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ELH 67.2 (2000) 453-513
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Sex and the Social Contract
[T]his whig interpretation is so deep-rooted that even when piece-meal research has corrected the story in detail, we are slow in revaluing the whole and reorganising the broad outlines of the theme in the light of these discoveries.
--Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History
The study of eighteenth-century British culture has been profoundly affected by the rediscovery of a large body of writings by, for, and about women--a vast array of cultural evidence that had been excluded from the canon created by nineteenth-century literary histories and that remained hidden behind a venerable facade of Augustan and Whig masculinism for almost two hundred years. The groundbreaking work of feminist literary historians has resulted in a greatly expanded and ever more inclusive field of study, and undermined the notion that the eighteenth century was characterized by political stability and cultural coherence. But, as I hope to demonstrate, this body of cultural evidence has consequences for the form as well as the content of eighteenth-century studies: its reemergence not only broadens the field of study, but also makes it necessary to alter the mode or logic of study. I will argue, in short, that this newly rediscovered body of work reveals a feminine logic of individualism at work in what J. H. Plumb has called the "political nation" of eighteenth-century Britain. 1
The realization of feminist scholars like Dale Spender that, "far from standing at the beginning of women's entry into writing, Jane Austen was the inheritor of a long and well-established tradition of 'women's novels,'" marked the first step toward a new conception of the relationship between women and eighteenth-century culture. 2 The groundbreaking work of feminist literary historians in the seventies and eighties has effectively challenged the "Whig interpretation of history," which had long treated eighteenth-century culture as a kind of battleground upon which the tories, confronted with the (inevitable) victory of a modern liberal individualism, made their last real stand in defense [End Page 453] of an ancient way of life. 3 This interpretation mapped out the literary terrain so that each author was measured according to his position vis-à-vis the reactionary or progressive forces of history, which resulted in an illustrative series of imperfect oppositions--Swift and Pope versus Defoe and Addison; Fielding versus Richardson; Johnson against Hume. Feminist literary historians demonstrated that while this approach might well have incorporated women as the beneficiaries of progress, or as the private consumers of the newly available cultural and commercial goods, it was founded upon the erasure of their importance as participants in the public realm of eighteenth-century culture.
For those who discovered the vast body of texts written by and for eighteenth-century women, the first priority was to restore these women writers to their rightful position at the beginning of a lost tradition of women novelists. But this restoration had to be accompanied by an investigation of the erasure that made it necessary. Spender notes that "on the one hand there has been the delight of discovering this treasure-chest; on the other hand, there has been the sadness, frustration, and anger, that such treasures ever should have been buried. And if it is difficult to separate the joy from the anger, so too has it been virtually impossible to separate the discovery from the burial. For there is no way of reclaiming these women novelists without wondering why they were lost." 4 What emerges in Spender's account, however, is less an explanation than a confirmation of the guiding premise of the feminist project of rediscovery: the notion that for a woman to write was at the very least a "contradiction . . . and very often an act of defiance," because to write was to assert one's "individuality and autonomy" in a male-dominated society. 5 Thus, the wonder is not that these texts were suppressed, but that they existed at all. Having elided the crucial distinction between suppression and erasure, this approach cannot account...