Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The things one learns from reading

I finished Beyond Black yesterday, and – while I know there are people getting ready to read this book and I will definitely say parts of it are worth while and some people, a lot of people, really liked it – I thought the ending was a mess. Without giving any details away, I’d like to say that Colette’s decision at the end of the book sucks. And I thought Mantel started spelling out her “point” in a way that was borderline preachy.

Okay. I will be reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas next.

Stefanie wrote yesterday about the way one’s relationship with books can be like a love affair; it reminded me of a passage in my book about the history of the novel, where I came across a quotation from Delariviere Manley’s 1709 novel The New Atalantis about using books to seduce a lover. This is a different take on the love/sex/books relationship Stefanie described, a more literal one. The story, which I think is only a small part of Manley’s book (I've only read the quotation from the history book, not the entire thing) is about a woman, Charlot, whose guardian/father-figure first uses books to teach her of the dangers of sex. But then he falls in love with her, and he uses books for the opposite purpose: seduction. It’s quite scandalous. Her guardian, the Duke:

was obliged to return to court and had recommended to her reading the most dangerous books of love – Ovid, Petrarch, Tibullus – those moving tragedies that so powerfully expose the force of love and corrupt the mind. He went even farther, and left her such as explained the nature, manner and raptures of enjoyment. Thus he infused poison into the ears of the lovely virgin. She easily (from those emotions she found in her self) believed as highly of those delights as was imaginable. Her waking thoughts, her golden slumber, ran all of a bliss only imagined, but never proved. She even forgot, as one that wakes from sleep and the visions of the night, all those precepts of airy virtue, which she found had nothing to do with nature. She longed again to renew those dangerous delights. The Duke was an age absent from her; she could only in imagination possess what she believed so pleasing. Her memory was prodigious. She was indefatigable in reading. The Duke had left orders she should not be controlled in any thing. Whole nights were wasted by her in that gallery. She had too well informed her self of the speculative joys of love. There are books dangerous to the community of mankind, abominable for virgins, and destructive to youth; such as explain the mysteries of nature, the congregated pleasure of Venus, the full delight of mutual lovers and which rather ought to pass the fire than the press. The Duke had laid in her way such as made no mention of virtue or honour but only advanced native, generous and undissembled love. She was become so great a proficient that nothing of the theory was a stranger to her.

The Duke wants to seduce her, and so absents himself and leaves her with books. Reading comes to take the place of sex while he’s gone, and reading about sex is described as kind of like sex itself: she is indefatigable, uncontrolled, longing, and passionate. It makes you think about the pleasures of reading in a new way, huh?

I think the narrator’s position in this passage is interesting. The narrator is judgmental – these books are poison, bringing corruption, and Charlot is a victim of the predatory Duke – but the narrator is also vicariously enjoying Charlot’s seduction. And Charlot's pleasure is so well described that it overwhelms the moral judgments. Underneath the moralizing, the narrator is enjoying and legitimizing Charlot's sexual awakening. This is scandalous stuff for an eighteenth-century woman writer, and so Manley is putting in the tone of warning, but she’s also enjoying herself through writing as Charlot is through reading, and the book is meant to titillate more than to teach a lesson about virtue. Manley is walking a fine line between being entertaining her readers, both men and women, (and thereby selling books) and getting into a lot of trouble.

Anyway, part of the point of the book – the history of the novel book, not Manley’s book – is to analyze this kind of early novel and help us understand its place in novel history. And to show that this kind of writing – precursor to modern “cheap,” “low-brow” romances – is as much as part of novel history as Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson.