Jane Spencer “Women Writers and the Eighteenth-Century Novel”

Spencer, Jane. “Women Writers and the Eighteenth-Century Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John Richetti. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. 212-35. Print.

In this chapter, Spencer argues that, because the concept of gendered separate spheres (private for women and public for men) was not fully developed in the eighteenth century, the domestic settings of eighteenth-century novels written by women were “not  a retreat from public issues, since discourse about domestic life was constitutive of the new public sphere” (217). Rather, in exploring domesticity, linking it to female virtue and submissiveness, and distinguishing their work from that of earlier female writers/novelists, eighteenth-century women writers were negotiating shared concerns about romance as a way to approach historical truth, women’s relationship (as sisters and authors) to the patrilineal inheritance patterns of society, and the creation of a public female role (233). That is, women authors were negotiating their own public roles as part of the world of letters, but also negotiating female authority within British society–confronting questions about what entailed valid, moral use of female authority and what did not; who was subject to that authority and who was not; and how that authority might affect male authority and/or masculinity. As such, the “withdrawing” of female authors into the domestic sphere was not inherently a withdrawal from political discourse.

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