Recent Scholarship on Harriet and Sophia Lee’s The Canterbury Tales: Influence on the Gothic and Beyond

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]chiefly to indulge the pleasure I always found in writing; yet, it must be owned, not without a latent, and (author-like) an increasing, hope that I might be fortunate enough to please the public [/pullquote]

In 1797, Harriet Lee (1757-1851) published four short stories, which marked the beginning of her and her sister Sophia Lee‘s (1750-1824) five-volume work, The Canterbury Tales (1797-1805). In her preface to an 1834 edition of the Tales, Harriet Lee claims that she wrote the first stories “chiefly to indulge the pleasure I always found in writing; yet, it must be owned, not without a latent, and (author-like) an increasing, hope that I might be fortunate enough to please the public” (Lee and Lee v). Following the success of her first four stories, the Lees collaborated to produce four subsequent volumes of tales between 1797 and 1805. Although Harriet Lee seemed to have achieved her goal “to please the public,” in her article “‘France is a Republic’: The Canterbury Tales and Harriet Lee’s Revolutionary Gothic” (2015), Imke Heuer claims that Harriet and Sophia Lee’s Canterbury Tales has not received the critical attention it deserves. She also contributes her own discussion of the ways that Harriet and Sophia Lee subvert authoritative, male-dominated historical accounts and modes of literary production, such as the Lees’ adapting the male-based canon to their own agenda as women writers. Furthermore, Heuer references existing critical work on the Lees’ Canterbury Tales, some of which I will discuss, but ultimately entreats readers to explore what she deems “the Lees’ most ambitious and innovative literary endeavour” (159).

Because of its title and structure as a series of stories narrated by multiple travelers, the Lees’ Canterbury Tales may appear to draw from Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) Middle English work, The Canterbury Tales. However, contradicting this comparison in her 1834 preface, Harriet Lee states that The Canterbury Tales was “first called such merely in badinage between the authors, as being a proverbial phrase for gossiping long stories; certainly with no thought of blending them with the recollection of our great English classic” (viii). Additionally, she opens the first volume with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606): “A woman’s story at a winter’s fire, / Authorised by her grandame” (iii). Surveying the Lees’ Canterbury Tales within this larger literary tradition, Heuer claims that the works of Harriet and Sophia Lee were integral to “the development of the Gothic novel and short fiction” (158-159). Thus, Heuer argues that by “simultaneously situating their project in a male-dominated tradition of seminal English writing and an even older female-dominated oral tradition, [Harriet and Sophia Lee] implicitly reclaim for themselves the authority of the female storyteller” (160). Although Sophia Lee’s historical-Gothic novel, The Recess, or A Tale of Other Times (1783-1785), has received much critical attention for its influence on this genre, Heuer contends that the impact of the sisters’ The Canterbury Tales on the Gothic short story merits additional examination. For, despite the initial popularity of the Tales, “the Lees shared the fate of many eighteenth-century women writers who were marginalised by subsequent ‘canonisation,’” which may explain the dearth of scholarship on the work (Heuer 158).

Portrait of Sophia Lee (1750-1824) (1797) Engraved by William Ridley (1764-1838), after Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Sophia Lee (1750-1824) (1797)
Engraved by William Ridley (1764-1838), after Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)
Wikimedia Commons

Heuer cites one of the few studies on the Lees’ Canterbury Tales: Allen W. Grove’s article “To Make a Long Story Short: Gothic Fragments and the Gender Politics of Incompleteness” (1997). Grove asserts that “The Old Woman’s Tale” from the Lees’ Tales is a work of Gothic short fiction that questions patriarchal literary traditions in his discussion of the Gothic fragment genre. He defines this genre as Gothic short stories that “begin disorientingly in the middle of an adventure and end abruptly (often mid-sentence) at a climatic moment” (2). Examples of this genre include Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld‘s (1743-1825) “Sir Bertrand: A Fragment” in Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose (1773) and Harriet Lee’s “The Old Woman’s Tale” in the Lees’ Tales. Grove repudiates Robert D. Mayo’s reductive classification of “the fragment genre on a whole as a mere study of form” and argues that the Gothic fragment is “the quintessential unit that creates both the poetics and politics of Gothic fiction” (2). Accordingly, Gothic women writers such as Sophia Lee

frequently demonstrated a keen awareness that the historical texts they were rewriting focused predominantly (if not exclusively) on the actions and adventures of men. The history text presents itself as a unified whole, an authoritative and complete story, yet it nevertheless is repressing and masking a wide range of voices that are not immediately heard in relation to public, national politics and policy-making. (Grove 6)

Grove’s study highlights the potential of Gothic fragments to challenge dominant modes of male discourse in the eighteenth century by providing evidence of this potential through his analysis of the Lees’ The Canterbury Tales, specifically Harriet Lee’s “The Old Woman’s Tale,” which includes the story “Lothaire: A Legend.” Grove suggests, “Lee goes to great lengths to undermine the authority of Lothaire’s history” by revealing the tale’s uncertain origins and disregarding the conclusion of the tale (7). Much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Lees’ Canterbury Tales is structured as a frame story. In the overarching main narrative, a traveler, a poet, a Frenchman, an old woman, and others share stories around a fire in an inn. The old woman shares “Lothaire: A Legend,” detailing a baron’s visit to an abbey, where he reads “The Prior’s Manuscript.” The manuscript contains the actual legend of Lothaire, a chivalrous king’s page, but, according to the Prior, the text had been retranslated numerous times over the years from the currently illegible and fragmentary original. Grove argues that through the multiple narrative layers and the possibly inaccurate manuscript Lee “presents a fragment of male ‘history’ grounded in unreliable historical records;” this technique allows her to subvert the authority of male-dominated literary traditions (9). This subversion continues when Lee refuses to fulfill the reader’s desire to see Lothaire’s story through to the end: the Baron reaches the climax of the chivalric romance, abruptly stops reading, and chooses to sleep rather than to finish the narrative that he deems predictable and excessive. Unlike Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Lees’ Tales include “no moral (ironic or serious), no lesson, no closure” (Grove 9). Thus, the Lees modify the patriarchal literary tradition to deny authoritative historical accounts that suppress alternative voices, such as those of women.

The scholarship of Heuer and Grove on the Lees’ Canterbury Tales provides avenues for further examination of the work through a variety of critical lenses. Readers may wish to consider the Lees’ Tales through a new historicist perspective, to explore the cultural context in which the work was written; a postmodernist perspective, to apply recent ideas about fragmentation and subjectivity to an eighteenth-century work; or a feminist perspective, to discover how the Lees’ identities as women writers influenced their work. Overall, the Lees’ Canterbury Tales certainly warrant deeper study. Readers may wish to review other scholarly work on the tales, including Julie Shaffer’s “The Two Emilys: When She Was Good, She Was Very, Very Good…Or Was She?” and her “Non-Canonical Women’s Novels of the Romantic Era: Romantic Ideologies and the Problematics of Gender and Genre,” as well as Fiona Price’s examination of the tales in Revolutions in Taste, 1773-1818: Women Writers and the Aesthetics of Romanticism. Further study of Harriet and Sophia Lee’s The Canterbury Tales could eventually broaden our understanding of eighteenth-century women writers’ relationships and responses to the male-dominated literary market and society in which they participated.

 

Works Cited

Grove, Allen W. “To Make a Long Story Short: Gothic Fragments and the Gender Politics of Incompleteness.” Studies in Short Fiction 34 (1997): 1-10. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.

Heuer, Imke. “‘France is a Republic’: The Canterbury Tales and Harriet Lee’s Revolutionary Gothic.” British Women and the Intellectual World in the Long Eighteenth Century. Ed. Teresa Barnard. Farnham: Ashgate, 2015. 157-171. Print.

Lee, Sophia and Harriet Lee. The Canterbury Tales. London: Bentley & Colburn, 1834. Google Books. Web. 2 Oct. 2015.

Price, Fiona. “Rustic Tastes: The Romantic Tale.” Revolutions in Taste, 1773-1818: Women Writers and the Aesthetics of Romanticism. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009Print. 

Shaffer, Julie. “Non-Canonical Women’s Novels of the Romantic Era: Romantic Ideologies and the Problematics of Gender and Genre.” Studies in the Novel 28.4 (1996): 469-492. JSTOR. Web. 17. Dec. 2015.   

—. “The Two Emilys: When She Was Good, She Was Very, Very Good…Or Was She?” Women’s Writing 14 (2007): 399-418. Humanities International Complete. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. 

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