- Elizabeth Singer Rowe and the Development of the English Novel by Paula R. Backscheider
The edition quantities for Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s epistolary fictions offered in Paula Backscheider’s study are striking. Rowe’s Letters (1734), which added the [End Page 300] three parts of Letters Moral and Entertaining to Friendship in Death (1728), “came out nearly annually through the end of the century” and “by 1825, there had been at least seventy-nine editions” (1-2). Backscheider considers Rowe “a pivotal figure in the history of the English novel” (2), although her letter compilations hardly satisfy the modern demand that novels have a plot. In the introduction, Backscheider outlines Rowe’s life and writing, her friendship with the Countess of Hertford and Rowe’s poetry, asserting that “Rowe was surely one of the most popular writers of the entire century in several genres” (29-30). Backscheider reconstructs Rowe’s early reputation, using portraits and biographies; she details the rise of her image in the later eighteenth century as a simply “pious” writer who (in Samuel Johnson’s words) employed “the ornaments of romance in the decoration of religion” (52); and she laments Rowe’s subsequent marginalization in histories of the novel.
In chapter 1, Backscheider begins to redress this neglect by showing that Rowe “clearly knew fiction well and was able to draw upon and adapt its major conventions and strategies while introducing some of her own” (39). In Letters, Rowe adapted amatory fiction, apparition literature, and patchwork novels. In line with the “sensational tales of passion” (53) associated with Behn and Haywood, Rowe “often exposes patriarchal and libertine opinions and behaviors as sources of misery and evil” (57). She also departs from this mode, making her “an important, transitional figure between the writers of amatory fiction and the genteel novels of manners” (82). In drawing on stories of apparitions in Friendship and Death, “Rowe asserts the moderate, reasonable position between superstition and skepticism inclining to atheism” (61). However, “patchwork” fiction is the most significant generic context for Rowe: this form ranges from the tradition of “framed” novels pioneered by Boccaccio to miscellaneous collections of stolen letters (Charles Gildon); but most obviously it invokes Jane Barker’s Galesia trilogy. Rowe’s Letters “conform to and advance the patchwork literary kind while capitalizing on the epistolary form” (70), Backscheider contends, creating “a narrative space that is feminine in nature” (72). To those who might object that a series of (often discrete) letters does not make a novel, Backscheider counters that most epistles in Rowe’s Letters tell a story and some narratives are sustained over several letters. Besides, “regardless of the miscellaneous authors of the letters, themes and ideologies assure a sense of unified purpose and text” (80), and Rowe “incrementally weld[s] the text into a unified sensibility” (149).
In chapter 2, Backscheider proposes that fairy tales are “an unrecognized influence on the eighteenth-century English novel” (83) and analyzes Rowe’s use of them. For women, fairy tales create “a place of freedom from the limitations of imposed gender identity, conduct, and even thought” (92). Unlike amatory fictions, fairy tales are not about sexual competition and female powerlessness: in them, women “maintain autonomy and preservation of a lifestyle” (104), and by invoking them Rowe avoids the insistence on “heterosexual love as the basis of happiness and marriage as closure” (109).
This argument is extended in chapter 3, which argues that Rowe “moved fiction toward novelistic discourse by taming plots.… She domesticated common situations in early novels while expanding the characters’ psychological life without losing the recognition of gender as a category of political knowledge and resistance” (154-55). For example, she “domesticates the revenge-fantasy plot” from amatory fiction in order “to give women the skills to cope with the world” (156). But Rowe modifies fiction’s style as well as its plots: from the “long, baroque sentences” of pre-1730 novels (125), we move to Rowe’s “polite, flowing, smooth, energetic” prose (127) and her “deliberately calm, elegant style” (162...