This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates.
Ruth Scobie last wrote for The Toast about the birth of a previous Prince George.
“And pray, Sir, what are four hundred pounds a year to maintain a woman of rank like me? Do you know, Sir, who I am?”
Joan!!! A Novel (1796) is not a great forgotten work of eighteenth-century literature. On the other hand, it does have a couple of obvious notable characteristics. First, its title is unusually enjoyable to say out loud, especially in quiet seminars to people who’ve never heard of it and don’t know why you’re shouting. Second, it’s really long. Joan!!! was published in four volumes, each with about three hundred pages. It’s long in a Peyton Place or Twilight kind of a way, though; a bulk based less on vaulting ambition for epic themes or an accumulation of detail which combine to create an encompassing worldview, than on the fact that someone was getting paid by the word.
It’s silly, and clumsy, and precisely the sort of book I’d want to read if I were an Georgian vicar’s daughter with a winter’s worth of dark evenings to kill. As I happens, it remains the kind of book I want to read as a twenty first-century anachronism with a deadlines to ignore and a large gin and tonic. And you can read it for free here.
The title page claims that Joan!!! was written by ‘Matilda Fitz John.’ This name doesn’t appear on any other books, and the British Library catalogue thinks it’s a pseudonym. I tend to agree – partly because I would never dare to challenge the inscrutable edicts of the British Library, and partly because lady novelists were fashionable enough in the 1790s that such a romantic feminine pen name might have seemed worth adopting. We know, then, almost nothing about the mind behind those three exclamation marks.
Whoever the author was, he or she seizes on the conventions of late eighteenth-century romance fiction with an enthusiasm verging on parody, churning out “machinations of malignity,” plot twists, comic subplots involving footmen, minuets, and swooning. The 1790s were the height of the fashion for gothic fiction, so Joan!!! throws in depraved aristocrats, multiple kidnappings, and an unconvincing bit with a ghost. You can almost hear the scratching of “Matilda Fitz John’’s quill as it scribbles out a new chapter in some underlit attic or corner of a London pub.
The result is a book which hung around in the catalogues of circulating libraries until the mid-nineteenth century. I’m not sure how many people alive today have ploughed through it all, apart from me, and the more than noble lyzardqueen, whose blog does an excellent job of unravelling some of the plot. I’m not going to do the same thing, because it would give us all migraines. Joan!!! is a soap, essentially, following two generations of a wealthy English family and their lovers and hangers-on. It starts with two central women:
Joan – the Honourable Joanna Doveridge – is downtrodden and virtuous, with impeccable taste in simple white dresses and negligently tumbling ringlets. Her nemesis, Lady Jemima Fawley, is “all fashion and celebrity,” a ruthless, rouged gambler with the temper “of an enraged lioness,” whom I imagine looks like Julie Cooper from The O.C. The beginning of the story is told from the point of view of the handsome, useless Lambert Byram, who, having managed to inadvertently marry both women, dies at the end of the first volume out of sheer feebleness of character.
The subsequent volumes follow Joan’s daughter, who is very slightly less innocent, equally beautiful, and at one point invents a new kind of feathered grecian headdress which becomes universally fashionable. She has to assume a secret identity for much of the story, and chooses the inconspicuous alias Peregrina Lamorne so she can go around having scenes like this:
“Good God,” she replied, “Sir Edward, what can you mean? – Surely – ”
“Yes, surely,” he replied, “you see in me your obscure friend, Ami Bonange, who has loved you, watched you, and endeavoured to protect you, from the first hour of his acquaintance with you.”
In silence, and scarcely conscious of her own thoughts, she turned to Lady Armathwaite, and sunk on her shoulder.
Reading Joan!!! does brings into relief the achievements of more famous novelists in taking the same set of conventions and creating works which are innovative and moving. This is not the place for the elegance and realism of Persuasion, the psychological depth and detail of Clarissa, the striking, taut plot of Frankenstein, or the whatever the hell is going on in Tristram Shandy of Tristram Shandy. The events that Samuel Richardson examines from every angle would be dealt with in about a chapter and a half in Joan!!! The events that Jane Austen turns into profound, polished masterpieces would be entirely ignored by Matilda Fitz John, since they happen in dull little rooms to ordinary people – although Austen’s Lady Susan is very much in the same gleefully-unmaternal-sexpot mould as Lady Jemima, and I’m convinced the then 21-year-old Georgian rector’s daughter would have been pretty into Joan!!! A Novel.
Let’s not get Amazon-reviewerish about this. Dismissing Joan!!! because it lacks formal literary qualities is like complaining that Cold Comfort Farm lacks gritty realism, or that Finnegan’s Wake should have a cute comic sidekick for kids. It misses the point rather. It also misses the huge amount that a book like this can tell us about life and reading in 1796. Eighteenth-century romance novels, like many eighteenth-century people, were all about sex, money, class, and cool stuff; and how you might be able to use one of these to get your hands on the others.
Stuff was especially important. London in the mid-century was flooded with exciting new commodities: silks and printed cottons, jewels and gadgets, ostrich feathers, miniature paintings, china and cosmetics. There were unprecedented opportunities to dress up and show off. Yet the city also seemed dangerously unstable and high society out of control. From the royal family down, people cheated on their spouses, fought with their families, borrowed wildly and lived on credit. Overspending and sketchy banking practices made everyone’s fortune precarious, culminating in a full-scale credit crisis in 1772. Mysterious millionaires arrived from India with handfuls of diamonds; shopgirls became star actresses; the heirs to the oldest families in England lost their fortunes overnight in cardgames or shot each other in duels; and all the time the epidemic-ridden, hungry London slums seemed to threaten the kind of rebellion seen in America and France. Against this backdrop, Joan!!!’s rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches rollercoaster of stolen identities and sexual intrigue wasn’t as wild as it might have been.
Romance novels were another new commodity on sale in the shops, alongside a thriving range of celebrity autobiographies, softcore porn, unauthorised sequels to blockbuster novels, and conduct books which explained how to snag a husband and succeed in business. They were alternative luxuries for the discerning reading consumer, offering the vicarious thrills of all that sex and stuff to middle-class readers who aspired to the glamour of the elite, while assuring them of the insecurity of new money and the enduring status of good birth over the rabble.
Yet despite their usually extremely conservative messages – the true heir is eventually recognised as inherently noble, adultery is punished and pointless obedience to patriarchy rewarded – romance novels were seen by many as books for and by women, and therefore at best trivial and at worst a gateway to rouge-wearing, adultery, infanticide and the neglect of housework. “I find those who first made novel-reading an indispensible branch in forming the minds of young women, have a great deal to answer for,” spluttered a sweaty-palmed letter-writer in the Monthly Mirror in 1798, the year after Joan!!! was published. “Without this poison instilled, as it were, into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice.” The image of the eighteenth-century genre fiction-reader is almost always that of an impressionable girl – possibly that vicar’s daughter again – who squirrels away her romance or gothic novel in her room, where the story tempts her into unspeakable daydream, or worse.
Interestingly, though, recent research seems to show that these books were just as widely and merrily read by men as women, though gentlemen were probably less likely to admit to it. This is a paradox that Jane Austen would point out in Northanger Abbey – written the year after Joan!!! was published. Besides, these novels were often not read in private but performed out loud for a family or social group (think of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, but fun). Joan!!! A Novel is, as that title suggests, perfect for reading out loud, especially if you had a reader who would do all the voices and really throw themselves into the role of Lady Jemima.
Sex, money, class, and cool stuff are not subjects which only matter to women; and trashy romance plots have never been entirely uninteresting to educated men, however many times they’re told they only care about things which are serious and rational. If anything appeals across borders – then and now – surely it’s reading aloud a book with three exclamation marks in the title?
He waited till the servant had shut the door, and then energetically added, “I am, my Joanna, either the happiest or the most miserable man on earth. – See here,” continued he, snatching up the paper with violence, “that wretch Byram is at length dead; and after eighteen years of despair, you are now, my Joanna, mine.”
Ruth Scobie is a postdoc research fellow at the University of Oxford, working on eighteenth-century celebrity culture. She would really like to talk about old newspapers, Sarah Siddons, Mary Shelley, and the flouncier wardrobe choices of British naval captains in the 1780s, if those seem like things you’d be interested in.