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Penelope Aubin (1679?-1731?), novelist and translator
Introduction and biography
Penelope Aubin’s precise origins and date of birth are not known, although she is likely to have been born in London around 1679. She has been guessed to be both Catholic and Huguenot but her ODNB biographer, Joel H. Baer, judges ‘from her later connections [that] the family were impoverished Huguenots’. She ‘appears to have married the French merchant Abraham Aubin in 1698, giving birth to a son, Abraham Harcy, in June 1699 and a daughter, Penelope, in March 1701’, and she managed her family’s business affairs while her husband travelled abroad.
Aubin’s earliest surviving works are three poems, all on political subjects: The Stuarts: A Pindarique Ode (1707), The Extasy: A Pindarique Ode to Her Majesty the Queen (1708), and ‘The Welcome: A Poem to His Grace the Duke of Marlbourough’ (1708). These works are now forgotten, but we should remember that, as Janet Todd has pointed out:
women are far more present in what is usually regarded as men’s history than is commonly accepted. After all, the bulk of published women’s writing immediately before the entry of the professional female writer in the Restoration was in political and religious pamphleteering. Women continued to be political animals in the Restoration and the eighteenth century and they are as likely to comment on the public issues of the day in 1690 and 1790 as male authors.Todd 1989: 8
Aubin began her successful career as a novelist some years later, in 1721, when she published two works in the same year: The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and The Life of Madam de Beaumont. Five further novels followed swiftly afterwards: The Life and Amorous Adventures of Lucinda (1722), The Noble Slaves (1722), The Life of Charlotta Du Pont (1723), The Life and Adventures of Lady Lucy (1726), and The Life and Adventures of Young Count Albertus (1728).
Unlike her famous predecessor Eliza Haywood, Aubin was a strictly moralistic writer, and the attraction of her work seems to have been its presentation of impeccably virtuous and beautiful heroines caught up in a series of fantastic adventures, often in exotic far-away places, in which they successfully fend off all manner of predatory male tyrants and villains. Her work is clearly influenced by French romantic writers such as de Scudéry on the one hand, and by Defoe on the other; despite its overt moral purpose it contains salacious elements and it sold spectacularly well (see McBurney 1957: 252-3).
Over the 1720s Aubin also published a string of translations from the French (both moral works and fiction), and in 1730 – now short of money – had a play performed at the New Theatre in Haymarket (The Merry Masqueraders; or, The Humorous Cuckold, published 1732). In 1729 she also ‘enjoyed a profitable turn as an orator, addressing large assemblies on religious and moral topics in the York Buildings near Charing Cross’ (ODNB). She died probably in 1731.
Aubin’s novels were gathered together some years after her death in A Collection of Entertaining Histories and Novels, Designed to Promote the Cause of Virtue and Honour (London, 1739), while The Noble Slaves was reprinted several times in both England and America between 1777 and 1815. She subsequently fell from critical and popular view, ‘largely because of her flat characters, implausible and repetitive story-lines, and simplistic morality, but also because of Prévost’s scathing estimate of her career (1734)’ (ODNB).1
No entry was allotted her in the original DNB.
Her work was first critically assessed by McBurney 1957, who sought to relate her both to Defoe and Haywood and to Richardson and Fielding. She has received attention from a number of critics since (e.g. Prescott 1994, Baer 2000, and Mounsey 2003 – who detecting a pornographic relish in her work argues her moralistic reputation should be reconsidered), as part of the general academic project to recover and re-read female writers of this period.
Aubin’s language is highly conventional, unlike that of her immediate female predecessors Eliza Haywood and Delariviere Manley. It is tempting to see this linguistic conventionality as a reflection of her similarly conservative moral code and political beliefs. Her attempts at poetry are notable chiefly for their complex metre, while the writing of her novels is unadorned and clear, with very few examples of unusual vocabulary and/or style (few images, e.g.) and relatively scant use of adjectives and adverbs. This simplicity, or neutrality, of style was specifically remarked on as a virtue by the editors of her posthumous collected works, who discuss it in terms of her gender:
She was Mistress of a polite and unaffected Style, and aimed not at the unnatural Flights, and hyperbolical Flourishes, that catch the weaker and more glittering Fancies of some of her Sex, and give their performances too romantick an Air for Probability: and yet, at the same Time, it is lifted above the tiresome and heavy kind of narrative Prolixity, which affords no entertainment to the brilliant Imagination.Aubin 1739: Preface to vol. 1, unpaginated
See next page for Aubin and the OED.
ODNB: Baer, Joel H., ‘Aubin, Penelope (1679?-1731?)’, online edn, January 2008, available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40524 [accessed 14 August 2018]; subscription required. See also McBurney 1957, Prescott 1994, Baer 2000, and Mounsey 2003.
Last updated on 9 October 2019