Feminist Theory and the Eighteenth-Century Novel

The story of the novel is one of response and resistance; however, it is not simply the story of one group—say white women—resisting the dominating ideologies of another—say white men. Instead, the novel grew out of the interplay of dominant and subversive social forces, from sex and gender to race, class, space, place, and even aesthetics. Women operate as a locus for these forces, as subjects, objects, readers, and writers of novels. In this course, we will explore the relationship among women, gender, and the rise of the novel in eighteenth-century England. We will consider the following questions to guide our study:

  • How do gender and genre inform or constitute one another?
  • How does the novel’s concern with gender shape our understanding of eighteenth-century British culture and society?
  • In what ways do eighteenth-century writers respond to—resist, appropriate, comply with, or otherwise attempt to fashion—social norms, especially as they regard gender and sexuality, but also citizenship, equality, race, class, space, and place? In what ways are these issues intersectional?
  • In what ways does gender operate politically in the novel?
  • How can we frame theoretical—especially feminist—questions in period-specific ways? In ways that recognize the intersections between historical and contemporary readings and interpretive practices?

To answer these questions, we will read primary and secondary texts that emphasize and invite a critical feminist approach to reading. Many of the novels we will read respond to one another.

Therefore, you will find yourself returning to some texts as we move throughout the course and you begin to develop a more nuanced understanding of the various ways they articulate and rearticulate the role of gender in eighteenth-century society.

Required Primary Texts:

Aphra Behn: Oroonoko (1688)

John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), selections Mary Astell: A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), selections

Eliza Haywood: Fantomina (1725) and The Anti-Pamela; or Feign’d Innocence Detected (1741) Daniel Defoe: Roxana (1724)

Samuel Richardson: Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), selections Sarah Fielding: The Adventures of David Simple (1744)

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote (1752) Frances Burney: Cecilia (1782)

Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), selections Anne Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Maria Edgeworth: Belinda (1801) Anon. The Woman of Color (1808)

Jane Austen: either Northanger Abbey (1817) or Mansfield Park (1814)

Secondary Texts (selections available in course pack and on reserve at the library):

Helen Thompson, Ingenuous Subjection (2005)

Helene Moglen, The Trauma of Gender: A Feminist Theory of the English Novel (2001) Anthony Pollock, Gender and the Fictions of the Public Sphere, 1690-1755 (2010) Katherine Binhammer, The Seduction Narrative in Britain, 1747–1800 (2009) Donna Heiland: Gothic and Gender: An Introduction (2008)

Laura Rosenthal: Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture (2006) Lyndon Dominique: Imoinda’s Shade: Marriage and the African Woman in Eighteenth-Century British Literature, 1759–1808 (2012)

As well as key theoretical texts


Research proposal: Compose a 2-page proposal in which you identify the primary text you would like to work on for the digital/public scholarship project. Your proposal must be approved before you move to the next stage. You may choose any of the assigned texts, or propose another related to the course topic.

Digital/public scholarship research project: For this assignment, you will develop a publically accessible, digitally based project in one of the following areas:

  • Create and/or edit a researched Wikipedia page for a text or author, with a 5-page essay that reflects on the process/experience.
  • Develop and record a Librivox recording of a text, with a 7-page critical introduction to the work that also incorporates discussion of the production process. If you choose this option, you may work with another registered student as a production partner; however, you must each compose your own introduction.
  • Work as a distributed proofreader on a text for Project Gutenberg, with a 7-page critical introduction to the work that also incorporates discussion of the digital and archival nature of the proofreading project.
  • Contribute to 18thConnect.org’s Typewright OCR correction (10-15 section of the text), with a 7-page critical introduction to the work that also incorporates discussion of the digital and archival nature of the OCR correction process.

Project presentation: Your digital/public scholarship projects will have due dates spaced throughout the semester. When your draft is due, you must be prepared to present your work to the class in a conference style presentation. Presentations will be 20 minutes each with time for questions afterwards. This assignment is designed to offer you a low-stakes environment in which to practice presenting research, a professional skill you will be encouraged to develop as you progress through your education.

Research paper: Using your digital/public scholarship project and presentation as a draft, expand your critical essay into 15-20 page paper. This paper should offer a critical argument on a topic relating to the course, and may or may not retain the discussion of your digital project. If you retain discussion of the digital project, it should comprise a significant portion of the paper. If you wish to work on a different text entirely, please see me for approval.