Realism and the Unreal in the Female American

By McMurran, Mary Helen | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Realism and the Unreal in the Female American


McMurran, Mary Helen, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Published anonymously in 1767, The Female American, or the Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield received only two brief notices in the press and was never published again in England. Although it was republished in America circa 1800 and again in 1814, these editions also went mostly unnoticed. Thanks largely to Michelle Bumham's edition of the novel with its ample introduction, notes, and selection of contexts and sources, the current generation of scholars and students has rescued this unpopular work in a popular genre (the novel) and popular subgenre (the Robinsoniad).1 It has since become that rare literary rediscovery which seems to speak more to its twenty-first century readers than to its eighteenth-century audience not least because its unusual heroine bears a formal resemblance to, but also stark departure from, canonical protagonists and their fictions. Unca Eliza Winkfield is a half-English, half-indigenous woman who, finding herself orphaned and without situation in life, ends up abandoned on a quasi-deserted island. She survives, and after a series of adventures on the island, settles into life as a missionary to the indigenous people who inhabit the nearby mainland, and ends her tale by marrying her English cousin and bringing him in their new native Christian community. Most critics have noted that the heroine's racial and cultural hybridity, her female independence, and her role as a native-Christian missionary provide a counterpoint to hegemonic Anglo-masculinity in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world exemplified by Robinson Crusoe (1719). 2 Betty Joseph has argued that The Female American is a "surrogation" of Daniel Defoe's novel, and although it may be selective, inexact, and potentially unsuccessful in fully displacing Crusoe, Unca Eliza nonetheless produces a deficit or surplus challenging the canonical model. Joseph writes: "the founding father has been displaced by the not-quitewhite mother, and . . . Christianity becomes a female fantasy of total being that rescues the native population from the history of Anglo founding and Anglo (male) missionary projects."3 If Unca Eliza's atypical female role as a "powerful and influential religious leader" as Burnham describes it, defies the Crusoean paradigm of commercial self-interest and physical dominion over the land and peoples in the new world - for this female adventurer's primary interest is communitarian rather than individual - Unca Eliza's female autonomy also challenges the canonical eighteenth-century heroine's twin destinies of marriage and the home as the new ideology of middle class femininity.4 The Female American has provided us with a critical vantage point from which to view the evolving English novel to the extent that its model of female agency in light of its intersections with race and empire present an irresistible antidote to the two pillars of the eighteenth-century development of the realist novel: masculine individualism and female domesticity.

Although the eighteenth-century novel cannot be reduced to concerns with individualism and domesticity alone, the influence of Ian Watt's readings of Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) has made these categories crucial to studies of the^eighteenth-century novel. In large part, this is not because of the power of Watt's interpretation so much as because the revisionist criticism of the novel that followed Watt, including that of Nancy Armstrong, John Bender, Terry Castle, Lennard Davis, Catherine Gallagher, J. Paul Hunter, Michael McKeon, William Warner, and others, pursued the rigorous application of social theory to the novel form in ways that deepened the purchase of individualism and domesticity among other categories.5 Most of this revisionist impulse effectively downplayed Watt's formal realism in order to take up his sociological emphasis, and with the help of Marxism, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, and other theorists, critics articulated the cultural work of the novel, lifting the skin of eighteenth-century narrative to dissect its ideologies of class, gender, race, nation, and empire. …

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