girls as an aspirational figure, to be imitated at Halloween and pinned in poster format to dorm-room walls.  In the teen television drama “Gossip Girl,” one of the main characters frequently models herself after Hepburn (and in two specific sequences dreams of herself as Golightly: and  The public’s view of Hepburn/Golightly as the über sophisticated yet down-to-earth, sexualized and yet innocently naïve woman creates a unique tension (somewhere between aspiration and the knowledge of the impossibility of achievement)  for modern girls due to its utter ficticiousness.

This tension is mirrored by Tina Fey’s self-fashioning as the awkward geek with glasses and the media’s portrayal of her as a beautiful Hepburn-esque woman.  The societally acknowledged fact that Fey is, in reality, a gorgeous and successful woman turns her self-fashioning into a parody which is no longer working in the public sphere.  “I’m so weird and ugly!” her persona seems to wink at the viewer, while her polished self sits on a magazine cover on their coffee tables.  Where Fey’s persona is betrayed by its non-resemblance to reality, Behn’s persona as a great author is betrayed by the fact that she is a woman and, thus, incapable of being valuated at her true price — I am thinking of her frustration in the Preface to The Lucky Chance that, “A Devil on’t, the Woman Damns the Poet.”

It is worth noting, too, that both Behn and, in her portrait, Fey are drawing connections between prostitution and the work they are doing.  Both women are placing their bodies (physical, and “of work”) on display for society to judge, and society is as ready to judge self-fashioned women today as it was three hundred years ago.