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  • Figures of Impropriety and the Joys of Female Community
  • Toni Bowers
Katherine Binhammer. The Seduction Narrative in Britain, 1747–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 2009). Pp. vii + 246. $90
Alison Conway. The Protestant Whore: Courtesan Narrative and Religious Controversy in England, 1680–1750 (Toronto: Toronto Univ., 2010). Pp. xii + 291. 9 ills. $65

In many respects, these two books have little in common. Both authors are fascinated by the figure of the prostitute in her various guises, it is true, but there are significant differences between what each does with that changing figure, what questions each asks, and why. Even whether the figure is central to the discussion or just a point along the way sets the two works apart. In their historical contexts and approaches, too, the works differ. Katherine Binhammer focuses on the last four decades of the eighteenth century. Alison Conway maintains a considerably wider focus, tracing certain central religious and political preoccupations from the 1660 Restoration of Charles II through the first half of the eighteenth century and ending her study in the late 1740s, where Binhammer begins. Binhammer is a neo-structuralist critic: “structuralist” not only in that her acknowledged guides are Roland Barthes, Ross Chambers, Jonathan Culler, Gerard Genette, and Tzvetan Todorov, but [End Page 126] also in that her focus is intensely text centered; “neo” in that she wants also to keep an eye on history. Binhammer finds meaning in forms obvious and hidden, and she delights in the play between discourse and story, “emplotment” and diegesis (26–27). Conway, primarily a literary-cultural historian, carefully traces a debate about a recurring set of issues, examining how those issues were embodied in a single literary figure over nearly a century. Her goal is to unravel a complex tangle of historically specific anxieties concerning religious difference and distributions of power.

In other respects, however, it is illuminating to consider these two books together. For one thing, the authors forthrightly place their books in mutual relation: they write with keen awareness of one another’s work, and on the acknowledgment pages, each stresses the other’s importance to her own project. Binhammer notes that Conway’s “twenty years of friendship is [sic] written into every page of this book,” and that Conway “read the entire manuscript” (vi). Similarly, Conway’s acknowledgments remark on the “encouragement and insight” that Binhammer has offered “for more than twenty years, . . . through thick and thin” (xii); her book is dedicated to Binhammer. Viewing these books together allows us to see something beyond common arguments, overlapping readings, or jointly authored prose: We are witnesses to the results of a long-term collaboration of minds. “I live amongst a brilliant group of women,” Binhammer observes, “my own virtual Millenium Hall ” (vii). That space of scholarly belonging and solidarity—at once, in Binhammer’s elegant formulation, a geographical place, a work of art, and an alternative world—is something that female scholars have been able to explore only for a comparatively short time now, and that few even today can claim to enjoy. Its value is suggested by the creativity, purpose, and insight on display in these two books, and in their very different investments and procedures.

“What role,” Katherine Binhammer asks, “does seduction play in teaching us how to love?” (9). Focusing on the decades between the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747–48) and the turn of the nineteenth century, Bin-hammer pursues that question by examining Richardson’s novel against a multitude of later works in four genres. These are:

  1. 1. The supposedly true seduction tales proffered in pamphlets written to support London’s Magdalen Hospital and in the anonymous 1760 “novel” (43) Histories of Some of the Penitents in the Magdalen-House. [End Page 127]

  2. 2. Seduction stories embedded in novels primarily about married heroines (she focuses on Fielding’s Amelia, Sheridan’s Sidney Bidulph, and Griffith’s Lady Barton).

  3. 3. Seduction stories in “street literature”—here, ballads in various formats and prose narrative chapbooks.

  4. 4. “Melodramatic” fiction of the 1790s, including Inchbald’s Nature and Art, Wollstonecraft’s Wrongs of Woman, Hays’s Victim of Prejudice, and Opie’s Father and Daughter.

Through a series of close readings...


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pp. 126-139
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