The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820

The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre

Katherine Sobba Green
Copyright Date: 1991
Edition: 1
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820
    Book Description:

    The period from her first London assembly to her wedding day was the narrow span of autonomy for a middle-class Englishwoman in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For many women, as Katherine Sobba Green shows, the new ideal of companionate marriage involved such thoroughgoing revisions in self-perception that a new literary form was needed to represent their altered roles.

    That the choice among suitors ideally depended on love and should not be decided on any other grounds was a principal theme among a group of heroine-centered novels published between 1740 and 1820. During these decades, some two dozen writers, most of them women, published such courtship novels. Specifically aiming them at young women readers, these novelists took as their common purpose the disruption of established ideas about how dutiful daughters and prudent young women should comport themselves during courtship. Reading a wide range of primary texts, Green argues that the courtship novel was a feminized genre -- written about, by, and for women.

    She challenges contemporary readers to appreciate the subtleties of early feminism in novels by Eliza Haywood, Mary Collyer, Charlotte Lennox, Samuel Richardson, Frances Brooke, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane West, Mary Brunton, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen -- to recognize that these courtship novelists held in common a desire to reimagine the subject positions through which women understood themselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4966-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-8)

    MARRIAGE MEDIATES the patterns according to which heterosexual women and men—real and fictional—live. It harmonizes the natural, the familial, the social, and the transcendental. That is, marriage accommodates the diverse reagents of life: nature’s coupling and breeding, existing interfamilial patterns, society’s contracts, and the church’s ministerial function. Tony Tanner conjectures that the wife’s role, for instance, “ideally contains the biologicalfemale,the obedientdaughter(and perhaps sister), the faithfulmate,the responsiblemother,and the believingChristian.”¹ Marital failure is inevitably attended by role conflict, and, Tanner reasons, this dynamic potential makes adultery the main topic for the bourgeois novel-especially...

  5. Part I. A Feminized Genre
      (pp. 11-24)

      HOWEVER ENLIGHTENED our understanding of patriarchy, when we thumb back through eighteenth-century conduct books we expect to find a language of containment and circumscription that preempts female hopes and desires—the monitory gesture, uplifted forefinger, and glowering brow, usually belonging to male conduct writers. A line from the Reverend John Bennet’sLetters to a Young Lady(1792) conveys the stereotypic patriarchal attitude: “If I was called upon to write the history of a woman’s trials and sorrows, I would date it from the moment when nature pronounces hermarriageable.”¹ Addressing boarding-school students, Bennet outlines a bleak prospectus for a woman's...

      (pp. 25-31)

      WHETHER Eliza Haywood was convinced by her own appraisal of the market or forced into caution or repentance by Pope’sDunciad,she demonstrated a marked shift toward the morality of Jane Barker, Penelope Aubin, and Mary Davys in her works (largely anonymous) published after the 1728Dunciad.At fifty-one, caught by shifting literary fashions, Haywood returned to topics she had already attempted in theFemale Spectator,restyling her novels to suit new audience demands for moral heroine-centered tales. One might assume from the dates ofThe Fortunate Foundlings(1744) andThe History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy(1753) that Haywood...

      (pp. 32-40)

      ALL THAT is known about Mary Mitchell Collyer is that she married Joseph Collyer, a compiler and translator, and had one child; beyond this, her personal life is a blank, unrelieved by contemporary diarists or reviewers. Yet she is important to a discussion of the courtship novel not only because her works raise intriguing possibilities of mutual influence when aligned with Samuel Richardson’s novels, but also because her sole novel,Felicia to Charlotte(1744, 1749) is in its own right one of the better minor novels of the eighteenth century.¹

      While there is no biographical evidence that Mary Collyer ever...

  6. Part II. Feminist Reception Theory
    • FOUR Early Feminist Reception Theory: CLARISSA AND THE FEMALE QUIXOTE
      (pp. 43-54)

      INSOFAR AS WE are accustomed to gauging Daniel Defoe’s feminism by the attention he devotes to those ample heroines Moll Flanders and Roxana, we may miss the fact that, beyond supposing his readers to be “virtuous” or “honest,” he does not particularize his audience. Against this context, the detail that his contemporaries Jane Barker, Penelope Aubin, and Mary Davys addressed their female rogue fiction specifically to women makes theirs an innovation worthy of consideration. Jane Barker, for instance, selectively addressed herself to “the only Part of Mankind that must act a Scene on this World’s Theatre, without being permitted to...

      (pp. 55-61)

      INHenrietta(1758), published six years afterThe Female Quixote(1752), Charlotte Lennox once again examined the problems a young woman faced as she came to terms with the world—this time not through the deflation of a romance-reading heroine but through the more realistic disappointments and surprises of an ingenue run away from her guardian. As she had done in the earlier novel, Lennox shaped her heroine’s story to convey a broader lesson to women readers by weighing the advantages and disadvantages of social rebellion.

      Perhaps because she herself was orphaned just as she entered adult life, one of...

      (pp. 62-66)

      FRANCES MOORE’s first literary venture wasThe Old Maid,a periodical that ran from November 1755 through July 1756. “Mary Singleton, Spinster” invited correspondence from old maids, addressed such current issues as the war with France and the establishment of foundling hospitals, and advised her readers on the behavior of theater audiences, the management of a young woman’s courtship, and friendship. Although her magazine halted publication abruptly when Frances Moore (age 32) married the Reverend Dr. John Brooke, she continued writing, having two plays staged as well as publishing several translations and three novels.¹

      Her husband’s stint as First Chaplain...

  7. Part III. The Commodification of Heroines
    • SEVEN The Blazon and the Marriage Act: BEGINNING FOR THE COMMODITY MARKET
      (pp. 69-79)

      INTRODUCED in Parliament in 1753, Lord Hardwicke’s “Act for the better preventing of Clandestine Marriages” stipulated that marriages were to be performed by ordained Anglican clergymen in the premises of the Church of England, the banns to be called three times or a special license purchased from a bishop. Most crucially, parental consent for those under twenty-one was to be strictly enforced. The Hardwicke Act outlawed ecclesiastical suits brought on the basis of contractsde praesentiorde futuro;the ceremony, not the agreement, would be the test of English marriage. The centuries’ old conflict over who properly held power’...

      (pp. 80-90)

      BY THE TIME Fanny Burney’s second novel was published in 1782, the author was already in place as a favorite among the Thrale circle. Fifteen years later Erasmus Darwin recognized her popularity among women readers by includingCecilia(1782), along with the earlierEvelina(1778), with the “serious novels” he recommended in hisPlan for the Conduct of Female Education.¹ When Jane Austen undertook a defense of the genre inNorthanger Abbey(1818),Ceciliawas one of the few novels she mentioned. Burney’s second novel, as critics have only recently begun to acknowledge, conveys a remarkable understanding of the troubled...

  8. Part IV. Educational Reform
    • NINE Richardson and Wollstonecraft: THE “LEARNED LADY” AND THE NEW HEROINE
      (pp. 93-103)

      ALTHOUGH at one point in hisSermons to Young Women(1766), James Fordyce assures his readers that there is no such thing as a learned lady—he has never seen one—pages later he applauds the advantages of women’s “Mental Improvements”: “to adorn and animate the companion, to direct and dignify the mistress, to accomplish the mother and the friend, to spread a charm over the whole matrimonial state, and to relieve those duller hours that are apt to steal on the most delightful condition of humanity.”¹ It was at once within and against such apparently contradictory advice as Fordyce’s...

    • TEN Bluestockings, Amazons, Sentimentalists, and Fashionable Women
      (pp. 104-113)

      IF Mary Wollstonecraft stood as a symbol for female education and revolutionary idealism, she also represented in her personal life the worst fears of conservative writers—that education would emancipate women from socially prescribed roles and encourage their radicalism. The autobiographical content of her works heightened her mimetic appeal so that Wollstonecraftian characters populated contemporary novels. Yet, tainted by the social opprobrium surrounding the author’s highly controversial life, these figures commonly were presented as negative exempla, patterns of the ills brought on when women rebelled.

      The simplest reading of such negative exempla or “little histories” is that they gesture on...

      (pp. 114-119)

      JANE WEST’sThe Advantages of Education, or, The History of Maria Williams(1793), obviously calculated for readers following the skirmishes of the Feminist Controversy, appeared the year after Mary Wollstonecraft rushedA Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792) into print. While generally West concurs with Wollstonecraft’s complaints against female miseducation, she employs a more restrained rhetoric. Moreover, by using a pseudonymous author, she appeals directly to identificatory readers, yet at the same time she distances herself from the responsibilities and hazards of her authorial position. Much like the Amazons, bluestockings, pedants, and fashionable women discussed in the last chapter,...

      (pp. 120-134)

      MARY BRUNTON was more attentive to character than Mary Wollstonecraft, more conscious of detail than Jane West. Her witty use of native Scots personality had affinities with Maria Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott, both of whom she admired. Known today primarily for her influence on Jane Austen, Brunton deserves consideration in her own right as one of the better novelists of the early nineteenth century.

      TheMemoirof her life and writings that her husband published after her death provides us unusual insight into Mary Brunton’s opinion of her role as novelist. Looking forward to a time when the novel...

  9. Part V. The Denouement:: Courtship and Marriage
      (pp. 137-145)

      WHEN JOHN BENNET dated a woman’s trials and sorrows from the time “when Nature pronounces Her Marriageable,” he did not caution his boarding-school audience that they were likely to experience conflict with the older generation over their affective rights, over prerogatives of love and choice.¹ Yet throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, one finds textual evidence of persistent generational conflict concerning marriage choice: whose decision was it? and what was the basis for deciding?

      In effect, the eighteenth-century shift in the balance of power between children and parents was a moment of flux...

      (pp. 146-152)

      INTRODUCED to London society as one of Mrs. Stanhope’s nieces, the heroine ofBelinda(1801) must brave the stigma of being associated with a matchmaker who prides herself “upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes superior to their own.”¹ Probing the issues of love and choice through secondary characters as well as through the conflicting subject positions of her heroine, Maria Edgeworth articulated a broad range of ideological positions with regard to marriage and to women’s roles.

      Edgeworth’s matchmaking aunt, anticipating Jane Austen’s Mrs.Bennet, consistently employs...

      (pp. 153-160)

      JANE AUSTEN’s novels, along with those by Maria Edgeworth, Brunton, and Susan Ferrier, were the last grand flourish of the courtship novel, sounded at the beginning of a century that was to modulate domestic themes with public ones, bridging into the Victorian. Like her literary forbears who wrote women’s courtship novels, interrogated the terms and the practices of the marriage market—the commodification of women by society—and like them she suggested alternatives to the subject positions society made available women in her period.

      Not surprisingly, the blazon in one shape or another was Austen’s standard beginning, and parallel connivances...

    (pp. 161-162)

    GIVEN OUR late-twentieth-century horizons of expectation about marriage, it goes against current modes of critical thought to suggest that such a genre as the courtship novel could advance feminist positions. We distrust the sacrifices of autonomy and individual achievement that “domestic bliss” has entailed for women, and we understand that the heterosexually rendered model of affective relationships—“husband-wife”—excludes substantial numbers of the population. There is no question but that eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century courtship novels, read against today’s social conditions, yield little that modern readers of even the most conservative women’s magazine would label “feminist.”

    Yet the sole act of...

    (pp. 163-164)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 165-179)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 180-184)