The Family, Marriage, and Radicalism in British Women's Novels of the 1790s

Jennifer Golightly

Public Affection and Private Affliction

165 pages
ISBN 1611483604

This book explores the way in which five radical women novelists of the 1790s -- Elizabeth Inchbald, Eliza Fenwick, Mary Hays, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft -- attempt to use the components of private life to work toward widespread social reform. These writers depict the conjugal family as the site for a potential reformation of the prejudices and flaws of the biological family. The biological family in the radical novels of women writers is fraught with problems: greed and selfishness pervert the relationships between siblings, and neglect and ignorance characterize the parenting the heroines receive. Additionally, these authors respond to representations of biological families as inherently restrictive for unmarried women, developing the notion of marriage to a certain type of man as a social duty. Marriage between two properly sensible people who have both cultivated their reason and understanding and who can live together as equals, sharing domestic responsibilities, is shown to be an ideal with the power to create social change. Positioning their depictions of marriage in opposition to earlier feminist depictions of female utopian societies, the authors studied here strive to depict relationships between men and women characterized by cooperation, individual autonomy, and equality.

What is most important about these depictions is their ultimate failure. Most of the radical women novelists find such marriages nearly impossible to conceptualize. Marriage, for these writers, was an institution that they perceived as inextricably related to (male) concerns about property and inescapably patriarchal under the marriage laws of late eighteenth-century British society. Unions between two worthy individuals outside the boundaries of marriage are shown in these novels to be equally problematic: sex inevitably is the basis for such unions, yet sex leaves women vulnerable to exploitation by men. Rather than the triumph, therefore, of male-associated values of power and property, these radical works end by suggesting an alternative community, one that will shelter the members of society most frequently exploited in male attempts to accumulate property and power: women, servants, and children.

About the author:

Jennifer Golightly is Instructor at University College, University of Denver.


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