It’s kind of annoying when I decide I don’t like a book, and then a critic comes along and makes a convincing argument about how wonderful it really is. Here’s what Patricia Meyer Spacks says about the meaning of history in Sophia Lee’s The Recess:
Sublimity in this novel finds realization in history, history conceived as a concatenation of irresistible but incomprehensible forces. Obscure, terrible, all-powerful, unmindful of individuals, it possesses all the qualifications of the sublime. To be sure, there is no “it” there: “history” is an abstraction, a retrospective generalization, an unpredictable produce of memory, myth, and desire. The reader, obviously, is in a different position from the characters in relation to history. Lee brilliantly exploits the difference by constantly reminding us that what we accept as truth depends on where we stand … We are all of course caught up in history; this novel insists on how little we can know what that means.
Now doesn’t that make The Recess sound fascinating? And in a way, the book was fascinating … and yet my experience of reading it was too often one of boredom. There is a category, I suppose, made up of books that are more interesting to talk about than to read, and to me, The Recess clearly belongs here.
One of the things I appreciate most about Spacks’s book is the way she thinks about pleasure in reading and how it changes over time. She says, for example, that certain elements of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones — “the systematic construction of suspenseful situations, with purposefully delayed resolutions; the enormous cast of characters; the frequent interventions by the narrator” — helped teach readers to take new and different kinds of pleasure in reading. I like the idea that authors can help readers learn to read in new ways and to find new pleasures simply by writing the way they do, and it’s fascinating to think that readers might not automatically find suspense, delayed resolutions, and enormous casts of characters pleasurable.
She also explains the pleasure readers found in sentimental novels, novels that often seem bizarre and foreign to us today. She argues that readers today enjoy exercising emotions as they read just as they did in the eighteenth century, but it’s the ways of evoking emotional response that seem strange to us now. Sentimental novels of the time depended on two modes that we don’t see today: a “curious withholding of elucidating or corroborative detail” and a “massive accumulation of ostensibly heartrending episodes.” These novels tend to give little detail about the character’s emotional responses, telling us straightforwardly about them rather than showing us with evocative detail. And they tend to include — to be overwhelmed by — story after story of suffering and woe.
In response to the lack of detail, readers learned to fill in the missing details themselves. If an author doesn’t tell us exactly how a character felt but simply says that the character suffered, then we are free to imagine exactly what that suffering was like:
Although the system of extreme understatement allows all feeling to be clichéd, it also leaves room for other possibilities. Engaged readers are at liberty to invent, to imagine, or to perceive afresh … Readers can always or intermittently refuse the implicit invitation mentally to elaborate rendered feeling, but opportunities abound, in this fiction, for their imaginative participation.
The plethora of stories about suffering and woe serve a different purpose; their proliferation implies that life is little else than suffering; they rehearse again and again the sufferings readers themselves can expect to experience. But they also communicate a sense of defiance. Spacks compares the melancholy of these novels to the writing of Samuel Beckett, arguing that while the sense of depression in Beckett’s work is relieved by his “exuberant linguistic power,” the melancholy of sentimental novels is mitigated by “an exuberance of defiance.”
All this I certainly saw in The Recess. Lee uses detail sparingly, so that I never got a vivid sense of what each character looked like or thought about; the characters seemed clichéd to me. She also tells story after story of suffering; the two main characters absolutely cannot catch a break. Nothing goes right — every time something good happens to them, it gets taken away or something else goes wrong.
I did not find myself filling in the details of the characters’ emotional experience, as Spacks says the text was inviting me to do; rather, I resisted the emotional descriptions and found them overwrought and silly. But given the popularity of The Recess in the eighteenth century, people then would not have agreed with me. The introduction to my edition describes reports of readers who found the novel genuinely moving, and tells about a novel by Elizabeth Tomlins in which a character reads The Recess, and has this to say about the experience:
From the moment I first opened it, till the last sorrowful scene which closes the overwhelming narration of miseries, I quitted not the book. As I read, I felt all the pains of suspense at my heart, and I know not a term which can convey to you an idea how infinitely I felt myself interested through the whole: I was frequently affected even beyond the power of weeping, and scarcely could prevail on my aunt, with all my entreaties, to let me read the last volume; but persuading her that I should, perhaps, be less affected when alone, I had all the luxury of weeping over it myself.
I have a hard time imagining weeping over The Recess, and yes, it is a fictional character doing the weeping here, but this response to the novel isn’t meant ironically or satirically; it seems possible real people shed some tears over it too.
The endless tales of sorrow did create an atmosphere of melancholy and darkness, and there was a sense of resiliency and defiance at the same time; so many horrible things happened to the characters — attacks, attempted rapes, imprisonment, enslavement, kidnappings, poisonings and on and on — but they kept up their energy and spirit and their persistence in writing their story. The novel is a rehearsal of a range of horrible things that can happen to a person, but there’s something reassuring in seeing the characters fight their way through each episode. I can see how an eighteenth-century reader might take a perverse kind of pleasure in this aspect of the novel.
I’m not prepared to say The Recess is an enjoyable read, but as I think about it more, those eighteenth-century readers who liked it seem a little less strange to me.