Property, Education, and Identity in Late Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The Heroine of Disinterest.
Throughout the eighteenth century, 'political transformations' and 'commercialization' created 'copyrights, patents, stocks, debt shares, commercial agreements', properties that were 'variegated, intangible, and peculiar'(l). Virginia H. Cope's The Heroine of Disinterest explores how these new forms of property dramatically altered the ways in which selfhood and subjectivity could be narrated, demanding new expressions of the self and reanimating older paradigms. Tracing the development of 'disinterest' from an aristocratic, civic, masculine ideal into a peculiarly feminine and domestic quality, Cope illuminates the extent of upheaval wrought by changing the definitions accorded to and stemming from property. The Heroine of Disinterest traces this new subjectivity from inception in the late 1770s to grisly death in the Gothic heyday of the 1790s and brief afterlife in Austen's self-aware heroines. The Gothic is the apex of the 'heroine of disinterest' and her nadir: the 'narrative equivalent of what psychologists call an extinction burst: the final lavish display of a fading behaviour' (86).
Taking the figure of the kneeling vassal from Sir William Blackstone's lavish description of feudal rituals of investiture in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1764-1769), Cope demonstrates how this pose of self-abnegation is increasingly absent from the heroines' displays of filial devotion as the century progresses (15-19). The transition from feudal tenure to freehold possession resonates with the gradual recognition of personal value and worth suggested by the change in the heroines' physical displays of filial affection and homage. Richardson's Clarissa (1748) and Pamela (1740) initiate Cope's discussion of literary responses to disinterest. While this discussion provides a bridge from Locke to Burney's Evelina, it is notable for its omission of sensibility. Given the established connection between economy and sensibility in G.J. Barker-Benfield's foundational work, The Culture of Sensibility (1992), its absence from this discussion is odd, particularly as Cope's argument fluently engages writings of both the Earl of Shaftesbury and Adam Smith. While I do not dispute the 'novel of inheritance' as a useful label, Cope does not clarify how these novels are distinguished from novels of sensibility.
The 'tonal shift' from 'domestic realism' to 'Gothic hyperbole' is the cultural and critical setting for The Heroine of Disinterest (69, 70). Though only one chapter addresses the Gothic directly (chapter 4, 'Gothic properties'), the Gothic is present in the ways in which heroines of disinterest haunt narratives of ownership, existing in shades of meaning between 'morality' and 'legality' (83). Gothic literature brings a new level of obsession to the cultural fascination with property, particularly with the systems of inheritance and the rights of property that accrue around the 'old Gothic castle[s]' that dominate Gothic novels. Kate Ferguson Ellis argues in The Contested Castle (1989), that Gothic literature declares itself by the presence of 'houses in which people are locked in and locked out' (Ellis 3). E.J. Clery's definition of the Gothic, which Cope explicitly uses as a model, takes this a step further and notes that the property is the protagonist of much Gothic fiction (The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1994). Nodding towards the inaugural 'hideous property' of Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Cope reads Clery's definition as representing 'the consequences of a newly airtight regime of primogeniture' (the strict settlement) that dominated inheritance increasingly throughout the century. The will, a favourite prop in Gothic fiction, had given way among the landed classes to settlements that guarded against the kind of sudden changes of heart individually authored wills allowed (48). A grisly example of Clery's 'legal metaphor as lived experience' (69), the will appears, regardless of cultural disfavour, to haunt even those novels resolutely not-Gothic, such as Evelina. In a deft turn, Cope gestures towards the subversion of the world in the Gothic: the estate becomes concrete in Gothic novels at the moment when new forms of property, such as stocks and copyrights were rendering property 'increasingly abstract' (87).
In Cope's analysis, women are uniquely suited to investigations into new forms of property that rely on instability and ambiguity. They are central to fictions that narrate how these new properties informed personal identity. As in Ellis's theories of the Gothic as recoverable domestic spaces, Gothic properties in Cope's analysis are easily transferable, morally ambiguous, equally possessed by the villainous tyrant or the distinterested heroine. Women's relationship with Gothic properties comes through a re-conceptualised system of education that relies on agency and determination on the part of the heroine, qualities that seem to place her at odds with the conventional Gothic victim. Education, for Emily St Aubert, requires a violation of filial duty and a deliberate knowing of what was forbidden knowledge that is as peculiar to the heroine as her own family history. Thus, the heroine's particular education emphasises the fragility of the link between property and a 'pure' history; it exposes the ideological agendas of traditional and continuing narratives of ownership. Cope articulates the system of education in relation to Gothic possession, adroitly, as one of forgetting, of disavowal not only of what has been taught but of the entire project of education that is based in the 'overvaluation of others and the undervaluation of the self (75). Ultimately, the Gothic reveals all education not based on experience as complicit in repression, 'a fatal lack of disinterest' and (another) origin point of the persistent and menacing return of the Gothic (100).
Cope's discussion of Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791) ushers in the discussion of the Gothic. Reading it as a 'transitional text', Cope provides an insightful analysis of Inchbald's 'bifurcated' novel as deliberately awkward: a display of the compulsion toward 'narrative pattern[s] of transgression and reward' told in 'different tonal registers' (66). Neither Miss Milner nor her daughter enjoys the benefits of disinterest. The former is 'disqualified' from disinterest by her defiant manipulation of 'the power of the purse' and the latter a victim of disinterest who anticipates the extreme vulnerability of Gothic heroines as the affective economy of family breaks down. Through Inchbald's novel, Cope also elaborates on the increasingly varied forms of property created through alterative systems of education. Unlike her mother, Matilda is able to 'own' her experience of suffering as an experiential kind of education. Nonetheless, Cope concedes that the fairy-tale aspects of the ending (with Matilda unknowingly offering herself as the 'gift' to the legal heir of her father's property, Rushbrook, thus making her eventual reward only an indirect result of her disinterest) undermine the heroine's agency (82). Inchbald's problematic conclusion to a difficult novel gestures towards the limits of narrative convention that Mary Wollstonecraft literalizes in The Wrongs of Woman, or, Maria (1797), a novel Cope discusses in the final chapter as representative of the 'radical' direction taken by the novel of inheritance in the 1790s.
While the laws governing property do not change radically between 1778 and 1817, Cope tracks shifts in the relationship between women, property, and the omnipresent society that guarantees possession. Where Lord Orville, in 1778, does not even ask permission of his wife in alienating her paternal bequest, Valancourt, in 1794, recognizes in his actions and responses that '[e]ven if property laws recognize him as the proprietor of his wife's property, ... it is Emily who possesses' (114). Yet, in invoking the Gothic, Cope seems to doom the heroines to conventional ends. Though present throughout Cope's analysis, suffering and loss are magnified by the Gothic and become the central tenet of identity constructed through experience. It is the 'memory of suffering', and the proliferation of memories of suffering from personal to historical registers, that 'maintains disinterest' (92). It is also problematic: whether disinterested or deeply interested, heroines still suffer. The narrative of female ownership remains rooted in pain and loss. Emphasising the 'escape route unimaginable at the time of Clarissa', that is, the emotional freedom gained by knowing the perils of the affective economy, Cope demonstrates not the disruption of this economy, but its deferral and continuation. In the conclusion of The Italian, 'vows of lifelong affection and gratitude to a paternal figure' come not from the heroine, Ellena, but from the servant, Paulo (115). The replacement of daughter with servant in the role of devoted subject is accomplished too easily. Apparently freed from constraints of hierarchy and gender, 'the heroine ... can rise from her knees and take her role as a property owner' (115). While Cope demonstrates the limits of conventional narratives of ownership and property, romance remains to trap reader and critic.
The Heroine of Disinterest is an important revaluation of canonical texts in light of both emerging criticism on eighteenth-century literature and culture and contemporary anxieties over identity and property. Cope's attention to language is evident not only in her critical focus but in her critical voice, which clearly delights in phrase and image. The central weakness is not one of quality but of quantity: while Cope gestures widely to the literary field of the 1790s, the focus of her Gothic gaze is limited to Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797). Given the richness of variety in Gothic literature of the 1790s, there is scope for extending the parameters of Cope's heroine of disinterest. The final chapter, on Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, raises the spectre of 'contractual discourse' as an alternative to the 'affective economy' and a return to Locke's theories that Cope does not quite exorcise or expose in the remaining pages (123). The focus on 'radical' writers, however, does allow Cope to end with promise, in spite of--or because of--the timely death of the heroine of disinterest. For Cope's 'radical' writers, the communication of memory, of 'individual interpretations of actions and character ... constitutes [a] defining estate. In writing their life stories, they replace their physical and ideological inheritance with a new one--bequeathed by themselves, to themselves, through creative memory' (125). Moving from internalized memories to externalised memoirs, Cope beautifully repositions ownership at the end of the century back in the world of things and the creation of new narratives.
Leeds Metropolitan University
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2010|
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