REVOLUTIONARY SUBJECTS IN THE ENGLISH 'JACOBIN' NOVEL 1790-1805 by Miriam L. Wallace, Reviewed by Tony Jarrells

By Miriam L. Wallace
(Bucknell, 2009) 314 pp.
Reviewed by Tony Jarrells on 2010-12-19.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.
Untitled Document Untitled Document

In her introduction to Enlightening Romanticism, Romancing the Enlightenment, an edited collection also published in 2009, Miriam L. Wallace characterizes the 1790s as a "locus" where scholarship on the eighteenth century meets scholarship on the Romantic-era novel and where the break usually assigned between these periods can be challenged.  Novels of the 1790s are likewise the focus of this new book.  Here, though, she examines them not so much in relation to other novels written before or after but rather "with an eye to their significance as founding cultural documents in the construction of modern political subjects [...]" (17).  As they tackled political and philosophical issues activated by the French Revolution, Wallace argues, English novelists of the 1790s imagined a new kind of subject that she variously describes as "revolutionary," "radical," "reformist," and "rights-bearing."

As many have done before her -- and with some hesitation -- Wallace groups these novelists together under the name given to them by their political opponents: "Jacobin."   But she makes two interesting moves to refresh and complicate the category.  First, she expands it.  Along with the usual Jacobin suspects (William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Holcroft, Robert Bage, Eliza Fenwick, and Mary Hays), Wallace includes several more conservative, even anti-Jacobin, writers such as Charles Lloyd, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Amelia Opie.  Works like Lloyd's Edmund Oliver (1798), Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800), and Opie's Adeline Mowbray (1804), she suggests, can be read "as part of an extended continuum" (223) that ranges from radical to reformist.  Above all, what places a novel on this continuum is not the inferred political position of the writer but rather the issues explored by the novel itself.  As Wallace presents them, "Jacobin" issues include  "the question of environment over inheritance...female rationality...and individual merit marked by sensibility and rationality rather than birthright" (17).  Each of her seven chapters focuses on one or more of these, sometimes directly and sometimes by exploring related questions about the family, masculinity, and the political power of narrative.  Her approach is mostly comparative, juxtaposing one writer with another.  Chapters one to three treat, respectively, Godwin and Fenwick, Wollstonecraft and Hays, and Bage and Holcroft; chapters four and five pair Holcroft with Hays.  Taking up first Lloyd and Opie and then Hamilton, the last two chapters set these three beside the more radical writers discussed in previous chapters. 

Wallace thus aims to put all of these writers under a big tent.  While characterizing radicals like Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Holcroft, and Hays as members of a group, a circle, and a movement, she also argues that the issues they share with "reformist" writers like Lloyd, Hamilton, and Opie point to something bigger, what Wallace calls -- following Raymond Williams -- a "structure of feeling" (16-17).  For Williams, structures of feeling are a kind of social content that "cannot without loss be reduced to belief systems, institutions, or explicit general relationships..." (Marxism and Literature [1977] 133).  They are emergent -- feelings and ideas not yet hardened into ideology.  Describing English Jacobinism as a structure of feeling has many advantages.  For one, it allows Wallace to move among the different issues she introduces while accounting for the structured character of their relations.  In addition, it draws our attention to the tensions generated by specific concepts such as that of female rationality, showing how, for instance, rationality is spliced to sensibility in the development of a character like Hays' Emma Courtney.  Indeed, Wallace's readings make us feel that Jacobin novelists are working out their issues and ideas right on the page.  The novels thus gain a freshness and sense of possibility not usually associated with Jacobin writing. 

Occasionally, however, Wallace drifts away from the emergent status of Williams' analytical category and reads the novels either through a more straightforwardly ideological lens or through the hypothesis that they share multiple structures of feeling.  One instance of such confusion comes in the book's discussion of gender, probably its central concern.  In her introduction, Wallace posits a starting point for Jacobin fiction in Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791).  Composed in large part before French revolutionary upheavals raised a host of questions about rights and citizenship,  Inchbald's novel is said to have made the domestic and sentimental available for the kinds of political reading it would receive over the course of the turbulent decade that followed.  A Simple Story "set the stage," Wallace writes, "for a generic transition from mid-century sentimental fiction to the self-consciously polemical political novels of the 1790s" (24).  This is a very interesting insight.  And although Wallace's study is not organized chronologically, her use of Inchbald as a starting point initiates a trajectory that her subsequent chapters all hint at in some way or other: first, the suggestion that Inchbald makes the domestic available for political readings (and rewritings); next, that writers like Godwin follow her lead and equate the domestic with the national but at the same time write women out of the story; and finally, that writers after Godwin, especially Fenwick and Hays, put women back into the story and in doing so test the limits of the political subject as it is first imagined in the early 1790s. 

But Wallace does not follow through on this trajectory or on the idea that Inchbald helped put gender and the domestic at the heart of the Jacobin structure of feeling.  After turning to the importance of education, another subject important to her study, she does come back to the domestic in the next section.  But she separates it from her account of Inchbald and from any larger Jacobin structure of feeling.  "Radical reform or ‘Jacobinism' was not the sole structure of feeling that emerged from the Wollstonecraft-Godwin circles," says Wallace; "another significant emergent cultural strain could be considered the beginnings of what we now recognize as modern feminism" (26).  The big tent thus tends to come apart at the seams.  What was first defined as a unified structure of feeling, with gender and domesticity at its center, becomes a few pages later multiple structures, one of which relates to gender and to more recent debates about it among feminist scholars.  This confusion is a feature of the book.  While sometimes arguing that women's writing is "an important site for tracing the development of Jacobin structures of feeling" (62),  Wallace also declares that the "emergent valuation of women's feeling represents a particular structure of feeling within the shared structure of feeling we might call English Jacobinism" (81, Wallace's emphasis).  In general, Wallace's inconsistency detracts from the considerable power of her initial formulation.

In spite of this inconsistency, however, Wallace accomplishes a great deal.  Besides expanding the roster of Jacobin writers, she also expands our understanding of what constitutes the political in their novels.  This is the second way in which she refreshes and complicates our sense of what Jacobinism was -- by reading beyond the novelist's explicit motivations.  Though she tracks these down in prefaces or letters, she does not reduce the novels to them.  Instead, she shows how Jacobin fiction often challenges or resists its own explicitly stated ideals or programs. 

Wallace grounds her approach in Godwin's essay, "Of Choice in Reading," from The Enquirer (1797).  Or rather, and somewhat strangely, she grounds it in a description of Godwin's argument (she does not engage the essay itself) formulated by another scholar, Pamela Clemit.  In "Of Choice in Reading," Godwin distinguishes between the moral of a work--the meaning intended by the author--and its tendency: the effect it has, or might have, on its reader.  As with Williams' structures of feeling, Godwin's terms prove highly useful for presenting the complexity of 1790s fiction.  In chapter one, for instance, Wallace compares Godwin's Things as they Are (1794) and Fenwick's Secresy (1795).  While both, she explains, claim to be about "the power of right reason to convince and persuade," both instead "reveal the limited efficacy of rational discourse to uncover a universal ‘truth' and to overcome the systemic problems of law, court system, primogeniture, family honor, and social prejudice" (60).  In chapter six, Wallace finds Opie's Adeline Mowbray likewise conflicted.  While its moral, she writes,  is often taken to be "a critique of irregular, philosophical unions and support for the British institution of legal, church marriage" (204), its tendency, she argues, is "more complex." Showing how the novel questions the judgment of its moral center, the character of Mrs. Pemberton, and how it implicitly critiques oaths -- a particular concern of Godwin's political philosophy--Wallace concludes that Opie's novel is "inadequately summed up as anti-Jacobinism" (204).

Here again Wallace is not always in perfect command of her material.  Just as her argument about structures of feeling alternates between unity and multiplicity, she sometimes identifies too many explicit morals to keep track of and has trouble maintaining her consistency when the moral she first identifies seems to change over the course of her argument, as in her readings of Hays' The Victim of Prejudice (1799) and Holcroft's The Memoirs of Bryan Perdue (1805).  Overall, though, Wallace's approach provides us with a much deeper sense of the political character of Jacobin fiction than usual.  The revolutionary subject that emerges in her readings is not a dogmatic figure.  Instead, he or she is flexible, questioning, and unstable, a product of the "double-voicing" (253) that Wallace sees as the signature formal feature of 1790s fiction. 

Wallace's study, then, gives us a more complicated Jacobin novel than any we have seen before.  But it also raises a question that her edited collection, Enlightening Romanticism, posed with some urgency: what about the longer history of the novel and those places where the features and concerns of different periods overlap?  Was fiction before the 1790s not double-voiced?  Did it, too, not participate in the creation of modern subjects?  With regard to the first and second questions, Wallace occasionally nods to possible connections between Jacobin novelists and the work of Laurence Sterne or Samuel Richardson.  But ultimately the reader is left with a sense of the Jacobin novel as a rich and interesting but still rather isolated generic phenomenon.  This is all the more surprising with regard to the third question -- about the novel and the modern subject.  Nancy Armstrong has of course argued for this connection, grounding her account in eighteenth-century novels like Pamela (1740).  Her work, however, gets only a brief mention in a footnote.  Michael McKeon's The Secret History of Domesticity (2005) gets no mention at all, even though his explanation of how eighteenth-century novels make the "‘little' realm of the domestic [...] able to sustain the ‘great' themes of public discourse" (645) would add much to Wallace's own argument.  And while Wallace concludes that "[t]he radical and reformist novels of the 1790s, are part of the history of human rights and thus of the juridical subject" (251), there is no serious discussion of human rights scholarship.  Especially surprising here is the absence of any mention of Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights (2007), which argues that novels by Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau made the very idea of human rights possible. 

Instead of looking back to the eighteenth century,  Wallace looks forward to the twentieth and twenty-first and to debates about the subject in feminist and poststructuralist criticism.  Her book is thus poised somewhere between a historicist approach and a more rhetorical, or deconstructive one--that is, between trying to explain the social content of Jacobin fiction by turning to specific debates in the period, and linking this content to "the fate of rights discourse" (261) and the complexities of the subject as explored by Jacques Derrida and Jacques Rancière.


Anthony Jarrells is Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina.


Leave a comment on Tony Jarrells's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed