The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a revived interest in the writings of eighteenth-century women, beginning with attempts to recover these women and their works from obscurity. Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel and Jane Spencer’s The Rise of the Woman Novelist, both published in 1986, represent two important contributions to this recovery and to establishing the profound influence of women writers on the novel genre itself. In opposition to popular critical beliefs that early women writers were by and large mere unsuccessful imitators of men, Spender advocates that women novelists of the eighteenth century made the greater contribution to the development of that genre, that, in fact, “women did not imitate men; it was quite the reverse” (5). Spencer similarly contends that the rise of the novel cannot be fully understood without considering the contributions of a large number of women, whose writing was deeply marked by the demands of femininity. Femininity itself was, however, still a contentious issue in the eighteenth century, even among women writers,1 and one that was largely contested within the space of the novel itself. This special issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination assumes the eighteenth-century novel’s Centrality in not just representing but shaping ideas on the role and character of women, and thus that the growing number of women writers had a significant part in crafting perceptions of gender.
Developments in the novel during the eighteenth century were inextricably linked to the social and economic changes surrounding an emerging sex-gender system, and the novel itself was crucial in writing gender difference into being.2 What has, in retrospect, been termed the rise of the novel3 in Britain in the eighteenth century coincided with the rise of a dominant bourgeois ideology founded upon important changes in notions of self and gender. During the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the former feudal hierarchy was largely replaced by a hierarchy based on sex and gender, which became more definitive of individual identity than social rank.4 The rise of capitalism led to a more marked division of labor along gendered lines: in an increasingly commercialized society, women, at least middle-class women, were relegated to the home and “women’s work,” whereas men were the active participants in an expanding market economy. This economic division [End Page v] and ideological distance between public and private realms also translated into mental, emotional, and sexual differences. The distinction between the sexes in terms of their work inside and outside of the home meant that men became aligned with activity and rationality, and their function was defined as cultural, whereas women were seen as passive and emotional and were defined through marriage and family. The ideology of women’s increasingly passive, emotional “nature” also led to the widespread belief, beginning in the eighteenth century, that women lacked strong libidinal drives. This ideal of femininity, a representation of the newly essentialized differences between the sexes due to their differing economic and cultural roles, became increasingly visible in the literature of the period. However, as the concerted efforts to control women’s writing (and reading) during the eighteenth century show, this ideal had to be carefully and painstakingly constructed, and it was above all an imagined feminine experience. The collection of essays included here examines how women writers of the eighteenth century used the novel genre, specifically, as a space to interrogate the new ideology of gender and perhaps to re-imagine female and feminine identities.
Popular literature at the beginning of the eighteenth century was dominated by women’s amatory fiction, often openly erotic narratives concerned with “woman’s sexuality and awakenings to sexual consciousness.” Samuel Johnson defined the novel in 1755 as a “small tale, generally of love,” seeming to refer to this narrative form (Backscheider, Popular Fiction xvii; Johnson, “Novel,” def. 1). However, changing ideals of feminine sexuality and expression led to the rise of domestic and sentimental novels around mid-century, and the respectability of the professional female novelist in the second half of the century depended on the “repression,” as Spencer terms it, of these earlier works and the...