Recovering the radicals: Women writers, reform, and nationalist modes of revolutionary discourse

Mark J Zunac, Marquette University


This project considers the fiction of Mary Robinson, Mary Hays, and Amelia Opie as illustrative of a gradual paradigm shift that occurred within British radical circles following the French Revolution and appealed to a nationally self-reflective conception of the natural rights of citizens. For women, while the very act of writing challenged dominant cultural narratives, contemporary reactions often overlooked or obscured theoretical nuances that symbolized deviations within the radical movement. While the works of these women consistently reveal progressive social tendencies, they also suggest the ascendancy of a reform tradition which frames the natural rights debate within a distinctly British cultural and historical context. The first two chapters examine Mary Robinson's The Widow (1794) and The Natural Daughter (1799), both of which reveal the author's advocacy of a meritocratic society rooted in the abolition of gendered educational systems and arbitrarily rigid class structures. Through vivid depictions of revolutionary France and invocations of constitutionally protected right in Britain, Robinson locates the source of natural right within existing institutions and distinguishes it from the Enlightenment metaphysics seen to have influenced the French Revolution. The discussion then moves to Mary Hays, who in both of her novels, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) and The Victim of Prejudice (1799), tests the virtue of Enlightenment philosophy against the experience of its adherents. By adopting and validating the empirical philosophical tradition embodied by Edmund Burke, Hays demonstrates the gender and class disparity that is revealed against accepted cultural norms and governing political bodies. Consequently, the narratives acknowledge the necessary negotiation of historically fixed and unique systems of civil order. An analysis of Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray (1805) concludes the project, and notes the author's appropriation of natural law principles to promote a more equitable distribution of political autonomy. While Opie defers to the role of custom in the advent of political authority, she depicts citizens' rights as having been usurped by the very institutions entrusted to protect them. The author's progressive reform program relies on the constancy of change intrinsic to the natural world and the authority of factual historical processes in explaining the human condition.

Recommended Citation

Zunac, Mark J, "Recovering the radicals: Women writers, reform, and nationalist modes of revolutionary discourse" (2008). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3306527.