Eighteenth Century Women Writers and the Gentleman’s Liberation Movement
Independence,War, Masculinity and the Novel, 1778-1817
Megan A. Woodworth
Farnham: Ashgate, 2011
Cloth. 229 pages. ISBN 978-1409427803. £35.00
Reviewed by Glenda Leeming
University of Southampton
Since historians and literary critics concede that the later eighteenth century brought little progress for the position of women, it is interesting that in this book Megan A. Woodworth has focused on the period from 1778 to 1817. Even though Mary Wollestonecraft and Hannah More were then producing their dynamic assertions of rights, the political climate in Britain was repressive, partly in reaction to the revolutionary events in France. Later critical debate mainly centres on whether at this point the position of women remained static, made very small incremental advances, or even declined.
Woodworth argues however that women writers, particularly novelists, were busily asserting their own view of how man should live in society – ‘man’ in this case meaning literally male members of society, specifically gentlemen. The point is that these women writers were not producing fantasies of the perfect hero, alongside carefully contrasted portraits of less adequate suitors, but were debating the right behaviour of men, though with some implications for humankind as a whole.
As many critics of the period have pointed out, women as well as men were interested in the Enlightenment debates particulary on social duties, and they entered vigorously into the discussion of rationality and sentiment as manifested not only in the drawing room but in political business. The uncouth aggression of a rural squire and the predatory selfishness of the urban rake were unacceptable: they were criticised not from a religious point of view but as contrary to right citizenship. So, as is seen in many essays of the period, the influence of women was considered beneficial to some extent: at least in modifying public behaviour.
A key aspect of Woodworth’s argument then is that gentlemen should not simply become more ‘civilised’ by behaving gently and with delicacy in order to please ladies, but should also show activity and duty in the service of their state, society and country. To make this point, Woodworth builds on recent interest in the way culture is marked by war: women’s fiction rarely dealt in battle scenes, but could nonetheless show how a society was affected by ongoing ‘off-stage’ military and naval activity. At the same time, gentlemen who were not in the army or navy might show their duty and vigour by properly carrying out their responsibilities as landowners (actually supervising and managing their staff, rather than just drawing the income while neglecting its generation). Thus the attention of female writers gradually moves from the appearance and address of their male characters to their activity in the wider world. So we can see that the part of Woodworth’s title referring to ‘the Gentleman’s Liberation Movement’ hints that the gentleman of this period needs to be liberated from previous generations’ gross, selfish behaviour, without falling into the other extreme of ‘feminisation’ through absorption into the female world of fashion, shopping and polite social ritual.
The choice of the period 1778-1817 enables her to include Fanny Burney’s first novel and Jane Austen’s last novel, as well as some by Charlotte Smith and Jane West. In Fanny Burney’s Evelina the hero Lord Orville is perhaps only partially successful in illustrating the fully rounded Enlightenment Man: his politeness, modesty, rationality and good feeling certainly establish him as a model of a reliable citizen and husband, but his other social roles are not clear. It would have been illuminating if Woodworth had had space for a longer consideration of the older Captain Mirvan, father of Evelina’s friend Mary, a navy captain with totally uninhibited speech and actions. His physical attacks on Evelina’s grandmother will appal the modern reader (he violently shakes her to stop her disagreeing with him, and deliberately arranges a ‘practical joke’ in which she is thrown into a ditch) and seem to show him as an unregenerate savage from the previous age. Yet he is not merely a miles gloriosus , as he is equally forceful in attacking other men and defending his family. Also, his naval service for his country is contrasted with the idleness of the gentlemen of fashion, to his advantage, and there is no sign of his ill-treating his pleasant wife and daughter, though he embarrasses them immensely. There is ambiguity here, underlined by Burney in her depiction of the characters’ theatre trip to see Congreve’s Love for Love. Evelina, a reliable critic, notes that the comedy is typical of the uncivilised previous generation in being sexually suggestive, and yet cannot help finding it altogether more dramatic, well structured and intelligent than the newer plays of her own time. To emphasise the relevance, when a sneering fashionable fop asks Captain Milvan how he liked Congreve’s presentation of Ben, a young sailor of comically rough naïve manners, Captain Milvan shortly replies that he thinks Ben to be ‘a Man’ (obviously with the implication that the sneerer was less than ‘a Man’). Captain Milvan would thus compare well with Austen’s picture of Fanny Price’s father in Mansfield Park, a more nuanced view of a rough ex-sailor who is knowledgeable about ships and naval affairs but who does not concern himself with his children and badly run household.
It is however in Austen’s last completed novels, Emma and Persuasion, that Woodworth finds better exemplars of the active, responsible yet thoughtful gentleman. Emma shows Mr. Knightley constantly involved in managing his estate, while maintaining polite (but not too polite) relations with local society, and perhaps in a reverse of the civilising influence of women he helps to direct Emma herself away from self-indulgent dreams towards greater rationality and discrimination. Most notably, Persuasion then offers a plentiful range of examples of vigorous, brave, naval officers in Captain Wentworth and his friends.
Particularly significant is the example of the Crofts, Wentworth’s sister and her husband, whose close mutual support also illustrates the theme of active life: rejecting the separate spheres of man’s profession and women’s domesticity, the Crofts go everywhere together, sharing everything from the reins of their one-horse carriage to their voyages across the globe to naval postings. In the provinces, outside the hothouse of London society, then, the active lower gentry who engaged in the professions might achieve both responsibility in wider society and respect for the independence of women. Whether they can be liberated from the self-interest and egotism that might undermine both of these is another question.
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