Academic journal article Intertexts

Strategies of Response: Ellis Cornelia Knight's Sequel to Samuel Johnson's Rasselas

Academic journal article Intertexts

Strategies of Response: Ellis Cornelia Knight's Sequel to Samuel Johnson's Rasselas

Article excerpt

Ellis Cornelia Knight's (1757-1837) Dinarbas: a Tale; Being a Continuation of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1790) explicitly claims the text of a male author as Knight's inspiration. The title and subtitle of Knight's tale invoke Samuel Johnson's 1759 The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Knight responds to Johnson's Rasselas by taking the title of his last chapter, "The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded," as her cue and justification for writing Dinarbas. In her introduction, Knight refers to "Sir John Hawkins [who], in his life of Dr. Johnson, says, 'that the writer had an intention of marrying his hero, and placing him in a state of permanent felicity.'" (1) Knight quotes this statement made by Johnson's biographer in 1787 (2) in order to provide herself with an implicit permission to finish what Johnson had left incomplete:

  This passage [Hawkins's] suggested the idea of the continuation now
  offered, with the greatest diffidence, to the reader, and without any
  thought of a vain and presumptuous comparison; as every attempt to
  imitate the energetic stile, strong imagery, and profound knowledge,
  of the author of Rasselas, would be equally rash with that of the
  suitors to bend the bow of Ulysses. (9)

Knight justifies her decision to write a more optimistic continuation of Rasselas, the "inimitable tale," (9) by modestly bowing before Johnson's authority and by claiming that she is neither vain nor presumptuous. Knight's invocation of the "want of genius and literary fame of its [Dinarbas's] author" (10) is a move typical for women authors of the time, which enabled them to publish their stories while echoing the contemporary discourse of female propriety and privacy. Flattery of literary authorities and self-belittling gestures are central elements of this strategy. (3) Yet, although Knight claims that the quality of her tale is secondary to that of Rasselas, it soon becomes clear that she has no intention of quietly existing in Johnson's shadow. In this respect, Knight's introduction is a reflection of the larger strategy at work in her 1790 novel. In Dinarbas, Knight employs existing literary and social conventions in ways that allow her to appear nonthreatening to the status quo while, at the same time, carving out a space for divergence at a time when the social fabric of Western Europe was undergoing violent and tumultuous change.

I argue that Knight's adaptation of existing literary and social conventions constitutes an act of "strategic conformism," a phrase which I establish in reference to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's notion of "strategic essentialism." Spivak describes this concept as a "strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest" in order "to retrieve the subaltern consciousness" (Spivak 205). Knight's strategy of invoking and seemingly conforming to literary and social tradition allows her ultimately to create a space where her "political interest" can be witnessed, namely her expression of an alternative philosophy of life, what Johnson's characters call the "choice of life" (33). She lets a "subaltern," a female voice, speak, one which has frequently been silenced by the dominant discourse of the time. Knight's writing is a constant balancing act; her strategic conformism to contemporary literary genres enables her to critique social structures, gender roles, and political leadership in ways that are "scrupulously visible" at a time during which they are open to radical redefinition.

While Knight's strategic citing of convention was a factor in the novel's success in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, (4) Dinarbas gradually fell into oblivion during the course of the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century the novel was obliterated from the writing of literary history and was considered a reactionary novel by a woman author. Only in the past decade has there been a renewed interest in understanding the complexity and ambivalence of Dinarbas. …

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