Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism and the Law

The Angry Owner: Samuel Richardson, Modern Authorship and the Ancient Romance

Kathryn Temple, Georgetown University

  1. In the Preface to the 1717 edition of Heliodorus's romance, The Ethiopian, the anonymous translator lauds Heliodorus in terms we've come to associate with modern copyright and authorship. Heliodorus is, the translator says, "one of the Noblest Genius's that any Age has produced; being the first Enterprizer of a way of Writing" (qtd. in Doody 270).1 It is not terribly surprising that writing in 1717 the translator draws on the lexicon ("first," "enterprise," "genius") we associate with late eighteenth-century authorship. What surprises though is that he attaches this language to an author of the ancient Greek romance, confounding a chronology that has assumed great explanatory power in late twentieth-century studies of authorship.

  2. In his introduction to the recent collection, Authorship, Sean Burke suggests that "Hellenic culture saw the origins of poetry in the Muse to whom the poet was merely a messenger" (5). Thus Hellenic authorship offers a convenient basis for comparison between older and newer forms of authorship, a comparison that contrasts authorship based on transmission with authorship based on original production. Burke, after reviewing shifts from Classical to Medieval to Renaissance forms of authorship, summarizes the central plot of recent histories of authorship and argues that ". . . the crucial historical change in conceptions of authorship [occurred] with the romantic revolution and the eighteenth-century philosophical and aesthetic discourses upon which it drew" (xix). This version of the creation of modern authorship--one that focuses on the late eighteenth-century "birth" of modern proprietary authorship with all its associations of original, solitary production--especially when read outside the context of Burke's larger discussion flattens recent complex work that attempts to understand the difference between older and "modern" forms of authorship.2 But it does suggest the ways that recent work has tended to emphasize what is "new," to focus on change rather than continuity, on breaks with tradition rather than on tradition remade.

  3. The length of this paper precludes discussion of how the narrative of "newness" came to control our understanding of Enlightenment and Romantic authorship. But it's important to notice that our critical apparatus regarding copyright and authorship adopts the very language we have been studying: just as novelists like Fielding and Richardson claimed to be doing something new, something original, we have claimed first, that late eighteenth-century authorship (our form of authorship) is unprecedented and secondly that our particular understanding of it (its newness, its constructedness) is unprecedented. While neither discounting recent work on the construction of authorship, or reverting to an essentialized version of the author, I want to overturn, even if only temporarily, the current paradigm, pursuing modern authorship's reliance on its ancient precursors, rather than its break from them.

  4. To pursue this I draw on Heliodorus's ancient romance as a way of understanding Richardson's outrage against those he called the Irish book "pirates." I suggest here that Samuel Richardson, whose angry tracts denouncing Irish book piracy are so important to understanding late eighteenth-century authorship, obsessively deployed, "copied" even, the piracy motif from the ancient romance. He put it to use in his novels, but more importantly in the very tracts in which he denounced piracy. By emphasizing Richardson's copying, his piracy of the piracy motif, I foreground the opposition between his well-known claims of originality and his actual procedures. The gap between methodological claims and actual methods is quite striking in Richardson's works, both fictional and non-fictional. Such a gap suggests a loss of sorts, and I want to explore the nature of that loss and its connection to Richardson's anger.

  5. Although Margaret Doody's recent book, The True Story of the Novel, has returned the ancient Greek romances to contemporary discussions of the history of the novel, The Ethiopian is familiar to few readers today. But as little as one hundred years ago, the work was much better known, even popular. As Charles Whibley wrote in his 1895 reprint of Thomas Underdowne's 1587 translation of The Ethiopian, "Until to-day the popularity of Heliodorus has never been imperilled" (xiv). A series of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century editions further attest to its popularity (Doody 533). And it was widely imitated in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in works that range from The Princess de Clèves and Scudery's Clelie in France to Penelope Aubin's The Noble Slaves in England. Even Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote assumes a popular readership for romance: one can only parody what one knows (Doody 288-291). Much of the eighteenth-century parody of romance relied on the fact that the genre was distinguished by an almost ritualized series of oft reiterated concerns. Self-plagiarism was a well-worn narrative convention of parody. That eighteenth-century authors felt compelled to erase their dependence on both these conventions and on the romance's repetitive and "unoriginal" form, a form marked by its own internal copying, speaks to a telling anxiety about originality.

  6. The Ethiopian foregrounds the connection between piracy and cultural control, suggesting that economic motives are least important in its account of piracy. Instead, pirates attempt to acquire bodies, feminized commodities marked by exceptional virtue, signs deployed not so much economically, but in cultural conflict, appropriation, and hegemony. As Moses Hadas suggests in his 1957 translation of Heliodorus, the ancient romance "was developed by descendants of proud peoples on the periphery of the Greek world. . . . Even in the late novels the motive of cultural survival does persist, and not least in the Ethiopica" (viii-ix). The Ethiopian begins with the pirating of Charicleia, young, virtuous, a priestess, and, as we gradually discover, an estranged but loyal Ethiopian. Attacked not by one, not by two, but by three groups of pirates (all in the first few pages), Charicleia, like Richardson's heroine Harriett Byron in Sir Charles Grandison, represents an ideal cultural artifact placed under stress. Both women, Charicleia and Harriet, become texts of sorts, suggesting a metaphoric connection between woman and text, particularly between kidnapped woman and text. In the context of literary piracy, this is a particularly telling connection. As Françoise Meltzer argues in Hot Property, the pirated text itself is a feminized object, "that which is kidnapped and, Helen-like, forced into another's camp" (41).

  7. The textual metaphor is reinforced by the fact that Heliodorus's pirates are not ordinary pirates, but readers who try to interpret and then appropriate the text created by Charicleia's laurel-crowned and silently grieving form. In a context of narrative competition (characters in The Ethiopian constantly compete to possess each other's stories), the chief of the pirates who, of course, turns out to be displaced royalty, wants not simply to possess Charicleia, but to appropriate her story and integrate it with his own. Thus, he takes her, "not for the satisfaction of pleasure . . . but to propagate my seed" (21); he wishes to merge his culture with her culture.3

  8. Mark Rose points out that "All forms of property are socially constructed and, like copyright, bear in their lineaments the traces of the struggles in which they were fabricated" (8). Although this paper cannot accommodate a full discussion of Richardson's deployment of pirate rhetoric in the 1753 tracts on Irish book piracy or in his novels, the following should be read in the context of his copyright tracts, tracts that bear the traces of modern international copyright.4 It is in Richardson, so committed to producing something "new," that we find a fully worked out expression of the connections between piracy and cultural dominance.

  9. For our purposes, it is enough to say that Richardson reacted violently to the Irish misappropriation of six volumes of Sir Charles Grandison, producing two accusatory tracts that castigated the Irish for their "piracy." Meanwhile he encouraged his many correspondents to support his cause both among the literati and in political circles. In the tracts, Richardson manipulates images of piracy borrowed in part from the ancient romance, meanwhile claiming that "Never was work more the property of any man, than this is his" (2). Meltzer tells us that "the belief in originality and the possessiveness it entails engender . . . paranoia in the 'creators,' whose fear of being robbed masks a more basic anxiety that originality may be impossible and illusory" (6). In light of her remarks, we can better understand Richardson's heated assertions of authorship and ownership and his projection of a nexus of threats against authorship on to the Irish book "pirates."

  10. Charicleia's version of authorship suggests a way of understanding Richardson's anger and anxiety. For Charicleia, and Richardson's erasure of her, tell us quite a bit about what is lost if we accept Richardson's construction of individualized, original authorship. As we discover in the final pages of The Ethiopian, Charicleia functions as an authorial model, embodying an alternative form of authorship, one that embraces the ambiguous relationship between original production and cultural contributions. She manages to exemplify what is often seen as the Romantic version of authorship in that she demonstrates a "fully realized" merging of author and text. The closely bound relationship is played out materially: Charicleia wears a ribbon around her waist; on it is an embroidered version of her life story and the history of her birth. This mobius strip-like ribbon offers "her" story in that it records her particularized history, and yet, of course, she did not write the story nor place it on the ribbon. Charicleia's body is similarly vexed by contradictions; it is both original and a copy. White (with one black mark), but Ethiopian, she is a child who leads her father to ask, "how could we two, both Ethiopians, produce a white child?" (255). In her "whiteness," she is all new. Yet she simultaneously partakes of the past and is also then a copy. As is revealed in the final pages of the book, Charicleia was conceived through maternal impression. Her mother, while "consorting" with her father, "conceived a certain impression of the likeness of Andromeda from viewing her picture" (256). Charicleia thus manages to be "new" precisely through the appropriation and repetition of what is "old."

  11. The celebratory conclusion of the book results not from her successful elision of the conflict, but from the acceptance of its fundamental unresolvability.5 Such acceptance is what makes Charicleia seem so at one with the world, active, and yet, at peace. While Meltzer argues that women have no "home," and thus "cannot be inscribed within an economy of the originary," Charicleia is at home both while searching for her home and after reaching it. Wherever she may be, she is, as she says "native born," comfortable in both her Greek and Ethiopian identities.

  12. Comparing Charicleia's happy acceptance of conflict and ambiguity to the unhappy gap between Richardson's methodological claims and his actual practices allows us to investigate Richardson's anger with greater understanding. In insisting on his originality even during the very act of copying, Richardson suffers a severe loss. He claims an authorial identity only possible if he is to deny a past which he obviously relishes, and such claims confine him to a narrow understanding of self and other, of present and past.

  13. This loss is played out in part through gendered signs. In the Preface to the 1717 edition of The Ethiopian, the translator claims that "this Book may be styl'd the Mother Romance of the World" (qtd. in Doody 270), and thus hints at what the rejection of the ancient romance might signify. Chariclea operates in a largely feminine economy without ever abandoning the masculine economy of the father; through maternal impression she sidesteps the patrilineal system, yet still carries the black mark that identifies her as connected to her father. This sense of wholeness, of singularity embedded in community, historicity, and tradition, eludes Richardson. His solitary independence, heroic enough even if self-willed, offers him scant consolation for loss which cannot be recognized or mourned, but only marked by fear and anger.

    Notes

      

    1 This essay is indebted to Margaret Anne Doody's provocative work on the ancient romance and the history of the novel, The True Story of the Novel. back  

    2 For an excellent collection drawn from the conference that perhaps most defines this work, see Woodmansee and Jaszi. back  

    3 Quotations and plot summaries are taken from the Moses Hadas translation. back  

    4 For a detailed discussion of the piracy tracts and Sir Charles Grandison, see my forthcoming book, tentatively entitled "The Literary Scandal: Author, Law, and Nation in Eighteenth-Century Britain." back  

    5 For a more complex and interesting reading of the novel's ending than the length of this paper allows, see Doody, 89-105. back  

    Works Cited

    Burke, Sean. Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1995.

     

    Doody, Margaret. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1996.

     

    Hadas, Moses. Introduction. An Ethiopian Romance. By Heliodorus. Trans. Moses Hadas. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1957.

     

    Meltzer, Françoise. Hot Property: The Stakes and Claims of Literary Originality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

     

    Richardson, Samuel. The Case of Samuel Richardson, of London, A Printer: with Regard to the Invasion of His Property. 1753.

     

    Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1993.

     

    Whibley, Charles. Introduction. An Aethiopian History Written in Greek by Heliodorus Englished by Thomas Underdowne. Ed. W. E. Henley. New York: AMS Press, 1967.

     

    Woodmansee, Martha and Peter Jaszi, eds. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1994.

Published @ RC

March 1999

Country