Delarivier Manley Essay - Critical Essays

Manley, Delarivier


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.

Principal Works


The Secret History of Queen Zarah, and the Zarazians; Being a Looking-glass forIn the Kingdom of Albigion. 2 vols. 1705

*Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality, of Both Sexes. From the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediterranean. 2 vols. 1709

*Memoirs of Europe, Towards the Close of the Eighth Century. 2 vols. 1710

The Adventures of Rivella; or, the History of the Author of the Atalantis (fictional autobiography) 1714 (also published as Mrs Manley's History of her Own Life and Times, 1725)

The Novels of Mary Delariviere Manley. 2 vols,...

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Benjamin Boyce (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Introduction to Prefaces to Fiction, William Andres Clark Memorial Library, No. 32, 1952, pp. i-x.

[In the following excerpt, Boyce contends that Manley's call for realistic action, authentic dialogue, and true-to-life characterizationexpressed in the preface to Queen Zarah—represents an important development in eighteenth-century prose fiction.]

The development of the English novel is one of the triumphs of the eighteenth century. Criticism of prose fiction during that period, however, is less impressive, being neither strikingly original nor profound nor usually more than fragmentary. Because the early statements of theory were mostly very...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Malcolm J. Bosse (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Adventures of Rivella, by Mary de la Rivière Manley, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1972, p. 120.

[In the essay below, Bosse offers a concise appraisal of Manley's autobiographical novel The Adventures of Rivella, which he regards as a moving and realistic work.]

The Adventures of Rivella was hastily written by Mary Manley, according to the publisher Edmund Curll, to offset and possibly forestall the publication of a philippic directed against her by Charles Gildon, which he was apparently composing at Curll's instigation.1 In her fictionalized autobiography she avoids defending her performance as a political writer and...

(The entire section is 1258 words.)

Malcolm J. Bosse (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Introduction to Secret Memoirs from the New Atlantis, by Mary de la Rivière Manley, Garland Publishing, Inc., Vol. I and II, 1972, p. 238.

[In the essay reprinted below, Bosse emphasizes the unusual mixture of sensuality and high moral tone in the New Atalantis. Despite the novel's sensationalism, he argues, it is a skillful satire of early-eighteenth-century political figures.]

Mary Manley's skill and influence as a Tory propagandist during Queen Anne's reign has been tacitly recognized by the historian Trevelyan, who calls The New Atalantis, which first appeared in 1709, "the publication that did most harm to the Ministry that...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)

Jerry C. Beasley (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Fiction as Contemporary History," in Novels of the 1740s, University of Georgia Press, 1982, pp. 53-73.

[In the following excerpt, Beasley points to discrepancies between the literary principles Manley espouses in the preface to Queen Zarah—especially realistic characterizationand what he regards as the novel's scurrilous portraits of the Duchess of Marlborough and other leading Whigs of the day.]

As feigned records of scandal and foolishness in places high and low, the spy fictions of Marana, Montesquieu, Lyttelton, and Mme de Graffigny all belong to the same family of pseudohistories, which also includes a prominent cousin, the secret...

(The entire section is 1354 words.)

Fidelis Morgan (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Introduction to A Woman of No Character: An Autobiography of Mrs. Manley, Faber and Faber, 1986, pp. 17-23.

[In the essay below, Morgan provides an overview of Manley's autobiographical writings, judging them generally honest and forthright, even though they were all presented in fictional form. The critic also calls attention to Manley's popularity in her own lifetime and the influence of her work on prose writers of the later eighteenth century.]

I first came upon the autobiographical writings of Mrs Delarivier Manley in my research for The Female Wits. So much larger than life do they read that I was unsurprised when dependable reference works...

(The entire section is 2807 words.)

Janet Todd (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Life after Sex: Delarivier Manley," in The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction 1660-1800, Virago Press, 1989, pp. 84-98.

[In the following excerpt, Todd examines Manley's treatment of the conventional male linkage of women writers and whores, in her time period. Todd asserts that in The Adventures of Rivella the author subverts this identification by depicting a female writer who has learned the social and sexual power of words. She also surveys Manley's other fiction, remarking on her use of alternating narrative voices, her views on the function of literature, and her notions of how women must act in order to survive in a world that is both complex and...

(The entire section is 7101 words.)

Catherine Gallagher (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Political Crimes and Fictional Alibis: The Case of Delarivier Manley," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer, 1990, pp. 502-21.

[In the essay that follows, Gallagher analyzes the paradoxical relationship between politics, gender, and scandal fiction in Manley's novels. The critic proposes that while Manley, like her contemporaries, used allegory to protect herself from prosecution, she developed this technique further by shaping fictional circumstances into a narrative that could be read for its own enjoyment as well as its slanderous implications.]

When Delarivier1 Manley was arrested for seditious libel in 1709, according to her...

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Further Reading

Anderson, Paul Bunyan. "Delariviere Manley's Prose Fiction." Philological Quarterly 13, No. 2 (April 1934): 168-88.

In one of the earliest twentieth-century appraisals of Manley's fictional technique, Anderson looks closely at the New Atalantis and The Lady's Pacquet of Letters and hails their author as a pioneer of English prose fiction.

——."Mistress Delariviere Manley's Biography." Modern Philology XXXIII, No. 3 (February 1936): 261-78.

More than sixty years after its publication, this is still a highly regarded biographical essay on Manley's life and literary career....

(The entire section is 656 words.)