- Women, Writing, and Revolution, 1790–1827, and: Revolution and the Form of the British Novel, 1790–1825, and: Unsex’d Revolutionaries
Time was you couldn’t pay anyone to read most of the novels discussed in the books under review here. Ian Watt, lamenting the chasm of “mediocrity and worse” that yawns between Richardson and Fielding on one hand and Austen on the other, regarded “fugitive literary tendencies” such as “sentimentalism or Gothic terror” as digressions from the great realistic tradition, and accordingly he dismissed them swiftly on the grounds that they possessed “little intrinsic merit.” When Rise of the Novel appeared, this assessment was hardly eccentric: the tearful heroes and heroines of sentimental fiction from Mackenzie on were disdained as curiosities in the history of taste; Radcliffe was thought to epitomize every faddish, excessive, and luridly inane fictional thing that Austen had the good sense to reject; Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Amelia Opie, Elizabeth Hamilton, Jane West, and other polemical novelists of the 1790s and beyond were known only by a few specialists who, when pressed, generally acknowledged them to deserve the oblivion into which they had fallen; even Scott’s novels, having once enjoyed high canonical dignity, were reduced to the ignominious status of adolescent literature, and Frances Burney, seen as a sort of Austen manquée, was loved only for being the charming little friend of Dr. Johnson.
Whether the famed control of Austen’s fiction seems less obviously attractive now than the more troubled, transgressive, and over-the-top novels she read during her youth; whether the tendentious fiction—by women writers in particular—during this decade of political rupture is more apt now to arouse curiosity than contempt; or whether the fiction of this period, rarely dignified by the aegis of Romanticism before, is now just catching up with the poetry; the result is the same: as these new critical books—and many, many others besides—attest, the novels of the 1790s are finally hot.
One cannot accuse Gary Kelly of jumping on any bandwagon. Ever since his The English Jacobin Novel, 1780–1805 appeared twenty years ago, Kelly has been a patient and careful scholar of the period, and his work was a resource for students in the field when political contextualizations of fiction were hard to come by. His Women, Writing, and Revolution, 1790–1827—like his related Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft (Clarendon, 1992)—benefits from decades of working through the political memoirs, tracts, and fiction of the 1790s, and from a more recent and sympathetic absorption of feminist literary and political history. The overarching thesis of this dense and informative book is that the “professional middle-class revolution” used the figure of the “domestic woman” to disseminate a new culture of respectability, and that this agenda actually enabled women writers themselves to gain strategic access to public, political, and professional domains usually considered inappropriate for properly “feminine” women. Kelly traces the resulting feminization of politics through the revolutionary as well as the postrevolutionary careers of three women writers who had markedly different positions vis-à-vis the French Revolution and the subsequent progressive and reactionary developments in England: Helen Maria Williams, Mary Hays, and Elizabeth Hamilton.
Although Kelly’s in-depth discussions of the careers of these three writers are judicious and compelling, I was more than once stymied by the occasional tendency of his prose to reify concepts—as when Hays, we are told,
reconciled the secular culture of Sensibility with her liberal Dissenting background, merging Sentimental subjectivity and independence from the social world with Dissenting spiritual self-examination and [End Page 440] unmediated address to the deity, the Sentimental ethics of social sympathy with Dissent’s ethics of humanitarianism, Sensibility’s cult of simplicity and the sublime with Dissenting ‘unworldliness’, and Sensibility’s emphasis on the local, particular, and quotidian with...