Ingenuous Subjection: Compliance and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel

Ingenuous Subjection: Compliance and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel

Ingenuous Subjection: Compliance and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel

Ingenuous Subjection: Compliance and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel


Helen Thompson's Ingenuous Subjection offers a new feminist history of the eighteenth-century domestic novel. By reading social contract theory alongside representations of the domestic sphere by authors such as Mary Astell, Mary Davys, Samuel Richardson, Eliza Haywood, and Frances Sheridan, Thompson shows how these writers confront women's paradoxical status as both contractual agents and naturally subject wives. Over the long eighteenth century, Thompson argues, domestic novelists appropriated the standard of political modernity advanced by John Locke and others as a citizen's free or "ingenuous" assent to the law. The domestic novel figures feminine political difference not as women's deviation from an abstract universal but rather as their failure freely or ingenuously to submit to the power retained by Enlightenment husbands.

Ingenuous Subjection claims domestic novelists as vital participants in Enlightenment political discourse. By tracing the political, philosophical, and generic significance of feminine compliance, this book revises our literary historical account of the rise of the novel. Rather than imagining a realm of harmonious sentiment, domestic fiction represents the persistent arbitrariness of eighteenth-century men's conjugal power. Ingenuous Subjection revises feminist theory and historiography, locating the genealogy of feminism in a contractual model of ingenuous assent which challenges the legitimacy of masculine conjugal government. The first study to treat feminine compliance as something other than a passive, politically neutral exercise, Ingenuous Subjection recovers in this practice the domestic novel's critical engagement with the limits of Enlightenment modernity.


Perhaps it is my own childhood education, alienating and yet hard to shake, in the practice of politeness that draws me to the claustrophobic aspect of Frances Burney’s novels. My students, on the other hand, do not identify. The impalpable but stifling force of the manners that Burney’s protagonist Evelina imposes on herself drives them crazy. Impressed by their frustration with the torment that Evelina politely endures, I asked my students to augment Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina, or, A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778) with one letter in which Evelina responds to an insult as they would wish.

The following excerpts clearly show what kind of relief these readers wanted. One Evelina finally rebuffs her insinuating, falsely gentlemanly predator Sir Clement Willoughby:

I raised my hand … and struck him hard across the face. He bent over double,
clutching his cheek and looking up at me with confusion.

“I am sorry, sir, to have resorted to such measures, but I have long endeav
ored to make my dislike of your advances abundantly clear, and yet you have
ever continued in them,” said I. “I can only hope that this, at last, will convince
you to trouble me no more.”

A soldier accosts another Evelina while she walks in a garden with her confidante Maria:

I squirmed and blushed and called out to Maria in a complete state of panic.

And then the strangest thing happened … I can’t completely explain it, but
somewhere in my being, a nerve snapped and I struck out at the soldier with my
left foot. He doubled over in pain and, recovering, lurched at me again, for
which he was rewarded with a swift uppercut to his jaw.

“You’re nothing but a brutish, pea-brained, sniveling excuse for a man!” I cried.

I cannot resist citing one more revision. Evelina’s nameless protagonist recovers her patronymic when she finally confronts her father, who has . . .

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