- Sentimental Memorials: Women and the Novel in Literary History by Melissa Sodeman
In Sentimental Memorials, Melissa Sodeman innovatively examines the work of four prominent women writers of the 1780s and 1790s. Through a focus on the novels of Sophia Lee, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Robinson, Sodeman shows how sentimental novels of these decades “reflect on and provide ways of thinking about the conditions of cultural and literary survival” (3). Integrating women’s literary history, book history, and the history of ideas more generally, she offers a lucidly written, thought-provoking, and highly original account of a particular literary and cultural moment; in doing so, she shows women’s writing as self-reflexive and metacritical. Cognizant of their present and future exclusion from the literary canon, these authors “memorialize … the conditions of their writing” (9) at a time when sentimental literature was losing its popular appeal.
Sodeman’s first chapter presents a discussion of Sophia Lee’s The Recess (1783-85) in which she combines a detailed close reading of the novel with an examination of the wider cultural concerns of the mid-to late eighteenth century, such as manuscript culture, authenticity, forgery, and the availability of historical recovery. Relating the novel to these contexts, and especially to James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, Sodeman’s reading of The Recess offers a sustained analysis of Lee’s awareness of “what cannot be recuperated” (30), what has been lost in history through the illegibility of manuscripts, linguistic decay, surrogation, and substitutions that pervade her novel on the level of plot. This analysis is extended to include landscape theory, with the perspectives of “prospect” and the “vanishing point” as indicative of the irrecoverableness of history, “the simultaneous recessing of historical characters and our own vanishing from their perspective” (45).
Chapter 2 focuses on a reading of Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791). The reader can see a view of the past in which Radcliffe, similarly to Lee, acknowledges historical (but also developing) technologies of reading and writing, while simultaneously insisting on [End Page 739] our inability to recover the past. Addressing scenes of reading, Sodeman interweaves in her analysis the epistemological concerns surrounding the role of the found manuscript in culture more broadly, “the authenticity of textual remains and [the] transmission of literary history” (55). Even the absorptive reading experience cannot revive the past or supply the crucial detail of its authorship. Sodeman’s discussion of Radcliffe’s interpolation of lyric verse throughout The Romance of the Forest shows how these lyric poems are also a kind of “sentimental memorial”; their stilted forms and strained presence within the narrative call attention to another dimension of Radcliffe’s awareness of the temporality of her own literary endeavour as the sentimental gothic is being emptied of its affective power and its cultural significance.
Charlotte Smith’s writing forms the topic of the third chapter. Sodeman discusses Smith’s practice of literary quotation, together with her personal experience of exile, as a way of understanding Smith’s authorship as the convergence of formal practices and lived experience. Smith’s frequent use of quotation underscores, for Sodeman, the way in which the practice “may serve as an idiomatic marker of exile” (102). Her close readings of Smith’s novels The Banished Man (1794) and The Young Philosopher (1798) suggest how form—in this case, extensive quotation of others’ works—calls attention to Smith’s own life story. In this sense, Smith’s enactment of a “literary memorial” can be seen as a representation of her exclusion, expressing the anxiety of her (internal) exile, but also, in the shared expression of others’ words, as the marker of a literary community. The discussion of the two prefaces of The Banished Man is especially enlightening as it convincingly shows Smith’s authorship in practice, and the tensions that emerge between humanistic ideals and commercial practices.
Sodeman’s final chapter, on Mary Robinson, presents another example of a woman writer recognizing the decline of...