- Making Gender, Culture, and the Self in the Fiction of Samuel Richardson: The Novel Individual by Bonnie LATIMER
Bonnie Latimer’s Making Gender, Culture, and the Self in the Fiction of Samuel Richardson is an analysis of British literary history using Richardson’s works as its linchpin. In addition to a thorough investigation of poetry, prose, and religious tracts [End Page 133] by Richardson’s contemporaries, Latimer argues that Richardson’s heroines (unlike those of his predecessors) are exceptionally “stable, autonomous, contained and rational selves” (3) who assume “elements of masculine agency and understanding” (4). Accordingly, Richardson’s female protagonists disarm, question, and redefine conventional notions about womanhood in the eighteenth century. Richardson’s last novel, Sir Charles Grandison (1754–55), is the particular focus of this study because, according to Latimer, it “represents Richardson’s last and most considered reflections upon a host of themes central to eighteenth-century ‘novelised’ culture” (2), namely female individuality. Therefore, this study is a “reconsideration” (3) of Richardson’s contribution to the formation of eighteenth-century female identity, and Grandison, Latimer contends, offers a new way of reading the mid-century novel as developed by Richardson’s successors, especially in their interrogation of “‘domesticity’ as an underpinning for the heroine” (62).
This book is part of a series of scholarship that examines literature in context, and though Latimer strikes a balance between text and context, her argument that Richardson’s fiction was “instrumental” (3) in fostering female individuality is, at times, overshadowed by its backdrop. While each chapter illustrates how Richardson’s heroines “transcend the generic, unidimensional identities of Grub-Street ‘beauties’” (28), greater analysis of Richardson’s engagement with “the assumptions of the literate culture of his day” (47) is omitted in favor of extended discussions on satire (chapter 1), prostitute narratives (chapter 3), and Latitudinarianism (chapter 4). As a result, the reader must take it for granted that Richardson was well read, or, at the very least, Latimer’s thesis builds upon the fact that he was remarkably aware of contemporaneous trends in popular literature, philosophy, and religion. Furthermore, Richardson’s ideas of female individuality are difficult to measure, despite Latimer’s suggestion that he was knowingly writing, in some cases, against the generally accepted beliefs of the time.
Whether or not Richardson was consciously engaging with debates in these areas, Latimer makes convincing arguments about broader cultural trends and Richardson’s influence on his eighteenth-century contemporaries. Her claim that Richardson’s novels reflect larger concepts of womanhood evidenced in later writers is particularly compelling. In chapter 2, for example, she states that Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) “represents a running commentary on the concerns and legacy of Grandison” (62). That is to say, Belinda follows a Richardsonian standard of conduct that is coded as masculine (64–65) and illustrated by his major heroines, Pamela, Clarissa, and Harriet. Belinda, too, develops as an individual through reason and informed moral choice. Latimer maintains, then, that Richardson’s legacy was not only to make “Carvers” of his readers, as he wrote to Lady Bradshaigh, but his heroines as well. Belinda is, therefore, an important part of this progression and is representative of Richardson’s contribution to the formation of “gendered individuality” (3).
Still, even in Richardson’s novels there are limits to gendered individuality, and in chapter 5 Latimer discusses the conventional dissolution of female agency and selfhood in marriage. Though marriage is a societal dictate, Latimer insists that Richardson’s heroines become a part of “masculinist civil society without compromising selfhood” (189) because marriage contributes to the shaping of the self. There are indeed compromises and limitations that Pamela and Harriet must negotiate and submit to, but their exceptional “self-awareness and social value” as married women is what sustains them as examples of “viable womanhood” (190). Latimer concedes, however, that Harriet’s identity as a married woman is not fully elaborated, as the novel ends before [End Page 134] we can see the limits Sir Charles imposes on her; nevertheless, Grandison...