The Gothic Fiction Englishwoman’s Character in the 1790s

Scott R. MacKenzie

Scott R. MacKenzie

The young unmarried woman in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fiction may be the most overdetermined character in all of English literature. She is always surrounded by a throng of themes, contests, anxieties, polemics, and properties. She has been asked, and often coerced, to represent domestic harmony, the aspiring middle class, patriotic sentiment, reproductive sexuality, and the community of taste and decency.

Among her responsibilities are paternity, legitimacy, property, social relations, and the maintenance or overthrow of aristocratic privilege. She is endangered and dangerous, innocent and guilty, prudent and wasteful, modest and brazen.

Her admirers call her proto-feminist, exogamous, and duplicitous, and her detractors charge her with the same. The young single woman is, in fact, double, or indeed multiple. She is, as recent critics have thoroughly established, a privileged locus for the identification and examination of collective anxieties.

My purpose here is to add yet another determinant to the list that already encumbers our heroine. She is also very frequently the focus of anxiety about the poor. Debates about poverty acquire sufficient cultural prominence in Britain by the end of the eighteenth century to inflect most prose fiction of the period, and, most often, it is the young unmarried woman who carries the burden of figuration. She embodies the vulnerabilities of the poor and the dangers they pose, and from her fortunes, we may generally derive ideological formations relevant to matters of poor management.

Of course, the relationship between poverty debates and fiction does not work in one direction only. The vogue for sentiment provided vocabulary and attitudes for talking about the poor. Indeed, sentimentalism arguably began as a mode of talking about (and sometimes to) the poor.

The bleeding of sentimental language into political discourse is especially notable around the turn of the century, when philanthropic benevolence became more and more institutional and national and advocates of the poor formed alliances with evangelical activists such as Hannah More and the abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Sir Egerton Brydges, MP for Maidstone, writes in 1813, “Never before did I meet with a subject in which the driest details of business were associated with all the best furniture of a poetic mind; where the blaze of fancy, and the best emotions of the heart could throw the truest, the most philosophical, and most virtuous light on a complicated subject of artificial legislation.”

As prominent traffickers in sentimental language, novelists could hardly avoid comparing the attributes and experiences of unmarried women with those of the poor. When we compare representations of single women and paupers we will find striking similarities in the kinds of condemnation or sympathy, bitter or happy endings they receive. At the same time, radical and anti-sentimental writers like Jeremy Bentham, William Godwin, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld contested the terminology proposed by sentimental authors but affirmed the urgency of the poverty debates.

The French Revolution, the decay of parish governance, and the wage and food-price crises of the 1790s and 1800s forced most, if not all, representations of British nationality to reckon with the underclasses.

Gothic fiction of the 1790s, I will argue, is especially dense with rhetorical and thematic echoes of the poor debates, and the reverse is certainly also true. My exemplary text is Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Romance of the Forest’, a work published in 1791. Radcliffe’s work anticipated, and undoubtedly influenced, a remarkable portion of the topoi and attitudes that came to dominate poor-law discourse until around 1815.

Her novels, and the gothic fiction of her era generally, are deeply involved not only with digesting fears about what was happening in France but also with sustaining a much longer cultural conversation about the poor in England.

If sentimental fiction codified personal affective responses to individual examples of poverty and suffering, the first major wave of gothic fiction deals in personal and political encounters with collective bodies of the poor — figuring contests over-regulation and discipline of the poor as battles between private subjects and mysterious, implacable mechanisms of coercion.

Following Radcliffe’s lead, both novelists and poor-law advocates turn ever more towards the private home, both conceptually and in brick and mortar, as the best means of containing dangerous social energies and of mediating the nation state’s regulatory functions.

After 1782, by most accounts, discussion about and legislation for the poor took an ameliorating turn.2 Of particular importance were Sir Thomas Gilbert’s Act of 1782 (22 Geo. 3, c. 83), which sought to expand and regulate the geographic administrative divisions responsible for the impotent poor and required guardians of the able-bodied unemployed to find employment for them or else provide maintenance in lieu of wages; Sir William Young’s Act of 1795 (35 Geo. 3, c. 101), which ended the removal of persons not actually in need of parish relief; another Young Act passed in 1796 (36 Geo. 3, c. 23), which authorized Justices to “order Outdoor Relief, ‘notwithstanding any contract shall have been made for maintaining the poor’ in a workhouse”; and the Society for Bettering the Condition and Improving the Comforts of the Poor (SBC), which published its first annual report in 1797.3 Raymond Cowherd points to the ascendancy, in the 1790s and early 1800s, of evangelical Wesleyan and Whitfield revivalists in the poverty debates.

More’s ‘Village Politics’ (1792) and ‘Cheap Repository Tracts’ (1795–1799), for instance, were distributed in the millions, with the assistance of more than 750 subscribers, sympathetic clergy, and societies set up by middle-class well-wishers. Cowherd also identifies close relations between participants in the poor debates and some of those engaged in other reform issues, such as the abolitionist Wilberforce, the prison reformers John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, the factory re- former Sir Robert Peel the elder, and the educators More and Joseph Lancaster. And along with its leading light, Thomas Bernard, the SBC counted among its inaugural committee, Wilberforce and the Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Despite the humanitarian tone of the debates, however, historians generally agree that there were few practical improvements in the conditions faced by the poor, particularly after 1793, when crops began to fail regularly. The practices of contracting for private poor management, binding out children as apprentices, and farming out the labour of paupers all received few checks and allowed abuse without governmental oversight.

Poor relief, in general, was becoming more and more a disciplinary mechanism of the factory/prison system and the iron law of wages that dominated the nineteenth-century. Boyd Hilton demurs at Cowherd’s distinction between natural law theorists (among whom Cowherd counts Thomas Malthus and Sir Frederick Morton Eden) and evangelical political economists.

The appropriate distinction, Hilton insists, falls between moral and material kinds of paternalism. Moderate evangelicals and other proponents of non-interventionist, laissez-faire policy emphasized the theodicy that “scarcity is ordained by providence in order to stimulate hard work.” That argument can, of course, also take the name of economic rationalism; the merchant political economist Patrick Colquhoun, for instance, writes, “[W]ithout a large proportion of poverty surplus labour could never be rendered productive in procuring either the conveniences or luxuries of life.” “Poverty is,” he insists, “a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society.”

The agricultural economist Arthur Young is more blunt: “[E]veryone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.”

Many writers, including contributors to the reports of Bernard’s SBC, recommend providing cottages and small holdings to the able-bodied poor: “Every cottage should have land enough about it to supply the family with vegetables at least, if not afford sustenance for a pig or a cow.” Children too may participate by taking care of the garden and so “contribute largely to their own support, if not wholly maintain themselves.”

Such visions of rural contentment were offered in service of poor reform as early as 1767: “The condition of the industrious, sober and virtuous labourer […] perhaps ought rather to excite our envy than pity. Health and peace of mind, the choicest blessings reserved for mankind, are to be looked for in his humble cottage. His cares seldom exceed the limits of the day; the industry, frugality, and virtue of the parents being all the fortune his children will stand in need of.”

The cottage becomes a key motif, linking private domesticity to national prosperity and security. In a treatise of 1798, the architect James Malton published fourteen designs for rural habitations in a “regular gradation, from a peasant’s simple hut, to habitation worthy of a gentleman of fortune.”

Pitt outlines another connection between cottage and nation: “If [cottages] were more attainable by the poor, frugality would revive among them, and young people would strive to lay up a sum of money for this purpose. Every labourer, possessing such property of his own, would consider himself as having a permanent interest and stake in the country.”

Bernard writes virtually the same thing: “[C]ottagers possessing property […] will acquire a degree of consolidated and defensive strength […]. Every individual will then have a stake in the country.” Colquhoun suggests a system of friendly societies, enabling the poor to relieve themselves, which “will also excite a disposition to loyalty and subordination, by and interest, a stake in preserving, maintaining and defending the laws and constitution of the country.”

What is more, the social pedigree of the cottage moves from humble labourer’s retreat to a middle-class ideal: “[T]he inherent anti-urbanism of middle-class culture was reflected in the quintessential image of early nineteenth- century desirable housing, the white cottage with thatched roof and porch embowered with honeysuckle and roses.”

As early as 1794, Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ gives its heroine her start (and her happy ending) in a “summer cottage” whose owner, our heroine’s father, had made additions to but “would not suffer a stone of it to be removed, so that the new building, adapted to the style of the old one, formed with it only a simple and elegant residence.”

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