As I read Penelope Aubin‘s 1723 novel The Life of Charlotta Du Pont, an English lady; taken from her own memoirs, it’s probably good to remember this quote:
We can’t help it that we are twentieth-century readers, of course, any more than Defoe can help it that he is a figure dyed in Restoration, Puritan, and London wool, but we are better off noting our own presentist limits and admitting the historical prominence of the feature. The didacticism of Aubin, Davys, Richardson, both Fieldings, Rowe, Lennox, MacKenzie, Burney, and even Sterne poses essentially the same problem for us as does that of Defoe. Attempts to rescue writers by making them more urbane, “modern,” or “universal”–Richardson for his clinical interest in feminine consciousness, female sensibility, and the psychopathology of rape and other coercions; Sterne for his wit, humor, and bawdry–seem ultimately a dooming strategy. Their texts are still going to show where they stand, and their heavy hands on our shoulders are not going to go away. To read Sterne or Richardson without the didacticism is to read a deformed novelist, one missing crucial parts. It is easy enough to read any eighteenth-century novelist for something else and find the text palatable in spite of the unfortunate didacticism, but such selective reading is perverse and destines writers to a short life of fashion. Many early novelists traditionally left out of the canon–Jane Barker, for example, or Sarah Scott–would find their rightful place in literary history if critics could suspend their disbelief long enough to embrace the didactic rhetoric in their books and see their accomplishments both as units of discourse and as novelistic wholes. (J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction, p. 56)
Most critics dismiss Aubin’s novels due to their didactic emphasis on morality and virtue, but Hunter reminds us that such didacticism is a cultural product that should be a central part of our study of such works. Rather than dismissing or ignoring it, we should treat it with the same level of respectful analysis that we would give to any other element of an eighteenth-century novel. I’ll try to put that advice to practice as I write about Aubin in the coming months!
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