Property, Education, and Identity in Late Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The Heroine of Disinterest

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Property, Education, and Identity in Late Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The Heroine of Disinterest, by Virginia H. Cope (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), ISBN: 9780230220232, 192pp., £50hb.

Throughout the eighteenth century, 'political transformations' and 'commercialization' created 'copyrights, patents, stocks, debt shares, commercial agreements', properties that were 'variegated, intangible, and peculiar'(1). Virginia H. Cope's The Heroine of Disinterest explores how these new forms of property dramatically altered the ways in which selfhood and subjectivity could be narrated, demanding new expressions of the self and reanimating older paradigms. Tracing the development of 'disinterest' from an aristocratic, civic, masculine ideal into a peculiarly feminine and domestic quality, Cope illuminates the extent of upheaval wrought by changing the definitions accorded to and stemming from property. The Heroine of Disinterest traces this new subjectivity from inception in the late 1770s to grisly death in the Gothic heyday of the 1790s and brief afterlife in Austen's self-aware heroines. The Gothic is the apex of the 'heroine of disinterest' and her nadir: the 'narrative equivalent of what psychologists call an extinction burst: the final lavish display of a fading behaviour' (86).

Taking the figure of the kneeling vassal from Sir William Blackstone's lavish description of feudal rituals of investiture in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1764-1769), Cope demonstrates how this pose of self-abnegation is increasingly absent from the heroines' displays of filial devotion as the century progresses (15-19). The transition from feudal tenure to freehold possession resonates with the gradual recognition of personal value and worth suggested by the change in the heroines' physical displays of filial affection and homage. Richardson's Clarissa (1748) and Pamela (1740) initiate Cope's discussion of literary responses to disinterest. While this discussion provides a bridge from Locke to Burney's Evelina, it is notable for its omission of sensibility. Given the established connection between economy and sensibility in G.J. Barker-Benfield's foundational work, The Culture of Sensibility (1992), its absence from this discussion is odd, particularly as Cope's argument fluently engages writings of both the Earl of Shaftesbury and Adam Smith. While I do not dispute the 'novel of inheritance' as a useful label, Cope does not clarify how these novels are distinguished from novels of sensibility.

The 'tonal shift' from 'domestic realism' to 'Gothic hyperbole' is the cultural and critical setting for The Heroine of Disinterest (69, 70). Though only one chapter addresses the Gothic directly (chapter 4, 'Gothic properties'), the Gothic is present in the ways in which heroines of disinterest haunt narratives of ownership, existing in shades of meaning between 'morality' and 'legality' (83). Gothic literature brings a new level of obsession to the cultural fascination with property, particularly with the systems of inheritance and the rights of property that accrue around the 'old Gothic castle[s]' that dominate Gothic novels. Kate Ferguson Ellis argues in The Contested Castle (1989), that Gothic literature declares itself by the presence of 'houses in which people are locked in and locked out' (Ellis 3). E.J. Clery's definition of the Gothic, which Cope explicitly uses as a model, takes this a step further and notes that the property is the protagonist of much Gothic fiction (The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1994). Nodding towards the inaugural 'hideous property' of Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Cope reads Clery's definition as representing 'the consequences of a newly airtight regime of primogeniture' (the strict settlement) that dominated inheritance increasingly throughout the century. The will, a favourite prop in Gothic fiction, had given way among the landed classes to settlements that guarded against the kind of sudden changes of heart individually authored wills allowed (48). …