Novels of Natural Rights in the 1790s

  • R. S. White


Thomas Holcroft, the Jacobin historical novelist and dramatist of the 1790s who was discussed in chapter 4 (and whose Memoirs were published by Hazlitt), wrote the following on the power of novels to influence and educate a popular reading public, which deserve to open this chapter.

When we consider the influence that novels have over the manners, sentiments, and passions, of the rising generation, — instead of holding them in the contempt which, as reviewers, we are without exception said to do, — we may esteem them, on the contrary, as forming a very essential branch of literature1

Written at a time when ‘romances’ were regarded as pernicious corrupters of youth and especially of women,2 this is an interesting observation since his use of the word ‘influence’ can be non-judgemental, or at least it implies that they can change people’s minds by working on their feelings, for better or worse. At the very least Holcroft is suggesting that such works can be described in Horatian terms of teaching and delighting, and thus placed in the ranks of respectable ‘literature’. In his own practice, and that of the novelists covered in this chapter, it is clear that he attempted to rescue novels from accusations of escapism and aristocratic manners, and instead use them for teaching radical lessons that were relevant to a revolutionary age, in an attempt to ‘influence … the rising generation’.


Free Speech French Revolution Good Humour Ancien Regime Economic Injustice 
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  1. 1.
    Thomas Holcrof t, Review of Bage’s Man As He Is, The Monthly Review, Ser. 10 (March, 1793), 297, quoted in Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel 1780–1805 (Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 1976), 115.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See William Hill Brown, The Power o f Sympathy (London: Penguin Books, 1996).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    George Walker, The Vagabond, a Novel (3rd edn, London: G. Walker, 1799), I, 152–3. Quoted by M. O. Grenlay in The Anti-Jacobin: Britsish Conservatism and the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 57.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Elizabeth Inchbald, Nature and Art, with an introduction by Caroline Franklin, The Romantics: Women Novelists series (London: Routledge, Thoemmes Press, 1995). This is a facsimile of the second edition (1797) and quotations are taken from it.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Edition used is Robert Bage, Hermsprong or Man As He Is Not, ed. Peter Faulkner (The World’s Classics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    The references are to Sir James Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae (1791), Benjamin Flower, The French Constitution (1792) and Thomas Christie, Letters on the Revolution of France (1791).Google Scholar
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    See Chris Jones, Radical Sensibility: Literature and Ideas in the 1790s (London: Routledge, 1993), 161 and generally ch. 6.Google Scholar
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    Quotations from The Old Manor House, ed. Anne Henry Ehrenpreis (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 487.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    See Rebecca Morgan, ‘The gothic in the novels of Charlotte Smith’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    The altered quotation (’hunting’ to ‘taxing’) comes from The Ballad o f Chevy Chase. Google Scholar
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    The reference is to David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, 1789).Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Rebecca Morgan, ‘The gothic in the novels of Charlotte Smith’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996).Google Scholar
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  14. 16.
    Charlotte Smith, Desmond, eds, Antje Blank and Janet Todd (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1997), 7.Google Scholar
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    Fletcher, Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography (London and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998), 150.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    Charlotte Smith, The Young Philosopher (facsimile, 4 vols, New York: Garland, 1974).Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Sibella cannot be very common as a name, and may have been borrowed as Sybylla by Miles Franklin in My Brilliant Career (1901), an early Australian novel about a woman’s right to be a writer, which ironically could only have had a chance of publication if it carried a masculine name. There may be a more pervasive debt to Fenwick’s novel, published just six years earlier.Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    Eliza Fenwick, Secresy; or, the Ruin on the Rock, ed. Isobel Grundy (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994), 43.Google Scholar
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    Nicola J. Watson, Revolution and the Form of the British Novel 1790–1825: Intercepted Letters, Interrupted Seductions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 49–50.Google Scholar
  20. 29.
    Terence Allan Hoagwood, Politics, Philosophy, and the Production o f Romantic Texts (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996), 123.Google Scholar

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© R. S. White 2005

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  • R. S. White

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