Women's life writing 1760-1830 : spiritual selves, sexual characters, and revolutionary subjects
This thesis uses print and manuscript sources to analyse and interpret women's life writing at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I explore printed works by Catharine Phillips, Mary Dudley, Priscilla Hannah Gurney, Ann Freeman, Elizabeth Steele, Mary Robinson, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Wollstonecraft, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, and Charlotte West and discuss the manuscripts of Mary Fletcher, Mary Tooth, Sarah Ryan, and Elizabeth Fox. Of these sources, five have never been analysed in the critical literature and six have received little attention. Considered as a group, this large corpus of texts offers new insights into the personal and political implications of different models of female selfhood and social being. In chapter one, I compare the religious identities presented in the spiritual autobiographies of Quakers and Methodists. For these women, religious identification provides a powerful sense of social belonging and enables public participation. However, it may also lead to a loss of self in the demand for religious conformity and self-abnegation. In chapter two, I consider the life writing of late eighteenth-century courtesans. These women adapt available models of femininity and female authorship in order to establish themselves as socially connected subjects. However, their narratives also reveal that dependence on the sexual and literary marketplace puts female selfhood under pressure. In chapter three, I explore the eyewitness accounts of British women in the French Revolution. I argue that, for these writers, connecting personal identity to political history is an enabling source of self-definition but it also exposes them to the risks of self-fragmentation. In my focus on the social function of women's life writing, I present an alternative to the traditional alignment of the eighteenth-century autobiographical subject with the autonomous self of individualism. These narratives allow us to reconsider the productive and problematic dialectic between personal expression and representative selfhood, self-authorship and collective narratives, and individualism and social being. They suggest that women's life writing has the potential to be both the self-expression of a unique heroine and the self-inscription of a politicised subject.
- Theses