Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Crossing Genre, Gender and Race in Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Crossing Genre, Gender and Race in Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah

Article excerpt

This study was prompted by an incident while researching the politics of British women's writing in the late eighteenth century several years ago. I dutifully arrived at the Birmingham Public library to examine a first edition of Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796), referenced in the National Union Catalogue back in Canada only to have the librarians deny all knowledge of the work. Faced with failure I desperately searched my notes for the catalogue number as proof of its existence. Much to the librarians' surprise-given my summary of the work-they announced that they would never have found it since it was stored in the Geography collection! How were they to know and how was I to guess? As a fresh graduate student I couldn't imagine why the cataloguing librarian hadn't known Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah was a fictional work! This incident, while affording some humor--because it ended well--set me considering how this fictional work could precipitate such a cataloguing error. On reflection nearly all of Hamilton's titles lead the reader away from the fictional nature of the text as much as towards it since she uses the titles to challenge or perhaps elude genre classification and social dictates about appropriate subjects for female writers. This led me to ponder the battles among critics since 1796 about where to position Hamilton on the political spectrum and how to classify her works.

Hamilton, a popular late-eighteenth-century writer, is becoming more familiar to readers with the recent availability of two of her fictional works in modern editions and the increasing number of excellent critical studies on women's writing in the late eighteenth century. (1) Hamilton, however, continues to prove a difficult writer to categorize with more recent studies ranging in their description of Hamilton as an anti-Jacobin, English-Jacobin or pro-revolutionary, sentimental or satirical writer, or a novelist of manners, and her works classified as satirical tales, tales of the times, belle lettres or national tales, because of her eclectic and wide-ranging use of subject matter. This paper will consider why her works create such problems with classification through particular consideration of her first major publication, Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah. (2)

It is well documented that late-eighteenth-century British society was structured around rigid gender roles that prescribed the intellectual and social capabilities of the sexes. Educationalists used nature and religion to explain "the mental and moral difference of sex" (Fordyce 1:175) and to prescribe corresponding activities for each sex. The male was defined as public, political, intellectual and rational, while the female was defined as private, domestic, emotional, and irrational. That these characteristics were used to assign appropriate activities is evident in James Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women (1766): "War, commerce, politics, exercises of strength and dexterity, abstract philosophy, and all the abstruser sciences, are most properly the province of men," while females, because they have been formed "with less vigour" must "command by obeying, and by yielding ... conquer" (Fordyce 1:272, 1:271, 2:261). Females were encouraged first and foremost to be "good daughters, good wives, good mistresses, good members of society, and good Christians" (More 133). Such demarcation of the sexes designated writing as a predominantly male activity. Since, Ralph Cohen reminds us, "genres possessed social purposes" (206), eighteenth-century female writers were only tolerated so long as they restricted themselves to "minor" (read: feminine) genres of children's literature, educational treatises, polemics on household economy, and certain types of fiction. Women, because of their presumed intellectual limitations, were deemed ill-equipped to write in the "major" (read: masculine) genres of political polemics, scholarship and philosophy. …

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