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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.3 (2002) 211-252
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Natural History, Community, and the 1790s Novel
University of Western Ontario
The (Im)possible Community of the 1790s Novel
Given an almost total forgetting of certain Romantic novels by standard literary histories, what were the epistemic shifts that made their writing possible at the time? What new configurations of the aesthetic and the social emerged in the late eighteenth century, invisibly, and at an archeological rather than manifest level? And what developments in Continental philosophy and theory have made it more possible to read these novels now? With such questions in mind, this paper explores the dis-figuration of reproduction in radical novels of the Romantic period that focus on women. It does so in the context of a larger reorganization of knowledge from Hegel and Schelling to Benjamin and Nancy which, I argue, unfolds from the philosophical study of nature that began in the late eighteenth century. The economy—or anti-economy—of ideas that subsists between these thinkers allows us to conceive the relation between art, history, and the social outside of the "reproduction" of culture. Inasmuch as history and literary history invisibly rely on a metaphorics of (re)production, the disfiguration of aesthetic [End Page 211] production raises profound questions about the "work" of art in history: about whether these texts' melancholic abjection of the aesthetic makes them unassimilable into history and the Symbolic, 1 or whether it contributes to the dialectic of history conceived as natural history.
I will start with the prevalence—in work by Mary Hays, Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza Fenwick, and Mary Shelley—of miscarriages, (symbolic) infanticides, and other forms of withdrawal from domestic economy. In The Philosophy of Nature, Hegel sees reproduction as functioning on several levels: sexual, aesthetic, cultural (and curiously, excretive). While plants proliferate laterally, reproduction in animals is a historical, generational process. The individual assimilates what is other (including the negative in experience), and "re-produces" itself anew: across time, the species takes in what is different, yet continues the same. Biological reproduction, through the family, underwrites the reproduction of values, with aesthetic reproduction being a further part of this cultural economy.
The dejection of biological reproduction thus has complex extensions, including for the text which dis-figures both its writing as a reproduction of things as they are, and its reading as a conventionalizing transmission. In Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman (1798), left unfinished when she died in childbirth, the protagonist is locked up in an asylum by her husband, and writes the novel as a memoir to her abducted daughter. The passing on of daughters in marriage guarantees social continuity, often figured through the marriages that pass on the text itself to the next generation. In The Wrongs, Maria leaves her husband, while her future with Darnford, the revolutionary adventurer she meets in the asylum, is haunted by the failure of Wollstonecraft's encounter with the New World through her relationship with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. The generational transfer of this text would thus have to be through the feminist community it tries performatively to produce, comprised of Maria, her daughter, and Jemima, the jailor who helps her to escape. But it is unclear whether the child is even alive, and her reappearance in one of the "scattered heads for the continuation of the story" 2 appended by Godwin may be only a hallucination. Her phantasmatic (dis)appearance figures Wollstonecraft's doubts about communication and community, and about the very shape feminism should [End Page 212] take. Would a discourse formed around motherhood even be feminism, or would it just differently reproduce what Godwin called "things as they are"?
Mary Hays answers this question in one way by letting the plot kill off Emma's daughter in Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796). The generic female child, who passes almost unnoticed in the sentimental idyll that encases her, functions as a part-object on which Hays vents her ambivalence about the obligatory reproduction of woman as mother. This symbolic...