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The Excellence of Falsehood

The Excellence of Falsehood: Romance, Realism, and Women's Contribution to the Novel

Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 264
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    The Excellence of Falsehood
    Book Description:

    "The only excellence of falsehood... is its resemblance to truth," proclaims a clergyman in Charlotte Lennox'sThe Female Quixote. He argues that romances are bad art; novels, he implies, are better. This clergyman's remarks -- repeating what literary and moral authorities had been saying since the late seventeenth century -- are central to Deborah Ross's discussion of romance characteristics in English women's novels.

    Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Jane Austen did not take the clergyman's advice to heart. To them, the "falsehood" of romance was by no means self-evident, nor was the superior "excellence" of the novel. In theory, many of them accepted the distinction, but their works combined aspects of the romance and the novel in ways that brought them into conflict with the critical establishment.

    The texts discussed here illustrate a process of development both in the novel and in the conditions of women's lives. Tensions between romance and realism enabled women writers to question official versions of reality and to measure life against a romance ideal. By altering readers' perceptions and judgments, these authors gradually altered the reality that novels "resemble" and set up new combinations of romance and realism for future writers.

    This give-and-take between fiction and life is seen most dramatically in the way a "romantic" notion gradually comes to be treated in novels as both "real" and right. Ross follows one such notion -- that women have matrimonial preferences -- to the point where romance and reality merge.

    Ross's study brings to light an important part of the history of the novel not yet incorporated in theories and histories of the genre.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5892-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: A Secret History of the English Novel
    (pp. 1-15)

    A STUDENT in an introductory literature course put a plain brown cover on his copy of Willa Cather’sMy Ántoniabecause he was afraid the feminine title and woman author would make everyone on the bus think he was reading a “romance novel.” The cover was meant to prevent attacks on his taste and, more important, on his masculinity. How did “romance,” a category that includes works as serious and carefully wrought as Spenser’sFaerie Queene,come to suggest something both trivial and feminine?

    Triviality, or “vanite,” was a basis for attacks on romance almost from its first appearance in...

  6. 1 Oroonoko: A Pastoral History
    (pp. 16-38)

    WHEN Aphra Behn wroteOroonokoin 1688, the novel was still “fresh” in the way romance had been in the Middle Ages: that is, free from the “ballast of theory” (Erich Auerbach 132-33). If one were going to be that strange and new phenomenon—a professional woman writer—one would very likely be drawn to pitch one’s tent in this open territory. Behn first turned to prose fiction in 1684 during a lull in her successful career as a playwright, poet, and translator, no doubt to earn the money she desperately needed (Duffy 226-28, Goreau 255-56, Woodcock 169-70). Not surprisingly,...

  7. 2 Delia and Rivella: Romantic Autobiography
    (pp. 39-65)

    BY the turn of the eighteenth century, when Delarivière Manley¹ was at the height of her career, the cultural decline Behn had complained about had gone a few steps further. The baroque splendor of pastoral seemed increasingly ridiculous to the cultivated reader; to the less educated, mostly interested in “news and new things,” it was wholly unknown. The romantic ideal was vanishing, and novelists were losing access to the exclusive, aristocratic places where its last rays might still be visible.

    Manley was a gentlewoman—even, by a stretch, a low-ranking member of the nobility; but her actual status, like that...

  8. 3 Betsy Thoughtless & Harriot Stuart: Unacknowledged Sisters
    (pp. 66-93)

    IN 1751, two very similar novels with very similar heroines appeared:The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless,by Eliza Haywood, andThe Life of Harriot Stuart,by Charlotte Lennox.¹ There was no question of direct mutual influence: the two novelists did not know each other and expressed little respect for each other’s work.² But the resemblance was no coincidence: Betsy and Harriot, who have much in common with many other heroines of the 1740s and 1750s, were in a sense engendered by current ideas about women and fiction.³ One of their more insistent traits is extreme chastity, carried almost to...

  9. 4 The Female Quixote: A Realistic Fairy Tale
    (pp. 94-109)

    CHARLOTTE LENNOX’s second novel,The Female Quixote(1752), delighted Fielding, Johnson, and even the Bluestockings and signaled the author’s acceptance into the London literary scene. As she earned respect as a serious scholar and translator, she came in contact with reigning authorities on fiction and acquired a knack for predicting what a wide range of readers would like. Learned yet light, traditional yet original,The Female Quixoteis a deft mixture of elements designed to satisfy her readers’ varied tastes. But in addition to a talent for sharp “market analysis,” this novel reveals the author's mature understanding of current literary...

  10. 5 Fanny Burney’s Novels: Romance with Regret
    (pp. 110-134)

    FANNY BURNEY’s¹ writing career began with the publication ofEvelinain 1778 and was in a way the opposite of Eliza Haywood’s. Haywood courted fame in her youth and published anonymously in her chastened middle age; Burney began in anonymity and struggled all her life with the unexpected attention that came with her success. In a similar way, Burney’s heroines instinctively dread adventure; they are “born” with the inhibition their mid-century counterparts painfully acquired. Lennox’s Arabella learned that she did not have the power of life and death over her suitors; Burney’s Cecilia, in a sense, has it—Belfield almost...

  11. 6 The Italian: A Romance of Manners
    (pp. 135-165)

    IF Fanny Burney’s novels were as romantic as the previous discussion suggests, then they had something in common with the Gothic novels that became popular during the course of her career, novels which proclaimed their authors’ appreciation for the old romance conventions so long discredited by realist criticism. But until quite recently a powerful tradition, dating from the eighteenth century, has prevented critics from seeing her works in this light. That tradition set Gothic apart from other contemporary fiction in much the same way that novels had once been too-neatly distinguished from romances. The motive for this exclusiveness was much...

  12. 7 Jane Austen’s Novels: The Romantic Denouement
    (pp. 166-207)

    CATHERINE MORLAND, the heroine of Jane Austen’sNorthanger Abbey,is the first heroine in English fiction to carry on a “clandestine correspondence” (250) without suffering agonies of conscience. In fact it hardly counts as “clandestine,” because Catherine’s parents look the other way when she receives a letter from her unofficial fiancé, Henry Tilney; they forbid only an official engagement, and only until the groom’s father can be brought to give “the decent appearance of consent,” which they are sure “could not be very long denied” (249). General Tilney’s objections must be temporary because they are clearly wrong—so wrong that...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 208-231)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 232-239)
  15. Index
    (pp. 240-250)