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Corvey 'Adopt an Author'

Anne Ker

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University


Summary of the Contemporary Critical Reception of Anne Ker by Laura Harrod

Adeline St Julian; or the Midnight Hour (1800) and Modern Faults; a novel Founded on Facts (1804) are reviewed by a number of popular prominent journals including the Critical Review. However, these articles feature in the catalogue sections of these journals which consisted of ‘shorter notices for the less important’ works, but many people would still have read these reviews. (Roper 1978: 20) All the reviews are unfavourable and criticise Ker for her lack of originality and incorrect use of grammar. Nevertheless, Ker justifies her writing in the preface to another of her novels and criticises the reviewers.

The Critical Review's [1] criticism of Adeline St Julian is the worst review. In this particular piece, her novel sparks an assault on all women writers by the reviewer. He condemns women readers for using phrases that they have acquired from novels and which they do not know how to apply properly and instead use to ‘amuse or astonish’. The review continues to argue that women who have been praised for their letter writing talents consider themselves fully qualified to write novels and with only a ‘small share of invention or even common sense they embark on the task of adding to the circulating library’. These authors manufacture a novel from former works and with ‘some trifling or absurd alterations or additions, [they] ... advertise the produce of their futile labour as a new novel or romance’. The review criticises Ker for her lack of originality in terms of both the tale and delineation of character and for not even having ‘common accuracy of language’. Ultimately this results in the reviewer advising Ker to abandon writing and damning ‘the Midnight Hour to ... congenial darkness’ and confining her first novel, the Heiress di Montalde ‘to oblivion’.

The Anti-Jacobin Review [2] is equally severe and also criticises Ker for her lack of novelty. The right wing journal not only criticises Ker's novel but also the Romantic and Gothic genre. It deems Adeline St Julian Romantic, ‘if improbability and absurdity constitute that species of writing’, and that the story is ‘made up from that sublime production’. They accuse Ker of stealing from other works, namely the Castle of Montval by Whaley, Cervantes and The Mountaineers. Moreover, they recommend Ker to the employment of Mr Astley, the ‘Amphi-theatrical Manager’ as a ‘manufacturer of ghosts, secret doors &c’. They are aware that she has not written to please the reviewers, but recommend that she consult grammarians including Dilworthy, Dyche and Fenning as otherwise her novels would become utterly unintelligible.

The Monthly Review [3] was ‘more entertaining, more popular, and more useful than its predecessors ... [which] helped to give it the wide readership that the earlier journals had largely ignored’ (Roper 1978: 20). Therefore, this review of Ker's novel would have been read by and influenced a large number of readers and unfortunately would have dissuaded a lot of people from buying and reading her novel. The journal accuses her of borrowing from other writers, but believes that she possesses fancy and imagination if sometimes verging on improbability. Again, she is criticised for her incorrect use of grammar. They find the novel amusing, especially the front piece featuring a ghost who they believe is more ‘flesh and blood than the persons to whom it is supposed to appear’.

Ker's writing does not seem to have improved even four years later, as the reviews of Modern Faults are just as critical. For example, the Literary Journal [4] criticises Modern Faults for being a ‘sorry tame story’ which is told in a ‘heavy dull manner’. Moreover, the reviewer believes that the novel was not written ‘to amuse but to sell’.

Samuel Badcock in the Critical Review [5] (who usually wrote for the Monthly) also disapproves of the novel, but admits that the tale is ‘not without its interest’. However, he is unsure whether the novel is a likeness or a caricature and if so he believes ‘the plate should have been destroyed’.

In the preface to Emmeline; or the Happy Discovery [6], entitled ‘To the Public’, Ker responds to the criticism of Adeline St Julian; or the Midnight Hour, her previous novel or ‘whatever appellation her reviewers please to give it’. This interestingly reveals how contemporary writers felt about the reviews written about their work and perhaps the general attitude towards these journals. However, this is only an example of the attitude of a writer who was constantly criticised in the reviews. She wishes to reply to the ‘hoard of enemies’, the reviewers, although she seems to realise that this is a futile process ‘when known that the pen is guided by the hand of a female’. Clearly, the journals often failed to praise the works of women and revealed the common disapproving attitude towards female writers. She feels that the criticism is unwarranted as she is not the only Romance writer and she could state ‘more than an hundred late productions, which are equally as absurd as [her] ... own’. She thanks those ‘malevolent Reviewers’ for giving her novels their attention. She explicitly acknowledges the Anti-Jacobin Review ‘whose principles, to a civilised nation, are a well known shame’. She contests that Adeline St Julian took four years to write and was given to a bookseller in August 1799 and therefore, could not, as they said, have copied other works. She believes that they are ‘racking their imagination[s] to find out a somebody that has wrote somehow or somewhere similar in some respect, to this wonderful, absurd, improbable, romantic something which [she] ... has written’. She states that she has not written to please the reviewers, but writes ‘in conformity to the pleasure of the times’. She says that it is to her patrons and to the public that she appeals and not to the ‘open-mouthed devouring critics’ who would have declared the novel a ‘wonder of the age’ if they had been bribed. She states that their reviews will never ‘check [her] ... absurd pen, so long as [she finds] ... the encouragement of the indulgent public’. Thus, although she was clearly perturbed by the reviews, she demonstrates that these reviews were unimportant whilst there was still a demand for her novels.

Therefore, both Ker's novels suffered from unfavourable reception from the contemporary critics despite their generic differences as Adeline St Julian is described as a Gothic romance whereas Modern Faults is a domestic, didactic tale. Both novels are criticised for the same faults as she was accused of borrowing, being grammatically inaccurate and writing for money. The reviews also reveal the unfavourable response female writers received from the male critics. Her response to these reviews shows how strongly she felt about writing or how desperately she needed to exonerate herself.

Roper, D, Reviewing before the Edinburgh: 1788-1802 Methuen and Co. Ltd, London, 1978

[1] Critical Review, new series, Vol. 29, (May 1800) p116.

[2] Anti-Jacobin Review, Vol. 7 (Oct 1800) p201-02.

[3] Monthly Review, new series, Vol. 33 (Sept 1800), p103

[4] Literary Journal, a review..., Vol. 3, (June 16 1804), p682.

[5] Critical Review, series 3, Vol. 3 (Sept 1804) p116.

[6] Emmeline; or the Happy Discovery, London, 1801.

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