Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750-1850

By Lorna Ellis | Go to book overview

3
Reacting to Romance and Building the
Bildungsroman: The Female Quixote and
Betsy Thoughtless

In chapter 2, I argued that several characteristics of the seventeenth-century heroic romance and early eighteenthcentury amatory fiction were no longer socially acceptable, even in fiction, in the mid-eighteenth century. In particular, the portrayal of overt female power typical of these earlier forms of fiction had acquired immoral connotations. Nevertheless, romances and amatory fiction continued to carry great, if negative, cultural weight, and moralists feared that young women would become tainted by reading them. In 1766, James Fordyce clearly referred to amatory fiction when he spoke of “certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute, let her reputation in life be what it will” (in Jones 1990, 176). Novelists inspired by the romance heroine were therefore forced to explore how characters considered so exaggerated and morally suspect could be adapted to contemporary fiction with its increased interest in formal realism, the individual, and domestic morality.

I contend that the female Bildungsroman should be seen largely as a transformation of the heroic romance and amatory fiction. I argued in the last chapter that the female Bildungsroman adapts to a new literary landscape the romance's focus on female power and agency and amatory fiction's focus on masquerade. In particular, the female Bildungsroman is more covert in its use of the gaze and of masquerade as vehicles for women's

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