Linda Colley’s latest, reviewed on LRB

I’m not sure how many people are tuning in, but I decided to put up this (very positive) review of Linda Colley’s Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh.  The full review, thankfully, is online, and the book looks to me like it will find a wide audience:

The book’s subject was an extraordinarily well-traveled, resourceful woman, born in Port Royal, and buried in Calcutta, with an amazing number of adventures in between.  The reviewer Hilary Mantel summarizes the book’s narrative very well, so I won’t rehearse it here.

What I will point out, though, are the interesting affinities between Elizabeth’s life and the fictions of writers like Defoe or Aubin.  Affinities, but not identities.  Unsurprisingly, at one point, bankrupt, trapped in London, and without other resources, she simply begins to write up her own life as a sentimental novel, though apparently not a very good one.  Here’s Mantel:

It was an era when many women were travelling and many women were writing, but it was women of little fortune, and needy widows, Colley tells us, who were willing to go into print. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish letters had been published only posthumously, in 1763. Six years later Elizabeth published anonymously, but this did not give her privacy much protection, as her friends raised a subscription to finance the publication. So they would know the details of her ordeal – or what she chose to tell. The idea was that she would appear as much like Richardson’s Pamela as possible. Innocence – not her native toughness, grit and resourcefulness – is her main weapon. The Elizabeth Marsh of the narrative introduces pious glosses, calls on Providence, faints and weeps. All the same, Colley says, The Female Captive is ‘strange, awkwardly written, and even shocking’. Copies were snapped up and vanished into private libraries. She was writing for a market.

Colley’s book raises a lot of interesting questions about recovering a life that already seems too fictional to be true.  It also participates in a trend I’ve noticed, where front-line historians like Colley and John Brewer and Simon Schama seem much more interested in storytelling than they do in the give-and-take of ordinary academic debate.  But it looks to be popular with armchair adventurers both in- and outside the academy.



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