"A viper and engine of the devil": The violent woman and female/female violence in eighteenth-century fiction

Wendy J Wenner, Marquette University


This dissertation argues that portraits of violent women and of female/female violence in Roxana, Clarissa, Evelina, The Wrongs of Women, and Mansfield Park played an important role in a shift in paradigms for female nature and normative femininity which took place during the eighteenth century. The early paradigm justified overt male control of women by claiming that female violence was the result of defects in female nature. The later paradigm defined woman as passive, required women to be self-policing in order to be considered feminine, and shifted the locus of control of female violence to women themselves. This study examines these two paradigms as they are represented in five novels written between 1724 and 1814 and explores differences between male and female writers' construction of the violent woman and female/female violence. Chapter 1 summarizes current studies of female violence, explores the role eighteenth century print culture played in the construction of eighteenth-century and twentieth-century beliefs about the gendered qualities of violence, provides an historical context for discussion of female/female violence, and briefly outlines the contributions misogynist satire, conduct literature, and the woman's periodical made to the novel's definitions of female violence. Chapter 2 analyzes Defoe's traditional, hierarchical view of female/female violence as the result of female refusal to submit willingly to male authority and as a sign of moral and spiritual degeneration. Chapter 3 analyzes Richardson's definitions of the violent woman as masculine and physically disgusting and explores the ramifications of his argument that female will must serve as the principal means of suppressing sexuality and violence in the female personality. Chapter 4 examines Burney's transitional position between the two paradigms, her exploration of the sociological and psychological causes of female/female violence, and her suggestions for solutions. Chapter 5 examines Wollstonecraft's revisioning of Defoe's and Richardson's violent women and her reformation of the violent woman through female bonding and maternal compassion. Chapter 6 explores Austen's more hopeless vision of the triumph of the ideology of female passivity and her argument that female passivity itself encourages covert female/female violence.

Recommended Citation

Wenner, Wendy J, ""A viper and engine of the devil": The violent woman and female/female violence in eighteenth-century fiction" (1993). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9411528.