Delarivier Manley Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Delarivier Manley c. 1670-1724

(Also Delariviere) English novelist, political journalist, and playwright.

Delarivier Manley was England's most popular—as well as most controversial—female novelist of the early eighteenth century. She was also that country's first female political journalist, and her partisan writings had a significant impact on public opinion. A lifelong and passionate Tory, Manley infused her fiction with political interests, but from her death until the late twentieth century, this aspect of her work was largely ignored. Her satirical attacks on leading figures of the Whig party, through the agency of her fiction as well as her political pamphlets, made her a reviled figure in some quarters of English society. Modern commentators have demonstrated that her acerbic portraits of prominent Whigs contain at least a modicum of truth, which made her fiction even more sensational and dangerous when it was first published. Manley was attacked for living openly with lovers and trespassing on the male writers' genre of satire. Throughout most of her adult life she defied the social norms that restricted women's personal freedom and set limits on their writing efforts. Manley was an accomplished author and a self-conscious writer. She reworked and subverted established literary conventions, exploiting the French style of amatory fiction and experimenting with narrative voice. Her novels, a blend of realism and romance, feature authentic details of upper-class life, naturalistic dialogue, and candid explorations of the bases of human desire. The New Atalantis (1709-10) represents an important contribution to the eighteenth-century development of allegory as a framing device for satirical fiction, and The Adventures of Rivella (1714) vividly depicts the challenges facing women writers of the time. Manley's use of imaginary settings and the epistolary form of fiction had an influence on such writers as Defoe, Swift, and Fielding. Dismissed as the author of erotic novels and disparaged by most critics until fairly recently, Manley and her literary reputation are presently the subjects of renewed interest and reappraisal.

Biographical Information

Much of what is known about Manley's life is derived from the stories of her fictional counterparts: Delia, in the New Atalantis, and Rivella, the protagonist of Manley's fictionalized autobiography. Her date of birth has not been determined, but it was likely some time between 1667 and 1672. Her father, Sir Roger Manley, was

a member of the minor gentry and an army officer; he was lieutenant-governor of the Island of Jersey at the time of her birth. The author of two military histories, he was a well-educated man and a staunch Royalist. His daughter's lifelong Tory sympathies and upper-class identification were family legacies. Manley anticipated becoming an attendant at court, but her opportunities were ruined, first by her father's death in 1687 and then by the Glorious Revolution of 1688—after which Stuart loyalists such as Manley lost all hope of preferment. She was left in the guardianship of her cousin, John Manley, with whom she contracted a bigamous marriage in 1690. Their son was born in 1691, and their relationship ended three years later; her son is not mentioned in any of her writings, and he may have been raised by his father. After the separation, Manley spent six months as a companion to Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, a former mistress of Charles II. When the duchess dismissed her, Manley retired to the west of England, and in 1696 returned to London, where she launched her literary career with two plays and her earliest fictional work, Letters Written by Mrs. Manley. She had a brief affair with Sir Thomas Skipworth, a wealthy man who underwrote the production of her first play, and from 1696 through 1702 she was the mistress of John Tilly, a lawyer and governor of the Fleet prison. Her first novel appeared in 1705. When the third one was published in 1709, it was immediately suppressed. Manley was held and questioned by the authorities, who demanded that she reveal the names of informants who were supplying her with information for her satirical portraits of Whig leaders. She denied that she had any sources and insisted that her work was entirely imaginative. After spending a week in jail, she was released, and the case against her was discharged four months later. From 1710—when the Tories gained control of the government—through 1714, Manley's literary efforts were focused on political pamphlets and journals. By 1711 she was writing regularly for the Examiner, a Tory periodical. She worked closely with its editor, Jonathan Swift, and he passed on the post to her when he resigned it. After the Tory ministry was voted out of office in 1714, there was little opportunity for Manley to continue her political writing. From 1709 until her death on July 11, 1724, Manley lived at the house of John Barber, a printer, alderman, and eventually Lord Mayor of London, reputedly as his mistress. Though her novels were highly successful, they were not a dependable source of revenue for her. She was scorned by her contemporaries and generations of literary commentators for relying on men to support her. Yet recent scholars have pointed out the unfairness of this charge, noting that eighteenth-century social conventions denied Manley—and other women with no money of their own—any ethical means to achieve financial independence.

Major Works

Manley's first attempt at fiction, published as Letters Written by Mrs. Manley, is a lively and naturalistic account of a group of travelers as they journey by stagecoach through southwest England. This was issued the same year her first two plays were produced in London. Nearly a decade later, Queen Zarah (1705), a so-called secret history modeled along the lines of earlier French and English romans à clef, appeared in print. This is generally regarded as Manley's first novel, although some late twentieth-century scholars have questioned whether this is indeed her work. Like the undisputed ones, it is presented as a translation rather than an original work—a device commonly used by authors of this period to forestall charges of libel. The preface to Queen Zarah proclaims that historical fiction should have plausible events, naturalistic characters, and a disinterested perspective on what it describes. By contrast, the novel itself features a thinly veiled portrait of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough—an eminent Whig who was one of Queen Anne's closest confidants. Trading in personal scandal and political invective, it lampoons the duchess, attacking her influence over the queen; the authorial voice shifts back and forth between sophistication and seemingly ingenuous satire. In 1709 the most well-known of Manley's novels was published: the two volumes known as the New Atalantis. Its narrative framework is an allegory, in which Astrea, goddess of Justice, visits Earth to learn how a prince should be educated. Her instructor is Intelligence, another allegorical figure, who guides Astrea through English society, alternating between the roles of scandal monger and social or moral commentator. An episodic novel, the New Atalantis has frequently been characterized as amatory fiction, yet its initial audience regarded it as political satire as well, for it highlights decades of rumors and innuendoes about political corruption and private depravity allegedly committed by influential Whigs. The most famous episodes in the first volume include a lush boudoir scene, in which a nobleman lures his wife into committing adultery with an alluring young man, and the tale of Charlot, an exemplar of betrayed innocence. The second volume contains the overtly autobiographical story of Delia, a victim of seduction and faithlessness who is tricked into a bigamous marriage. The two-volume Memoirs of Europe (1710), which many commentators regard as the third and fourth parts of the New Atalantis, portrays a group of eighth-century travelers in eastern Europe gossiping about political and sexual scandals. The Memoirs represents an unabashed tribute to two Tory leaders, Robert Haley and Lord Peterborough, and promulgates continuing tales of Whig degeneracy. Modern commentators judge that while some of Manley's anecdotes in this work are based on hearsay and others on fact, much of the narrative is fabricated. Manley's last novel, The Adventures of Rivella, is a fictional account of the author's life before and after her bigamous marriage. The narrator is Colonel Lovemore; his auditor is a young French nobleman, the Chevalier d'Aumont. Through Lovemore, Rivella justifies her career as a political writer, defends her amatory novels, and challenges the limitations that male-dominated society places on women. Manley's other fiction includes The Lady's Pacquet (1707-08), a collection of imaginative and authentic correspondence, and The Power of Love (1720), a reworking of The Palace of Pleasure, William Painter's sixteenth-century translation of Italian, French, and classical novellas.

Critical Reception

For more than two hundred years, Manley's literary reputation was circumscribed by commentators who conflated her personal life and her writings—and generally condemned both. Even when critics departed from this tradition and praised some attributes of her novels, they frequently emphasized their erotic content. Malcolm Bosse, for example, alluded to her scenic ability and credited her with a talent for satire, but he focused on her depictions of sensual love. Jerry Beasley allowed her some measure of importance in English letters, suggesting that her use of first-person narrators made readers familiar with this technique and thus helped pave the way for Fielding's novels. Yet most of Beasley's commentary on Manley is devoted to censure: he declared that her characters are stereotypes and her novels little more than scurrilous invective. In 1977 Dolores Palomo charged that previous critics' judgments of Manley's novels were biased by their view of her as a dissolute woman. Palomo further contended that much of Manley's supposedly erotic writing is an intentional parody of conventional romance style. Over the past twenty years, commentators have increasingly focused on Manley's literary technique and defended her mode of writing. Dale Spender, for example, asserted that her contributions to the development of English fiction are authentic and that her novels comprise a genuine protest against the oppression of women. Noting that recent scholarship has demonstrated the factual basis of much of her political satire, Fidelis Morgan proposed that Manley set out to prove that the desire to achieve advancement, money, or power is the principal motivation of sexual liaisons. Janet Spencer argued that while Manley's significance as a Tory propagandist has been overlooked since her death, the author herself is largely responsible for this. In Spencer's view, Manley's self-portrait in The Adventures of Rivella created an image of the erotic writer as sensuous woman that persisted through the centuries and affected the reputation of all women writers. By contrast, Janet Todd argued that Manley makes ironic use in Rivella of the male equation of woman writer and prostitute, revealing her understanding of the power of language to seduce and gratify. Todd further suggested that the ending of Rivella portrays a woman writer who has learned to control and contain desire through the manipulation of words. Similarly, Ros Ballaster contended that despite the narrator's attempt to restrict Rivella within the boundaries he considers appropriate and thus create the ideal woman, the concluding passages of Rivella demonstrate that it is she who conceives him. Ballaster also proposed that if The Adventures of Rivella and the story of Delia in the New Atalantis are juxtaposed, they illustrate one means of resisting the masculine concept of the "madonna/whore" dichotomy and exposing it as a fiction.