Sophia Lee’s The Recess

I found Sophia Lee’s 1783 novel The Recess a bit of a slog, unfortunately. I had high hopes for it, as descriptions I’d read made it sound like fun, but it was too overstuffed with plot events and too lacking in character development, which, if I had to choose, is exactly the opposite of what I’d want.

The novel does do a number of interesting things, however. It’s an early example of historical fiction, first of all. It’s set during the reign of Elizabeth I, and its two main characters are (fictional) twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots. It has many historical characters who sometimes behave in ways true to the history books and who sometimes don’t, depending on Lee’s need to make her plot work. The edition I read carefully footnoted all the diversions Lee makes from historical accuracy, so the reader doesn’t have to worry about getting wrong information. Interestingly, though, the editor’s introduction to the novel describes how some of Lee’s readers got confused about fact and fiction in the novel and thought that Mary really did have twins. At any rate, Walter Scott often gets the credit for “inventing” the historical novel, and wrongly so. He had many predecessors.

The novel is also an example of Gothic fiction and of the novel of sensibility. It doesn’t have any supernatural elements (or seemingly supernatural elements) like you might find in Radcliffe or Walpole, but its atmosphere is dark and gloomy and it’s got frightening castles, scary authority figures, damsels in distress, kidnappings, prisons, murders, and disguises. It’s also full of the extreme emotion characteristic of sentimental novels of the time — it has plenty of sighs, tears, and fainting spells, and it has long passages of overwrought feeling, as the characters respond to the horrors they suffer through. It’s hard for a modern reader to understand that 18C people loved all this; to us it can seem silly and contrived, but, based on the popularity of novels like this one and on what people wrote about their reading experiences, readers took this extreme sentimentality seriously and sometimes responded with their own tears.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the structure. It’s an epistolary novel, although there aren’t actually a whole lot of letters. But still the whole novel is written by one of the characters to another person, usually in the form of what the editor calls “memoir-letters.” There are three characters who tell the story, each of the sisters and Lady Pembroke, a sympathetic mentor and caretaker to the twins. What is interesting about this form is that the sisters’ accounts contradict each other, specifically in their response to the other’s love interest. The sisters are both presented as sympathetic characters, which, in this type of novel at least, means that they are models of perfection or nearly so. There aren’t a whole lot of mixed or ambiguous characters in 18C novels of this type. And yet one of the sisters at least must be getting something wrong. The first sister, Matilda, tells her story for the first 100 pages or so, and we get one view of her lover firmly established in our minds, but then the other sister Ellinor begins to tell her story and offers a much more negative interpretation. Suddenly the ground shifts and the reader doesn’t know which sister to trust and what sense to make of their claims. It makes the reader deal with uncertainty in a way that’s unsettling, especially after having read such a long chunk of the novel already. Matilda then steps in and continues her story, this time casting doubt on the suitability of Ellinor’s love interest. We’re never told whose interpretation is the better one.

Alas, while I found all this intellectually interesting, it didn’t translate into enjoyment in reading the story. It was simply too action-packed. I don’t mind the implausibility of it — it’s highly implausible that so many, many horrible things could happen to two people — but the rapid pace wore me out. After a while, it was no surprise at all when some new disaster struck and the peace and security the sisters were now certain they had found got snatched away.

But this novel was very popular in its day and it inspired many imitators who created their own historical fictions. There’s no proof, but there is a critical consensus that Ann Radcliffe was influenced by The Recess and Jane Austen read it as well. It’s interesting to me the way that tastes and reading preferences change over time. Modern-day critics I’ve read seemed to enjoy this novel, but I wish I knew of more people who had read it so I could see if I’m unusual or if others would agree with me. I suspect, though, that I’m not really unusual and that other people might wonder what exactly people found so moving in this book. Isn’t it fascinating to speculate on why people from a long time ago liked what they liked?


Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Sophia Lee’s The Recess

  1. The book sounds like it would be good, especially with not being able to rely entirely on either sister’s account of things. Too bad it was too much. It is fun to speculate what people from long ago found so great about their “bestsellers.” I’m sure people in the future will be wondering the same things about the popular reading choices of today.


  2. Considering my difficulty to finish Radcliffe’s Mystery of Udolpho (I haven’t totally abandonned it yet), I will steer clear from that one. I like unreliable narrators though. As to why 18C people liked novels like this one, surely they didn’t have so much entertainment as we have now. We don’t need action-packed novels because TV delivers it instantly to us!


  3. It is fascinating to see how tastes change. In that respect, I’d love to know, Dorothy, why you think people in the eighteenth century got such a kick out of the epistolary novel. It seems to have completely disappeared in the modern age, and yet it was HUGE back then.


  4. JCR

    Interesting comments, really… I am now intrigued and might even pick it up despite your reaction… I am, I guess, interested on that whole bit of overstuffed plot and bland characters… have to learn what’s bad in order to avoid it, no? Cheers!


  5. really interesting point about how 18th century readers loved those types of histrionics. inversely, now it’s our high culture that is pared down and the lowbrow that is overwrought with drama.


  6. I think this sounds like fun, though I would be worried since you considered it a slog. Sometimes a novel can be a bit over the top. I wonder if epistolary novels were so popular since they were a reflection of what people did then–letter writing had to have been a huge occupation really. Of course letter writing was still going strong into the twentieth century and those types of novels fell out of favor (though I think they are really interesting). I might have to check this book out if it might have been an influence on Ann Radcliffe. Surely no one could possibly have fainted more than Emily did! 🙂


  7. verbivore

    I think it is fascinating how literary tastes change. We like understatement so much nowadays, I wonder when the pendulum will swing back toward the fainting and the swooning, if it ever does.


  8. Stefanie — I think you’re right, and I wonder what people will “not get” about us! Wouldn’t it be great to know?

    Smithereens — I do think action-packed movies and TV shows are roughly equivalent to the action-packed novels of the time. We’re not so different from those 18C readers, probably — we just read or view action-packed stories that are created in a different way, with different tropes and cliches.

    Litlove — I think so many wrote epistolary novels partly because writers were still working out conventions for the 3rd person narrator. I think it’s partly that the “tricks” and “rules” for more complicated structures hadn’t been developed yet. But as for readers, I think there’s something voyeuristic about reading letters — especially in a novel like Clarissa where she’s writing about sex (however indirectly). Letters are a way of exploring consciousness, which is something the novel was helping to encourage. And I suppose writers developed other ways of doing these things later on that made epistolary novels seem clunky and contrived.

    JCR — well, certainly don’t let me keep you from trying this book; I’d love to know what you thought of it!

    Snackywombat — well, novels were fairly lowbrow, at some were, at the time, or middlebrow at least. But still, you’re right that we’ve lost some tolerance for overwrought drama.

    Danielle — I wouldn’t want to do the study, but it would be interesting to know which character fainted more! It might be a real competition — Matilda and Ellinor faint a LOT. And don’t let me keep you from reading this book — it IS interesting in terms of influences.

    Verbivore — it’s interesting to consider that the pendulum could swing back — it probably will at some point, perhaps when we’ve had enough of our irony and cool, distanced attitudes.


  9. Pingback: My Own Two Cents » Blog Archive » A Bit O’ Random

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