Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"O Leave Novels": Jane Austen, Sir Charles Grandison, Sir Edward Denham, and Rob Mossgiel

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"O Leave Novels": Jane Austen, Sir Charles Grandison, Sir Edward Denham, and Rob Mossgiel

Article excerpt

IN 1784, WHEN JANE AUSTEN was just a little girl of eight growing up in her father's lively rectory at Steventon, Robert Burns, an ambitious young man of twenty-four, already enjoyed a local Ayrshire reputation as a poet. Born a generation apart, they were unlikely candidates for literary fame, living as they did, because of gender or class, on the margins of cultured society, but the English country parson's daughter and the Scottish tenant-farmer's son had little else in common except for their limited formal education, enthusiastic reading, comic wit, and unquenchable desire to write. They differed in almost every other respect: nationality, gender, class, politics, religion, temperament, and (conspicuously) sexual experience.

Indeed, 1784 was a landmark year in Burns's impressive career as a lover. After his father's death early that year, Burns and his younger brother Gilbert took a farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline, in order to support their family of eight. Despite the drudgery of farm labor, Burns found time to get a servant girl with child, for which he was denounced from the pulpit as a fornicator (not for the last time in his short life), (1) and he was about to do the same favor for Jean Armour, the "jewel" of the six "Mauchline Belles" whom he celebrates in "The Belles of Mauchline," a song he wrote that year:

   Miss Miller is fine, Miss Murkland's divine,
      Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw:
   There's beauty and fortune to get wi' Miss Morton,
      But Armour's the jewel for me o' them a'.--(42.5-8)

Jean Armour would bear Burns two more children before they finally married in 1788, and she was in labor with their eighth child when he died, exhausted and in debt, in 1796, the same year that twenty-year-old Jane Austen danced with Tom Lefroy and began writing "First Impressions."

In 1784, however, Burns was still hopeful, energetic, iconoclastic, and full of sexual swagger. In another song he wrote at this period but never published in his lifetime, "O Leave Novels," he impersonates a Lovelace-like seducer of those same Mauchline Belles while, surprisingly, invoking the hackneyed warnings of the eighteenth-century anti-novel moralists:

   O leave novels, ye Mauchline belles,
      Ye're safer at your spinning wheel;
   Such witching books, are baited hooks
      For rakish rooks like Rob Mossgiel.
   Your fine Tom Jones and Grandisons
      They make your youthful fancies reel;
   They heat your brains, and fire your veins,
      And then you're prey for Rob Mossgiel.

   Beware a tongue that's smoothly hung;
      A heart that warmly seems to feel;
   That feelin heart but acks a part,
      'Tis rakish art in Rob Mossgiel.
   The frank address, the soft caress,
      Are worse than poisoned darts of steel,
   The frank address, and politesse,
      Are all finesse in Rob Mossgiel. (43)

This poem reveals three surprising intersections between two writers as different as Burns and Austen. First, Burns repeats the stale libels about the dangers of novel reading that Austen spent her career mocking and refuting. Second, he classifies her favorite novel, Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, along with Fielding's more risque Tom Jones as a lubricious work likely to heat the brains and fire the veins of the Mauchline Belles. Finally, while in his published lyrics and, probably, in his life, Burns was a tender, ardent lover, here he poses as a cynical rake who "acts a part" in order to seduce young women, very like both Richardson's Lovelace and Austen's would-be Lovelace, Sir Edward Denham, in her final, unfinished novel, Sanditon.

Perhaps because of its un-Austen-like anti-novel sentiments, whether ironically intended or not, "O Leave Novels" has received little attention. David Daiches views this "uncharacteristic" poem as an expression of Burns's general frustration and discontent in 1784, blaming the Sassenachs for Burns's rakish posturing: "it is rather an absurd poem, in which the influences are English and 'literary' in the bad sense of that word" (78). …

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