Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Gossip Girl, 1709

"You may indeed preach to him to avoid vice, but then you must teach him to avoid mankind." -- Delarivier Manley

I finally got started reading The New Atalantis (of "Germanicus, naked from his bath..." fame), and it's quite a fun read for a book about allegorical figures. I doubt Jackie Collins will be so amusing three hundred years from now. The character of Justice has abandoned humanity in disgust for our bad behavior, but decides to pay a visit to help out a rare worthy Prince. Along the way, she meets her mother, Virtue, who's wandering around in rags, likewise despairing of humanity. "Innocence is banished by the first dawn of early knowledge. Sensual corruptions and hasty enjoyments affright me..." (p. 5)

They decide to travel together and, needing a guide, call upon Intelligence to travel with them and tell them everyone's stories. That's Intelligence in the CIA sense, more like information than discernment or reasoning. This Intelligence works for Fame (which they acknowledge as a much bigger motivator than Virtue), and has all the dish, which is mainly taken as accurate, although she herself isn't too concerned about whether it's true.

This gives Manley a pretext to tell scandalous stories about people she knew at the courts of Charles II (the "Merrie Monarch," known for his debauchery) and James II, with the names changed, which led to her arrest for libel and the book's eventual suppression.

Where Manley really shines is in playing both sides: relating lascivious anecdotes, full of sexy detail, and then condeming pornography and immorality; tsk-tsking about gossip while doing nothing but indulging in it. If you can do that with enough conviction, you might find yourself with a best-seller, no matter what the age. Because obviously then her readers can likewise indulge while still feeling morally superior. Masterful!

Given my taste, my favorite story is about poor Charlot, an orphan raised by a powerful man as a potential wife for his son. He's convinced of the need for absolutely strict morality, and educates her accordingly. She's forbidden "airy romances, plays, dangerous novels," and "he wisely and early forewarned her from what seemed natural to her, a desire of being applauded for her wit... Whatever carried her beyond the knowledge of her duty, carried her too far; all other embellishments of the mind were more dangerous than useful, and to be avoided as her ruin." (p. 30)

Then, of course, he falls for her himself, and realizes this moral education is going to get in the way of seducing her, so he starts introducing her to the works of Ovid. Ha!

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