Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel

Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel

Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel

Women and Property in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel

Synopsis

This book investigates the critical importance of women to the eighteenth-century debate on property as conducted in the fiction of the period. April London argues that contemporary novels offered several, often conflicting, interpretations of the relation of women to property, ranging from straightforward assertions of equivalence between women and things to subtle explorations of the forms of possession open to those denied a full civic identity. Her wide-ranging study discusses the work of a variety of writers, from Samuel Richardson and Henry Mackenzie to Clara Reeve and Jane West.

Excerpt

Those labors consonant with the georgic mode which were Clarissa's in the period before the moment of the novel's opening scene are bound up with the powers conferred on her by her loving grandfather. Such powers reflect his sense of the qualities that will later be impressed upon the reader as distinctive of Clarissa in her role as heroine: her dazzling virtue, her moral scrupulousness, her attention to social duties. But in this novel Richardson pursues a double strategy, isolating and idealizing the heroine's virtue to the point that she becomes “all mind” (555), while gradually transferring to Belford the associations with georgic that had at first been represented as unique to Clarissa. As a result of this transference, the meaning of the georgic mode itself and the narrative and cultural ends it can serve also undergo change.

As it is retrospectively invoked, Clarissa's status as heroine depends on her knowledge of her own worth and her dedication to labors that confirm her individual virtuosity. the pressure of events in the novel transmutes this artist figure possessed of “reputation” and “taste” into a tragic heroine whose preparations for death (especially the elaborately decorated coffin) nonetheless continue to speak to her aesthetic sensibility. Belford's labors, on the other hand, can be seen as self-denying rather than self-defining. As one of his duties as executor of her will, he compiles the text that justifies her title to consideration as “not only an ornament to her sex, but to human nature” (1363), even as it lays bare his own frailties. Yet, paradoxically, in the very anonymity of his work, he discovers a way to speak to the community at large. Despite Clarissa's central role, it is Belford's apparently peripheral identity that seems finally to be more compatible with georgic as a mode concerned with the socially constructive and enabling impetus of labor. Her labor, played out in the context of her relation to and status as property, comes finally to stand as emblem of a residual order. Its limitations are subsumed by the emergent order epitomized by Belford, who in his . . .

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