Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"I have contented my selfe of late with laughing when ever I heard it mention'd," or, Writers encounter their readers

In the course of describing Dickens's self-confidence as a performer in his Charles Dickens as a Reader (1872), Charles Kent passes along the following anecdote:
[T]he present writer recalls to recollection very clearly the fact of Dickens saying to him one day,--saying it with the most whimsical air by-the-bye, but very earnestly,--"Once, and but once only in my life, I was--frightened!" The occasion he referred to was simply this, as he immediately went on to explain, that somewhere about the middle of the serial publication of David Copperfield, happening to be out of writing-paper, he sallied forth one morning to get a fresh supply at the stationer's. He was living then in his favourite haunt, at Fort House, in Broadstairs. As he was about to enter the stationer's shop, with the intention of buying the needful writing-paper, for the purpose of returning home with it, and at once setting to work upon his next number, not one word of which was yet written, he stood aside for a moment at the threshold to allow a lady to pass in before him. He then went on to relate--with a vivid sense still upon him of mingled enjoyment and dismay in the mere recollection--how the next instant he had overheard this strange lady asking the person behind the counter for the new green number. When it was handed to her, "Oh, this," said she, "I have read. I want the next one." The next one she was thereupon told would be out by the end of the month. "Listening to this, unrecognised," he added, in conclusion, knowing the purpose for which I was there, and remembering that no one word of the number she was asking for was yet written, for the first and only time in my life, I felt--frightened!"
Is it just me, or do you hear shades of William Shatner in the punctuation of that last line?

It reminded me of one of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters, written from Venice to her daughter on October 10, 1753, wherein she tells of being praised at social gatherings for her writing:
I confess I have often been complemented (since I have been in Italy) on the Books I have given the Public. I us'd to deny it with some Warmth, but finding I persuaded no body, I have of late contented my selfe with laughing when ever I heard it mention'd, knowing the character of a learned Woman is far from being ridiculous in this Country, the greatest Familys being proud of having produce'd female Writers, and a Milanese Lady being now proffessor of Matheatics in the University of Bologna.
As she was wont to do ("This subject is apt to run away with me," she warns.) Montagu follows that thought until it developed into a broadside against the hidebound, sexist literary establishment she'd left behind in England:
It appears to me the strongest proofe of a clear understanding in Longinus (in every light acknowledg'd one of the greatest Men amongst the Ancients) when I find him so far superior to vulgar Prejudices as to chuse his two Examples of fine Writeing from a Jew (at that time the most despis'd people upon Earth) and a Woman. Our modern Wits would be so far from quoteing, they would scarce own they had read the Works of such contemptible Creatures, tho perhaps they would condescend to steal from them at the same time they declar'd they were below their notice.
Though I bow to few in my admiration for Dickens, I can't help but wistfully imagine how much richer, how much more convincing his work would have been had he found room in it for a heroine as intelligent and fiery as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

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