A Review of the Contemporary Critical Reception of Regina Maria Roche by Emma Hodinott
Regina Maria Roche, popular novelist of the late eighteenth century and author of one of the period’s most popular works of fiction, The Children of the Abbey, was notoriously badly treated by her contemporary critics. Occasionally criticised in reviews of the time for writing characters and situations that embraced all the excesses of emotion associated with the Gothic Romance genre, Roche was otherwise ignored by them. Such a situation was not uncommon in this period when writers of novels were predominantly female. In a pre-feminist age, this was a criticism in itself and many female writers who did not enjoy the success of Regina Maria Roche chose to publish anonymously, in order that this further prejudice was removed from their already difficult situation.
In a move that demonstrated a keen understanding of the critical reception of novels in this period, Roche actually addressed her debut novel, The Vicar of Lansdowne, or Country Quarters to her reviewers. She implored them ‘to disregard this humble TALE. The amusement of a few solitary hours cannot be worthy of your high attention.’ Such self-effacing behaviour certainly gained Roche some attention, the lines being alluded to in all reviews of The Vicar of Lansdowne, and her following novel The Maid of the Hamlet attracting more critical attention than any of Roche's other novels that followed later.
The date of publication of Roche's third and most famous novel, The Children of the Abbey, has only recently been confirmed as 1796. The confusion as to this date, which was inaccurate even in her obituary, is hardly surprising when you consider that the only contemporary review of this best selling novel was written in January 1798, a year and a half after the novel was actually published. So great was the popularity of this novel that it remained in print for much of the nineteenth century. However the only recognition that the contemporary critics deemed it worthy of was two short sentences in the Critical Review. Praised for being a ‘very entertaining and well-written production’, this comment was immediately subverted by the assurance that the novel can ‘safely’ be ‘recommended to our female readers.’ Such a remark placed the novel immediately in the realms of the mass of mediocre, circulating library fiction, an association that as Dorothy Blakey points out in The Minerva Press 1790-1820, had become for critics of the time, a ‘convenient epithet of contempt’ (p1). As such, this bestseller was deprived of the notice that its success suggested it worthy of.
It was Roche's fourth and most Gothic novel, Clermont, published in 1798, that attracted the most unfavourable review however. Just like The Children of the Abbey, it was only deemed worthy of a single, brief mention, again in The Critical Review. Scathing of not only Roche's novel, written with what the critic considered ‘little art and great improbability’, this reviewer also attacks Ann Radcliffe's style of Romance novel, in a move that suggests that they had chosen this novel as a place from which to launch a full scale attack upon Gothic Romances in general. It would appear however that this critic had not read any other works by Regina Maria Roche, because he states that ‘murders (are) her forte’. Certainly, this novel does include such elements of a terror narrative, but Roche is very far from being an out and out writer of pure Gothic fantasies, as this critic would suggest. Coupled with the many spelling inaccuracies included in this review, it would seem surprising that it could have had any influence at all. It did however, with all Roche’s subsequent novels being even less noticed by reviewers than her first four. Natalie Schroeder in her article 'The Anti-Feminist Reception of Regina Maria Roche’ suggests that this was because ‘the reviewer of Clermont branded her a Gothicist (and) subsequent critics chose to ignore her’.
The works of Roche did not go wholly unnoticed by all involved in the literary scene at the time however, because two of her novels, The Children of the Abbey and Clermont were immortalised forever by Jane Austen in Emma (1816) and Northanger Abbey (1818). Although used to some extent as a criticism of the characters who had read such novels, Austen supports the situation of women writers of popular fiction and proclaims in Northanger Abbey ‘Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?’ (p34). Indeed, as Dorothy Blakey quotes in The Minerva Press 1790-1820, Roche’s The Children of the Abbey was recognised twenty years later by W.H. Ireland, writing under the pseudonym Anser Pendragon in Scribbleomania, a satirical journal published in 1815, as being ‘a counterpoise to hundreds of novels which should never have met the light; wherefore this may justly be esteemed as one of Mr Lane's most fortunate hits’ (p59).
Austen Jane, 1990, Emma, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Austen, Jane, 1995, Northanger Abbey, London, Penguin
Blakey, Dorothy, 1939,The Minerva Press 1790-1820, Oxford, University of Oxford Press.
British Critic, 11, 1798, 77.
Critical Review, 24, 1798, 356.
Poovey, Mary, 1984, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, London, University of Chicago Press.
Roche, Regina Maria, 1789, 'Address' in The Vicar of Lansdowne, or Country Quarters, London, William Lane.
Schroeder, Natalie, 'The anti-feminist reception of Regina Maria Roche' in Essays in Literature, 9, 1, 1982.
Schroeder, Natalie, 'Regina Maria Roche, Popular Novelist, 1789-1834: The Rochean Canon', in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 73, 1979.
The Gentleman's Magazine, July 1845, 86