Frances Brooke Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Frances Brooke 1724-1789

(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Mary Singleton) English novelist, playwright, librettist, translator, and essayist.

Known during her lifetime as a translator, novelist, essayist, and playwright, Brooke is chiefly remembered as the author of the first Canadian novel, The History of Emily Montague (1769). In both her fiction and nonfiction works, Brooke addressed social issues, particularly women's right to education and choice in marriage partners. She is also credited with helping to shape the epistolary novel into a vehicle for social criticism.

Biographical Information

Brooke was born in 1724 to Reverend Thomas Moore and his wife, Mary (Knowles) Moore, in Claypole, Lincolnshire. After the death of her father in 1727 and her mother in 1737, she was raised by relatives. At about age twenty-four, she was drawn to the theatrical and literary life of London, where she supported herself through translations and journalism while writing novels and dramas. In 1756, she married a clergyman, John Brooke. They had a son in 1757. In that year her husband was sent to British North America as an army chaplain, first at Louisbourg and then at Quebec. In 1763, Brooke joined him. While there she wrote The History of Emily Montague. This novel, published a year after the Brookes returned to England in 1768, is believed to be the first extended work of fiction with a Canadian setting.

In 1773 Brooke and the actress Mary Ann Yates become joint managers of King's Theatre in the London theater district. Unable to abtain a patent to produce plays, they staged ballets and operas for the next four years. In 1777 she published The Excursion. This novel attracted attention for its insider view of the theater scene and its criticism of the renowned actor-manager David Garrick. Late in life, Brooke achieved theatrical success with her historical tragedy The Siege of Sinope (1781). Rosina, a comic opera, was a popular and critical success when it was finally performed in 1782, some ten years after it was written. Marian (1788), another copmic opera, also did well. A year after Brooke's death in 1789, The History of Charles Mandeville, a sequel to The History of Lady Julia Mandeville, was published.

Major Works

Brooke published thirty-seven issues of a periodical called The Old Maid (1755-56), writing most of the content herself. Modeled after the popular magazine The Spectator, The Old Maid featured a mixture of fictional dialogues and critical reviews in which Brooke addressed contemporary social topics, including marriage, female education, and the morals and manners of the theater. Brooke wrote several plays that she was unable to have produced before she began writing novels. Her first, The History of Lady Julia Mandeville (1863) established Brooke as an author and showed the influence of the French epistolary romance novels, some examples of which she had translated into English. The History of Lady Julia Mandeville was widely popular in England and translated into French, earning the praise of Voltaire, who called it the best English novel since Samuel Richardon's Clarissa (1747-48) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54). In Emily Montague, Brooke turned her familiarity with the Canadian landscape to advantage. Her description of Niagara Falls in winter, for example, was much admired. Emily Montague infused the epistolary novel with the growing vogue of travel literature: the narrative consists of letters between English immigrants living in Quebec and their correspondents in England, and addresses such issues as the most effective way to colonize Quebec, perceived racial differences between the English, the French Canadians, and the native North Americans, the Church of England and Catholicism, the nature of a happy marriage, and the differences between men and women. The book was a critical and popular success, running to at least six editions in Brooke's lifetime and receiving favorable reviews in both English and French journals. The Excursion received some good reviews, but was never as popular as the previous works It departs from the epistolary format to introduce an ironic, detached narrator, who relates the trials of the novel's heroine with sympathy tempered by worldly wisdom. The novel is a satirical examination of what happens to a bold young woman who dreams of becoming a writer in London. It is thought to contain autobiographical elements. The History of Charles Mandeville, published posthumously, provided a happy resolution to the tragedy of her first novel. It features a character from The History of Lady Julia Mandeville and ends with his marriage to the best friend of the earlier novel's deceased heroine. The fact that Brooke did not attempt to publish the novel during her life may indicates that she was not satisfied with it. It received little critical or popular notice.

Critical Reception

Neglected for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Brooke has been reclaimed by feminist critics seeking women's literary traditions, and by Canadian critics tracing the origins of their national literature. Although the accuracy of the Canadian content of Emily Montague is open to debate, critics have noted its status as a New World novel, particularly in its stress on the disjunction between English and British North American landscape and social conventions. Recent criticism informed by post-colonial theory tends to be overtly political, examining this novel's treatment of imperialism, racial issues, and the exploitation of natural resources. Feminist critics have stressed Brooke's use of the sentimental novel to explore the limited scope of women's personal and professional lives during her era.