Andrew Varney – Brightness and Beauty, Taste and Relish: Advertising and Vindicating Eighteenth-Century Novels

Brightness and Beauty, Taste and Relish: Advertising and Vindicating Eighteenth-Century Novels1)

Andrew Varney

Published in Connotations Vol. 3.2 (1993/94)

The preface to The Life and Adventures of Capt. John Avery (1709) complains that readers who question the book's authenticity act unfairly in giving a defenceless author "a Kick in the Britch."2) The reader has bought the book "which is really his own by that Purchase" and in censuring what he buys he is censuring his own taste. In the early eighteenth century books were commonly sold without any cover or binder's material; the title-page described, advertised, the book. The Avery title-page is 199 words long, excluding publication details and price. Part of it tells of Avery's


putting to Sea in a Mechanic Ship, where he drew in the Crew to turn Pirates with him. His sailing to Jamaica, where he dispos'd of the Ship's Cargo. His taking a large Ship, worth above a Million Sterling, belonging to the Great Mogul, with his Grand-Daughter on Board, (who was going to be Marry'd to the King of Persia) attended by a great Retinue of Ladies. His Marriage with the said Princess, and his Men with her Retinue.

One can understand an author resenting a kick in the britch for telling improbable tales from a reader who has already swallowed this title-page, which makes no claim to offer anything other than a narrative of daring, rapid, exotic adventure.

Ten years later the title-page of one of Europe's most famous narratives promised much the same. It begins:


The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight-and-Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America . . . .3)

In our time much interest has focused on the theme of providential deliverance in this narrative. It is not mentioned on the title-page. The [→page 134] word "deliver'd" does admittedly appear: "deli-" in a small fount lower case comes at the end of the sixteenth line, and "ver'd" at the beginning of the seventeenth, which is completed with the words "by" and "PYRATES"—in capital italics for emphasis. Whatever first attracted the contemporary reader to Robinson Crusoe it was not the prospect of the conversion or deliverance narrative we have come to prize in it. Not that a title-page accurately describes this or any other early eighteenth-century novel. For example, in the present instance Crusoe is delivered from his island, but not by pirates, italicised or otherwise. The preface to Robinson Crusoe echoes the title-page in speaking first of the unmatched "Wonders of this Man's Life"; it then commends that narrative for its "religious Application of Events" which tends to "justify and honour the Wisdom of Providence," but it makes no specific reference to the theme of deliverance.4)

Title-pages and prefaces are not simply the loyal servants of narratives. Title-pages are bait luring the reader to the hook; prefaces tend to justify him for having taken it. Both are unreliable. For example, the preface to Moll Flanders asserts, claiming a moral beauty for aspects of the narrative, "there is not a wicked Action in any Part" of the story "but is first and last rendered Unhappy and Unfortunate."5) The only defect of this respectable assertion is that it is entirely untrue. It is a common lure in title-pages to suggest that a wicked character has confounded morality by going either unpunished or even rewarded for wickedness. On her title-page Roxana is "The Fortunate Mistress"; likewise, Captain Avery may be a pirate, but his career traces the unimpeachable trajectory of meritocratic advance that was one of the favourite myths of Defoe's era. A daring title-page and the pious claims of a preface may often be at odds, and neither need accurately represent the narrative they herald.

Standing thus in rhetorical and tactical relationships within texts title-pages and prefaces are an integral part of the literary artefact produced, sold and bought, and they need to be recognised as one guide to the nature of early British fiction. They testify, inter alia, to the witty sophistication and creative deceptiveness of much early narrative. The book as it was sold was of course the product of a number of individuals, author, editor perhaps, master-printer, compositors, and so on. It is not clear that authors wrote the prefaces to their books, however likely it [→page 135] may seem in the case of works we securely attribute to Defoe, where the prefaces display a consistency of matter and manner from one to the next, and it may well be unlikely that authors were responsible for title-pages. This is however of no particular significance in a period when almost all works were published anonymously and where there was much artful play about the status of texts, as when the author of the preface to Moll Flanders explains that he has presented the story


in modester Words than she told it at first; the Copy which came first to Hand, having been written in Language, more like one still in Newgate . . . (1).

Books were a technologically and culturally sophisticated product and they were offered for sale to an expanding and increasingly intellectually adroit readership with considerable subtlety.

Michael McKeon identifies three phases in the development of the early novel: romance narrative; a more ostensibly naturalistic phase, "naive empiricism," epitomised in Defoe; and a reactive phase—Fielding is an exemplar—of "extreme skepticism."6) This schema and McKeon's social and ideological contextualising of it is perceptive and helpful, but I believe that the phases interpenetrate more and are more wilfully confused than it suggests.

Romance narratives of the French kind had lost vogue by the turn of the eighteenth century. That Britain was at war with France for the last years of the seventeenth and the first decade of the eighteenth century was one spur to the generation of a native narrative manner in Britain. Prefacing her scandalous roman à (very obvious) clef The Secret History of Queen Zarah, and the Zarazians; being a Looking-glass for . . . the Kingdom of Albigion (1705) Mrs Manley says:


THE Romances in France have for a long Time been the Diversion and Amusement of the whole World; . . . all Sorts of People have read these Works with a most surprizing Greediness; but that Fury is very much abated . . . . The Little Histories of this Kind have taken place of Romances . . . .
These little Pieces which have banish'd Romances are much more agreeable to the Brisk and Impetuous Humour of the English, who have naturally no Taste for long-winded Performances, for these have no sooner begun a Book but they desire to see the End of it.7)

The greedy appetite for French romances might have declined but a taste for the exciting, transporting pleasures of narrative had not. Hospitality [→page 136] to narrative, often very romantically conceived, is found even in unexpected places as three instances covering some forty years may help to show.

Firstly, in 1681 Robert Hooke, Secretary of the Royal Society, writes a gushing preface to the very factual Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, a publication which carries, facing the title-page, statements from the East India Company and from Sir Christopher Wren certifying its authenticity. Hooke commends the book less for the information and instruction it offers than for the rapture of the reading experience: "Read . . . the Book itself, and you will find yourself taken Captive indeed . . . ."8) He describes how the author will transport the reader through all the wonders of the island: "Show you . . . acquaint you . . . entertain you . . . and by the way shelter you from the Sun and Rain, with a Fan, made of the Talipat-Leaf." There was of course no particular literary novelty in promising an exotic journey, any more than there was in deploying the figure of the journey as an image for spiritual experience (as Bunyan had so recently done) or for the reading experience itself.9) What is striking however is Hooke's exploitation of the appeal of the romantic journey in a context normally so self-consciously factual, scientific and functional in style as a Royal Society publication.

Secondly, in 1712 Addison's philosophical Spectator papers on the Pleasures of the Imagination (nos. 411-21) analyse the functions of eyesight, and suggest that living in a world with colours is like living inside the world of literary romance:


. . . our Souls are at present delightfully lost and bewildered in a pleasing Delusion, and we walk about like the Enchanted Hero of a Romance, who sees beautiful Castles, Woods and Meadows; and at the same time hears the warbling of Birds, and the purling of Streams.10)

Thirdly, if Hooke and Addison seem to make the romantic world of narrative something of an earthly paradise then this becomes even more explicit in an unexpected context in Defoe. Colonel Jack's career is disreputable and ramshackle and most of it reflects poorly on him and on his world, which is the modern world of the wars with Louis XIV, but the narrative of that career is represented by the editor who writes the preface as a kind of Eden: [→page 137]


The various Turns of his Fortunes in the World, make a delightful Field for the Reader to wander in; a Garden where he may gather wholesome and medicinal Plants, none noxcious or poisonous . . . .11)

The garden, it becomes clear, is harmless because of the moral and religious improvement deducible from the narrative, but the elision from the delightful field of narrative to the wholesome garden of morality is subtly managed and at the heart of discourse about narrative in this period. It would be unsurprising, indeed almost inevitable, to discuss English narratives of earlier eras—stories of chivalric romance from the Middle English period, such elaborate Elizabethan allegories as The Faerie Queene, or the spiritual autobiographies of the seventeenth century, for instance—in such terms. To find them applied in the context of a racy, modern and ostensibly factual narrative of near contemporary history, is a clear index of how much vitality there remained in the romantic mode at even so late a date as 1722.

J. Paul Hunter stresses the centrality of the didactic mode in early British fiction: "The sheer amount of . . . advice provided in popular print . . . argues a voracious public appetite for being told what to do."12) Yes, but the didactic manner exists in a sophisticated self-conscious negotiation with the less deliberately improving aspects of narrative writing. The preface to Roxana gives an accessible example in the way even the rhythms of the prose enact the opposing pulls of the dubious glamour of Roxana's story and the instructive sobriety of her penitence. The carefully constructed pattern of antitheses, much closer to the elaborate structure of the periodic sentence than is common in Defoe, reinforced as it is by the placing of stress and alliteration, anticipates in its rocking motion the oscillation between improper excitement and proper reflection which readers may look forward to in the story:


It is true, She met with unexpected Success in all her wicked Courses; but even in the highest Elevations of her Prosperity, she makes frequent Acknowledgements, That the Pleasure of her Wickedness was not worth the Repentance; and that all the Satisfaction she had, all the Joy in the View of her Prosperity, no, nor all the Wealth she rowl'd in; the Gayety of her Appearance; the Equipages, and the Honours, she was attended with, cou'd quiet her Mind, abate the Reproaches of her Conscience, or procure her an Hour's Sleep, when just Reflections kept her waking.13)

[→page 138] This passage may be construed as a more elaborate and poetic enactment of a collocation that had been evident five years earlier in the short preface to Robinson Crusoe, where the second paragraph emphasised the remarkable "Wonders" of Crusoe's life and the third stressed the modest and pious cast of the narrative. The fourth paragraph, incidentally, asserts the veracity of the narrative, the "Editor" saying that he "believes the thing to be a just History of Fact," and denying that "there is any Appearance of Fiction in it." That a narrative was true did not justify its publication ipso facto, but the case for the publication of obvious fiction was far harder to make, as was apparent when Defoe published what is sometimes called the third volume of Robinson Crusoe, the Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720): he furnished the narrative with a long preface, purportedly written by Robinson Crusoe, which both claims that all Crusoe's story is "historical and true in Fact" (sig. A4) and simultaneously glosses this claim into meaning that the story is true as the allegory of a real man's [the author's, we may presume] life, every incident being a "just Allusion to a real Story" (sig. A5).

Title-pages and prefaces have to draw the reader towards a narrative, but prefaces in particular have to exculpate an interest that may be prurient without killing it dead. In an often knowing game prefaces negotiate between narrative interest and moral excuse. The opening phrases of the Roxana preface show this in the ambivalent use of the word "beautiful," which means at once the sexual glamour of Roxana and the moral beauty of a pious book: "The history of this Beautiful Lady, is to speak for itself; If it is not as Beautiful as the Lady herself . . ." (1) the editor says he has failed in his attempt to render it instructive and improving.

Defoe uses the language of aesthetics much more extensively as a bridging discourse between exciting narrative and pious moralising in Prefacing the narrative of the woman who was, as the title-page describes her,


Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent.

[→page 139] Defoe stresses the moral improvement implicit in Moll Flanders' story: he trusts that "the Moral . . . will keep the Reader serious, even where the Story might incline him to be otherwise" (2). The story/moral antithesis is distilled into arguments about the beauty of the narrative. The word "beauty" first occurs in the fifth paragraph where Defoe explains why the wicked part of Moll's life has to be so vividly represented:


To give the History of a wicked Life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked Part should be made as wicked, as the real History of it will bear; to illustrate and give a Beauty to the Penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal Spirit and Life. (2)

There is clearly a tension between novelistic and moral values. The moral will only be the most beautiful part of a narrative if it is presented with sufficient verve. Countering the argument that a moral narrative must be duller than a wicked one Defoe deflects responsibility onto the reader's taste:


It is suggested that there cannot be the same Life, the same Brightness and Beauty, in relating the penitent Part as in the criminal Part: If there is any Truth in that Suggestion, I must be allow'd to say, 'tis because there is not the same taste and relish in the Reading, and indeed it is too true that the difference lies not in the real worth of the Subject so much as in the Gust and Palate of the Reader. (2)

The inherent "worth" of a subject and the reader's taste may be at variance. The reader's palate may relish unworthy material, or his gorge rise at too much morality. But the moralizing is what excuses indulgence of the taste, and an unstable or slippery use of aesthetic language is part of Defoe's strategy for exciting the gourmet in the reader without shocking the moralist. Defoe's practice as a novelist accords with the training he received at Charles Morton's academy in Newington Green, which was in all but name his university and which influenced him throughout his life.14) Morton's educational regime included thorough instruction in both classical rhetoric and Protestant casuistry, and Morton endorsed the employment of fiction in the service of morality and virtue. [→page 140] This training, and a lifetime as a controversialist and fabulist had taught Defoe as well as Horace that


Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci, Lectorem delectando, pariterque monendo. (Ars Poetica 343-44)

What has always to be acknowledged however is that the legitimating doctrine is not necessarily identical with authorial practice, which is more often to be discovered in a flux of variables than pinioned by rules. In the present case of Moll's story Defoe mentions some incidents, called "delightful" and understood to be risqué, that the reader will later encounter, but in the same breath explains that they are put to moral use: "there is an agreeable turn artfully given them in the narrating" that makes them instructive. The sensually delightful will be turned into the morally agreeable—and we can admire the art by which this excellent alchemy is performed. Acknowledging the pull of novelistic values the preface at times presents the morality as payment—atonement—for the pleasures of the story:


The first part of her leud Life with the young Gentleman at Colchester has so many happy Turns given it to expose the Crime, and warn all whose Circumstances are adapted to it, of the ruinous End of such things, and the foolish Thoughtless and abhorr'd Conduct of both the Parties, that it abundantly atones for all the lively Discription she gives of her Folly and Wickedness. (2-3)

But the argument that morality can be beautiful is not abandoned, even while more hints of lascivious things to come are given out. We see this when the preface mentions the extraordinary episode in which Moll and an elderly gentleman in Bath make love with money; the climactic phase of their relationship comes in a bedroom scene when, having invited Moll to reach her hand into a private drawer and feel the coins it contains, the elderly gentleman pours its contents into her lap. They also enjoy some less symbolic moments. In the preface Defoe says that the lover's ensuing penitence, together with the warnings of the irresistability of sexual temptation, will "to a just Discernment . . . appear to have more real Beauty in them than all the amorous Chain of Story which introduces it" (3). Discovery of beauty is apparent here to the reader of taste. The phrase "real beauty" implies that there is another, [→page 141] meretricious, kind of beauty that less discerning readers, or discerning readers in a weaker moment, might find in the erotic narrative.

The preface also mentions two narrative lines that do not exist at all in the book and calls them "two of the most beautiful parts" (5). These are the untold stories of Moll's "governess" and of her first husband. Given what is intimated about them, the beauty ascribed to these stories could consist only in vitality and variety of narrated incident. Admittedly, Moll's governess is said to have become at last a penitent, but this information is tacked only casually onto the summary of her story; and the husband's life seems simply to illustrate the rewards of unabashed villainy.

At the end of the preface the editor explains that he has omitted details related by a third hand of the end of Moll's life in Maryland and Virginia, pleasant and agreeable though they were—the language of the preface has become so destabilised that whether they were pleasant and agreeable in the exciting or the improving sense is undeterminable. The reason for omitting them has however nothing to do with their content. The editor says he omitted them as "they are not told with the same Elegancy as those accounted for by herself" (5). Although the preface to Roxana will later claim that "The Noble Inferences" of the narrative—its moral lessons—"are worth all the rest of the Story; and abundantly justifie (as they are the profess'd Design of) the Publication" (2) the Moll Flanders preface can by this stage, when sufficient libations have been poured at the altar of moral propriety, assume that the reader agrees that novelistic values rule supreme.

The year before Moll Flanders Penelope Aubin published her The Life of Madam de Beaumont, a French Lady; who lived in a Cave in Wales about fourteen years undiscover'd, being forced to fly France for her Religion (1721). It is a story which subjects female virtue and piety to ordeal by romantic adventure and very remarkable event, though as Penelope Aubin points out in her preface, it is not as extravagant as what was happening in British public life at the time. There "A Madness has for some time possest the English, and we are turn'd Projectors, exceed[ing] the French in extravagant Whimseys." She says her story "is very extraordinary, but not quite so incredible as these" (v-vi). She is referring principally to the wild and captivating speculative adventure known as the South [→page 142] Sea Bubble. She also alludes to other remarkable things in her narrative: that, for example, it features two honest clergymen alive in Britain at the same time, and that Lord de Beaumont was faithful to his wife. The worldly jokiness of this preface is interesting as an introduction to a pious romantic narrative in that it does not really invite the reader to approach the story with any particular sobriety, or expectation of improvement from it. The Latin mottoes from Virgil and Juvenal, incidentally, which appear on the title-page commend fortitude under duress rather than religious resignation in adversity. One of the episodes which most strains credulity occurs when the young heroine Belinda faints, apparently dying of exhaustion after three days wandering in mid-Wales in late October, following her escape from capture and ravishment by a band of robbers largely formed of expatriate French noblemen. In an event that evokes the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac God brings her relief:


Thus the Almighty try'd her Faith and Patience, but design'd not she, who fled from Sin, should perish; a She-Goat, with a little Kid, at her recovering from her Trance stood by her; she catch'd at it with her eager hands, the Goat fled, but the Kid she laid hold of, calling her Companions to assist her, and with a Knife she had in her Pocket, she stabb'd it. They lick'd up the warm Blood, and eat the raw Flesh, more joyfully than they wou'd Dainties at another time . . . . (120)

This episode is referred to in the last paragraph of the book as teaching the lesson that none should despair of God's help, but as it is presented in the narrative it is far more vividly memorable for its image of the pious and beautiful young heroine eating goat tartare in desperate circumstances on a Welsh mountain than it is for the note that the goat was providentially supplied. Novelistic rather than pietistic qualities are valorised in the text. The raw goat flesh seems to feed the taste and relish, and to appeal to the gust and palate of the reader as much as it nourishes Belinda.

The attraction of narrative vitality evident in this case is pithily formulated by Defoe in a phrase Roxana uses when at a critical moment in her story she herself speaks of taste. About half-way through the book she is caught in a frightful storm at sea and is so terrified that she vows to reform if she gets safely to land:

[→page 143]

I would live a single and a virtuous Life, and spend a great deal of what I had . . . wickedly got, in Acts of Charity, and doing Good. (126)

This would have a devastating effect on a narrative with 204 pages yet to go. Roxana does get safely ashore, and she reports what then happened to her state of mind:


The Danger being over, the Fears of Death vanish'd with it; ay, and our Fear of what was beyond Death also; our Sence of the Life we had liv'd, went off, and with our return to Life, our wicked Taste of Life return'd, and we were both the same as before, if not worse. (128)

Good news for the reader. Roxana's brilliant phrase "our wicked Taste of Life" pins down precisely what imaginative narrative ministered to. prefaces like those introducing Defoe's novels—and there are very many of them—play what I have called a knowing game between author and reader; the author legitimates his reader's desires by making an apparent moral interest the gateway to their fulfilment in the exciting world of fiction.

This sophisticated collusion grated on the testy moral sensibilities of Fielding, alert as he always was to any manifestation of hypocrisy. His preface to The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742) famously identifies hypocrisy as the species of affectation which is most fertile in generating the sense of the ridiculous on which comic narrative depends. It is not therefore surprising that there is implicit in much of his own fiction, and explicit in the opening chapter of Tom Jones, an intelligent, meticulous dismembering of the enabling codes and conventions of early eighteenth century prose narrative, of which he was of course himself nonetheless a practitioner. The intermingling of narrative excitement with pious moralising in a story, and the ingenious working of aesthetic language between the threads of conspicuous decency on one hand and sly indecency on the other, constitute a collaborative tissue woven by author and reader together. Fielding sardonically unpicks this by way of a ruthless analysis of the metaphor of taste that lay at the heart of aesthetic discourse, and is still so familiar to us that we hardly recognise what we are doing when we make our bodies speak our minds. The alimentary canal is a major highway of [→page 144] aesthetic discourse, and almost all parts of it are traversed as we savour and digest our reading.

In the penultimate paragraph of the first chapter of Tom Jones, which he calls the Bill of Fare to the Feast, Fielding, having wittily argued that the only difference between the food of the rich and of the poor is in the presentation, goes on:


In like manner, the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author's skill in well dressing it up. How pleased, therefore, will the reader be to find that we have, in the following work, adhered closely to one of the highest principles which the present age, or perhaps that of Heliogabalus, hath produced. This great man, as is well known to all polite lovers of eating, begins at first by setting plain things before his hungry guests, rising afterwards by degrees as their stomachs may be supposed to decrease, to the very quintessence of sauces and spices. In like manner, we shall represent human nature at first to the keen appetite of our reader, in that more plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragoo it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford. By these means, we doubt not but our reader may be rendered desirous to read on forever, as the great person just above-mentioned is supposed to have made some persons eat.15)

Fielding's ironic detail interrogates the discourse of taste as it has been enrolled in the service of narrative. His history will move, he says, from the robustness of the country to the sophistication of the city: the reader may expect an increasing refinement and complexity in human wickedness the further he reads. In order to keep his taste sharp even while his need for nourishment declines the narrative provision will become, in images that we still use to describe certain kinds of writing, saucier and spicier. This carries its own criticism with it. Our food is going to be subjected to the unfamiliar foreign processes of hashing and ragooing. The text exploits the English reader's xenophobia: foreigners use sauces and spices, he knows, to enhance the taste of poor, or to disguise putrid, meat. Thus it must—this is the catch—be a corrupt taste that lures us polite lovers of eating or of reading further into the food or the fiction. Would reading on forever be any better than eating forever, especially now that we have been trapped into acknowledging that we read for titillation and not for improvement, just as much of our eating is done for pleasure rather than sustenance? Fielding's ironic strategy [→page 145] has blown the gaff on the all excusing motive Defoe had held out to his reader, that he was reading for improvement. If Fielding's irony disables the narrative mode which leans on the utile dulci principle then it calls into being an ironic code in its place. It is not axiomatic that this displacement marks the increase in subtlety that we might expect and that McKeon's scheme of "extreme skepticism" supplanting "naive empiricism" implies. The game in earlier narratives was played as it were between equals. The buyer of the Life of Capt. Avery had exercised choice, and had "by that purchase" acquired something of his own he could treat as robustly as he wished. The play between author and reader, and between story and moral, was a power game. Fielding's reader has no choice; the narrative manner rests on irony and that requires a reader who is complicit and ductile. The title-page—Tom Jones—was by comparison with that of the Avery story and of many others highly laconic and it had to be taken on trust. In any case, Fielding's manner disempowers dissent. One can read Roxana and be steadily appalled by the heroine, but one cannot read the first chapter of Tom Jones and disagree, grumbling away that reading is not really anything like eating. You cannot quarrel with irony, and irony is additionally—and especially in British culture—socially compelling. To reject irony is uncool, and to miss it is worse. The worldliness of Fielding's manner makes the reader eager to become a member of his circle, and so when Fielding hands him a Bill of Fare he does not realise that what he is going to get is not à la carte but the set menu. The fictional tradition that began as a power game has descended to charades.

University College of Swansea