- Revolutionary Imaginings in the 1790s: Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Elizabeth Inchbald
In her book Revolutionary Imaginings in the 1790s, Amy Garnai offers a revaluation of literary production in the context of revolutionary debate, focusing on the political manoeuvrings of three female writers. Through an examination of a variety of texts by Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, and Elizabeth Inchbald, Garnai offers an illuminating study of the relationship between cultural production and socio-political anxiety in the highly-charged atmosphere of Britain in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Garnai demonstrates how these authors engage with contentious political issues of the day and maintains that they exemplify female voices often ignored by studies of the late eighteenth-century public sphere. These women were not in any way a “group,” though they shared literary connections (such as William Godwin); indeed, it is noted that Smith and Inchbald actively distanced themselves from “Robinson’s notoriety as Perdita” (11).1 Nevertheless, all three authors take a conscious and (mostly) conspicuous pro-Revolutionary position throughout the decade — long after many in Britain had withdrawn any initial public enthusiasm for the pursuit of liberty in France.
These three writers were working under a range of repressive laws in a country where citizens were subjected to surveillance by loyalist alarmists and government [End Page 171] agents. Furthermore, this “female literary intervention into the public sphere of politics” was, in itself, a risky career strategy, and Garnai selects her subjects as sharing the perpetual pressures of “class, patriarchy and the world as it is” (4). Because of their continued belief in the tenets of the Revolution, Smith, Robinson and Inchbald were always in danger of being seen as pernicious domestic reformers, identified as part of “a subversive cultural force” by contemporary conservative commentators (6).
The book makes the usual connections between Smith’s domestic and legal realities and the political maelstrom of the 1790s. Smith clearly sees the similarities between her own struggles for justice and autonomy and those of the nascent French republic. Biographical echoes are never far away in scholarly works dealing with Smith’s characters and plots; yet Garnai’s opening chapters present a writer who consistently embraces the original values of the French Revolution for their own sake — even when accepting its fall into vicious factional confusion. These chapters skillfully connect the apparent ambiguities in Smith’s work with her ability to shift between authorial personas, providing further evidence of canny manipulation of the marketplace.
Garnai demonstrates that there is a “continuity” in “Smith’s progressive, reformist thinking, even as she signals her disappointment in the failure of the promise that the Revolution had seemed to embody” (15). The most interesting moments of the early chapters occur when the critic draws out “Smith’s persistent anxiety as a writer, one which manifests itself in the overlapping concerns of authorial integrity, political commitment and economic survival” (54). Describing the radical reputation conferred on the author following the publication of Desmond, Garnai demonstrates how, the following year, Smith changes tack in The Emigrants. Directed towards the public’s charitable instincts, this text was to appeal to “a wide popular consensus” (25), being — in Smith’s words — “not a party book but a conciliatory book” (27). Some contemporary commentators saw Smith as, at the very least, flighty in her approach to political realities (wearing the coats of monarchist or democrat to suit her mood), but Garnai’s argument offers a model of authorial disillusionment for Smith’s dealing with the complexities of the cultural crisis in Britain during the 1790s.
Revolutionary Imaginings shows Robinson’s response to the events in France as framed by the same “victimhood and vulnerability” as in Smith’s work and personal circumstances; the book also considers Robinson’s extensive and well-publicized experience of “society” (particularly her notoriety as “Perdita”) as leading to a “consciousness of marginality” in her work (69). These chapters provide an interesting account of how Robinson is overtly linked to Smith and Inchbald by anti-Jacobin critics. Garnai argues that critics such as Thomas Mathias, William...