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Eighteenth Century Fiction 18.3 (2006) 305-327



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Identifying Foreign Bodies:

New Philosophers and Hottentots in Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers

Bishop's University
My mother got a packet of brown snuff from London ... wrapped in two proof sheets of the quarto edition of Political Justice. I eagerly snatched up the paper, and notwithstanding the frequent fits of sneezing it occasioned, from the quantity of snuff contained in every fold, I greedily devoured its contents. I read and sneezed, and sneezed and read, till the germ of philosophy began to fructify my soul. From that moment I became a philosopher and need not inform you of the important consequences.
—Bridgetina Botherim1

The fear of contamination in Britain during the 1790s from foreign bodies—whether food, fashion, or politics—preoccupied many writers and public personages. The quotation by Elizabeth Hamilton's mock-heroine Bridgetina Botherim in Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) illustrates a pervasive fear shared by educationalists and authority figures that the most innocent packages might harbour foreign bodies—in this instance, and of paramount importance to writers—even when remaindered. Perceiving the nation under attack from foreign influences, the writer invariably creates or calls upon the reader's sense of being uniquely British to resist foreign invasion and assert his or her own national identity. Stirring up nationalistic fervour [End Page 305] to dissuade or encourage, as the case may be, the revolutionary ideas in the New Philosophy evoked a common response in the reader. Consider Edmund Burke's famous passage in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) when he shames his English readers as "unmanly" and un-British for sympathizing with the French revolutionary forces rather than the beleaguered French queen.2 Burke reiterates a common belief that "the French act from feeling, and the British from principle," since the latter are noted for their "innocence, honesty, originality, frankness and moral self reliance."3 An appropriate empathy with the threatened French queen reflects true breeding as an English gentleman. Thomas Paine evokes a similar nationalistic strain in Rights of Man, Part One, but in support of a diametrically opposed political agenda, when he calls upon his fellow Englishmen to assert and claim their God-given rights as Englishmen under foreign "English" monarchs.4 Mary Hays's Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women clearly expects nationality to figure in the reader's enlightened response to the female's predicament.5

Women writers, while seldom writing political polemic, more often employed fiction to exhort the reader to patriotic duty. Studies indicate that most participation by women writers occurred in fiction because of its traditional perception as a feminine genre, the female's limited reading capabilities, and her restricted access to other forms of political discourse.6 Female readers were deemed to be especially receptive to fiction because of their limited activities, experience, and education, although opinion was divided whether females were (according to the Loyalist position) innately intellectually inferior to men because "there is a different bent of understanding in the sexes"7 or (according to English Jacobins) "since there is no sex in the soul or mind"8 merely limited by the poor education they received. [End Page 306]

The influential evangelical writer Hannah More exhorts her fair readers to "come forward and contribute their full and fair proportion towards the saving of their country." She calls upon all women "to oppose ... the most tremendous confederacies against religion, and order and governments ... to come forward with a patriotism at once firm and feminine for the general good."9 These confederacies arose from revolutionary France, which in the 1790s posed the most immediate threat to the British body politic. Although fears of actual revolution in Britain had largely abated by 1795 after a series of repressive measures—"legislative acts banning local, regional, and national associations; strict rules against correspondence, political assemblies, and demonstrations; the imposition of tough new standards of blasphemy, treason, and sedition; the heavy taxes on reading material and the banning...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 305-327
Launched on MUSE
2006-07-19
Open Access
No
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