Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Professed Enemies of Politeness": Sincerity and the Problem of Gender in Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Professed Enemies of Politeness": Sincerity and the Problem of Gender in Godwin's Enquiry concerning Political Justice and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Article excerpt

WOLLSTONECRAFT'S VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN (1792) identifies dissimulation as a specifically female problem. Attacking modesty as the embodiment of insincerity, Wollstonecraft aligns femininity with deceptiveness and suggests that as a consequence, women have an obligation to be not less but more truthful than their male counterparts: this is the ultimate "revolution in female manners" for which she calls.(1) Her call emerges from a historical moment characterized not just by its perception of a crisis in the manners and situation of women, however, but by what was widely understood to be a crisis of sincerity in the nation at large. The breakdown of honest and open communication between men and women is linked by Wollstonecraft to other failures--of political representation, of individual rights--and Wollstonecraft's call for women to become more sincere is also part of a larger political plan. Godwin is even more explicit than Wollstonecraft about the political evils of insincerity. While Wollstonecraft attacks politeness primarily insofar as it is a tool for the oppression of women, Godwin argues that insincerity is the most stubborn obstacle to social reform and political revolution in the broadest sense.

Godwin's philosophical argument against insincerity in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) may be neither so persuasive nor so practical as Wollstonecraft's gendered and openly polemical attack on politeness. Yet Political Justice has the virtue of taking sincerity to its logical extreme, setting up the premise that only the complete lack of reserve between individuals will guarantee absolute freedom in the political sphere. By exploring the rhetorical and cultural contexts in which Godwin's argument for truth-telling is situated, I hope to show how and why the problem of insincerity had come to be perceived by writers of the 1790s as central to questions of power and exclusion. Godwin's arguments for sincerity in Political Justice can be read profitably in counterpoint with a body of writing, more sympathetic to politeness, authored by Hume, the Edgeworths and others. Godwin responds quite explicitly to several of these arguments; others are written in the wake of Godwin's own defense of absolute sincerity, and with the goal of undermining such a defense and preserving thereby the social and political stability that politeness secures.

The impossibility of thinking about politeness without also considering problems posed by relations between the classes is revealed by the fact that servants (both literal and metaphorical) figure in the two most prominent examples of insincerity available to writers on either side of the politeness debate: the letter signed "your most obedient and humble servant"; and the fashionable mode of excluding visitors by asking a servant to say that one is "not at home." The topic of servants offers writers across the political spectrum a way of managing anxiety or disposing of rhetorical excess at the boundaries where masters and servants interact. In his rejection of "the notorious hypocrisy of `I am not at home,'" Godwin deliberately foregrounds politeness as a problem not of gender but of class relations.(2) This choice proves problematic, however, as the topic of gender continues to perplex social relations in a manner that Godwin cannot address within the framework of the Enquiry, though I will suggest that it is thematized in Caleb Williams (1794). Both servitude and politeness are for Godwin antithetical to justice, yet his commitment to sincerity is ultimately undermined by his awareness that the insincerities associated with gender will prove even harder to eradicate than miscommunication between members of different social classes.

1

For Political Justice, deception is not simply one kind of injustice. It is rather the dominant trope for representing injustice of all kinds, so that the institution of government is described most damningly as organized deception and the institution of marriage as "a system of fraud" (3. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.