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Women’s Defense-Narratives and the Novel

  • Josephine Donovan

Abstract

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—the period of the prehistory of the novel, a dominant tradition in women’s literature was that of autobiographical “life-writing”; that is, personal texts written in the first person, such as diaries, letters, “receipt” books, mother’s legacies, as well as more straightforward autobiographical histories of a life.1 Many, if not most, of the latter were modeled as “defense-narratives,”2 vindications of, or explanations for, behavior that was in one way or another outside accepted notions of proper female decorum. As the defense-narratives were unified around a central thesis-to prove the woman’s innocence or vindicate her behavior-they provided a hypotactic, propter hoc prototype for the “history” of a life that became a central model for the novel. Echoes of the defense-narrative resound even in such classics of women’s victimization as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740–41) and Clarissa (1747–48). While Ian Watt has proposed a Cartesian source for the novel’s “pattern of autobiographical memoir,”3 I propose here the women’s defense-narrative as another provenance.

Keywords

Defense Attorney Woman Writer Nature Picture Courtly Love Patriarchal Authority 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    According to tabulations done by Patricia Crawford, approximately 80 percent of women’s published writings of the period were nonfiction, of which much was of a religious or spiritual nature. Prose fiction comprised only 8 percent of the total. (“Women’s Published Writings 1600–1700,” in Women in English Society 1500–1800, ed. Mary Prior (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 269, Table 7.3. Numerous manuscripts, including many of the life-writing texts, circulated in manuscript (see Margaret J. M. Ezell, “Domestic Papers: Manuscript Culture and Early Modern Women’s Life Writing,” in Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England, ed. Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle [Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007], pp. 33–8).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 15.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    Elspeth Graham, “Women’s Writing and the Self,” in The Rhetorics of Life-Writing in Early Modern Europe, ed. T. F. Meye and D. R. Woolf (Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 212.Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    Janet Todd and Elizabeth Spearing, Introduction, Counterfeit Ladies: The Life and Death of Mal Cutpurse; The Case of Mary Carleton (New York: New York University Press, 1994), pp. x–xi, xviii–xix, Appendix I.Google Scholar
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    [Mary Frith], The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Mai Cutpurse, in Counterfeit Ladies, ed. Janet Todd and Elizabeth Spearing (New York: New York University Press, 1994), p. 70. Further references follow in the text.Google Scholar
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    Ernest Bernbaum, The Mary Carleton Narratives, 1663–1673: A Missing Chapter in the Hstory of the English Novel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914), p. 31, n.l.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Anne Barbeau Gardiner, Introduction to “Malice Defeated” and “The Matchless Rogue” by Elizabeth Cellier (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1988), p. ivVuiVui.Google Scholar
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    Vera J. Camden, Introduction to The Narrative of the Persecutions of Agnes Beaumont, ed. Camden (East Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1992), p. 28. A further reference follows in the text.Google Scholar
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    See Frances E. Dolan, Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender, and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 187–88.Google Scholar
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    As cited in Mihoko Suzuki, Subordinate Subjects: Gender, The Political Nation, and Literary Form in England, 1588–1688 (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2003), p. 259. Further references to Suzuki follow in the text.Google Scholar
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    Nicholas Seager, The Rise of the Novel (Houndsmill, Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 48–49,Google Scholar
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© Josephine Donovan 1999

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  • Josephine Donovan

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