Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790s

By Linda Lang-Peralta | Go to book overview

Radcliffe, Godwin, and Self-Possession in the 1790s

Barbara M. Benedict

I n 1794, William Godwin was reading Ann Radcliffe The Mysteries of Udolpho while writing Caleb Williams.1 From Radcliffe, Godwin borrowed not only the archetypal struggle between youth and authority, and the Gothic mood of brooding oppression, but also Radcliffe's central trope: curiosity. Both books are plotted around the consequences of unregulated inquiry, and notwithstanding their enlightened philosophies, both portray curiosity as a cultural ambition that dangerously sexualizes identity and threatens the very integrity of the self.

Curiosity has long produced contrary responses in Western culture. Deplored by religious conservatives as a sacrilegious usurpation of God's prerogative, it has also been represented as man's noblest trait, the impulse driving him to exploration, discovery, science, and improvement.2 In the Christian tradition, curiosity impels Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, stimulates the lust of the eyes, and excites the Athenian itch. Representing curiosity alternately as a threat to established institutions and as a promise of progress, traditional discourse both lauds the Aristotelian urge to know and denigrates the impertinent desire to inquire. For the writers of 1794, the familiar issue took on added significance for they were living in a period of post-empirical disillusion, when it seemed that the methods of science could not answer the problems of society.3 Under the pressure of contemporary debates, these novels transform a traditional

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