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Studies for Delight

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

The Novel in Motley, By Archibald B. Shepperson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $3.00. Pamela’s Daughters, By Robert P. Utter and Gwendolyn B. Needham. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

In point of entertainment it might seem at first glance that Archibald B. Shepperson’s “The Novel in Motley” had its success ready made, since it deals with the English burlesque and parody novel. Yet the gentle and fairly intelligent reader often finds that a treatise on humorous narrative, what with long resumes and necessary explications and bursts of editorial amusement, resembles a funny story retold by one who can’t remember just how it goes but, choked with mirth, sketches it through and expounds its point. AlI honor, then, to Mr. Shepperson that his book not merely escapes this fault but has the opposite virtues. It is primarily the concise and orderly record of well directed research with clear-cut comment upon the findings; yet a taking enjoyment of things amusing is well registered.

One who turns to “The Novel in Motley” for knowledge on such matters as the reception of the Gothic novel or, let us say, to confirm his own notions about Beckford as a humorist, will not be baffled by jocularity or by a lumber of socio-historical disquisition. The book does seem confined a bit arbitrarily to the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries for the closer study of material; but in the selected field everything that might be looked for seems fully present, unless it be the burlesque of the Noble Savage or of the hero who was bettered by rubbing noses with nature’s noblemen. Of course, only the person who has been sweeping in Mr. Shepperson’s chosen rooms can pass upon his thoroughness, but the indications are of excellent brooming.

Rightly enough, the best comments upon his subject matter he has himself made. These in the end concern the art of burlesque or parody and its uses. He calls well deserved attention to the early practice of parody by Fielding, Jane Austen, and Thackeray. He suggests constantly the connection between burlesque or parody and the more discerning and creative side of criticism. He makes the telling observation that the only valid criticism of the novel in the eighteenth century was in the mocking fictions with which he deals.

The limitations of burlesque come entertainingly to mind in the account of its relative failure to cope with “Tristram Shandy.” Small wonder. How can one burlesque what is essentially, if you will, the burlesque of a novel that the author of this very burlesque has not yet written, a non-existent novel, the virtues of which are in no way obscured by the burlesque? Perhaps the only thing possible is an imitation of Sterne that falls flat. Incidentally, Mr. Shep-person is fortunate that eighteenth century parodies of the minor novel were well labeled; otherwise they might often be confused with their equally absurd originals.

Mr. Shepperson reminds us effectively that brevity is the soul of parody, and so bids us consider a literary sub-type, the condensed parody novel, which oddly enough the loquacious Thackeray was the first to practice notably. Burlesque of types may be longer, of course, and even parodies may be lengthy if they contain such values as Mr. Shepperson discerningly finds in the excellent portrayal of Barrett’s Cherubina, who “compels romance” quixotically yet escapes a quixotic improbability.

“Pamela’s Daughters,” by Robert P. Utter and Gwendolyn B. Needham, is a much larger undertaking and an even more diverting fruit of the scholar’s filing case and notebook. Its major concern is the heroine of the minor novel from Richardson to the present, but its authors have gone briskly afield outside the novel for details of custom and costume.

With all its free-and-easiness, however, “Pamela’s Daughters” supports a central thesis, namely, the view that wornan’s subjection in modern times is largely an economic phenomenon. Not being free to make her own living, she had to trade on her femininity and her virtue. Hence came the conventions and the taboos and the weepings and blushing confusions and swoonings in a vast entanglement of fabrics, flounces, and furbelows, seven-fold fenced with wire and steel and bone of whale; and hence the disappearance of all this when woman became self supporting. Fortunately this thesis is not insisted upon dogmatically. The final chapter concludes with the heroine of the early nine-teen-thirties equipped with “the new silhouette of body and spirit,” empowered to live in happy singleness, yet still a “premeditated virgin” and still marrying the boss. After all, Pamela was herself a daughter, the issue of Mother Eve as much as of modern capitalism.

“Pamela’s Daughters” is the work of those who do not worry unduly concerning how many swallows make a summer if the coverts are full of diverse birds that can flock together. What these authors beat up is instructive, engaging, and enlivening. It is stimulative, for example, to see that a gentlemanly preference for blondes is connected not merely with the appreciation of virtue but with the practice of dep-ilation and a middle class longing for the delicate air of gentility. It is rousing to be told that if you wish you may call “Tom Jones” something pretty close to sentimental in the historical sense of the term, and that many Victorian institutions are by no means Victorian in origin. Indeed, the book is filled with keen and adroit interpretation and linking of facts. It demonstrates that the game of scholarship well played demands a bit of what Coleridge calls imagination.

With the novel as an art, “Pamela’s Daughters” is not directly concerned, but there is one reiterated and familiar enough judgment on “Clarissa” that needs looking into, the assertion that the book “as it stands” is high tragedy. Possibly page for page “Clarissa” will support as close analysis as “Hamlet,” for Richardson knew his femininity; but it lacks the “accent” of poetry requisite for high tragedy, and it unfortunately has—Lovelace “as he stands.” By analysis he is a tragic figure, to be sure, and of course, a thing possible, but of a complexity that out-Hamlets Hamlet. Only a poet with the intensity of an Elizabethan, the clairvoyance of a Dostoevsky, and the assurance of a Freud could give Lovelace the proper incarnation. Richardson not being all these, Lovelace’s seduction of Clarissa has a savor of author’s contrivance fatal to high tragedy.

But it is only natural that Mother Pamela and Sister Clarissa and all connected with them should be considerately treated in “Pamela’s Daughters”—no offense in the world. If there were it would be atoned for by such dicta as the statement that before Jane Austen “nobody knew just what the novel was.” It is equally gratifying to have the right things written of Trollope as a Simon-pure realist and something more than a drudging automaton.

“Pamela’s Daughters” is a wise book and its wisdom is well sequined with wit. Though some of the witticisms have a contemporary ring and may not tinkle with perfect clarity ten years hence, still the whole work is filled with the charm of unpremeditated joy in absurdity. Happy the scholar whose own studies lead him upon this one, and sad his quite probable conclusion that his own cannot be rendered in this delectable way.


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