"Seven Splendid Sinners: Victorian Popular Biography," Dime Novel Round Up 80 (August 2011), 131-134. If your tastes run to roués and reprobates, Victorian popular biographies are one of the great bargains of the antiquarian book trade. Their acquisition requires none of the competitiveness or steep outlay that distinguishes serious collecting.  Seven Splendid Sinners (to cite a representative volume) has a lurid title made vivid by the gold-stamped serpents decorating the spine.  A collective biography of notorious females the subjects are, for the most part, minor historical figures. As for their crimes, which owed as much to greed as lubricity, they are recounted in a tone that is suggestively evasive. Hundreds were published, but in a century, the formats never varied. The first format was a collection of biographical essays thematically arranged.  Some Women, Loving or Luckless, for example, treats the unhappy liaison, one of those vast topics reduced here to 22 case studies. Then there are the monographs.  These birth-to-burial biographies are unsurpassed as an antidote to the scholarly virtues of thoroughness and accuracy.  Take The Jolly Duchess, which is a life of the Duchess of St. Albans. Generalizations about the Irish, a list of the most famous 18th century actors plus descriptions of their carriages fill the first dozen pages of what is one long episodic ramble. Or in the words of one critic, the subject’s “life was not worth writing; and her biographer’s chief merit consists in his frank recognition of the fact.”   Not that the prospect of so much irrelevance was any reason for ignoring the book.  On the contrary, as is evident from this same critic's endorsement:  “One turns [the] leaves in the same spirit and with the same tempered satisfaction with which one might search the files of an old society paper.  Though the gossip has lost its actuality, one can still spend an interesting evening over it.” Despite their Victorian origins, new titles were being issued as late as 1930. They must have formed a lucrative publishing niche with their emphasis on the licentious. At a time when being a lady implied chastity and self- restraint a significant number were about “women.” This genre of popular history first appeared in England, and was enjoyed by an amateur readership. Containing many unexplained references, the books assume a fairly high level of cultivation. The reader is expected to have a grasp of military and political history as well as some grounding in literature.  Nonetheless the tone and content are far from the production of the university presses.  A marked reliance on letters and diaries explains their readability. Extracts, strung together with explanatory précis, allowed the publisher to discreetly include large dollops of risqué material. As for the verification of places and dates, the sort of research that requires long days in provincial archives, there is rarely any indication that the author so much as left the reading room of the British Library.  Skeptical critics consulted the relevant entries in the Dictionary of National Biography. "The careful study of this article (without acknowledgement) seems to have constituted the limits of the writer's research," wrote one vigilant reviewer, Thomas Seccombe, who, by cruel coincidence, began his literary career as an assistant editor of the DNB.    It fell to Seccombe's lot to review quite a few of these works, and though he was not alone in deploring their publication, he was one of the few to discuss them as a literary genre. He even attempted to come up with a name, implying that they were the "left-handed queens" of biography. Certain linguistic conventions were observed.   A socially problematic woman is an “adventuress.”  Promiscuity is proof of an "elastic affection." A wife gives birth, ideally, to a "pledge of marital affection." Sometimes these expressions are rooted in history or mythology, which might cause the reader to pause for reflection—a clear instance of making the roundabout serve as a spotlight. Then there are the oxymora, like "venal gallantry" (that is, prostitution). In these books the “panoply of vice”  often results in "a regrettable malady." Getting clapped, however, is apparently less fatal than a broken heart.   For the credulous reader, abandonment and cuckoldom were once the leading causes of death. Interspersed with the euphemized horrors are the peremptory opinions. A hundred years ago, a writer could be comfortably judgmental about the morals of the underclass. Thus a fashionable woman of humble origins is described as “emerging from the darkness of a nomadic life—some time kitchen maid, some time street- hawker." When the facts are bleaker than this scenario of equivocal precariousness, the moralist overrides the historian: "About the means of her livelihood, the less said the better."   But it is the misbehavior of the wellborn that takes up most of our attention. For the amateur of women's history, these books are invaluable for their inclusion of obscure queens and poetesses.  Published during the first wave of feminism, they reflect the growing interest in women's achievements.  Their moral outlook, however, is less evolved. So we read about the aristocratic widow who had a "natural hatred of all restraint, moral and social" because she liked to flirt and give parties. France and Italy—the hot countries—were the most popular. From Fair Women at Fontainebleau to Lords & Ladies of the Italian Lakes, they supplied hundreds of stories for a genteelly prurient readership. Comparatively neglected were Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.  Torrid Teutons is not a book anyone bothered to write.  Georgian England was suited to those with temperate tastes.  The career of John Fyvie is instructive.  From 1905 to 1912, he turned out five books on the subject.  Some Famous Women of Wit and Beauty: a Georgian Galaxy was followed by Wits, Beaux, and Beauties of the Georgian Era, which, in turn, anticipated Noble Dames and Notable Men of the Georgian Era.  The polishing—and re-polishing—of anecdotes from that period, prompted one reviewer to observe, “We cannot help expressing a suspicion that gossip, however amiable about the topography and clubs and cliques of eighteenth-century London has been a little overdone.” Not surprisingly, writers who specialized in these purple-prose effusions occupied a dubious place in the world of letters. "Bookmakers" was one common designation. Seccombe compared the prolific output of one "compiler" to such freak show attractions as the "fasting man" and the "living skeleton."   The truth was more prosaic.  Most were editors, teachers, or erratically paid freelancers.  Professional men and retired soldiers also tried their hand. A few managed to maintain a serious reputation while turning out the annual volume of racy insinuations. Angelo Rappoport produced straight works of history and folklore, though he is remembered for Mad Majesties, or, Raving Rulers & Submissive Subjects. In novels, their fictional counterparts are portrayed as richer, and less marginal, while their books are, unfailingly, the symptom of a grave defect. Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now opens with Lady Carbury, who has just finished assembling Criminal Queens, a collection of essays, largely cribbed from the encyclopedia. All the hallmarks are there: the semi-alliterative title, plagiaristic research, and creative analysis. Lady Carbury’s literary motives are sales, not truth, so she trims the facts. “Marie Antoinette I have not acquitted,” she writes to a newspaper editor, “It would be uninteresting;—perhaps untrue.” In a novel about fraud and speculation, Trollope saw fit to make her the principal female lead. A half-century later, in The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim was gently satirizing the anguish of a woman whose husband writes about “dead and distinguished adulteries.”  Significantly, he began his career as an employee of the British Library.  The proximity of the book stacks was too great a temptation, and from there it was but a short step to a French pen name and a standing invitation to the best dinner parties.  These forays into the overwrought are especially suitable for the frugal bibliophile, with prices rarely exceeding 25 dollars.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Collecting Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971