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  • The Problem with Binaries:Balancing Reason, Emotion, Body, and Mind in A Simple Story
  • Sharon L. Decker (bio)

Elizabeth Inchbald expresses a complexity of political sentiment in her works, and she does not divorce political issues from their domestic and social ramifications. Of particular interest to Inchbald in her 1791 novel A Simple Story is the notion of a balanced education for both genders. Inchbald suggests throughout the novel that the current educational system effectively teaches women to use their bodies instead of their minds and that it educates men to read females only as bodies; as a result, female bodies are commodities, and patriarchal power is reinforced through commanding silences, unclear linguistic symbols, and corporeal actions. The novel reveals flaws in the contemporary education system and offers up a solution for reform through Matilda, an ideal character who is a composite of mental and physical strength, a product of a male and a female tutor, and a result of the combination of a domestic-sensible upbringing and a rational-Jesuit education. Matilda is the platform upon which Inchbald builds her new educational system; by the end of the novel, the character is a construct of rational, emotional, and physical traits, as well as conventionally masculine and feminine characteristics. Inchbald argues for more than natural and social reform, though; she advocates for a redefining of the academic process, of the courting process, and of the marriage process. She blurs the lines between all of these cultural institutions, and in doing so, argues for a new order. As such, Inchbald calls for a rethinking of the mind and the heart, of sense and sensibility, a rethinking, in the broadest sense of the word, of education, of gender, of institutions.

Inchbald and the QuestIon of Education

In 1791, the Gentlemen’s Magazine reviewed Inchbald’s A Simple Story, claiming that, through her characters and plot twists, Inchbald had “struck a path entirely her own” (“Review”). I would agree, but for a different reason: her attack on the educational system is “entirely her own.” Throughout her novel, Inchbald undertakes a serious look at the system of female education and offers a much more informed view than many [End Page 59] have recognized. Her progressive ideas echo, and even precede, those of some of her contemporaries, and she places her characters on paths that have not been well trodden to explore how the public will receive these new theories. Inchbald’s stance is a calculated one. She understood that a “radical” label would hinder future publications, as well as limit sales of her current novel.1 In order to tread lightly but still get her views across, Inchbald broke her narrative into two distinct volumes, one following Miss Milner, a female who was educated in a contemporary manner, and one following Matilda, who received a balanced education that emphasized more possibilities than the domestic arts and avenues traditionally available to women.

Through Miss Milner, Inchbald reveals how domestic education teaches women to use their bodies to gain husbands. Miss Milner’s education is the ultimate cause of her moral and intellectual downfall as her body is often misread, and her true thoughts not articulated, leaving her confused, angry, and misunderstood. Inchbald suggests improvements for her faulty education in the novel’s second volume by giving Miss Milner’s daughter, Matilda, a “proper” or balanced education: an education directed by a Jesuit and by her mother, and one based on political and social as well as domestic issues.

Inchbald’s balanced education also factors in the importance of the body. Her talent for directing characters, a result of her many years acting, creates a deep level of theatricality in A Simple Story, almost as if the novel were a play.2 Her characters’ bodies are often used to express emotions that cannot be put into words. The importance of body language is particularly evident between the two main characters, Miss Milner and Dorriforth, as the only way they can possibly communicate their emotions is through their blushes, their heartbeats, or simply their absences. In creating such a dynamic, Inchbald uses the body as a tool to show that the contemporary educational system...


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pp. 59-82
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