A Review of Antoinette Marie Sol's Textual Promiscuities: Eighteenth-Century Critical Rewriting

The following review was just published in Burney Letter, 10:2 (Fall 2004): 13-14.

Textual Promiscuities: Eighteenth-Century Critical Rewriting by Antoinette Marie Sol. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press and London: Associated University Presses, 2002. Pp. 243. ISBN 0-8387-5500-3.

Antoinette Marie Sol's Textual Promiscuities is a eye-opening book that merits the attention of readers of Burney's novels. She does not attempt to read these novels from a perspective drawn from Burney's life (60). She instead presents a persuasive picture of the single literary community on both sides of the channel and brings out how Burney's novels were influenced by, and played a formative role in, the development and function of the modern novel.

Sol's ultimate goal is to widen the literary terrain used to understand 18th century novels to include novels by women and to move beyond single-language boundaries (203-4). It will be asked, Are not we doing this already? Sol outlines the history of scholarship on the literary sources of Evelina (60-64) and Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses (40-49) to demonstrate that we are not. Critics explain Burney's dramatizations of brutal violence and unkind comedy linked jarringly to women's vulnerability and powerlessness, as feminist farce, or enjoyable generic disjunctions whose literary origins are in Fielding, Smollett, and hard stage comedy (60-63). They marginalize women's novels; for example, one study places a group of novels, mostly by women (one of them Burney's Cecilia), in a footnote (38-39). The recipe for intertextual reconfigurations of Laclos is limited to Crébillon fils, Rousseau and Richardson's novels (40-46).

In Sol's book Burney is a major influence on Laclos.1 Sol triangulates the novels of Burney, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni and Laclos to disclose how they use analogous character types, situations, and motifs.2 These novelists show that social codes, defended as "guides, supports and protection for women," were in reality repressive "attacks" on women. These codes are revealed as ways at once of training women to be vulnerable and punishing them if they did not "subjugate" themselves to these codes and other "unjust conventions" (67-68). In their novels (and those of other near contemporaries) "libertine and sentimental paradigms question social customs and issues centering on gender, authority and identity" (19-29).

Sol argues that today's ongoing dismissal of women's novels as minor or unimportant began in the seventeenth century (29-35), and depends on a false separation of mid-eighteenth century realistic novels from later seventeenth-, and early eighteenth-century scandal chronicles, secret histories, male adventure stories, and feminine romances (34-36). The later novels and romances (strategically and obsessively relabelled by contemporary male novelists as histories, memoirs, or fictional biographies) are censored and sentimentalized permutations of the earlier novels and romances. They are also masculinist: the new epistolary works "propose models of female victimization" (32); the mid-century heroine is presented as wholly "dependent on her status as an object" (35).

Sol performs informative and refreshing intertextual close readings of Evelina with Mylord Rivers and Juliette Catesby (63-109); of Les Liaisons dangereuses with Ernestine, Le marquis de Cressy, and Fanni Butlerd (129-58) in the context of Laclos and Riccoboni's correspondence about Les Liaisons dangereuses (112-26); and of Evelina and Cecilia with Les Liaisons dangereuses (164-90) in the context of Laclos's review of Cecilia (159-64). Sol enrichens her analyses by also discussing Riccoboni's Miss Jenny, which was itself influenced by a French translation of Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless (61-63); and Riccoboni's popular conclusion to Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne (126-29), where Riccoboni reframes the issues of Marivaux's novel through a perspective which enacts "solidarity with [the heroine's] female friends" and "reclaims the female voice" (126).3

Sol demonstrates that Riccoboni and Burney mix violence, comedy, and sentimentality in order to scrutinize "conventions regulating social relations between genders" (86): the reader sees how women lose "social leverage" and how most individual private points of view fail to gain endorsement, especially when a man succeeds in unveiling in public encounters a woman's understanding of what happened when no one else was around (88, 96). Burney and Riccoboni dramatize how women become "silent" and "complicitious" "in the oppression of other women" (99). Sol's analysis of Riccoboni's use of Juliette Catesby's epistolary voice to reveal the self-serving nature of the hero's justification of his rape of a friend's socially inexperienced sister is aligned with Burney's epistolary presentation of Evelina as similarly ignorant, anxious and therefore justifiably fearful (86-88).

At times Sol's analysis of Laclos and Burney relies too strongly on broad analogies between the social positions, fates and types of characters, but she did persuade this reader that Les Liaisons dangereuses shares the concerns and aesthetic techniques of Evelina and Cecilia: in particular, women's dependence on social ties; their lack of control over their money and bodies; their inabilty to resist mores hostile to their interest; and a use of subtle ethical and graphic pictorial language to delve psychic phenomena (164-65, 178-79).

She also credits Burney's heroines with more sexual desire and untrammeled agency than they have (168).4 Much of the persuasive power of her analyses of Laclos and Burney depends on the reader having accepted Riccoboni's texts as an intermediary (146-56): Riccoboni was repelled by Laclos's Madame de Merteuil because Laclos's conception denied "that a woman's sexuality [springs] from the engagement of her heart," and Burney's heroines are reticent variants on the Riccoboni type of heroine who is endangered by "society's hypocrisies and double sexual standard" (214n.16).

Sol's concluding argument is that after Evelina Burney's use of a third-person narrator, increasingly convoluted syntax and Latinized vocabulary, represents Burney's attempt to place her work in a "male intellectual tradition that functioned as a literary and stylistic authorization for her writing" (195). The result is a stance and style at odds with matter that continues to be feminocentric and trace an exemplary heroine's "path" as she attempts to follow "society's complicated strictures on women's behavior" (194-98). We are cut off from "direct access to the soul, a space for passionate discourse" and the weak weapon which epistolary communication seems to offer (186). Yet after much trauma the fate of Burney's heroes and heroines continues to conform to one of the two endings Nancy Miller identified in The Heroine's Text: they are integrated into society. In the other ending (exemplified by most of Laclos's and a few of Riccoboni's), the novelist's heroes and heroines remain alienated, survive through hypocrisy, or die (192).

Sol's book makes visible an intricate novelistic art practiced by Burney, Riccoboni and Laclos, one which allows for a "frank" yet "hidden" portrayal (125, 145) of "inaccessible ideals" (129) lost in everyday social betrayals and "games" (138) through which (when the need arises) the powerful and ruthless sacrifice women and vulnerable men to desire and ambition. She makes the work of these eighteenth-century novelists shed light on later novelists who "adhere" to the same originally "female tradition of novel-writing" (58, 192), e.g., Jane Austen and Henry James on one side of the channel (198, 203-4) and Marcel Proust and a host of novelists well outside the reaches of the channel and the English-speaking and reading world. Sol's book is not just an attempt to do justice to Burney (though it does that) and to offer "a more complete vision of the aesthetics of the novel" (204), but it maintains a conversation about women's art and lives whose function today is as needed as ever.

Ellen Moody

George Mason University


1 The significant dates and translations are as follows: in 1779 Evelina was translated into French by Antoine-Gilbert Griffet de Labaume. In 1782 Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses was published (shortly before Burney's Cecilia). In 1784 Laclos's review of Cecilia appeared in the Mercure de France, the French translation of Cecilia was published in Neufchâtel, and Dangerous Connections was printed in London.

2 The novels by Riccoboni that Sol deals with are: 1757, Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (translated 1766); 1758 Histoire de M. le marquis de Cressy (translated 1759, reprinted 1765, reissued as extracts 1782); 1759, Lettres de Milady Juliette Catesby à Mylady Henriette Campley (translated 1760 by Frances Brooke, reprinted 1764, 1769, 1780); 1764, Histoire de Miss Jenny (translated 1764); 1767, Histoire d'Ernestine (translated 1765, reprinted 1767, 1793); 1777, Lettres de Mylord Rivers à Sir Charles Cardigan (translated by Percival Stockdale 1768).

3 In 1754 Betsy Thoughtless was translated as L'Étourdie, ou Histoire de Miss Betsy Tatless [sic] by "le chevalier de Fleuriau;" from 1743 on as completed and translated by Mary Mitchell Collyer, The Virtuous Orphan, Or, the Life of Marianne Countess of *** reached the English public through Harrison's Novelists' Magazine and the circulating library.

4 Burney's married heroines (Cecilia and Juliette) remain virgins to the end of their books. Burney's heroines are variants on the repressive misogynist types found in English Restoration and eighteenth-century drama; see Pat Gill, Interpreting Ladies: Women, Wit and Morality in the Restoration Comedy of Manners (Athens: Georgia UP, 1994), 9-17. After Cecilia Burney was even more sensitive to the possible loss of reputation she might endure if she showed knowledge of sexuality precisely because she was married.

Blindmans Bluff (c. 1728) by Nicholas Lancret (1690-1743)

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