Friday, 8 October 2010

Chawton House Library Reading Group: New season 2010-2011

The reading group convened again on Monday 20 September to discuss Ashton Priory one of the rare texts in the collection. Ashton Priory can be accessed as part of the Novels-On-Line project, or purchased as a paperback from Chawton House Library. It was an extremely lively session and we discussed whether it was a Gothic novel, the history of the Minerva Press, stock characters, Restoration comedy and whether or not it was a morality tale.The demand of a reading public for novels in the eighteenth century and the advent of Gothic and romance novels brought a need for libraries accessible to the general public. William Lane took advantage of this and opened a lending library in 1763 in Whitechapel, moving to Leadenhall Street in 1790 where he set up Minerva Press. Minerva Press dominated the novel publishing business for the next fifteen years and Ashton Priory is one example of its output. Ashton Priory, written in 1792 and published anonymously, is not a Gothic novel, it is melodramatic but it has no element of horror. Its stock characters are reminiscent of Restoration comedy and the novels of Henry Fielding, such as Sir Bevil Grimstone, an old fop well-past his best and the malapropisms of the tyrannical Butterfield matriarch. Money and society, female education and the promotion of meritocracy are the central themes woven around the romances of the young and the subterfuges of the covetous. The trials Charlotte and Eliza face result from the greed of others: Charlotte narrowly escapes a forced marriage to a licentious nobleman who has offered to ‘buy’ her from her guardian; Eliza, the erstwhile romantic novel reader, faced with the fragility of respectability when she is left destitute by her husband evades prostitution. Eliza dies tragically, punished for the fanciful notions that she develops from her reading, and the well-balanced, irritatingly virtuous Charlotte is rewarded by marriage to the man she loves. She merits reward in this tale, as do her brother, members of the Sanders family and the man who becomes her husband, George Danby. They all are hard-working, socially responsible characters. The villains of the story: the avaricious, the lustful, the lazy, the conceited, have to change or loose status, die and face disgrace. We had to conclude it was a morality tale and an emphatically middle class one. Over the year we will several more of the books that form part of the Novels-On-Line project including The Castle of Tynemouth by Jane Harvey and Cava of Toledo; or, the Gothic Princess, Augusta Amelia Stuart.