Morton, Karen. A Life Marketed as Fiction: An Analysis of the Works of Eliza Parsons

By Terranova, Joel T. | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Morton, Karen. A Life Marketed as Fiction: An Analysis of the Works of Eliza Parsons


Terranova, Joel T., Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Morton, Karen. A Life Marketed as Fiction: An Analysis of the Works of Eliza Parsons. Kansas City: Valancourt Books, 2011. 291 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-934555-22-4. $65.00.

With A Life Marketed as Fiction, Karen Morton has published a significant and valuable work on Eliza Parsons, a late eighteenth-century British novelist who has remained something of an obscure literary footnote since the 1817 publication of Jane Austen's Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey. Morton's text is the first book-length study of Parsons, whose two Gothic novels, The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and The Mysterious Warning (1796), are mentioned in Northanger Abbey by Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland in a list of "horrid" novels that they plan to read together. In this study, Morton argues for a reassessment of Parsons by correcting errors in previous scholarship, most notably those of Canadian critic Devendra Varma in The Gothic Flame and elsewere, and by bringing attention to women's writing in the late eighteenth century through this once popular, but now almost forgotten, literary figure. The result is a comprehensive examination of Eliza Parsons's life and work that deepens our understanding of the Gothic's early development as well as the experience of being a female novelist during the final years of the eighteenth century.

Morton divides her book into nine chapters, with supplemental sections that include a chronology of Parsons's biography; a list of subscribers to her first novel, The History of Miss Meredith (1790); and contemporary reviews of her novels and only play. In the introductory chapter, Morton explains that her work demonstrates the possibilities for new research about relatively unknown writers from the late eighteenth century. Morton claims that her work is a combination of traditional literary analysis and an examination of textual elements, such as dedications, prefaces, and private requests for financial aid, that tend to be overlooked by scholars. Additionally, she notes that this text "has involved the consultation of numerous archives, libraries, journals, and web-sites and has resulted in the uncovering of new facts about her life, work, and reception from contemporary documents to trace information back to its original sources" (11) to widen the available knowledge of Parsons as well as to correct errors in previous scholarship that have stood unchallenged for decades. Morton is incisive with her understanding of Parsons in this chapter, explaining that "[Parsons] experiments in genre: in literature and in life. She tries on new roles, depending on her current specific purpose; for example, to request money or to present herself as a playwright, but behind every new attempt lives the specific, unwavering goal of earning enough to feed, clothe, house, and educate her large family" (35). This construction and utilization of various personae, evident in her writing, allows Parsons to challenge boundaries, which Morton remarks is a characteristic that "many women of the period display" and links to "the subversiveness of Gothic" (35). This first chapter also contains brief explanations of other literary roles that Parsons tried, and then abandoned, such as editor and translator.

In the second chapter, Morton discusses Parsons's biography, which, as she dutifully notes, has "been, up until now, rather sketchy and much of what has been published about her is based on incorrect findings" (45). Although surprisingly brief at only fifteen pages, this chapter is significant as it is now the most detailed biographical narrative of Eliza Parsons's life. The endnotes for this chapter reveal a great deal of original research from numerous sources, nearly all of which have never been referred to in previous scholarship on Parsons; for example, Morton's research has made available important details about Parsons's life, such as her friendship with English poet and novelist Mary Robinson, and the fact that she gave advice on writing a novel to Frances Maria Sewell Lewis, mother of Matthew Lewis. …

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