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Late Eighteenth Century Women’s Fiction; Hero, Heroine & Financial Authority

Keywords: characterization of women , eighteenth-century fiction , fiction of loss , fiction of active economic engagement , economic empowerment of women , Anna Maria Bennett , Mary Julia Young , Barbara Hofland , Selina Davenport

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Abstract:

‘Mortgage? Who, what is that? […] Who is this mortgage? What right has he?’ (I: 183-4) cries Ellen, Anna Maria Bennett’s (1760-1808) heroine in her 1794 novel Ellen; Countess of Castle Howel (1794). Yet only a few years later, Louisa, Barbara Hofland’s (1770 – 1844)heroine in Daughter in Law, Her Father and Family (1813) addresses her father’s creditors and observes that ‘if there was only fifteen shilling in the pound, she should insist upon her fortune going to supply the deficiency’, to which a tradesman replies that ‘such a resolution is very like your father’s daughter’ (147). Some critics see both a change in the characterization of women and in the nature of plot in eighteenth-century fiction in which the passive participation of the heroine in 1790s is replaced by women’s active involvement in the welfare of the family in 1800s and the ‘fiction of loss’ is transformed to a ‘fiction of active economic engagement’. In accordance with such a reading of contemporary fiction, this paper aims to consider the issue of women’s economic empowerment in eighteenth-century fiction. However, I argue that, inasmuch as the concern is about female’s empowerment, at the same time it is also very much about the agency of male characters. Thus, in the case of work by a group of minor writers of women’s fiction, to trace women’s active economic involvement within this context, one plausible approach is to reconstruct women’s view of male agency during this transition: How is the activity undertaken by men affected by—and how does it affect—female empowerment?This paper focuses primarily on the selected works of a group of lesserknown women novelists of 18th century (namely Anna Maria Bennett, Mary Julia Young, Barbara Hofland and Selina Davenport) and will initially take account of the significance of female characters and their transformation from passive into active participation in the economy. Male agency, however, will also be considered, as I will argue that if the ‘absence’ of the male figure alone did not induce a change, it most certainly accelerated it.

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