A survey of the critical reception of works by Selina Davenport; Louise Watkins, May 1998.
Selina Davenport wrote eleven novels over a period of twenty-one years (see 'The works of Selina Davenport'). She was obviously quite a prolific author, in the early years producing a book a year. They were also quite substantial in length. Each volume was between 200 and 300 hundred pages, making the majority of her books over 750 pages long. Most also have some prose cited on the title page of the book, in one case verse by Milton.
Apart from Davenport's first novel, which was published by Henry Colburn, her work was published by A. K Newman & Co. printed by Minerva. Newman had been the partner of William Lane and took control of printing and publishing after Lane's retirement in 1804.
William Lane started Minerva, as the business was to become known, in 1763. His forté was the publication of novels in copious amounts and he became a very successful man through this. As a reporter commented after Lane's death in 1814, 'Lane made a large fortune by the immense quantity of trashy novels which he sent forth from his Minerva press' (Summers, 1968: 73).
Minerva cornered the market in producing cheap to buy, light reading in the forms of novels, tales, adventures and romances. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, much of the output was gothic in nature. Indeed, Coral Ann Howells, in her book Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction, suggests that between the years 1795 and 1810, approximately one third of Minerva output had Gothic titles (1978: 81).
Minerva novels were read ardently, quickly and probably uncritically. This is confirmed with the knowledge that new books were only lent from Lane's circulating library (set up in 1791 and very popular) for a period of 4 days. Minerva fiction was considered to be nothing more than titillating amusement, not worthy of the attention of the literary elite. Dorothy Blakey says that 'Minerva' became 'a convenient epithet of contempt' (Blakey, 1939: 78). This said, there is no denying the popularity of Minerva publications with all classes in the society of the day.
There are few revered authors who wrote for Lane or Newman and who are critically acclaimed today. The sort of authors they chose to publish were often young, female and naïve. Blakey suggests that this was a deliberate ploy, as often these women would be so flattered that a publisher had shown an interest that they would part with their work for small sums. Lane and Newman used paltry devices to stimulate interest in their products including exciting titles and chapter headings which promised more than the text delivered. Many Minerva authors were also anonymous, which tends to create mystery. The only good light thrown on Lane's publications was that he did insist on them being moralistic and for them to conclude appropriately. At least then he could not be accused of corrupting his reading audience.
The extent that Selina Davenport can be considered a standard Minerva author is addressed in my essay on her work.
It is difficult to ascertain how Selina Davenport's work was critically received as I have only been able to trace two reviews and they are both on the same novel, The Hypocrite, or the Modern Janus (1814). I wonder if the lack of information in this area may mean Davenport's work was not deemed to be worthy of print space in the periodicals. However, the two reviews I have would suggest otherwise. One states,
Though we do not recollect ever having met in any work of fiction with which we are acquainted, a character so completely villainous as the principle figure in this novel, yet the story is throughout uncommonly interesting and well managed. There are some exquisite touches of pathetic sensibility in the piece and several animated portraits which are extremely well drawn, admirably contrasted and rendered highly instructive. We have indeed a strong suspicion that some of the leading personages here delineated are sketched from real life. (New Monthly Magazine 2 : 350)
The two reviewers seem to agree that Davenport's second novel is good. Both point out her talent for creating a lifelike or natural character. They also commend her for balancing the novel and instructing the reader.
The only criticism comes from the reviewers in the New Universal Magazine (included in archival material). Firstly, they suggest that there are perhaps too many incidents but later go on to say that they are, nevertheless, all interesting. The second criticism is less a literary one and more due to subjective notions of proper conduct. Davenport is criticized for not punishing a character called Dudley for his improper marriage; instead she highlights the power of the couple's love in the novel.
Although there is little material as regards critical reviews of Davenport's work, the two we have available would suggest a writer with talent, especially considering the condemnation other authors and texts received at the hands of these periodicals!
Blakey, Dorothy. 1939. The Minerva Press, 1790-1820. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Howells, Coral Ann. 1978. Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. London: Athlone Press.
Summers, Montague. 1968. The Gothic Quest. London: Fortune Press.
New Monthly Magazine 2 (Nov. 1814)
New Universal Magazine 1 (Oct. 1814): 299-300).