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Anne K. Mellor, Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830 2nd ed.

Monday, March 20, 2006 - 06:13
Anne K. Mellor, Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002. 172pp. $39.95/$17.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0253337135, Pbk; ISBN: 025321369X).

Reviewed by
Sarah M. Zimmerman
Fordham University

Anne Mellor's latest book brings to bear on the field of British Romantic women's writing recent debates about women and the public sphere. She invokes two pervasive critical accounts: Jürgen Habermas's theory of the emergence of a "bourgeois public sphere" in eighteenth century Europe, and feminist narratives of the development of gendered "separate spheres" that culminated in the Victorian ideal of a domesticated womanhood. These historical paradigms do not readily map onto one another (chronologically, geographically, or theoretically), yet both accounts rehearse the rise of a predominantly masculine realm of public debate and discursive exchange. Mellor challenges both models, finding Habermas's "conceptual limitation" of the public sphere to propertied men "historically incorrect" (2), and "the theoretical paradigm of 'the doctrine of the separate spheres'" limiting for our understanding of the period's lived experience and literary culture (7).

Mellor's study participates in a broader rethinking of these models by social and literary historians. Linda Colley, Amanda Vickery, and Lawrence Klein, among others, have critiqued accounts of women's increasing confinement within domestic space, while historians such as Dena Goodman and John Brewer have suggested that the era was defined not by hardening distinctions between public and private experience, but rather by the very instability of these categories. Brewer argues that public authority gradually managed to "colonize" the private realm; Mellor claims the opposite. She posits that active, influential women promoted the "values" of a feminized private sphere—"moral virtue and an ethic of care"—so successfully that, by the end of the Romantic period, only a monarch who seemed to embody moral rectitude and domestic stability was acceptable to the English public. Mellor credits women debaters, preachers, philanthropists, rulers, and especially writers with authoring a "transformation" in "public opinion" and "political culture" that rendered the fiscal and domestic excesses of George IV increasingly unacceptable and paved the way for the chaste figure of Victoria (11-12, 38). In her "Introduction: Women and the Public Sphere in England, 1780-1830," Mellor eschews the paradigm of a separate, "counter public sphere" for women and claims for them instead "an enormous—and hitherto largely uncredited—impact on the formation of public opinion in England between 1780 and 1830" (11).

While I welcome Mellor's bold thesis, in what follows I question her reluctance to qualify it. The sweeping transformation she calls for in how we view Romantic women writers may, however, seem to require such decisive critical gestures. Mellor successfully champions a bracing shift in perspective that moves these writers to the center of Romantic England's literary and political culture. We may no longer speak of them as "marginal," but Mellor goes considerably further in claiming that they were instead influential players in turbulent scenes of social change. Mellor herself laid the groundwork for this case in Romanticism and Gender (1993), where she argued that Romantic women writers "promoted a politics of gradual rather than violent social change, a social change that extends the values of domesticity into the public realm" (3). In Mothers of the Nation, she follows these writers into the world of print and theater, demonstrating how "[w]omen writers' words and ideas were disseminated orally as well as in print" (4).

For Mellor, Hannah More plays a key role in the social, cultural, and political transformation that heralded Victorian Britain by envisioning "women's public role as mothers of the nation" (30). More is introduced as a "revolutionary reformer" in Chapter 1, and her centrality to the study is reinforced by her reappearance in subsequent chapters on women playwrights (Ch. 2) and poets (Ch. 3). Mellor makes two large claims about More that undergird the entire study: that she was "the most influential woman living in England in the Romantic era," and that she helped to prevent "a French-style, violent revolution in England," fostering instead her "revolution in manners" (13, 14, 18). Mellor recounts More's multi-faceted program of reproving aristocratic decadence, promoting an Evangelical revival within the Church of England, and dangling the carrot of middle-class prosperity to workers to be pious and industrious. According to More, the "behavior" of women of all ranks was key to the nation's reformation, although upper- and middle-class women were to assume particularly prominent social roles as philanthropists. More, who "insisted on the innate difference between the sexes," credited women with possessing the qualities requisite for social renovation that she envisioned: sensibility and, "above all, a greater moral purity and capacity for virtue" (26). These qualities, however, had to be developed. For More, women's education should foster their facility at managing their households' moral, spiritual, and fiscal economy—and thus to make them exemplars for how to run the nation's domestic economy.

More reappears as an influential figure in Chapter 2, which treats "Theater as the School of Virtue," along with Joanna Baillie, Hannah Cowley, and Elizabeth Inchbald. Mellor argues that each of these writers viewed the theater "a public school for females" (40) that could produce a "new woman" who was "rational, compassionate, merciful, tolerant, and peace-loving" (38). Mellor's treatment of Baillie exemplifies both the power of the study's broader thesis and what is compromised by an unwillingness to qualify it. Mellor offers Plays on the Passions as an influential interjection of (private) emotion into the public arena of the theater (42). Mellor's reading of Count Basil is one of the study's strongest, both for its sheer vitality as an interpretation and for the convincing way in which it links literary form (dramatic character and plot) to her broader historical thesis. She considers the play as a critique of a masculine public realm embodied by the Duke and Count Basil. The Count is brought down not by his (heterosexual) love for Victoria, nor by his (homosocial) attachment to his soldiers but rather by "the dominating passion" of the masculine public sphere: "an egotistical self-love that seeks only its personal aggrandizement" (44).

Mellor's reading of Baillie's "Introductory Discourse" to the Plays is less convincing because it allows neither for the dramas' fascination with extreme emotion nor our desire to witness it. Mellor reads Baillie as promoting "a rational control of passion that produces harmonious and loving family relationships." This portrait of emotionally regulated family life is to serve, in turn, as a "model for peaceful national and international relations" (42). Certainly, Baillie asserts the beneficial nature of her theatrical investigation of strong emotion, but it is possible to read the "Discourse" more as a proleptic defense of—rather than a straightforward agenda for—her excavation of intense feeling. By the same token, Mellor regards Baillie's emphasis upon the audience's "sympathetic curiosity" as the pedagogical vehicle for the plays' tempering of emotion's potential destructiveness. But Baillie's treatment of this capacity allows ample room for auditors' voyeuristic fascination with persons under duress, especially when she suggests a comparison between theater audiences and the crowds who gather to witness public executions. Mellor does not concede that Baillie's treatment of a natural "curiosity" with human behavior that she dates from childhood may be understood apart from a reforming impulse.

In Chapter 3, on "Women's Political Poetry," Mellor identifies a Romantic "tradition of the female poet," whom she distinguishes from the "the poetess," a figure previously defined by Mellor and other feminist critics (70). In contrast to "the poetess," who works within a separate, women's tradition that celebrates the "domestic affections," even as her poetry may subtly subvert convention, the work of the "female poet" is "explicitly political" (70). Under this heading Mellor brings together Hannah More, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and Lucy Aiken. Mellor argues that these poets found enabling precursors in a tradition of female preachers and prophets who, in turn, drew their authority to speak in public from "seventeenth-century Quaker theology and a belief in a divine inner light" (70). Mellor's argument is refreshing for demonstrating that Romantic women poets found grounds for asserting their cultural authority well beyond the bounds of literary history. This argument is especially illuminating for poets such as Anna Letitia Barbauld who were steeped in traditions of Dissent. For Charlotte Smith, however, the paradigm of the "female poet" is a less comfortable fit. Certainly, Smith "intended to sway public opinion" (84), but unlike the "female poet," who "insisted she spoke on behalf of Virtue" (71), Smith simply insisted. Her disregard for conventional piety was a lightening rod for the Tory, High Church British Critic who accused her of presuming that she could find God in nature, beyond the Church's institutional edifices.

Chapter 4, "Literary Criticism, Cultural Authority, and the Rise of the Novel," makes one of the study's most valuable contributions, by conceiving a Romantic school of literary criticism by women that competes with the prevailing paradigm of their male peers, who (in Mellor's estimate) emphasize the imagination, language, transcendence, the visionary, and subjectivity. Mellor thus expands her claims for Romantic women writers' influence in the public sphere by gathering a handful of critics— Joanna Baillie, Anna Barbauld, Elizabeth Inchbald, Clara Reeve, Anna Seward, and Mary Wollstonecraft—who "set themselves up as judges, judges not just of aesthetic taste and literary excellence but also of cultural morality" (100). Mellor credits these critics with championing a didactic literature that promoted "virtue, thrift, and self-control" and punished "willful impulse, irrationality, lack of foresight, excessive sensibility, and uncontrolled sexual desire" (89). In her account, they accordingly elevated the novel over lyric poetry in the hierarchy of genres for its pedagogical possibilities, preferring the novel as "the most moral and the most realistic" literary form (95).

Mellor's final chapter—"The Politics of Fiction" (Ch. 5)—develops her account of the novel's potential as a vehicle for social reform. Taking Charlotte Smith's Desmond and Jane Austen's Persuasion as her primary examples, she argues that some of the period's women novelists "used their fiction to promote radical changes in Britain's legal system of governance, both at home and abroad" (104). While Desmond launches a comprehensive critique of patriarchy that encompasses the compromised roles of women under English law and in France's new Republic, Persuasion offers an alternative future in Anne Elliot, who "comes to embody Jane Austen's concept of the new mother of the nation" (131). Mellor reads Austen's protagonist as "the visible embodiment of Britannia herself," and thus the novel as contributing to "a moment in which British national identity is reconfigured as feminine" (139). Mellor concludes this argument with a suggestive reading of a contemporaneous change in British coinage—the appearance of Britannia on the British copper penny—as heralding Victoria's ascent to the throne.

Mellor's study is a corrective, not only to theories of a "bourgeois public sphere" and "separate spheres," but also to what she characterizes as a liberal bias among social historians emerging from a Marxist tradition and some feminist literary critics who deplore the brand of social change championed most effectively by More. Mellor is correct in arguing that to dismiss, according to a narrow definition of activism, the influence of women who participated in conservative social movements is to distort significantly our understanding of the period. Throughout the study, Mellor is careful to acknowledge the ideological implications of the social and aesthetic views that she identifies with this tradition of Romantic women's writing: Hannah More "strongly believed in economic stratification" (24) and promoted a "Christian capitalism" that exploited workers (33). In addition, the works of "the female Christian poet" were likely to "co-opted in the name of British imperial expansion" (72) and were often characterized by a "Eurocentric assumption" that Christianity is "superior" to other religions (77).

Thus Mellor's study—having made the broader correction—lays the groundwork for assessing the field of Romantic women's writing that she outlines. Critics will want to question the coherence of the program of the women writers she brings together under the rubric of a determination to shape public opinion and define literary culture. Critics will also want to measure the extent to which these writers' works manifest the social and aesthetic agendas that they profess. Mellor's study, however, makes it impossible to overlook the importance of these women writers' reforming zeal for the period's literary, social, and political culture.