Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Woefully Incomplete Record of the Beloved Ancestors of the Ivybridge Twins

Today we have a guest blog by Molly Tanzer, author of "The Infernal History of The Ivybridge Twins."

When Silvia requested we Historical Lovecraft authors do a “The Author Speaks” segment to go at the end of our stories, and mentioned she wanted us specifically to discuss our inspiration, I decided to go the direct route and confess the original spark came from wanting to do a picaresque about twin incestuous necromancers. Ah, the muse, and her mysterious demands! Can we ever know the why?

While what I wrote was true, going a bit deeper I must confess that the desire to write something set in 18th England, using tropes so often found within the novels of the time, has long been a desire of mine. My Master’s degree in Humanities largely focused on the novels and women’s novel culture of 18th century England, and when I turned my hand to creative writing, I wanted to pay a bit of homage to those writers and their work. I doubt they’d be entirely pleased with my effort. Or pleased at all, in any way, quite frankly. Regardless, their writing inspired me while composing “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins,” for better or for worse, and here I’ll discuss that in more depth.

Scholars such as Ian Watt consider 18th century England to be the place and time where the true “modern novel” was born. It’s an interesting theory, and one that has caused quite a number of critical debates—but even if we disregard that particular academic ruckus, one of the reasons those interested in the origin of the modern novel turn to the era of Defoe and Richardson Fielding is that. . . well, about a bajillion novels that look very much like what we, today in 2011 think of when we think of novels, got published around then. Except for poor Edmund Blackadder's, of course—but there were extenuating circumstances.

Seriously though, there really were about a bajillion novels published in the 18th century, many of which have fallen into obscurity due to various reasons (like their not fitting well into survey curricula, or their being written by the ladies and thus long dismissed by the Academy as unimportant, or their being too didactic for our modern taste, or being. . . well, let’s just say, “not the best written”—though I, for one, still love even the crappiest 18th century novel). And, as with any time period, there were conventions used within those bajillion or so novels that we can now, from where we sit, identify and talk about in essays and articles and stuff.
When writing my Infernal History, I chose some of my favorite novels, novelists, and tropes—the ones I loved and have found myself inspired by for many years—and “artistically borrowed” from them to create the “feel” I wanted for the piece. What I’m going to do today is identify a few little tidbits from my story that were directly informed by the novels and novelists of the 18th century, and cite some works where, if you like what I’ve done in my piece, you can go to enjoy the original (but you don’t have to take my word for it).

I should say, however, that this is an imperfect list, simply because I crammed a hell of a lot of what I learned during my Master’s (and afterwards, in private study) into the piece. Thusly, I’m not even going to start on topics like, oh, say, “sensibility,” or “chattel slavery in the West Indies,” or, Christ, “the relationship between desire and disease in women represented in fiction of the 18th century.” Thankfully, others have given those topics the treatment they deserve, and so I’ve included a bibliography at the end so anyone interested can read around a bit.

The Narrator as Character: A few times in “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins,” the narrator interjects herself into the story, giving the reader her specific opinion on the events. This is a convention used frequently in the 18th century novel, and famously in Tom Jones (1749). In fact, the narrator’s voice is so strong in Tom Jones that, in the delightful 1997 miniseries, the writers decided to incorporate that voice by having Henry Fielding himself be a character. He frequently comes on screen to comment on the action, and it’s very amusing. (I also recommend that miniseries for Brian Blessed’s performance.) Tom Jones, as I’ve related elsewhere, was where I discovered what “calipash” was, and thus it yielded the family name of my characters, but it was also one of my main inspirations for the “voice” of the piece.

Names that Tell You About the Character’s Personality and/or Rôle in the Book: So, yeah, there’s a character named Mr. Villein in my novelette. Guess what? He’s not the good guy. Spoiler alert, I know, but for serious, everyone probably could figure that one out. I love this kind of thing. Eliza Haywood uses the effect in her 1751 novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (hmm, wonder what Betsy’s like?) as does Sarah Fielding in The Adventures of David Simple (1744) (hmm, what’s—never mind). Henry Fielding, I suppose I must mention, uses this too, in Tom Jones, though perhaps more ironically, given his characters have names like Squire Allworthy and Reverend Thwackum. Come to think of it, after the publication of Richardson’s famous novel Pamela (1740), where the virtuous Pamela is justly rewarded, Fielding also wrote a book called Shamela (1741), about a girl who spends her time trying to trick a man named Squire Booby into marrying her. . . good times, good times indeed.

The West-Indian, Return’d, at Last, to England: At one point in the “Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins,” a man, after a long time spent in the West Indies, comes home to Devonshire. My goodness, but you can find a lot of that sort of thing in 18th century novels! One of my favorite essays on the subject is an old one, Wylie Sypher’s 1939 “The West-Indian as a ‘Character’ in the Eighteenth Century,” which is regrettably not available online except through JSTOR. If you have a subscription, or know someone who does, and are interested in such things, definitely check it out. It’s fascinating. If you’d rather read the fiction from which this essay is drawn, however, one of the most iconic instances of this can be found in The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761) by Frances Sheridan. I shan’t tell you how, though, so it can be a surprise—it’s a great book, and if you can find it, well worth reading for pleasure. Though less dramatically utilized, such a theme is also found in Sarah Scott’s sentimental novel The History of Sir George Ellison (also a favorite of mine), and in the more socially-conservative Belinda (1801), by Maria Edgeworth. Much later, Charlotte Brontë hearkens back to this trope in Jane Eyre (1847)—the appearance of Richard Mason recalls the events of many of the 18th century novels discussed above.

The Long-Lasting Effects of Education, Good and Bad: Here are a few books that discuss in detail the topic of education, whether it be the need for, the uses of, or the dire consequences of a poor one: Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) and The History of Sir George Ellison, Haywood’s Miss Betsy Thoughtless, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752). I could go on to list even more! Often discussed in popular literature, the education debate was found in magazines, newspapers, tracts, and sermons during the 18th century, as well. Many men and even more women wanted for formal learning, and there were countless discussions of how schools were to be funded, who should be educated, and what should be taught. The quality of schooling, too, was a concern, for both sexes, and the repercussions of poor education were lamented and feared. In my Infernal History, education plays a large part in the life-story of the Twins—as it has done for many other characters before them.

Further Reading:

Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, by Nancy Armstrong

The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel, by Markman Ellis

Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World, by Trevor Burnard

Desire and Disorder: Fever, Fictions, and Feeling in English Georgian Culture, by Candace Ward

Entertaining Viewing:

Barry Lyndon (1975), Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Burn! (1969), Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Blackadder the Third (1987), Dir. Mandie Fletcher

The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1997), Dir. Metin Hüseyin

Many thanks to Leigh Kimmel for hosting this essay on her blog, and to Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles for including my story in their fine anthology.

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