A Review of Angela Keane's Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings

The following will appear in ECCB: The Eighteenth Century: A Current Bibliography, 2001 (to be published in 2004).

Keane, Angela. Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. 200; bibliography; index.

Rev. (favorably) by Ann R. Hawkins in Eighteenth-Century Studies, 36 (2003), 449-52.

Angela Keane demonstrates that Ann Radcliffe, Helen Maria Williams, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Hannah More presented identities and published types of content which enabled them to participate in shaping the commercial, progressive, individually redeeming and aesthetic Romantic ideals which we find in the better- known writing of their male contemporaries. She reveals these writers had to struggle with or evade evolving domestic norms whose effect prevented women from identifying as productive members of imagined communities except through their relationship to a family network. Her argument is that nationalism, patriarchal marital and capitalist arrangements, and the 1790s perception of print culture as inescapably politicized and radical turned women who wanted literally or imaginatively to leave a feminized restrictive home into ostracized exiles or isolated wanderers. Unless they were mothers or performed a maternal function, they were made to feel they belonged nowhere, to no one or had no one attached to them because no one was dependent on their care. This, even when they lived among family and friends, functioned as successful salonnières or conducted commercial business. Following a qualified variant of Habermas's theories, Keane shows that in the 1790s and afterwards, the public sphere is "newly masculinized" (8) and, especially for women, writing and publishing become potentially strongly suspect activities.

In five chapters Keane explores how her five women writers coped with impinging norms that would characterize their ways of life and vocation as an alien aberration. She begins by examining neglected aspects of Ann Radcliffe's novels and her nearly forgotten travel book, A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794. In all these Radcliffe develops a Rousseauistic critique of injustices which typified the ancien régime in the minds of her readers, and imagines benign human communities rooted in shared memories of local pasts and cultural learning, and in progressive enlightened interaction between people through commerce. Radcliffe writes effective anti-war propaganda through retelling the recent past (e.g., the seiges of Mentz and Manheim), and she condemns repressive Catholic dogma, ways of life, and non-modern epistemology. Radcliffe is only partly actuated by her Protestant, Whiggish, and liberal background. The insight that makes her recognize the importance of imaginary terrors, a loss of autonomy, and physiological deprivation is the same which creates her haunted picturesque landscapes and Wordsworthian therapeutic pilgrimages. Keane builds on Terry Castle's essay, "The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho (in The New Eighteenth Century, edd. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown [New York: Methuen, 1987] 231-53, 307-10), to suggest that for Radcliffe "home" becomes a spectral place where shared benevolence, physical comfort and individual fulfillment is made freely available to reader and writer through the consciousness which imagines it.

Since unlike what has happened to Radcliffe's work, the intended and actual social and political uses of Helen Maria Williams's imaginative and travel writings have not been neglected, Keane moves on to study Williams's work to see how it contributes to our understanding of Romantic poetics as well as the contemporary failure of an ideal of cosmopolitanism to take hold and of progressive political ideals to lead to effective legislative action in England. Keane shows how Williams and Charlotte Smith demonstrated a rare courage when they persisted in arguing that the failure, perversions, and fearful violence that the French revolution led to did not invalidate Enlightenment egalitarian and humane ideals; while Hannah More exploited virulent anti-French propaganda to campaign for an emerging counter-revolutionary evangelical value system and restrained bourgeois behavior, Williams and Smith praised French culture for initiating reformist ideals and promotion of salon life and aristocratic manners and taste. Like Mary Wollstonecraft in her An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1794), Williams and Smith were occasionally willing sympathetically to dramatize women's heterosexual desires finding fulfillment outside the prevailing marital codes. In her close reading of Williams's 8-volume Letters Written in France (covering a span from 1790 to 1816), Keane characterizes these Letters as a "narrative of desire." Williams writes from the vantage point of a "regained paradise" looking back on devastation and loss (71). Family romances and emotional appeals alternate with stories of imprisonment, catalogues of executions, and "an overwhelming sensation of exile" where Williams is "reduced to the status of a motherless Gothic heroine, in flight from phantoms and despots" (70), mourning for the French people, for a lost dream of an international community, for a time when men and women were encouraged to place shared subjective idealisms in the public sphere.

As Keane says in her analysis of Charlotte Smith's 1792 epistolary novel, Desmond "was the only work of British fiction to comment directly on the events of the French revolution as they unfolded" (81), and, like Williams's Letters, participated in the debate over the French revolution between Burke and Paine. Keane concentrates on those of Smith's novels which explore "the condition of exile" (91), dramatize and explicitly comment on the economic, social and political realities of English society, argue for Enlightenment ideals, and suggest why the French revolution degenerated into terror and civil war. In Keane's effort to introduce the reader to Smith's powerful novels which are not well known, she sometimes loses sight of larger issues and provides a series of too sketchy perfunctory plot- summaries, description, and analysis. She has, however, chosen well. While The Banished Man (1794) falls off badly in its fourth volume, and (until recently) has been discussed only disparagingly, the book's early phases include a depiction of cycles of violence, famine, corrupt anarchy and anguish in the French countryside; like Radcliffe in her Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, Smith presents real sieges on the European continent; her hero, D'Alonville, is a homeless French aristocrat, an emigré, who becomes involved with a historical Polish patriot. Keane shows that The Banished Man does not, as has been suggested, "capitulate to counter-revolutionary sentiment," but, in the teeth of a depiction of ruthless familial and class feuds, "reasserts the cosmopolitan fantasy that underpinned early revolutionary philosophy" (94). The trope of exile and the brutalities of mercenary wars dominate Keane's analysis of Smith's historical novel, The Old Manor House (1793) as Keane focuses on the hero's time fighting on the American continent in the late 1770s. Keane does ample justice to Smith's last long novel, The Young Philosopher (1798) by a careful examination of Smith's imaginative exploration of sexual politics, of the repression, powerlessness and homelessness of women, and of isolated flight and imprisonment, much of it brought about by emotional blackmail and corrupt manipulation of law and familial and sexual mores.

Keane is at times too defensive. She defends Smith's dismissal of Desmond's French mistress who has had a child by him on the grounds that Smith is not unconsciously yielding to, but exposing how "nationalistic sentiment" can lead to erasing individuals (88). Keane never brings up the "hollow" hypocrisies underlying the heroine's rectitude (examined by Diana Bowstead in "Charlotte Smith's Desmond: The Epistolary Novel as Ideological Argument," Fetter'd or Free: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edd. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski [Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1986] 237-63). Keane seems unaware that Smith's displacements testify far more to her desire for satisfying heterosexual love and adult male companionship in an imagined community (very like those with which Radcliffe closes her novels) than they do to any regret she is exiled from typical English milieus. A longing for fulfilling adult heterosexual love, bitterness, and intense grief over individual injustices she and her children have suffered fuel Smith's work. Smith produces morally confused work as the norms of respectablity coerce her into obscuring the anger and frustrations that induce her to write.

On the other hand, Keane's defense of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) against those who have argued the book presents "a puritan sexual ethic with such passionate conviction that self-denial seems a libidinized activity" is persuasive (Cora Kaplan, "Wild Nights," Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism [Thetford, Norfolk: Thetford Press, 1986] 35-36). Keane argues that Wollstonecraft "tried and failed to resist" the exploitation of women's bodies by men, contemporary political, social, and economic arrangements and ranked hierarchies. Wollstonecraft sought to enable women to live as fully socialized a life as men, and to have access to a life of the mind equivalent to their particular talents. Like Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft experienced the reality that, contrary to what was professed by moralists in print, laws and customs were not set up to support women who were mothers. In her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Denmark and Norway (1796) and private letters to Gilbert Imlay, Wollstonecraft exposes the amorality and hardening of individuals which some of the actual practices of commerce inculcate. She was driven to publish by passionate indignation over socially-accepted practices which led to high infant mortality and abandoned children; to women whose bodies were exhausted and were without either an absolute legal right to economic support or ability to achieve economic security on their own. Wollstonecraft argues the power women gain over men through their sexuality is debasing and ephemeral. Keane concedes that Wollstonecraft did write about adult sexuality pessimistically and from a proscriptive standpoint, but Wollstonecraft's warnings, disdain for co-opted women, and depressive stance are not meant to deprive women of pleasure; rather she seeks to protect them because she was convinced that her experience of powerlessness against violence and of sexuality and motherhood as abject and alienated was common.

Keane concludes by modifying recent attempts to re-position Hannah More as a "revolutionary reformer" and to present her as someone who conferred power on women (e.g., Anne K. Mellor, Mothers of the Nationa: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830 [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000] 13-38). Keane focuses on how More's "canny manipulation of the press, social connection and economic patronage" (134) was aimed at offering readers "a programme of emotional and mental discipline" (145) intended to repress political activities on behalf of legislative reforms. More wanted to prevent the ordinary person from gaining access to publish in the press. She urged women to educate themselves with the limited aim of being "of practical use" to their families and to those whom the marketplace and contemporary hierarchies had severely disadvantaged. She argued they must conform to middle class norms, and be especially "scrupulous" in their sexual relationships, to be allowed to exercise this power ("The Practical Use of Female Knowledge," The Female Spectator: English Women Writers before 1800, edd. Mary Mahl and Helene Koon [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977] 287-96). Ironically, More found herself "vilified" (152) and was silenced when she took an active role in establishing schools, women's clubs and explicitly promoted an "evangelical religion of the heart." She was attacked by conservative members of the Established church as a female attempting to wrest inappropriate authority; it was insinuated her "enthusiasms" disguised an "uncontrollable sexuality" (152, 157). Unfortunately, Keane omits More's popular novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808): in this novel a genuinely genial tone and satirically comic scenes whose targets are complicated, and which have some of the ambiguity of life, replace the grating condescension and transparently simplified politics of More's Cheap Repository Tracts (1795- 97) and the flattery of More's letters to patrons and friends which mar them and have created an antipathy for More among some modern scholars. Analysis and quotation from Coelebs could have revealed why this novel found a receptive audience and remained in print for decades.

Nonetheless, the real strength of Keane's book derives from her decision not to concentrate on novels; she situates those novels she covers amid the varied contentious print culture of the 1790s and deals at length with her subjects' intelligent and perceptive non-fiction. She reveals the strategies and deformations of women's texts which arise when women attempt to publish in a marketplace dominated by norms inimical to presenting real women's lives and to giving power to women "to take their place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter" (Carolyn Heilburn, Writing a Woman's Life [New York: Ballantine Books, 1988] 18). Keane is particularly troubled by "the level of institutional 'misrecognition' of women's place in civil society and the contradictory status of mothers in the discourse of nationhood" (162) that continues in our own time. The one demur I would register is the absence of any questioning of the assumption that individuals function best when they feel they belong to some imagined large community, preferably one rooted in memories going back to childhood. "Internationalism" as an ideal may today seem a poignant "fantasy" (14-15, 55, 76), but in a book professedly "Utopian in purpose" (161), it's troubling to see the power of nationalism, capitalism and present state and familial institutions presented as immutable.

Ellen Moody
George Mason University

Kenilworth Castle, 1814 print

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