‘The mild lustre of modest independence’: Economies of Obligation in Novels of the 1790s

  • Gillian Skinner


‘“I am determined not to live in a state of dependence,”’ declares the unprotected Miss Forbes in Helen Maria Williams’s novel Julia (1790). In doing so, she raises a brief but unfulfilled hope that she will follow Anna’s example and earn her own subsistence, thus embodying what Mary Wollstonecraft saw as ‘the true definition of independence’.1 But Miss Forbes finds it very difficult to provide herself with ‘“a proper situation”’ (II, 192); hounded out of the house of her now dead benefactress by unsympathetic treatment, she discovers that living in lodgings leaves her a prey to persecution from the unprincipled (and married) Mr Seymour, and so in her desperation accepts an offer of marriage from Captain Meynell. It is as Mrs Meynell that Julia meets her, displaying ‘sweetness of temper, exemplary resignation, and uniform submission to [her husband’s] will’, despite his ‘sordid meanness, vulgarity, and ill-humour’ (II, 201–2). Such expressions of the desire for independence, followed by the failure to translate this desire into reality, come to be a feature of novels by radical women in the 1790s. The difficulty of defining (and finding) ‘a proper situation’, given the varied implications of that phrase — work suitable to the seeker’s station in life, consistent with propriety and commensurate with her abilities — becomes a key problem for those writers attempting to free their female characters from feminine dependency and endow them instead with a masculine independence.


Radical Woman Mutual Obligation Woman Writer Rational Independence Varied Implication 
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  1. 1.
    Helen Maria Williams, Julia (2 vols, Dublin: Chamberlaine and Rice et al., 1790), vol. II, p. 192. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792); Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (eds), The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft (7 vols, London: William Pickering, 1989), vol. 5, p. 155.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a discussion of this moment in the novel see Vivien Jones, ‘Women Writing Revolution: Narratives of History and Sexuality in Wollstonecraft and Williams’, in Stephen Copley and John Whale (eds), Beyond Romanticism (London: Routledge, 1992).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Most notable examples of this are probably Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, who in her Letters on the Female Mind, its Powers and Pursuits (2 vols, London: Hookham & Carpenter, 1793) wished to convince Helen Maria Williams ‘that there is but one side a female can take in politics’, and described politics as ‘the climax of unfitness’ as a study for women (I, 5; 21);Google Scholar
  4. and Hannah More, whose Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (2 vols, London: T. Cadeli & W. Davies, 1799) contained the following assurance: ‘I am not sounding an alarm to female warriors, or exciting female politicians: I hardly know which of the two is the most disgusting and unnatural character’ (I, 6).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Examples include Gertrude and D’Oyley in Charles Lloyd’s Edmund Oliver (1798), and Geraldine and Fitzosborne in Jane West’s A Tale of the Times (1799) as well as, from a different political standpoint, Anna and Coke Clifton in Thomas Holcroft’s Anna St. Ives (1792). See also Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660–1800 (London: Virago, 1989), in which she remarks how in novels of the 1790s ‘The particular feminine trajectory stood in for the trajectory of the nation’ (p. 233). As Chris Jones writes in Radical Sensibility, ‘The debates of the 1790s were characterized by a politiciz-ing of issues raised within the school of sensibility to the extent that one’s stand on matters such as the conduct of the private affections, charity, education, [etc.] became political statements, aligned with conservative or radical ideologies. Under the suppression of direct political expression, these issues became a code in which conservative and progressive thinkers proclaimed their allegiances and worked out terms of accommodation’ (London: Routledee, 1993, D. 13).Google Scholar
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    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); L. G. Mitchell (ed.), The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), vol. 8, p. 84.Google Scholar
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    More, Strictures (II, 173–4). And compare for example Fanny Burney, Camilla (1796; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983; rpt 1986), in which Mr Tyrold tells his wife that he holds ‘it as much a moral duty not to refuse receiving good offices, as not to avoid administering them. That species of independence, which proudly flies all ties of gratitude, is inimical to the social compact of civilized life, which sub-sists but by reciprocity of services’ (p. 232);Google Scholar
  8. also Jane West, A Gossip’s Story (1796; 4th edn, 2 vols, London: T. N. Longman & O. Rees, 1799), where the narrator, Mrs Prudentia Homespun, informs the reader that Christianity, ‘Upon the basis of mutual wants, general imperfection, and universal kindred … builds the fair structure of candour and benevolence’ (I, 49).Google Scholar
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    William Godwin, Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793; London: Penguin, 1976; rpt 1985), ‘Summary of Principles’, p. 76. See also Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, especially p. 110 where the naturalisation of dependence is described as acting against the ‘wise designs of nature’, which lead towards independence. See also Nicola Watson, Purloined Letters: Revolution, Reaction, and the Form of the Novel, 1790–1825 (Unpublished DPhil thesis; Oxford: 1990), in which she describes conservative upholders of ‘the Burkean ideal of the patriarchal familial network of affections and obligations as the microcosm, and the foundation, of a stable society’ as ‘horrified’ by Godwin’s suggestion that ‘universal benevolence could only exist when individuals were freed of obligations and unfettered by inequal-ity of property, or relationships (filial or marital) based on property’ (p. 101).Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Susan E. Brown, ‘Rational Creatures and Free Citizens: The Language of Politics in the Eighteenth-Century Debate on Women’, Historical Papers/Communications Historiques, Canadian Historical Association, 1988, p. 47.Google Scholar
  11. Also Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975; reissued with a new introducation, 1987; rpt 1990), in which she writes ‘In sexual matters the jacobins thought and as a group behaved (whatever their opponents claimed) like forerunners of the Evangelicals. Their advo-cacy of reason and restraint often makes them read like their opponents, the conservative moralists …’ (p. 45), and Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660–1800 (London: Virago, 1989), p. 234, where she identifies strategies and conclusions common to women writers of the 1790s across the political spectrum.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    See, for example, Jane West, The Advantages of Education, or, the History of Maria Williams (2 vols, London: Minerva, 1793), in which the narra-tor (Mrs Prudentia Homespun) protests that ‘real evils in abundance exist, to stem the torrent of refined whimseys, and sentimental extrav-agance’ (I, 34). Of course sentimental vocabulary was also under attack from radical writers, most famously in Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she termed Burke’s rhetoric ‘sentimental jargon’ (Works, vol. 5, p. 30). I discuss this further below.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Sarah Fielding, The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (2 vols, London: A. Millar, 1759), vol. I, p. 202.Google Scholar
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    Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 130.Google Scholar
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    Watson, p. 44. See also John Whale’s essay, ‘Preparations for Happiness: Mary Wollstonecraft and Imagination’ , in Robin Jarvis and Philip Martin (eds), Reviewing Romanticism (London: Macmillan, 1992), in which he suggests that Wollstonecraft ‘rails against the chaos of strong feelings not simply as a rationalist who wishes to dismiss them altogether, but as a moralist who wishes to appropriate their affective power for her own concerns’ (p. 178).Google Scholar
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    Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1790–2; London and New York: Dent and Dutton [Everyman’s Library], 1915; rpt. 1966), p. 157 and compare for example Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise on Political Economy; or the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth (1803; trans. from the 4th edn of the French; 5th American edn, Philadelphia: Grigg & Elliott, 1832): ‘the sense of mutual interest begets international kind-ness, extends the sphere of useful intercourse, and leads to a prosperity, permanent, because it is natural’ (p. 47).Google Scholar
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    See Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman (1788 and 1798; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 95, n. 4.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Holcroft, Anna St. Ives (1792; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 175. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    Elizabeth Inchbald, Nature and Art (1796) in Mrs Barbauld (ed.), The British Novelists (50 vols, London: F. C. and J. Rivington et al., 1820), vol. 27, p. 242. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition.Google Scholar
  20. 28.
    Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), E. A. Wrigley and David Souden (eds), The Works of Malthus (8 vols, London: William Pickering, 1986), vol. 1, p. 35.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Ibid., pp. 29 and 33. See also Guy Routh, The Origin of Economic Ideas (1975; 2nd edn, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), in which he discusses the ways in which Malthus justifies the sufferings of the poor, which develop from seeing them as ‘the helpless victims of natural law’ to, in the expanded 1803 edition of the Essay, explaining to them ‘patiently … that their sufferings are all their own fault’ (pp. 112–13).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 30.
    See Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel 1780–1805 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975): ‘The events of 1794, the Treason Trials and the nationwide conservative reaction, made English Jacobin novels and English Jacobin ideas of general reform not only dangerous, but peripheral, and Pantisocracy was only one way out, a retrograde step seen in several English Jacobin novels of the time, a literary return to the ideal of rustic independence and sympathetic mutual help which had scarcely ever existed outside the world of fiction’ (p. 111).Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    Jane West, A Gossip’s Story, and a Legendary Tale (1796; 4th edn, 2 vols, London: Longman and Rees, 1799), vol. I, p. iii. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition.Google Scholar
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    Mary Hays, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 10. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition.Google Scholar
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    Charles Lloyd, Edmund Oliver (2 vols, Bristol: Joseph Cottle, 1798), vol. I, pp. 36, 40. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition.Google Scholar
  27. 58.
    Despite its late date, The Wanderer was conceived and begun in the 1790s and is very much a work of that decade. See Margaret Doody’s Introduction to the World’s Classics edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. viii, xii—xiii.Google Scholar
  28. 59.
    Priscilla Wakefield, Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798; 2nd edn, London: Darton, Harvey, and Darton, 1817), pp. 61–2. Subsequent references in the text are to this edition.Google Scholar
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    Mary Hays, The Victim of Prejudice (1799; Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994), pp. 139–40.Google Scholar
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    Fanny Burney, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 448.Google Scholar

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© Gillian Skinner 1999

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  • Gillian Skinner

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