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Lady Vane Revisited

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 29-34 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In Tobias Smollett, Scotland’s First Novelist: New Essays in Memory of Paul-Gabriel Boucé, the vexed question of the authorship of the “Memoirs of a Lady of Quality” in Peregrine Pickle is addressed by O M Brack, the editor of the volume. This is no longer vexed, apparently; as the publisher’s blurb for the collection has it, Brack has established “beyond reasonable doubt” that Smollett was the sole author of the “Memoirs,” rejecting previous theories that the author was Lady Vane herself, John Shebbeare, Daniel MacKercher, or John Cleland. The focus of this note will be on the continued viability of Cleland as a candidate.

One does not disagree lightly with the founding and textual editor of the Georgia edition of the works of Smollett, but to establish a fact beyond reasonable doubt is an onerous standard of proof, and there does still seem to be room to question Brack’s conclusions on the basis of both circumstantial and textual evidence. As has already been noted elsewhere, an anonymous advertisement in the London Advertiser, and Literary Gazette of March 19, 1751, for what is probably a phantom pamphlet made the link between Lady Vane’s memoirs and John Cleland’s fictional Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure: “This Day is Published, / (Price Sixpence) / A LETTER from FANNY HILL to Lady V-. / Printed for T. H. and sold by the Booksellers.” The anonymous advertiser was not the only person who remarked on the parallels: the second edition of The History of Pompey the Little (1751) added the following observation, not found in the first, “on modern novels and romances”:

Thus we have seen the memoirs of a lady of pleasure and the memoirs of a lady of quality; both written with the same public-spirited aim, of initiating the unexperienced part of the female sex into the hidden mysteries of love; only that the former work has rather a greater air of chastity, if possible, than the latter.

Admittedly both this and the announcement in the London Advertiser may simply be drawing a parallel between the lives and morals of the two women (one fictional, one mostly not), rather than suggesting that their stories were composed by the same pen—although Coventry does also suggest congruence of authorial intent.

Other circumstances make Cleland’s authorship of the “Memoirs” at least possible: Smollett’s rush to complete Peregrine Pickle, his friendly relations with Cleland, Cleland’s precarious position after the suppression of his novel and his release from debtor’s prison. There are also parallels of title, theme, and plot between the two works. In spite of Brack’s assertion to the contrary, there is still reason to suggest that the style of the “Memoirs” is as much like Cleland’s as it is like Smollett’s.

In his review of Tobias Smollett, Scotland’s First Novelist in these pages, Melvyn New says that “Mr. Brack conclusively demonstrates that ‘Memoirs’ everywhere reflects markers of Smollett’s style” but goes on to say, “what or whose original text he reworked, if any, seems to remain open to question.” Brack relies mainly on textual evidence for his attribution of the “Memoirs” to Smollett alone. He was, of course, in a better position than almost anyone to judge Smollett’s prose style, but the way in which he does so for the purposes of his essay is odd. Having identified some of the mannerisms of Smollettian writing (about which more in a moment), Brack then gives “several examples of Smollett’s style taken from the ‘Memoirs’”—thereby begging the very question he ostensibly sets out to answer and merely stating that the “example” of Smollett’s style is also typical of his writing. This is not enough to persuade.

Two typical mannerisms of Smollett’s style are the use of two words, wholly or partially synonymous, where one would do, and alliterative build-up. True enough, but they are as typical of Cleland:

At length, the tender texture of that tract giving way to such fierce tearing and rending. …

my heart, which had been so long overloaded with anguish and vexation, began to dilate and open to the least gleam of diversion, or...

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