Eighteenth-Century Women Writers and the Gentlemen’s Liberation Movement: Independence, War, Masculinity, and the Novel, 1778–1818 by Megan A. Woodworth (review)
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Eighteenth-Century Women Writers and the Gentlemen’s Liberation Movement: Independence, War, Masculinity, and the Novel, 1778–1818 by Megan A. Woodworth Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. xii+230pp. US$99.95. ISBN 978-1-4094-2780-3.

“Lord Orville, Burney’s most conventional-seeming hero,” writes Megan Woodworth, “engages directly with the anxieties plaguing the masculine empire—the conflict between the reality of Britain as a classical republic that continues to inform the debates regarding the man and the citizen—and begins to unpack the ways in which the chivalry-tainted solutions offered by Richardson and Rousseau are both unpalatable to women and ultimately dangerous to the stability of the masculine empire that they seek to bolster” (29). This judgment, offered near the beginning of Woodworth’s study, is characteristic of both her prose and her project. It is the phrase “engages directly” that causes unease, concern that is heightened by the notion that the noble lord does some ideological unpacking later in the novel. It is not quite clear where agency might lie—with Orville or with Burney—indeed, the choice appears blurred. Orville, of course, has no agency outside what his creator, Frances Burney, determines. Yet in this character-driven study he seems to do just that, acting as if he were Joseph Addison or Lord Shaftesbury. As described by Woodworth, Orville is committed to polite reformation, actively seeking to have society remade in his own elegant image. He [End Page 169] is always to be understood as acting in this way, as the self-conscious but still organic intellectual of the new age. The claim is typical of this sometimes perceptive but often exasperating book. Literary characters in Woodworth’s eye have a canny knack of fully embodying ideological positions. Mr Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma, she writes confidently, “is a Burkean knight” whose “feebleness, impotence, and general state of decline signal that this version of gallant masculinity, and its associated feudal absolutist government, is not long for this earth” (193). This is not a very smart way of writing about literature, and certainly not novels as inventive as those by Austen and Burney. It is not obvious how decrepit old Mr Woodhouse can represent, still less embody, something as forbidding as feudalism, which seems to have lingered at Hartfield rather longer than it did even at Versailles. The real problem, however, is that this particular analytical approach leaves the relationship between literary representations, which may take many forms and have many affects, and ideology almost completely unexamined.

Woodworth rarely employs a term like “ideology,” preferring to decry feudalism or to discuss more generalized notions. But some clarity and rigour was needed if the central issue of masculinity was to be properly examined. Ideas, aspirations, anxieties, call them what you will, are assumed simply to exist and to be waiting to be embodied in fiction and hence to be praised or disgraced as plots evolve. This mode of argument is most tellingly revealed when Edmund Burke, distinctly the Burke of the Reflections, comes to be both origin and epitome of all that is rotten or just tottering. Fiction writers, be they Austen, Burney, Charlotte Smith, or Jane West, effortlessly incorporate his ideas, generally showing them to be defunct or on the verge of calamity. In the process, terms such as “chivalry” and “family romance” (sometimes even a “Burkean family romance”) are used almost to the point of exhaustion, their heuristic value fully spent in rehearsals of the plot. The analysis is never convincing, even though the text abounds in local insights. Smith’s The Old Manor House, we can probably agree, explores ideas of inheritance and dependency, chivalry and modern masculinity, that have a resonance that might be thought Burkean, but Smith disturbs any easy transference between the terms of contemporary political debate and the way those ideas are mediated in what is clearly a complicated text straddling and subverting several genres. Just as the hero Orlando is not simply Shakespeare’s Orlando, though he frolics in woods for a time, neither is he straightforwardly the literary embodiment of an idea of masculinity. Woodworth is more persuasive in her account...