I enjoy celebrating women’s voices on World Poetry Day, as they are so often forgotten. A few years ago I recorded Aemelia’ Lanyer’s fiery ‘Eve’s Apology’; this time, I’m going for something a bit more lighthearted. ‘A Receipt for a Novel’, by Mary Alcock satirises the tropes and conventions familiar to readers of her time in gothic novels. Many of them are still with us, and her wry humour can provide delight even today.
Alcock was a poet, essayist, and philanthropist. She died at just 57, and her neice, Joanna Hughes, collected her works after her death. Her work received little critical attention, although I hope you’ll agree that this poem reveals a lively and engaged wit.
I’ve provided both a recording and the text below:
A Receipt For Writing A Novel
by Mary Alcock
Would you a favrite novel make,
Try hard your readers heart to break
For who is pleasd, if not tormented?
(Novels for that were first invented.)
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.
Of love take first in due proportion
It serves to keep the heart in motion:
Of jealousy a powerful zest,
Of all tormenting passions best;
Of horror mix a copious share,
And duels you must never spare;
Hysteric fits at least a score,
Or if you find occasion, more;
But fainting fits you need not measure,
The fair ones have them at their pleasure;
Of sighs and groans take no account,
But throw them in to vast amount;
A frantic fever you may add,
Most authors make their lovers mad.
Rack well your heros nerves and heart,
and let your heroine take her part;
Her fine blue eyes were made to weep,
Nor should she ever taste of sleep;
Ply her with terrors day or night,
And keep her always in a fright,
But in a carriage when you get her,
Be sure you fairly overset her;
If she will break her boneswhy let her:
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;
There close confind in haunted tower,
You leave your captive in his power,
Till dead with horror and dismay,
She scales the walls and flies away.
Now you contrive the lovers meeting,
To set your readers heart a beating.
But ere theyve had a moments leisure,
Be sure to interrupt their pleasure;
Provide yourself with fresh alarms
To tear em from each others arms;
No matter by what fate theyre parted,
So that you keep them broken-hearted.
A cruel father some prepare
To drag her by her flaxen hair;
Some raise a storm, and some a ghost,
Take either, which may please you most.
But this with care you must observe,
That when youve wound up every nerve
With expectation, hope and fear,
Hero and heroine must disappear.
Now to rest the writers brain,
Any story that gives pain,
You now throw in no matter what,
However foreign to the plot,
So it but serves to swell the book,
You foist it in with desperate hook
A masquerade, a murderd peer,
His throat just cut from ear to ear
A rake turnd hermita fond maid
Run mad, by some false loon betrayd
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.
Now at your fables close devise
Some grand event to give surprise
Suppose your hero knows no mother
Suppose he proves the heroines brother
This at one stroke dissolves each tie,
Far as from east to west they fly;
At length when every woes expended,
And your last chapters nearly ended,
Clear the mistake, and introduce
Some tattling nurse to cut the noose,
The spell is brokeagain they meet
Expiring at each others feet;
Their friends lie breathless on the floor
You drop your pen; you can no more
And ere your reader can recover,
Theyre married and your historys over.