Friday, April 15, 2011

Minerva Press Novels and the Modern Romance Genre

Jessica from Read React Review recently co-presented a paper on “Re-Reading Authorial Intention and Imagination over Two Centuries: the Romantic-Era’s Minerva Press Novels and Today’s Popular Romances.” As Jessica notes, although Minerva Press novels "were not technically romances" they "definitely have elements that make them comparable to romance." If you've read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey you'll have encountered the titles of some Minerva Press novels.
John Lane, the proprietor of the Minerva Press, was both the leading publisher of gothic fiction in England and the principal wholesaler of complete, packaged circulating libraries to new entrepreneurs. Consider the seven gothic novels on the list that Isabella Thorpe gave Catherine [in Chapter 6], for example: Mrs. Eliza Parsons's Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and her Mysterious Warning (1796), Regina Maria Roche's Clermont (1798), Peter Teuthold's translation of Lawrence Flammenberg's Necromancer of the Black Forest (1794), Francis Lathom's Midnight Bell (1798), Eleanor Sleath's Orphan of the Rhine (1798), and Peter Will's translation of the Marquis of Grosse's Horrid Mysteries (1796). The Minerva Press issued all of them with the exception of the novel by Lathom, who later published several novels with the press. [...]
Many people opposed circulating libraries and especially their encouragement of young women in reading novels. In Northanger Abbey, Austen notes that even novelists had joined "with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust" (5:37). (Erickson 582-83)
Austen also offers a defence of novels:
Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine–hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work 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 best–chosen language. (Chapter 5)
Jessica and her co-presenter explored "some of the commonalities between Minerva press novels themselves, their production, their authorship, and their readership, and contemporary romance novels." You can read Jessica's summary of the talk, including the slides she used, over at her blog. My favourite quotes from the summary are:
Both Minerva Press novels and romance novels are subject to a bizarre juxtaposition, of being repetitive and boring, yet somehow at the same time, too exciting and salacious.
I discussed the import, from a feminist point of view, of not viewing romance novels as books. If they are not books, the 26 million women who read them regularly are not readers. This is not just constructing romance readers as passive. It is effacing them.
I'd encourage you to go and read the whole post.
  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey.
  • Erickson, Lee. "The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 30.4 (1990): 573-590.

I found the image at the Historical Romance UK blog.

1 comment:

  1. I have always felt that Austen' s defense of the novel was spectacular. I sincerely hope there is an afterlife, so she can gloat over her critics!