All entries for October 2011

October 31, 2011

Female Passion: Mary Wollstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'

Mary Wollstonecraft’s complicated position on female passion is often also reflected in the novels we have been reading.

She thinks that not only the eye sees her virtuous efforts from whom all her comfort now must flow, and whose approbation is life; but her imagination, a little abstracted and exalted by grief, dwells on the fond hope that the eyes which her trembling hand closed, may still see how she subdues every wayward passion to fulfil the double duty of being the father as well as the mother of her children. Raised to heroism by misfortunes, she represses the first faint dawning of a natural inclination, before it ripens into love, and in the bloom of life forgets her sex – forgets the pleasure of awakening passion, which might again have been inspired and returned. (Rights of Woman, p.164)

In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft imagines an ideal widow, proudly turning her back on marital happiness and sexual pleasure in order to devote herself to her childrens' welfare. It is one of many passages that have troubled feminist scholars. Cora Kaplan, for example, has argued that the Rights of Woman ‘expresses a violent antagonism to the sexual’ and ‘exaggerates the importance of the sensual in the everyday life of women’, betraying ‘the most profound anxiety about the rupturing force of female sexuality'.[1] Scholars like Kaplan are often disappointed in the Rights of Woman, and consider this rejection of female passion to be the greatest failure in Wollstonecraft’s “feminism”.

Mary Poovey, however, understands the Rights of Woman (and the Rights of Man) as ‘the endless referral of sexual gratification […] to escape altogether sexuality’s cruel logic’.[2] She suggests that in discarding female desire, Wollstonecraft rejects the aesthetic paradigm developed by Edmund Burke which ‘takes the female boy as the paragon of beauty and the sexual “fit” between (heterosexual) bodies as the incarnation of providential proportion’.[3] Poovey clearly understands the significance of this paradigm as heterosexual, and ultimately regards the absence of female passion in the Rights of Woman as a rejection of the sexual. In my own research, I have argued that the Rights of Woman rejects the phallus, not female sexuality—leaving room for a third option: the lesbian.

To what extent, if at all, is this evident in the novels we have read thus far?

[1]Cora Kaplan, Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London; Verso, 1986), p. 41

[2] Mary Poovey, ‘Aesthetics and Political Economy in the Eighteenth Century: the Place of Gender in the Social Constitution of Knowledge’, Aesthetics and Ideology, ed. by George Levine (New Brunswick; Rutgers University Press, c.1994), p.97

[3] Poovey, p.97

October 24, 2011

Hester Chapone

Writing about web page

While reading Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, we will begin to look in more detail at the conduct literature surrounding Smith's female readers. Hester Chapone [neé Mulso] (1727-1801) is one such writer who informed Smith's novels. Although aware of the fact that women could not aspire to more than a domestic role, she nevertheless believed that women could improve this situation through education. She championed female friendship and companionate marriage, and did not exclude passion and desire. Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773), Chapone's most celebrated work, responded directly to the flurry of conduct manuals written by men that flooded the public sphere during this period. As Mary Wollstonecraft would famously argue five years later in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Chapone's Letters refuted the notion that women should keep their learning a profound secret, and instead insisted that women should endeavour to improve their education. As described in the Dictionary of National Biography, her epistolary instruction 'allows her to exclude and nullify male nay-saying [...] neutralizing aspects of familiar male advice that demean women's role in marriage [and] voicing her direct criticisms of Jonathan Swift and John Gregory by the device of unmediated conversation between women.'1 

Extract from Chapone's Letters, 'On Politeness and Accomplishments':

'With regard to accomplishments, the chief of these is a competent share of reading, well-chosen and properly regulated; and of this I shall speak more largely thereafter. Dancing and the knowledge of the French tongue are now so universal that they cannot be dispensed with in the education of a gentlewoman; and indeed they are both so useful as well as ornamental [...] I believe that there are more agreeable books of female literature in French that in any other language [...] To write in a free and legible hand, and to understand common arithmetic, are indispensable requisites. [...] As to music and drawing, I would only wish you to follow as Genius leads: you have some turn for the first, and I should be sorry to see you neglect a talent, which will at least afford you an innocent amusement, though it should not enable you to give much pleasure to your friends; I think the use of both of these arts is more for yourself that for others: it is but seldom that a private person has leisure or application enough to gain any high degree of excellence in them [...] The principal study, I recommend is history. I know of nothing more proper to entertain and improve at the same time, or that is so likely to form and strengthen your judgement, and, by giving you a liberal and comprehensive view of human nature, in some measure to supply the defect of that experience, which is usually attained too late to be of much service to us.'2



2 Hester Chapone, 'On Politeness and Accomplishments', Letters on the Improvement on the Improvement of the Mind, from Appendix B: Women Marriage, Work, Emmeline, ed. by Lorraine Fletcher (Canada; Ont.: Broadview Lit Texts, 2003), pp.489-90


October 17, 2011

Defiant Women: The Growth of Feminism in Fanny Burney's Novels

Writing about web page

Author(s): Rose Marie Cutting

Source: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 17, No. 3

Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Summer, 1977), pp. 519-530

"A study of all four of her heroines reveals that Fanny Burney began with a neoclassical reverence for social norms but ended with a philosophy of self-reliance." Rose Marie Cutting suggests that Burney's novels are rather more radical than they first appear. While seeming to promote eighteenth century "norms", her heroines are also often independent, intelligent, rational and even rebellious.

Why might Burney have retained some conservative overtones? How could she use them to her advantage?

October 10, 2011

Anna Letitia Barbauld 'An Enquiry into those Kinds of Distress which Excite agreeable Sensations'

Writing about web page

As William McCarthy writes: 'The subject of [Anna Letitia Barbauld's] essay-- the fact that people enjoy fictional representations of pain and suffering-- is as old as Aristotle's Poetics. It was made newly current in the mid-eighteenth century by the development of what G.J Barker-Benfield has called "the culture of sensibility", a taste for intense emotional response to experience and for theorizing emotional response to quasi-scientific terms'.1

Even at the height of its popularity, the sentimental novel evidently made some readers uneasy. ALB criticised 'sentimentalism's tendency to indulge readers' feelings of moral correctness while doing little to challenge the conditions under which its pitiable characters live.'2 She warns of the dangers of dulling readers' concerns about 'real-world suffering through the experience of repeatedly having "sensibility... strongly called forth [in writings picturing distress] without any possibility of exerting itself in virtuous action... Nothing is more dangerous... at length the mind grows absolutely callous"'.3


1 William McCarthy, Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry and Prose (Ont; Canada: Broadview, 2002), p.195

2 Introduction to the Man of Feeling, ed. by Maureen Harkin. Google books. p.21

3 Harkin, p.21f

October 03, 2011

Sensibility and Henry MacKenzie's 'Man of Feeling'

Man of FeelingHenry MacKenzie (1745-1831) was a Scottish novelist and journalist, best known for his novel The Man of Feeling (published anonymously in 1771). He believed that sensibility was essential to mental improvement in men, to the "discernment [...] comparison of objects, distinction of causes' and, moreover, beneficial to business, as it could "guide the speculation of the merchant, and [...] prompt the arguments of the lawyer".1 As G.J Barker-Benfield discusses, this "tension between the high evaluation of refinement in men and the wish to square it with manliness" preoccupied the eighteenth-century novel. As sensibility was linked to virtue and morality, it could also make them good husbands and fathers.2 As Henry Fielding wrote to Samuel Richardson of Clarissa (a novel written by Richardson) in 1748 "God forbid that the Man who reads this with dry Eyes should be alone with my Daughter when she hath no assistance within call."3 It could make them benevolent, compassionate, considerate and even pious.

Sir Walter Scott remarked of MacKenzie in his Lives of the Novelists (1823) that his works were of "moral truth", and that his principal object was to

reach and sustain a tense or moral pathos, by representing the effect of incidents, whether important or trifling, upon the human mind, and especially on those which were not only just, honourable and intelligent, but so framed as to be responsive to those finer feelings to which ordinary hearts are callous. This is the direct and professed object of MacKenzie's first work, which is in fact no narrative, but a series of successive incidents, each rendered interesting by the mode in which they operate on the feelings of Harley [the protagonist]. The attempt had been perilous in a meaner hand; for, sketched by a pencil less nicely discriminating, Harley, instead of being whom we love, respect, sympathise with, and admire, had become the mere Quixote of sentiment, an object of pity, perhaps, but of ridicule at the same time.4

In one chapter of The Man of Feeling Harley visits the asylum at Bedlam and speaks to a young female inmate, struck down by grief:

He found them in a quarter of the house set apart for the insane of the other sex, several of whom had gathered about the female visitors, and were examining, with rather more accuracy, than might have been expected, the particulars of their dress. Separate from the rest stood one, whose appearance had something of superior dignity. Her face, though pale and wasted, was less squalid than those of the others, and showed a dejection of that decent kind, which moves our pity unmixed with horror: upon her, therefore, the eyes of all were immediately turned. The keeper, who accompanied them, observed it: 'This, said he, is a young lady, who was born to ride in her coach and six. She was beloved, if the story I have heard is true, by a young gentleman, her equal in birth, though by no means her match in fortune: but love, they say, is blind, and so she fancied him as much as he did her. Her father, it seems, would not hear of their marriage, and threatened to turn her out of doors, if ever he saw him again. Upon this the young gentleman took a voyage to the West Indies, in hopes of bettering his fortune, and obtaining his mistress; but he was scarce landed, when he was seized with one of the fevers which are common in those islands, and died in a few days, lamented by every one that knew him. This news soon reached his mistress, who was at the same time pressed by her father to marry a rich miserly fellow who was old enough to be her grandfather. The death of her lover had no effect on her inhuman parent: he was only the more earnest for her marriage with the man he had provided for her; and what between her despair at the death of the one, and her aversion to the other, the young lady was reduced to the condition you see her in. But God would not prosper such cruelty; her father's affairs. Soon after went to wreck, and he died almost a beggar.' Though this story was told in very plain language, it had particularly attracted Harley's notice-; he had given it the tribute of tears. The unfortunate young lady had till now seemed entranced in thought, with her eyes fixed on a little garnet ring she wore on her finger: she turned them now upon Harley. 'My Billy is no more! said she, do you weep for my Billy? Blessings on your tears! I would weep too, but my brain is dry; and it burns, it burns, it burns!'—She drew nearer to Harley.— 'Be comforted, young lady, said he, your Billy is in heaven.' 'Is he, indeed? and shall we meet again? and shall that frightful man (pointing to the keeper) not be there? —Alas! I am grown naughty of late. I have almost forgotten to think of heaven: yet I pray sometimes; when I can, I pray; and sometimes I sing; when I am saddest, I sing:—You shall hear me, hush!' […] She would have withdrawn her hand; Harley held it to his lips. '—I dare not stay longer; my head throbs sadly: farewell!' She walked with a hurried step to a little apartment at some distance. Harley stood fixed in astonishment and pity! [...] —He put a couple of guineas into the man’s hand: 'Be kind to that unfortunate'—He burst into tears, and left them.5


1 Henry MacKenzie "Defense of the Literary Studies and Amusements in Men of Buisness", The Lounger, 30 December 1786.

2 G.J Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, (Chicago and London; University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp.91-2

3 As quoted by Barker-Benfield, p.141

4 Sir Walter Scott, "Henry MacKenzie", Lives of the Novelists (1823), Google Books.

5 Henry MacKenzie, Chapter XX, The Man of Feeling, Google Books.


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