Persuasion and Gender Equality

            I would like to think about Mary Wollstonecraft’s influence in Persuasion—in particular how notions of gender and equality are taken up by Jane Austen in a novel filled with both silly, insipid, and rational hardy women. In particular, it might be useful to give a gloss of how social class and gender rights are operating in Persuasion (1818)—and how we might think about the influence of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) in the scene between Captain Harville and Anne wherein they discuss the difference of emotions in gender:

“Ah!” cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, “if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!’ And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelvemonth’s absence, perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, ‘They cannot be here till such a day,’ but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still! If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do, for the sake of these treasures of his existence! I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!” pressing his own with emotion.

“Oh!” cried Anne eagerly, “I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as–if I may be allowed the expression–so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”

She could not immediately have uttered another sentence; her heart was too full, her breath too much oppressed.

“You are a good soul,” cried Captain Harville, putting his hand on her arm, quite affectionately. “There is no quarrelling with you. And when I think of Benwick, my tongue is tied.”

            This scene asks us to consider the quality of emotion and the difference in employment of emotion (and employment of life) between men and women during the Regency period. With women seen as having less strong of emotions than men, with Captain Harville using the plethora of literature that writes of the fickleness of women as his evidence. This evidence is quickly shot down however when Anne aptly notes that most literature is in fact written by men during this time period. A subtly powerful statement which speaks not just to the inequality of representation, but Austen’s own voice claiming that literature proves nothing when women were only scantly to be heard across the canon. This brings to my mind the power of what Wollstonecraft achieved in her publication of Vindications, as a woman entering the male-dominated sphere of philosophical enquiry and debate—she was quite singular in her use of this style of rhetoric in advocating for women’s equality in a vein familiar to male and female readers. Furthermore, Anne speaks to the strength of female attachment as having no time limit—no end as it does for Captain Harville in his time estimations (twelvemonth, twelve hours, etc). This is due to the fact that women lack the opportunity for true occupation which Captain Wentworth actually points out earlier in the novel—that he was able to overcome his affection for Anne and the pain at her refusal by going to sea and working in the navy. This difference calls to mind, again, Wollstonecraft’s insistence on the right for women to be equal to men—to be thought of a rational and to be allowed to be a partner in a marriage rather than a high idol or lowly slave. To have a purpose. In particular, when put alongside a well-known quote from Vindication, the parallel threads of dignity and equality offered to the female sex becomes a paramount issue:

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour.”


Satire + Critic in Northanger Abbey

“But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?”

“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.”

“Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?”

“Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”

“Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”

Chapter 6, p. 39, Penguin Edition

The gothic novels of the time of the Regency era are discussed here, in particular Ann Radcliffe’s infamously popular The Mysteries of Udolpho. Despite being a gothic genre, the characters and narrator discuss the text in a more sentimental and earnest manner that is meant to be parodic. The gothic genre is traditionally meant to express horror vs terror, yet these examples are all defined as horror. Ann Radcliffe defines the works mentioned as terror, so it is interesting that it is pointed out that Catherine is misunderstanding these works. The humorous tone implies the satire in which Austen indulges, especially through contrastive language/images (“Dear creature” and “Skeleton”). The scene generally serves to establish depth in the friendship as opposed to the relationship of Mrs. Thorpe and Mrs. Allen. And yet, it seems like Austen is making a point of clearly showing the inaccuracy of the conversation and how these girls are misunderstanding the works intended effects. This conversation on the darker genre juxtaposes the lighter romanticized aspects of visiting Bath and meeting the men and looking at hats and dresses, and serves to highlight the darker themes that surface later in the novel.

Nelson–Annotated Bibliography

TITLE: Masked Presence: Gender and Genre in 18th-Century Amatory Fiction and Comedy [subject to change]

TEXTS EXAMINED: Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina (1725) + Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem (1780)

Working Abstract: This paper will examine the use of role-play and costume in subverting gender and genre in two women-authored eighteenth-century texts: Eliza Haywood’s “novella” Fantomina (1725) and Hannah Cowley’s comedy of manners production, The Belle’s Stratagem (1780).

Keywords: gender, performance, genre, drama, novel, fiction, identity, sexuality, marriage plot

New Sources:

  • Kathryn S. Hansen, “Dress as Deceptive Visual Rhetoric in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina,” ABO, vol. 11 iss. 2 (Fall 2021): 1–18. 
  • Irene Soriano Florez, “Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina: Performing Femininity through the Masquerade” JACLR, vol. 5, iss. 2 (December 2017): 64–76.

Key Sources:

  • Ros Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998).
  • Catherine Craft-Fairchild, Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Female Identity in Eighteenth-Century Fictions by Women (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1993).


New Sources:

  • Kathryn S. Hansen, “Dress as Deceptive Visual Rhetoric in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina,” ABO, vol. 11 iss. 2 (Fall 2021): 1–18. This article usefully explores the twin themes I hope to address in my final paper, that of forms of feminine identity and sexuality as expressed through genre and dress. Hansen locates the power of female expression in eighteenth-century society as intersecting at both the social norms for dress, and the rise of the novel–both of which offered middle to high class British women the opportunity to subvert hegemonic and heteronormative practices. Hansen lands on Haywood’s Fantomina as exemplary of the power of fiction writers to “capitalize upon dress’s potential as an agent of deception, using clothing as a means through which characters control their identity” (1). Hansen touches specifically upon the art of deception in both clothing and writing as practice and form of inherently deceptive modes of maneuver through a sexist society that perpetuates women’s “deceit” as inherent–thus, Haywood’s “novella” works at the level of satire and comedy through punning on genre and gender.
  • Irene Soriano Florez, “Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina: Performing Femininity through the Masquerade” JACLR, vol. 5, iss. 2 (December 2017): 64–76. This article, like Hansen’s, also values the role of costume and dressing up in Haywood’s Fantomina, but explicitly focuses on the “comedic” and “carnivalesque” qualities of Fantomina’s strategy to “masquerade her identity” through self-display as temporally “cheerful.” This article will be an important link to my comparison of Fantomina with Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem, which utilizes a masquerade ball scene in its conclusion in order to allow its main heroine Letitia Hardy to trick and capture her love interest Doricourt. The power of performance (both on the level of a theater performance–speaking to genre here; as well as “performativity” speaking to gender roles and costumed identities) allows for female characters in both texts to rewrite the male gaze and subvert marriage plots (either in their favor, or entirely). 

Key Sources:

  • Ros Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998). Ballaster is of course an invaluable source for a paper like this. Not only is this text surely a key text in the study of women’s writing and theater, but also her newly published Fictions of Presence (2020) which will also surely become a “key text” in the field. Specifically, Seductive Forms will provide a history to consider genre and gender alongside one another in eighteenth-century studies, providing a kind of history of the “rise of the woman novelist” (22). Ballaster’s chapter on “Cross-dressing and Cabals: Allegories of Female Writing,” and “Preparatives to Love: Fiction as Seduction in Eliza Haywood’s Amatory Prose,” will both usefully illuminate the intersections of developing genre and form during this period and its implications at a meta-level within the works of 18th-century British women writers. 
  • Catherine Craft-Fairchild, Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Female Identity in Eighteenth-Century Fictions by Women (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1993). Craft-Fairchild’s text is still relevant for asking readers to re-examine the true subversive qualities of Masquerade in eighteenth-century women’s writing. Through a close study of a selection of texts, Fantomina included, Craft-Fairchild presents a case for masquerade fictions as both subverting and upholding dominant patriarchal values. The very necessity of masquerade suggests that these women writers must draw characters who ultimately submit to the dominant economy of male desire, an argument which could be made against Letitia who changes herself into a “worldly” woman in order to seduce Doricourt into the typical marriage plot. Craft-Fairchild takes the masculine-dominated masquerade of femininity to be an all but omnipresent and intransigent textual condition that typically “appears in women’s writing as a disempowering capitulation to patriarchal structures that posit female subordination” (p. 172). She thus finally sees “the darker side of masquerade” (p. 25) as an all-encompassing framework for interpreting the psychology of gender and sexual relations.

Rakes and Wrongs

In what ways is the character of Sir Clement Willoughby similar/different to Lovelace? How does he interact with Evelina and what strikes you as different about their relationship than the main characters in our previous novel? What are Evelina’s concerns in the coach on the way home from the Opera? And how do these concerns align with or detract from Clarissa’s similar concerns about her relationship with Lovelace? What precisely is at stake in this scene?

Volume 1, Letter XXI (Oxford World Classics, pp. 99–101)

“My dearest life,” cried he, “is it possible you can be so cruel? Can your nature and your countenance be so totally opposite? Can the sweet bloom upon those charming cheeks, which appears as much the result of good-humour as of beauty-”

“O, Sir,” cried I, interrupting him, “this is very fine; but I had hoped we had had enough of this sort of conversation at the ridotto, and I did not expect you would so soon resume it.”

“What I then said, my sweet reproacher, was the effect of a mistaken, a profane idea, that your understanding held no competition with your beauty; but now, now that I find you equally incomparable in both, all words, all powers of speech, are too feeble to express the admiration I feel of your excellencies.”

“Indeed,” cried I, “if your thoughts had any connection with your language, you would never suppose that I could give credit to praise so very much above my desert.”

This speech, which I made very gravely, occasioned still stronger protestations; which he continued to pour forth, and I continued to disclaim, till I began to wonder that we were not in Queen Ann Street, and begged he would desire the coachman to drive faster.

“And does this little moment,” cried he, “which is the first of happiness I have ever known, does it already appear so very long to you?”

“I am afraid the man has mistaken the way,” answered I, “or else we should ere now have been at our journey’s end. I must beg you will speak to him.”

“And can you think me so much my own enemy?-if my good genius has inspired the man with a desire of prolonging my happiness, can you expect that I should counteract its indulgence?”

I now began to apprehend that he had himself ordered the man to go a wrong way; and I was so much alarmed at the idea, that, the very instant it occurred to me, I let down the glass, and made a sudden effort to open the chariot-door myself, with a view of jumping into the street; but he caught hold of me, exclaiming, “For Heaven’s sake, what is the matter?”

“I-I don’t know,” cried I (quite out of breath), “but I am sure the man goes wrong; and if you will not speak to him, I am determined I will get out myself.”

“You amaze me,” answered he (still holding me), “I cannot imagine what you apprehend. Surely you can have no doubts of my honour?”

He drew me towards him as he spoke. I was frightened dreadfully, and could hardly say, “No, Sir, no,-none at all: only Mrs. Mirvan,-I think she will be uneasy.”

“Whence this alarm, my dearest angel?-What can you fear?-my life is at your devotion, and can you, then, doubt my protection?”

And so saying, he passionately kissed my hand.

Never, in my whole life, have I been so terrified. I broke forcibly from him, and, putting my head out of the window, called aloud to the man to stop. Where we then were, I know not; but I saw not a human being, or I should have called for help.

Sir Clement, with great earnestness, endeavoured to appease and compose me: “If you do not intend to murder me,” cried I, “for mercy’s, for pity’s sake, let me get out!”

“Compose your spirits, my dearest life,” cried he, “and I will do everything you would have me.” And then he called to the man himself, and bid him make haste to Queen Ann Street. “This stupid fellow,” continued he, “has certainly mistaken my orders; but I hope you are now fully satisfied.”

I made no answer, but kept my head at the window watching which way he drove, but without any comfort to myself, as I was quite unacquainted with either the right or the wrong.

Sir Clement now poured forth abundant protestations of honour, and assurances of respect, intreating my pardon for having offended me, and beseeching my good opinion: but I was quite silent, having too much apprehension to make reproaches, and too much anger to speak without.

In this manner we went through several streets, till at last, to my great terror, he suddenly ordered the man to stop, and said, “Miss Anville, we are now within twenty yards of your house; but I cannot bear to part with you, till you generously forgive me for the offence you have taken, and promise not to make it known to the Mirvan’s.”

I hesitated between fear and indignation.

“Your reluctance to speak redoubles my contrition for having displeased you, since it shews the reliance I might have on a promise which you will not give without consideration.”

“I am very, very much distressed,” cried I; “you ask a promise which you must be sensible I ought not to grant, and yet dare not refuse.”

“Drive on!” cried he to the coachman;-“Miss Anville, I will not compel you; I will exact no promise, but trust wholly to your generosity.”

This rather softened me; which advantage he no sooner received, than he determined to avail himself of; for he flung himself on his knees, and pleaded with so much submission, that I was really obliged to forgive him, because his humiliation made me quite ashamed: and, after that, he would not let me rest till I gave him my word that I would not complain of him to Mrs. Mirvan.

My own folly and pride, which had put me in his power, were pleas which I could not but attend to in his favour. However, I shall take very particular care never to be again alone with him.

When, at last, we arrived at our house, I was so overjoyed, that I should certainly have pardoned him then, if I had not before. As he handed me up stairs, he scolded his servant aloud, and very angrily, for having gone so much out of the way. Miss Mirvan ran out to meet me; -and who should I see behind her, but Lord Orville!

All my joy now vanished, and gave place to shame and confusion; for I could not endure that he should know how long a time Sir Clement and I had been together, since I was not at liberty to assign any reason for it.

Final Clarissa Reflection: Verse Citation as Power

Clarissa recognizes Lovelace’s use of citations and revisions of verse to aid in self-elevation—a recognition she reflects in turn by citing verse. She muses that “[t]rue respect … lies not in words. Words cannot express it.” She asserts the authenticity of modest, physical expressions— “the silent awe, the humble, the doubting eye”—as opposed to confident and self-assured praise (p. 397). “Even the hesitating voice,” Clarissa furthers, “better show [true respect] by much, than, as Shakespeare says, ‘—The rattling tongue / Of saucy and audacious eloquence’” (p. 397).Clarissa’s citation of act V of Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605) strengthens her distinction between the “true respect” evidenced by humility and the disrespect signaled by “volubility.” In quoting male-authored verse to articulate her perception of Lovelace’s ways of speaking, Clarissa also visually dismembers and isolates his “rattling tongue”on the page of her letter.  

After the rape, Clarissa empowers herself by adopting and transforming Lovelace’s voice, style, and, in paper 10 of the Mad Papers, his tactics of verse citation. If citing stanzas of poetry provides Clarissa with a form of liberty in captivity, then paper 10—although clearly the height of Clarissa’s post-rape distress—also represents a scene of release, allowing her to begin to achieve the imaginative empowerment that characterizes her position at the end of the novel. Specifically, recognizing that her letters will be “written down”by Dorcas and shared with Lovelace, Clarissa renders her writing untranslatable by projecting his own voice back at him (p. 894).Paper 10 epitomizes that tactic as Clarissa fully exploits Lovelace’s trademark technique of verse citation (pp. 890–1). Five of her stanzas cite work by Cowley, Otway, or Dryden—authors Lovelace cites frequently as well. She repackages Lovelace’s sources and his speech—an act that, as he admits, leaves him incapable of both the interpretation and “transcriptions” of her letters in turn (p. 894). If Lovelace sees Clarissa’s prose as akin to her body, then the poetry of paper 10 embodies an impenetrable mind.

Clarissa not only adopts but also effectively transforms Lovelace’s sources and style in paper 10. While the disjointed appearance of paper 10 visualizes Clarissa’s mental disorder, her strategic placement of the stanzas also generates a multiplicity of possible readings that impede easy interpretation, exhibiting what Starr usefully describes as “regulated disorder” and “formal particularity”—a particularity that serves as self-protection. The positioning of each stanza in a linear as well as vertical format enables the stanzas to be read in isolation or in tandem. For example, reading “Cruel remembrance! —how shall I appease thee?” before “—Oh! you have done an act” makes the “you” “remembrance,” while following the question with the spatially adjacent stanza beginning “Death only can be dreadful to the bad” suggests that Clarissa will “appease” her “remembrance” with “Death” (p. 893). Both readings are true. Clarissa skillfully withholds prose context, impedes linear reading, and forces Lovelace to rely entirely upon the conversations between and among each stanza, a polyvocality that mirrors Clarissa as a whole. While Lovelace is easily the most prolific source of included verse in Clarissa, Clarissa’s verses have the most power.

Gender and Verse Citation

Although Richardson was not the only mid-century author to cite verse in his prose, the frequency and gendered weight of verse citation in Clarissa suggest he well understood and wanted to highlight the implications of prose appropriating—or kidnapping—other forms to promote itself.

Catherine Ingrassia, Authorship, Commerce, and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England: A Culture of Paper Credit (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998).

Ingrassia discusses Richardson’s use of Eliza Haywood’s work specifically. Richardson “draws on her recognizable narrative tradition and manipulates it to fit his own aims”; he “subsumes” Haywood’s “style, language, and seductive fictional situations” and “reconstructs” them to make them “more palatable to readers from the middle classes,” which “diminishes Haywood’s cultural currency … while creating a privileged space for Richardson and the newly re-formed novel” (p. 149).

G. Gabrielle Starr, Lyric Generations: Poetry and the Novel in the Long Eighteenth Century (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2015).

See especially the introduction and chap. 1, “Clarissa and the Lyric,” Starr identifies what she characterizes as Richardson’s turn toward the religious lyric, arguing that “Clarissa’s aesthetic practice manipulates” the lyric traditions of John Donne, George Herbert, and the Book of Job and finds that a “structural relationship” exists between “the lyric paradigm of Herbert’s poetry” and Clarissa’s letters (pp. 18 and 29). Starr also helpfully observes Clarissa’s identification with the seventeenth-century religious lyric and Lovelace’s alignment with—and citation of—seventeenth-century libertine verse, although that distinction does not account for Clarissa’s choice of Lovelace’s oft-cited libertine poets in the fragments of paper 10 (p. 24).

Leah Price, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).

While G. Gabrielle Starr thoroughly attends to the lyric mode in Clarissa, the recurrence of citations of poetry throughout the novel remains under-explored. Leah Price, analyzing the anthologizing of eighteenth-century novels, gets closest to the subject when she asks of Richardson’s later works, “why do their characters spend so much time excerpting texts? And why have the novels themselves been so energetically excerpted?” (p. 14). Price posits that one possible explanation to the latter question lies in the fact that the novels themselves “are already anthologies,” yet she does not discuss how or why Richardson’s novels—particularly Clarissa—function as anthologies not only of letters but also of poems (p. 14). Together, Clarissa and Richard Lovelace alone cite verse at least forty-five times throughout the novel. Examining the relationship between the act of citation itself—here defined as a character quoting a poem in his or her letter—and the networks of gendered power—specifically between and among Clarissa, Lovelace, and John Belford—in the novel begins to generate insights.

The Embodied Letter Visualiser

Letters come to embody Clarissa–from one confinement to the next, Clarissa is bound to letter-writing, and the letter becomes a potent symbol of the communicative process itself. The physical expression and manifestation of Clarissa’s heart, mind, and body are private, often unreadable, enclosed as she is often enclosed, and grow in number even as her body and her space grows smaller. I approached this theme with an eye toward thinking about gender and the body as represented within the letter–and look forward to hearing your response!