The academic rediscovery of the literature of the 1790s has been going strong for more than two decades, and it is perhaps a little surprising that it has taken until 2012 for the publication of a full-length study of Elizabeth Hamilton, one of the more vigorously outspoken women writers of that era. Claire Grogan has already made a significant contribution to the new scholarly work on the 1790s with her Broadview editions of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, and her monograph on Hamilton both grows out of this previous work on the literature of the Revolutionary era and opens up new approaches to this material.
As Grogan suggests in her introduction, the relative critical neglect of Hamilton might in fact be a result of the range and political complexity of Hamilton's published work. A moderate who could write sympathetically about Mary Wollstonecraft at one moment while echoing Hannah More at another, Hamilton was not well-served by an earlier critical tendency to classify writers as clearly either Jacobin or anti-Jacobin in their political views. Attempts to slot her into one group or the other inevitably prove di/cult to sustain; indeed, as Grogan notes, she has previously placed Hamilton 'in different political camps in two separate essays' (4). Yet the political flexibility that makes Hamilton di/cult to pigeonhole also makes her a particularly useful and intriguing figure in the more recent reevaluations of the 1790s. In this book, Grogan joins those scholars who have begun to pay more detailed attention to the complex and shifting literary and political allegiances playing out across the two and a half decades from the beginning of the French Revolution to the end of the Napoleonic wars.
In doing so, she also provides intriguing insights into Romantic-era concepts of gender and genre. As Grogan notes, there has been a very strong tendency in recent criticism to read 'the articulation of sexual desire as the central and most radical' mode of Romantic-era feminism (77). In contrast, Hamilton makes clear that 'women claimed many rights in the 1790s', including the right to 'an economically independent or autonomous self' (78-79). She does so in part, according to Grogan, through her choices in genre and literary mode. As most of Hamilton's twentieth- and twenty-first-century [End Page 124] readers have acknowledged, sometimes with a degree of exasperation, Hamilton's fiction can be remarkably loose and baggy. Her first 'novel', Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796), opens with a lengthy critical essay on Hindu politics, history and culture and intervenes throughout in contemporary debates about British East Indian policy. By 1804, Hamilton had shifted attention from contemporary India to classical Rome with her Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, Wife of Germanicus, a work that attempts to combine a novelistic structure (as it focuses on the melodramatic life of an admirably strong but tragic female character) with both a detailed account of classical history and an historiographical analysis of the sorts of lessons that history can offer. Even the two books that might initially look more like other novels of the day — Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) follows, to some degree, the pattern of anti-Jacobin satire, while The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808) has elements of both the national tale and the working-class tract — are far from being conventional works of fiction.
The discussion of the generic complexity of Modern Philosophers is particularly impressive, adding significantly to the ground-breaking work that Grogan did more than a decade ago in bringing the novel back into print in the first place. She reads the book not just as political satire but also as a form of life-writing, one in which Hamilton creates a sort of refracted self-portrait by splitting aspects of her own experience among at least three characters of very different ages and in different social and economic circumstances. Contrasting Hamilton's insertion of...