Monday, May 25, 2009

Pop Fiction Past

Just for fun I decided to read something popular for a change; a bestseller throughout the English speaking world and across Europe. My first thought was The Recess by Sophia Lee.

You haven't heard of it? It was all the rage when it came out in 1783 and for a couple of decades after that. You kids today, you think it all began with your J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. No sense of history.

Let me then recommend to you The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times. You'll love it if, and only if, you really love overwrought nineteenth century prose. This is a long, deep soak in that style and if you find that sort of thing a slog then avoid this old book. If, on the other hand, you find yourself all a-tingle with anticipation at the thought of page and a half long paragraphs of this sort of prose, then jump right in:
Emerging from the depth of those unwholesome woods, through which I had wandered, I lifted my eyes devoutly towards that rising orb, which seems no less to give light to the mind than the creation: and called on the pleasing prospect of the future, to counteract the horrible impressions of the past. Restored by this extraordinary means once more to civilized society, my heart acknowledged the charm, the simple, the solitary charm of liberty, and springing forward toward England, overleaped every intervening obstacle. Convinced, by fatal experience, at once of the fragility of human happiness, and the persecutions to which nature's dearest gifts too often expose us, the bright forms of love, ambition and glory vanished, leaving no image for my fancy to rest on but Content. I saw her meek eye lifted to her heaven-born sister, Resignation; whose hallowed beams streamed though her earthly cottage, impearling every tear: and my soul sighed after the sad peace of which I found it yet capable.
Does that make your bosom swell with heart-felt emotion? Good. Then read on.

The Recess can be considered as part of three genres. First and foremost it is a novel of sensibility. Our to main characters, Ellinor and Matilda, have lives of remarkable misfortune and turmoil, and share with us their deep and passionate feelings. They experience great love and great loss. They weep, mourn, swoon, faint, and descend into the pits of despair. Sometimes they must be recovered with a medicinal cordial or a good round of bleeding (a technique that seems to be more efficacious in fiction than in history).

Second, it is a work of historical fiction. In a very broad sense Sophia Lee is the grandmother of alternative history. Set in the Elizabethan era, our heroines are the twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots. Didn't know that Mary had twin daughters? Well, that's the alternative part. Mary did miscarry twins in 1567, which I suppose is where Lee got the idea. Ellinor and Matilda are secretly raised in an underground chamber, the “recess” of the title. Lee's innovation was to include real historical figures as fictional characters. This is an epistolary novel and the sisters tell their own stories of love and tragedy in a frequently hostile world.

So hostile, in fact, that this can also be considered a Gothic novel. Intrigue, politics, betrayal, desire, imprisonment, madness, violence, and death are our constant companions. I've been intrigued by Gothic fiction for some time. Brian Aldis famously said that “(s)cience fiction was born from the Gothic mode, is hardly free of it now. Nor is the distance between the two modes great.” Writers of the Gothic wanted to take the plots and situations of older styles of storytelling, like the chivalric tales, and wed them to characters that we could empathize with, believable people who acted and thought as we might expect real people to. Not too long ago I wrote that science fiction appeals to me most when interesting, well crafted, engaging characters face challenges beyond our routine. Lee's trick was to take emotionally sensitive characters that her readers empathized with and run them through an unlikely series of tragic events set in a romantic and turbulent period of English history.

At times this modern reader found the whole thing to be hilariously over the top. I can see why the form was later parodied by writers like Jane Austen. But it was fun, and I can see why it was a hit in its day. It helps know a lot more about sixteenth century English history than most Americans do today, so it is fortunate that the edition I read included useful annotations to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. The prose is, as I mentioned, a bit old fashioned. At times I found myself saying, in the words of one of Lee's characters, “Heaven will, perhaps, give me strength to go through the story, at least, I ought to make the effort.”

The picture up in the corner is, by the way, Queen Mary, in widow's weeds. Her fictional daughters were said to look like her. They had her luck too.

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