My Dissertation

Last Update 2/25/01

Hi! I don't have the dissertation online--this is just the abstract. A few interested folk have wanted to see the full thing. When I fix my current website crises (new subdirectories causing a million broken links), I'll try turning some of the text into html. So stay tuned . . .


Charlotte Smith, one of the novelists discussed in my dissertation, particularly her Emmeline, Desmond, Marchmont, and The Young Philosopher

More Pictures of Women Writers

An Annotated Bibliography of Women Writers

By Women For Women: Female Issues in British Women's Novels, 1775- 1815

Department of English, College of Arts and Science, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, June 1994

Dissertation Director: Professor Paula Backscheider

Second Reader: Professor Daniel Albright

Defense Committee: Professor Thomas DiPiero (Committee Chair, Foreign Language and Literature Department); Professor Paula Backscheider (Dissertation Director); Professor Daniel Albright (Second Reader); Professor Celia Applegate (Outside Reader, History Department)


Chapter 1 Introduction: Reading With a Feminist Perspective
Chapter 1.1 Feminist Reading and the Plot-Character Connection
Chapter 2 Women Writers and the Use of Foils and Doubles
Chapter 3 Power, Protest, and Money
Chapter 4 Woman to Woman
Chapter 5 Knowledge, Morality, and Choice
Chapter 6 Aesthetics, Literary History, and Women's Novels


My dissertation discusses the women's novels of the 1775-1815 era, addressing how female novelists' representations of both themselves and their female characters were shaped by the increasing acceptance of delicacy, propriety, and domesticity as both ideal and native characteristics for middle- and upper-class English women in the 1775-1815 period. I examine the tensions between the proper domestic lady and female intelligence, sexual desire, self-direction, and moral responsibility in over sixty-five novels published by thirty-one different women writers including such novelists as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith, Jane West, Mary Brunton, and Regina Maria Roche. I argue that the presence in these novels of transgressive heroines offers a gender-based critique of patriarchal codes.

The transgressive heroine is a moral women who consciously negotiates between non-gender based standards of morality and the behavioral and moral codes the society declared appropriate for women only--female propriety, female delicacy, and the type of moral code that Wollstonecraft labels "sexual virtues" in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The novels show that such sex-determined virtues actually can hinder women from following non-gendered, but nevertheless accepted, standards of morality. They also demonstrate how such sex- determined standards hinder female fulfillment outside of heterosexual courtship, in paid and unpaid work and female friendship.

These women novelists' critiques of patriarchal society often required that they modify existing discourse, for they lacked many of the terms so crucial to our understanding of the period's emerging feminism: "sexual harassment," "autonomy," and even "feminism" itself which had not yet been coined. The concept of rape as a crime of personal violation in fact was only beginning to emerge to replace ravishment, a property crime. The idea of autonomy, of directing one's own moral life, was only beginning to emerge as our modern culture developed at this time. This radical concept was embraced by a few male political radicals like William Godwin, who discovered in their own personal life that the bulk of society was unwilling to accept autonomous behavior.

Autonomy for women was even more shocking, and it is not surprizing that Eloisa, the medieval woman who rejected marriage and prohibitions against sex based upon her own intellectual and spiritual ideas, fascinated the period. Rousseau's Julie and the Wollstonecraft that emerged in Godwin's posthumous Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman fascinated women novelists, whose own Julies, Julias, Juliets, and Wollstonecraft- inspired female characters fill the novels of this period with woman seeking to self-direct their intellectual and moral life. We can see in such transgressive characters the emergence of the modern, autonomous female consciousness, a consciousness that is the prerequisite for feminism to move from covert female resistance to political activism.

Return to Scholarship Page

Return to Cathy's Homepage