Women’s Defense-Narratives and the Novel

  • Josephine Donovan


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.


Defense Attorney Woman Writer Nature Picture Courtly Love Patriarchal Authority 
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  1. 1.
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© Josephine Donovan 1999

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  • Josephine Donovan

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