A Receipt for Writing A Novel!
“A Receipt for Writing a Novel” by Mary Alcock
• The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “receipt” as “An amount received” (n.1). Within this context, the meaning of Alcocks’ title “A Receipt for Writing A Novel” can be viewed as what is attained from writing a novel.
• In a less technical view and with further analysis it also seems like the meaning of the poem revolves around the “recipe”/typical structure to writing a novel.
• It’s all about techniques to keep your reader interested/ typical stylistic methods used when writing a novel.
In a sense, the art of writing becomes demeaned to overused, clichéd, cheap methods that authors use in order to invoke emotion- their goal (i.e. trying hard to break the readers hearts).
What does this say about writing?
• Its formulaic and there’s a particular method to be used in order to create intrigue for one’s writing. In a sense, it seems as if nothing is original and everyone is looking for essentially the same type of writing, so much that it can be laid out.
The poem is simultaneously working within multiple mediums/spaces:
• The author that is physically writing the poem, the situations that the author is describing while writing, the readers that the author refers to (and their emotional response), and the actual audience that is YOU the reader as you are reading the poem.
• This complicates the text while also bringing a sense of life into it→ you (the reader) are working/growing with the text as it is being developed by the writer and read about their process.
– Ex: “Now to rest the writers brain,
Any story that gives pain,
You now throw inno matter what,
However foreign to the plot,
So it but serves to swell the book,
You foist it in with desperate hook” (Stanza 6)
Would you a favrite novel make, / Try hard your readers heart to break (1-2)
– The purpose of a novel is to make a readers heart break (i.e. evoke emotion)
For who is pleasd, if not tormented? / (Novels for that were first invented.) (3-4)
– Novels are created to simultaneously please and torment people at the same time.
Gainst nature, reason, sense, combine
To carry on your bold design,
And those ingredients I shall mention,
Compounded with your own invention,
Im sure will answer my intention.
– Writing or the intention to write defies the basic laws of nature and logic while also requiring them to create literature (AKA Paradox).
“Ply her with terrors day or night, / And keep her always in a fright,” (Stanza 3)
– keep the girl in fear.
“Again, if eer she walks abroad, / Of course you bring some wicked lord, /
Who with three ruffians snaps his prey, / And to the castle speeds away;”
– If she steps out of line (travels) have an evil man kidnap her and lock her away.
– Teaching women to remind subservient by presenting violence at the first moment of free action. When defying her characterization, a man will always be there to put her back where she belongs. (Contributing to social opinions of women).
– The “of course” makes it seem like a woman can never truly be free without an evil man coming to disrupt her life.
BUT: the fact that he is classified as “wicked” comments on his actions and allows the heroines actions to be acceptable; this is why its ok that she escapes by herself.
“No matter by what fate theyre parted, / So that you keep them broken-hearted.” (Stanza 4).
– The “them” in this context could be the two lovers themselves that are remained brokenhearted and/or the readers that are left unhappy by the protagonists’ separation.
“You foist it in with desperate hook” (Stanza 6) – the writer includes a particular scene to gain interest. “Desperate” – having no choice, so resorts to cheap techniques to be popular with readers.
“These stores supply your writers pen, / And write them oer and oer again, / And readers likewise may be found / To circulate them round and round.” (Stanza 6)
– the text becomes popular.
You drop your pen; you can no more / And ere your reader can recover, / Theyre married and your historys over. (Stanza 7)
• And ere your reader can recover / Theyre married and your historys over
– the reader can finally be happy now because the heroes are married and essentially live ‘happily ever after’.
– This provides the reader with a sense of fulfillment, and the writer has done their part.
• “your historys over”
– Your story is over?
– Your contribution to the world with your book?
→ Meaning that with their novel, the author is contributing to a piece of history. Not only with the physical publication but with the socio-cultural influence on its readers and so
*readers and society.
Mary Alcock’s “A Receipt For Writing A Novel” discusses how a novel should be created similar to a recipe for baking a cake. She asks us, “Would you a fav’rite novel make / Try hard your reader’s heart break” (1-2). First, before we write a novel Alcock tells us hey do you want a novel that is going to cause your reader heartache, before going into the various feelings a novel can cause such as jealousy, “tormenting passions,” and horror. (12-14) Once we figure out what we want to write about, and how we want our readers to feel it’s on to creating the characters we want to be in our novel. She states, “Most authors make their lovers mad / Rack well your hero’s nerves and heart / And let your heroine take her part” (23-25). Alcock gives us examples of what authors create their characters to be like lovers who aren’t sane or the hero going to save a woman in distress. It’s characters we would find in romance novels. So, it’s not surprising when Alcock goes on to assert, “If she will break her bones- why let her / Again, if e’re she walks abroad / Of course you bring some wicked lord” (32-35). Alcock discusses that somehow authors create a character who runs into trouble, and needs to be saved. That’s where the hero comes in to save this woman.
Then, these lovers’ pleasure will be disrupted because of a problem fate will have them encounter, “So that you keep them broken-hearted” (48). But, if these lovers being torn apart and broken hearted wasn’t enough the heroine’s father will forbid her from being with her lover. This causes the lovers to disappear, and Alcock tells us you must have a “desperate hook” (64). This could a hook where one of the lovers is murdered. Once, that part of the recipe is complete Alcock tells us we have to end our novel now. This must be, “Some grand event to give surprise / Suppose your hero knows no mother” (74-75). Alcock informs us that we have to end our novels with a surprising plot twist before the volume has ended. But, wait there is more! She tells us our novels should end with, “The spell is broke – again they meet / Expiring at each other’s feet” (83-84). Lastly, the lovers have reunited again only to die together. But, wait they live to get married. This is how to write a novel Alcock ends the poem with.
Mary Alcock was born in 1742, and died in 1798. That being said, the period this poem had to be created in was in the 17th century. This is historically important to know because it makes sense that Alcock’s recipe for writing a novel was one that played out like a romance novel where the hero needs to save a heroine in distressed. This poem is, even, written in a time period before the Romantic Period. However, Alcock’s poem is different than other works because it’s a poem discussed in a recipe format. I thought of it as baking a cake because she discusses step one is to figure out what you want to write about before she goes into the other parts a novel needs, and ends the poem by telling us these lovers will never have a happily ever after end. Usually poets will write a poem that isn’t a guide for something, so this is what causes Alcock’s poem to stand out against all others.
While I read this poem, I couldn’t help but think how Alcock’s recipe for creating a novel is similar to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” where these two lovers have a forbidden love. In the end, both are reunited only to die together later on. One exam question for Alcock’s poem could be what is the significance of creating a novel as if it were a romance novel? Where the author creates a heroine with, “Her fine blue eyes were made to weep / Nor should she ever taste sleep” (26-27). Why does this heroine have to have blue eyes or never be able to sleep, while she awaits a prince to save her? We could, even, explore the form of the poem being created as if it were a recipe and determine if this was the most effective way to tell us how to write a novel. Alcock ends her poem by telling us, “And ere your reader can recover / They’re married – and your history’s over” (87-88). She explains how this novel has a plot twist where we thought the lovers died only to be reunited, and get married. This is how you write a novel Alcock tells us, and now you’re novel is finished.
Written in during the nineteenth century and published a year after her death, Mary Alcock’s poem, “A Receipt for Writing a Novel,” offers a satirical evaluation of the conventions employed by the popular literature produced during her time, the Romantic Era—think Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto,” Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” and (yes) even Shelley’s Frankenstein. These gothic novels had their star-crossed lovers, their plots of enchantments and woes, and most notably their sullied gothic heroines. Alcock makes her readers consider the ramifications of writing novels like these, with such prescriptive protagonists and plots, whereby heroines are often left shorthanded, tormented, and victimized. By taking to task the stock writing of late 18th and 19th century novelists, Alcock undercuts the “bold design” of novels that “you” – meaning us, her readers – tout as favorites (1; 6). Instead, rather, Alcock leaves her readers considering whether these novelistic conventions go “‘Gainst nature, reason, sense, combine[d]” because they are so predictable and/or problematic (5).
With rhyming precision and astute deduction, Alcock’s recipe for the (gothic) novel spans the typical structure of a story: exposition, rising action, climax, etc. She is able to outline for readers of her poem the typical conflict in a novel, particularly what we know to be the gothic novel: the blue-eyed heroine, the “wicked lord”, the “ruffians”, the “haunted tower” of the castle, a “cruel father”; the star-crossed lovers; possibly a spell (26, 34-37, 41,49, 83) and so forth. Mix in “copious” amounts of horror and terror, and this writer can “try hard for [their] reader’s heart to break” (14, 2). Alcock’s an acute awareness of the nature of the novels written during her time is clear; on display, then, is her jadedness towards such cliché writing—lackluster, unimaginative, and maybe even problematic…
The attention Alcock gives the tormented heroines is significant. Satirical in tone, she lays out the ingredients for this archetypal figure: fits of “hysteric[s]” and “fainting” (16, 18); “sighs and groans” (20); “frantic fever” (22); you name it. Because of this, Alcock parodies a writer who “need not measure” the woes of their tormented heroine, but merely, “let your heroine take her part / Her fine blue eyes were made to weep” (25-26). Alcock’s poem builds on the generic traditions of the popular literature of her time by reducing it to its prescriptive core—she captures it and then satirizes it. In turn, Alcock’s employs an unmistakable chiding tone for these kinds of writers, or writers seeking to enter into this literary tradition by using her recipe. All the torment, horror, and dismay befall the gothic heroine, and thus the terrorizing of the heroine became the convention of Romance Era novels.
So it goes, as the poem’s title directs, we the readers are left with the itemized bill for a novel, but really the incredibly reductive receipt for a gothic novel. I think the bigger question at hand revolves around her word “receipt”. What allows these novels to keep a reader’s “heart in motion”, “torment” it, and then “break” it (1-2, 11)? Furthermore, what does it say about writers who anchor their narrative around the torment of a heroine (e.g. “drag her by her flaxen hair” (50))? Are elements of magic and the horror then corollaries to the sensationalist writing of a weeping heroine? Also, what does it say about female writers—“the female pen”—when they, too, fall back on these key ingredients, exploiting the heroine? Is that a worse circumstance? These are the implicit questions which Alcock raises through her poem, and they speak volume to the ways contemporary readers can unpack Romance Era novels and their conventions. It seems that the Alcock’s final word is that these novels are very formulaic, as Minire mentioned.
In terms of theoretical/analytical questions about this text, I place Alcock’s poem conversation with Caroline Levine’s “The Affordances of Form,” as such grapple with the issue of writing and thematic affordances of texts. Easily synthesized are Alcock’s use of satire behind this exposition on gothic novel conventions; at the same time, the “affordances” Alcock pinpoints are explicitly clear, from a structure level to the level of reader affect. Lastly, when thinking about this poem and Alcock’s message, there is of course attention we should be giving central question of our seminar: what good is literature? We might ask ourselves, what is the good behind literature that is seemingly prescriptive? What does it “afford” a writer? For the writer, their creation is complete—“your history’s over”—but for readers there is much left to unpack.
Mary Alcock’s “A Receipt For Writing A Novel”
• Mary Alcock was born in 1742 and died in 1798 (aka 18th century).
• She writes during the Romantic Era in literature.
➢ Important b/c this Romantic Period ties into her poem being laid out to present a hero saving the heroine poem.
• The heroines within this period are often left “shorthanded, tormented, and victimized”.
• Using hero/heroine plot, Alcock allows a satirical evaluation of the conventions within the Romantic Era.
Alcock takes note of the action of writing and the methodic structure of the gothic novel, by detailing the “typical structure of a story: exposition, rising action, climax, etc.” and using it within the context of typical gothic literature tropes (i.e. the “wicked lord”, “ruffians”, “haunted tower” of the castle, “cruel father”, and the star-crossed lovers” (Alcock 26, 34-37, 41,49).
• Being aware of the clichés within popular literature of her time, Alcock outlines these reused ideas to comment on unimaginative writing within literature. Despite the overused ideas, readers still maintain interest, which creates a standard form of novelistic literature, one that will guarantee public interest- thus, a recipe (receipt) is created for writers those goals are to attain publicity.
Breaking down the logistics:
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “receipt” as “An amount received” (n.1). Within this context, the meaning of Alcock’s title “A Receipt for Writing A Novel” can be viewed as what is attained from writing a novel.
In a less technical view and with further analysis it also seems like the meaning of the poem revolves around the “recipe”/typical structure to writing a novel.
It makes writing seem formulaic but is done intentionally to stir up various emotions for the reader, (ex: “Try hard your reader’s heart break” (Line 2).
Helpful External Texts:
Looking at it for the narrative described within the poem, Alcock’s text can be compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet using the “star crossed lovers” angle; seeing the similarities of Shakespeare’s play to the recipe outlined by Alcock.
• (Ex: “The lovers meeting” and their moments of “leisure” that ultimately lead to an event that “tear em from each others arms” (Alcock 43, 46) and in Romeo and Juliet once they finally getting together, and Romeo accidentally kills Tybalt, forcing him to flee the city and Juliet).
Caroline Levine’s “The Affordances of Form” to discuss the issue of writing and thematic affordances of texts; examining Alcock’s use of satire behind the exposition on gothic novel conventions.
Finally, you can read the torment faced by the heroine and her decision to escape on her own in connection to Anne Boyer’s “Revolt of the Peasant Girls”. Just as the girls within Boyer’s poem faced injustice and chose to fight for themselves, the heroine within Alcock’s poem escapes her captors, demonstrating the ability to overcome victimization and take ones fate in their own hands.
Comments are closed.
Spam prevention powered by Akismet