Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790s

By Linda Lang-Peralta | Go to book overview

Injustice in the Works of Godwin and Wollstonecraft

Glynis Ridley

Throughout the 1790s the British political establishment sought to deny the usefulness of debate on a range of constitutional matters by the simple expedient of faulting the basic form of expression employed by its detractors. Petitions to parliament and radical pamphlets were equally liable to dismissal on the grounds that their language did not permit the discussion of abstract concepts, contained an abundance of metaphors, and that they were altogether overly emotive. Radical writers of the 1790s thus faced a linguistic challenge before they could mount a political one. Was it possible to fashion "an intellectual vernacular": a prose style capable of discussing legal and constitutional precedents (drawn up by men with a classical rhetorical training) in a language accessible to all literate men and women?1 Whilst these issues have previously been explored 1820, in relation to state trials from 1790- 1820, the present paper takes as its focus the search for an intellectual vernacular in fictional trials of the same period. Out of all the fictional productions of English prose writers in the 1790s, two texts stand out for their overt exploration of linguistic norms demanded by legal precedent: Caleb Williams and The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria. The paper will consider, firstly, the process by which fiction writers attempted to create sympathetic, radical characters who were required to be proficient in both the intellectual vernacular and the legal language of their social and political opponents; and secondly, the paper will

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