- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 623-625
[Access article in PDF]
Highlighting Women Writers at the End of the Eighteenth Century
University of St. Thomas, Minnesota
Amelia Opie. Adeline Mowbray. Eds. Shelley King and John B. Pierce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Pp. xxxix + 290. $12.95 paper.
Eleanor Ty. Empowering the Feminine: The Narratives of Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie, 1796-1812 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998). Pp. x + 224. $45.00 cloth.
The title of Eleanor Ty's book, Empowering the Feminine, might suggest to the casual peruser of library shelves an older-style of feminist study, one in which any and every woman author from the eighteenth century is credited with the desire to bury coded feminist messages within the nooks and crannies of her text. Ty's prefatory note concerning her reliance on poststructuralist theory gives further cause for alarm. Ty acknowledges the danger of "transhistoricity" and admits that "feminist critics are not in agreement about the value of psychoanalytic theories of development as a critical practice and as a means of promoting social change . . . " (viii). Readers looking for a jargon-free, historically-contextualized study of the three authors Ty focuses upon—Mary Robinson, Jane West, and Amelia Opie—might be tempted to look elsewhere.
But they shouldn't. Despite the fact that frequent homage is paid to the usual suspects—Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray, Foucault, Butler, etc.—Ty's book is a carefully researched, lucid introduction to the work of three undervalued late-eighteenth century women writers. Occasionally, lengthy quotations from theorists, quotations that seem tangential rather than essential to Ty's arguments, derail the logic of Ty's own graceful and eminently readable prose. But such lapses do not dramatically detract from the value of this book, since Ty quickly returns to what she does best, paying close attention to the writers and to the themes and patterns of their texts.
Nor is the title of Ty's book quite accurate, since she does not attempt to straightjacket the disparate novels she is studying in a search for "empowered" female characters. Instead, Ty emphasizes that no single stance or approach unites Robinson, West, and Opie except their engagement with the issues and debates about women's position that swirled through England in the aftermath of revolution and radical thinkers. Tracing each writer's response to works like William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Ty reveals that the three authors are united by their understanding of the problems involved in translating theory into practice and their endeavors, which took varied shapes, of investing "more dignity to those tasks that were customarily viewed as female ones" (7). Robinson, West, and Opie "resist facile prescriptions of female passivity and helplessness" (10); their "empowerment" of women resides in their efforts to redefine the feminine, to some extent, by allowing agency "to the domestic woman, to maternal figures, and to the virtuous heroine" (18).
Until quite recently, Mary Robinson's life had entirely overshadowed her writing. Ty analyzes Robinson's self-fashioning in Memoirs, focusing upon Robinson's ambivalence, her resistance of and capitulation to the public perception of herself as a "repentant whore" and "one-time mistress of the Prince of Wales" [End Page 623] (25). Ty offers an illuminating reading of the three portraits of Robinson painted by masters Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, and Joshua Reynolds. When Ty moves to Robinson's novels, she continues to address how Robinson's life experiences affected the content of her writing. For example, in The False Friend and The Natural Daughter, Robinson, who had been abandoned both by the Prince of Wales and her longtime lover Banastre Tarleton, "criticize[s] a system wherein females are taught to place all their hopes upon unfaithful or false men" (61). Robinson's novels reveal the way violence directed toward women helps to maintain the status quo, reinforcing women's belief that "their best chances of being cared for and protected are within the traditional...