Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best Books of 1813 - who am I kidding, the Best Book - I cannot prate in puling strain

“Frosty Morning” by J. M. W. Turner, courtesy of Tate Britain.  Turner liked it so much he never sold it, for which I do not blame him.  It was completed in 1813, a sparse year for surviving literature.

Only one lasting novel, for example, but what an example.  Pride and Prejudice has become an inescapable book, even a best-selling book.  I wish I could remember where I read that – you have to add all of the different editions together to get it onto the bestseller list, but then Jane Austen would be side by side with James Patterson.

It was not always so.  Pride and Prejudice was never anything like a forgotten book, but it was not so gigantic until recently, surprisingly recently.  I turn to my favorite problematic but simple tool for quantifying status, the MLA International Bibliography, a database of articles, monographs, etc. reaching back to 1947, where I count 505 articles, etc. with a Pride and Prejudice tag.  The distribution by decade, roughly:

1947-1973: 13
1974-1983: 32
1984-1993: 112
1994-2003: 116
2004-2013: 232

In other words, a full 45% of the academic articles, etc. about Pride and Prejudice have been published within the last ten years!  That is amazing.  Austen was not always so ubiquitous.

My guess would have been that the 1980s Austen revival was owed to feminist criticism, and perhaps that was the first spark, but a glance through the article titles from the 1980s suggests that all kinds of approaches were making good use of Pride and Prejudice.  It is such a rich text.

1813 was an important year for English poetry.  Percy Shelley’s first major work, the allegorical radical fairy poem “Queen Mab,” was published to no interest; a decade later it had become a central text for English laboring-class reformers and revolutionaries, a story almost as surprising as the long, slow rise of Pride and Prejudice.  I am afraid, or perhaps happy to say, the contents of the poem itself have slipped from my memory.

Lord Byron had hit the jackpot in 1812 with the first parts of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which he followed in 1813 with two long Orientalist romances mostly in rhyming couplets, The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale and The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale, both immensely popular, both pretty silly, and both quite a lot of fun for readers who enjoy the poetry (if not, they are unreadable).  It is all just an excuse for Byron to show off his gift:

‘The cold in clime are cold in blood,
    Their love can scarce deserve the name;
But mine was like the lava flood
    That boils in Ætna’s breast of flame.
I cannot prate in puling strain
Of ladye-love, and beauty’s chain:
If changing cheek, and scorching vein,
Lips taught to writhe, but not complain,
If bursting heart, and madd’ning brain,
And daring deed, and vengeful steel,
And all that I have felt, and feel,
Betoken love –  that love was mine,
And shown by many a bitter sign.’  (“The Giaour,” 1099-1111)

In some sense I have still only come up with a single book for 1813.  What was going on in literature outside of England?  I do not know.  A number of European countries were understandably preoccupied.  Spain was being destroyed in the Peninsular War, yet Francisco Goya was creating the etchings that make up The Disasters of War and paintings like The Madhouse (none of these have firm dates).

It seems I often turn to Goya in these Best of 181X posts.  Well, of course.


  1. Are you sure your data for Austen doesn't just show the growth in literary scholarship during the same period?

  2. Good question. I will use Shakespeare as a standard. 35,531 total references.

    1947-63: 4,866 - 13% of the total
    1964-73: 4,435 - 12%
    1974-83: 5,032 - 13%
    1984-93: 5,884 - 17%
    1994-04: 7,736 - 22%
    2004-13: 7,578 - 21%

    Wow, look at that dip, is it possible that people are running out of things to say about Shakespeare?

    I also suspect that the database's coverage of the earlier years is more inconsistent. Who knows, it might systematically miss little journals that were the home for notes on P&P.

  3. Interesting numbers with P&P, though it had to have still been thought pretty well of as I read it in my high school advanced placement English in 1985.

    Love the Byron excerpt. It sounds so beautiful it makes me not really care what it means so much.

  4. Yes, a standard classic, best 100 novels of the 19th century, that sort of thing. But not what it is now.

    I suspect the turning point was not academic at all, but rather the 1995 BBC mini-series.

  5. Those were lean years. Austen and Scott dominated English fiction (someone did some statistical study and found out that they were indeed the most influential English novelists of the 19th Century).
    The next year, 1814, would be the year of Hoffmann's first collection of tales: Fantasias in two volumes, which included The Golden Pot and his versions of Don Juan and Peter Schlemihl.

  6. No, really, the study found Austen was that influential in the 19th century? I don't believe it. Later, sure. But there was nothing like Austen domination in the 19th century. Austen was, as we would say today, a mid-list writer.

    As for Scott, of course Scott. No question. I do not think the Waverley centennial will get a tenth of the attention of P&P. Mansfield Park will get more coverage.

    I should clarify the conceit of a post like this. The 1810s were not actually lean. They just look thin to us. There were piles of books, presumably good ones. But books die. Two hundred years kills off almost every book. The secret purpose of these posts is to mourn the dead books.

  7. Hey, I didn't write the study, I just read it. But here's some more details:

    "The era's most influential authors are Jane Austen and Walter Scott.
    The finding is based on a study of digitised copies of over 3500 novels published in English between 1780 and 1900. To gauge influence within this set software [is used which] categorizes novels according to the frequencies with which certain words appear, as well as how the words are grouped to form themes. The result is a series of 'fingerprints', each made up of 600 data points, which characterise the novels." And Austen's and Scott's fingerprints are all over 19th. Century fiction. They are "the literary equivalent of [...] Adam and Eve".

  8. I'm a little disturbed that you come up before Lord Byron in a Google search of "I cannot prate in puling strain". Of course Google knows context, so maybe it's not so disturbing.

  9. Well, there's more than one way to read a study. I urge extreme skepticism.

    I would have to read the book, which is unlikely, to make a serious argument, but if I go by the author's comment here, two gigantic logical errors leap out, one from the definition of "influence," which is pure bluster that leads to the second, an elementary confusion of correlation and causation. Also, as he admits at the end, the outcome of the experiment is likely caused by the design of the experiment.

    Having said that, do not miss Figure 2 from this abstract. Most helpful. Literature is saved!

    On the other hand, you have got me reading about Jane Austen's influence on the "silver fork" novels of the 1820s and 1830s. I am reminded that I have my own prejudices about what influence means. I am weighting by quality.

    If this post comes up before Byron himself, it only reinforces my suspicion that his once-famous adventure poems have become antiquarian pieces read only by researchers and nuts like me.

  10. "All network layouts employ Gephi’s built-in Force Atlas 2 algorithm" is my favorite footnote to the linked abstract. I have no idea what it means. It is however so beautiful that I intend to put a version of it into the novel I'm currently writing.

    So even though I have, disappointingly, not learned about any new books from 1813 via your post, it ends up having been immensely satisfying. Also, it's always nice to see a Turner.

    But I was going to say, of course, the big question is: Who was Austen reading? Maybe that's the real influence that flowed through and past Austen (and Scott, I guess) into the 19th century?

  11. Wow, that Figure 2 is one potent image, like a Ralph Steadman drawing of a weeping, wailing Edward Gorey heroine.

    Anyway, a great end of year post, as usual.

  12. Thank you for the pointer to that Figure 2 (and 3 is not so shabby either).
    Since we're dealing with books written during the age of Napoleon, perhaps a couple of facts about him may not be too out of order.

    First, according to another statistical study (similarly faulty), the three most important human beings who ever lived are: Jesus, Napoleon, Mohammed, in that order.
    Napoleon seems to have been a very charismatic man, this first hand account of what it was like to meet him in person comes from book xiv of Chateaubriand's Memoirs from beyond the grave:

    Bonaparte saw me and recognised me, I have no idea how. When he made his way towards me, no one knew whom he was seeking; the ranks opened successively; everyone was hoping that the Consul would stop in front of them; he had the look of a man experiencing some impatience with those misapprehensions. Bonaparte suddenly raised his voice and said: ‘Monsieur de Chateaubriand!’ I was left standing alone there, in front, since the crowd stepped back and then quickly reformed a circle around the speakers. Bonaparte addressed me simply: without complimenting me, without idle questions, without preamble, he spoke to me immediately about Egypt and the Arabs, as if I had always been in his confidence, and as if we were merely continuing a conversation we had already begun. ‘I was always struck,’ he said, ‘when I saw the sheikhs fall to their knees in the midst of the desert, turn towards the east and touch the sand with their foreheads. What was that unknown thing they were worshipping in the east?’

    Bonaparte interrupted himself, and passed on to another idea without transition: ‘Christianity? Haven’t the ideologists tried to make an astronomical system out of it? If that should be the case, do they think to persuade me that Christianity is therefore trivial? If Christianity is an allegory of the movement of spheres, the geometry of stars, the free thinkers have done well, since despite themselves they have still left sufficient grandeur to l’infame.’

    Bonaparte suddenly moved away. Like Job, in my darkness, ‘a spirit passed before me; the hair of my flesh stood up; it stood still: but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice…’

    My days have been only a series of visions; Hell and Heaven have continually opened beneath my feet and above my head, without granting me the time to explore their darkness and light. On the shore of two worlds, and on only one occasion in each case, I have encountered the great man of the last century and the great man of the new, Washington and Napoleon.

  13. If you'd stretched your survey to cover music as well as literature and the visual arts, you could have included, I'm sure. a clutch of works by Beethoven. (I've just looked it up: you could have had Beethoven's 7th symphony.) Pride and Prejudice, Goya's Disasters of War, and Beethoven's 7th symphony ... not a bad year really!

  14. I have never put together a music chronology like I have with literature or to some degree with art. It is a difficult task. If I put a piece in the proper half-century I feel like I have gotten close. There must be a long stretch where Beethoven composed at least one stupendous work each year.

    I should read that Chateaubriand book sometime, an abridgment I mean. I have read The Genius of Christianity, for pity's sake, so I ought to read the memoir, too.

    I want to be careful knocking that study, since I in fact believe that these quantitative methods can be valuable. For example, quantifying the most important historical figures is absurd, but measuring who people at different times have believed to be the most important figures could be quite interesting. As with any statistical argument, you should be as precise as possible about what you are measuring, and report the results as clearly as possible.

    Those lovely swirly organic things seem designed to obscure.

    In a letter, Austen once wrote that her favorite novel was Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson, a fine but tedious and nearly endless novel that I have read myself. She must have read Fanny Burney. Books of improving sermons. Rasselas. William Cowper. Maria Edgeworth. For some reason most of the references to specific books are in Mansfield Park.

    The issue with Scott is that his great influence was not linguistic but conceptual. If he can write a novel about 18th century Scotland, I can write a novel about the 18th century New York forest, or medieval Paris. If the clothes and customs of historical Scotland are so interesting when put into fiction, maybe the clothes and customs of today could also be used in fiction, rather than just assumed.

    So the whole thing baffles me.

  15. That year Madame de Stael wrote Reflexions sur le suicide. I'm not sure it's a cheerful thing to read.
    Very interesting statistics about Pride and Prejudice.

  16. This whole period, it seems that only the French exiles - Chateaubriand, Mme de Staël, Constant - remembered how to write.

    1. At the time, the future geniuses still have acne and high-pitched voices. Wait another 15 years and they're there. (This last sentence is terribly difficult to pronounce for my French tongue)

    2. Hugo, Balzac, Musset and so on? You mean them? Yes, I have heard that they are good.

  17. The first third of Les Mémoires d'outre-tombe can be such a funny reading, especially the chapters about the French revolution, the Emigration and about the Restoration.
    Mme de Staël and Benjamin Constant are the last of the great writers of the 18th century, they use the peculiar and beautiful French of this time.

  18. Replies
    1. OK. First half.
      And you find in it funny sentences as "Marie-Antoinette, in smiling, shaped her mouth so positively, that the memory of that smile (what an appalling thing!) allowed me to recognise that jaw-bone of that daughter of kings when the head of that unfortunate woman was discovered during the exhumations of 1815" (book V, chapter 8).
      Or, if you aren't sensible to old royalties, but only in old America, this note from the real linguist Chateaubriand was: "The small tribes of the Orinoco no longer exist; of their dialect there only remain a dozen or so words uttered in the tree-tops by parakeets that have been freed, like Agrippina’s thrush that chirped Greek words from the balustrades of the Roman palaces. Such will be, sooner or later, the fate of our modern tongues, the ruins of Greek and Latin. What raven, freed from a cage, belonging to the last Franco-Gallic priest, will croak, to a foreign people, our successors, from the heights of some ruined bell-tower: ‘Hear the accents of a voice once known to you: you will bring an end to all such speech.’"

    2. That stuff about the parakeets is wonderful. Chateaubriand seems to have invented magical realism.

  19. I always do enjoy these year-end posts of yours. Can one ever go wrong in turning to Goya? Although, as my first exposure to what one might call art history was in Spanish class, I may be biased.

    I am not surprised that Austen's rabid fame is more recent (1995 as you say), but I guess I didn't realize that even academic interest appears to have been more recent. Although, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

  20. No, in answer to your Goya question, no, you can never go wrong.