The Romantic Period, Race and Enlightened Feminism

  • Eamon Wright


This book simultaneously contemplates and critiques the raciology of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British women writers. In so doing it will unpack the ethical and ethnic moral-economy of the Romantic period.1 The primary subject of the work is the relationship between Enlightened Feminism, as feminism of the period has been called, and ideas of ‘race’ in the early Romantic period in Britain during the critical years of crisis and change, 1788–1818.2 The Romantic period was one of creative vibrancy, coupled with an attendant crisis and change of great velocity; the quantity and quality of literary intervention by women on the nature of the crisis facing the British polity — that is the pressures on the British nation, British civilization and British social, political and economic welfare — in an age of slavery, lends itself agreeably to an examination of the British feminist project of the late eighteenth century. What this book attempts to do is examine the manner in which both what British women writers said and how they said it, in poetry, novels, letters, memoirs, diaries and treatises were, at some point and in various ways, racially charged. This book is therefore a critique of British ethnic metaphysics.


Eighteenth Century Social Theory Literary History Early Nineteenth Century French Revolution 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Ethical thought, relations between people, involves the ideas and ideals, interests and values, which guide behaviour. Arising from this is moral enquiry which, Berlin points out, may be applied to groups of people, nations and mankind: see Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity (London: John Murray, 1990), pp. 1–2. ‘Ethics’ and ‘ethnic’ are very closely linked. David Goldberg notes, ‘racialized discourse does not consist simply in descriptive representations of others. It includes a set of hypothetical premises about human kinds … and about the differences between them … It involves’, he points out, ‘a class of ethical choices (e.g., domination and subjugation, entitlement and restriction, disrespect and abuse).’Google Scholar
  2. David Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 47. ‘All ethics,’ writes Jameson, ‘lives by exclusion and predicates certain types of Otherness …’ Jameson, op. cit., p. 60. It is important to recognize that a fracturing between ethnic and ethics is ultimately false. There is no intention here to value ethnic over ethics, rather the aim is to show that they are in fact inseparable.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    See Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983), pp. 4–5. On ‘women’ and ‘Enlightenment’,Google Scholar
  4. see Jane Rendall, The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780–1860 (Chicago: Lyceum, 1985), passim;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barbara Caine, English Feminism, 1780–1980 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), passim. For an introduction to the economic and political crisis of the period, see Mary Davis, op. cit.; D.G. Wright, op. cit., especially Chapter 3; and specifically on the multifarious political crisis,Google Scholar
  6. see Roger Wells, ‘English Society and Revolutionary Politics in the 1790s’, in Mark Philp (ed.), The French Revolution and Popular British Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  7. 3.
    Central to patriarchal scholarship is the concept of ‘patriarchy’, which critics cannot fully agree upon. In one sense it denotes a biological politics that anchors women’s Otherness from men. Alternatively, it seeks to provide an epistemological gloss that addresses ‘how’ and ‘why’ women suffer subordination to men. In that sense ‘patriarchy’ is not biologically reductive but eminently political. It is perhaps more fruitful to talk not in terms of ‘patriarchy’ but rather in terms of ‘patriarchal relations’, as this shifts focus away from historicism to the nature of historical process, hence change. See Hester Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought (London: Counterpoint, 1984), passim; Sheila Rowbotham, ‘The Trouble with Patriarchy’,Google Scholar
  8. and Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor, ‘In Defence of “Patriarchy”’, in Raphael Samuel (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth A. Fay, A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p. 5.Google Scholar
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    See Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848 (London: Verso, 1988), p. 138.Google Scholar
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    See Bryan Sykes, The Seven Daughters of Eve (London: Corgi, 2002), p. 359. This takes us into the hitherto murky world of genetics. Bryan Sykes, the eminent Oxford University geneticist, admits that human genetics unsuccessfully circumnavigated taxonomy of human groups, for many years. However, the way out from this genetic cul-de-sac was a signpost known as mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on through the maternal line only, are small structures within cells; its mutability acts like a genetic timepiece, illuminating pre-history with a spectacular brilliance. As a tool of analysis, mitochondrial DNA conclusively established that Homo sapiens developed from one African source. Over time Homo sapiens replaced all other human species. The genealogy of people from Europe, Africa, the Americas, Australasia, Asians of the Indian subcontinent, the Far East and Pacifica, indeed people everywhere, is traceable to the same root. An African woman is mother to us all. As Sykes notes, mitochondrial DNA gives us an incontrovertible human history: our origin is in Africa about one hundred and fifty thousand years ago; and from Africa, modern humans colonized the globe. The salient conclusion Sykes offers is that there is only one race, the human race: see Sykes, ibid., pp. 67, 338.Google Scholar
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    See Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), passim.Google Scholar
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    See Raymond Williams, op. cit. Banton has argued that, during the eighteenth century, ideas of race were too amorphous to be classified as a systematic body of thought: see Michael Banton, Racial Theories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), Chapter 1. Popkin would disagree. At the Symposium on Racism in the Eighteenth Century, held in March 1972, he argued that if racism requires a systematic body of justification, then the eighteenth century had it:Google Scholar
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    See Paul Baxter and Basil Sansom (eds), Race & Social Difference (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972). It would seem that the biological imperative is omnipotent, for in their introductory essay they declare that membership of a ‘race’ is hereditary; furthermore, that social and racial identity is obfuscated by inter-racial breeding (p. 13).Google Scholar
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    See Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1966), p. 178.Google Scholar
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    For a conventional summary of ‘race’, see Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London: Pan, 1983).Google Scholar
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    See A.D. Smith, National Identity (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), passim.Google Scholar
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    See A.D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), passim, but especially Chapters 8 and 9.Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    Ibid., p. 206. Smith notes also that ‘Archaeology, too, tended in the nineteenth century to lend support to a purely English identity based on Saxon origins, with the wider British and imperial framework …’ (ibid.); an assertion which is by no means a simple matter: see Bruce Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), Chapter 5.Google Scholar
  23. 28.
    See Peter Fryer, op. cit., p. 1. Sykes has traced African DNA in Somerset, which he suggests might be a legacy of the Roman occupation: see Sykes, op. cit., p. 358; Paul Edwards, ‘The Early African Presence in the British Isles’, in Jagdish S. Gundara and I. Duffield (eds), Essays on the History of Black in Britain (Aldershot: Avebury, 1992), p. 9.Google Scholar
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    See Elizabeth Tonkin, Maryon McDonald, and Malcolm Chapman (eds), History and Ethnicity, ASA Monographs 27 (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 5.Google Scholar
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    Zia Sardar, Ashis Nandy, and Merryl Wyn Davies, Barbaric Others (London: Pluto, 1993), p. 39.Google Scholar
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    See David Musselwhite, Partings Welded Together: Politics and Desire in the Nineteenth Century Novel (London: Methuen, 1987), who describes the process as agencement. Musselwhite argues that the nineteenth-century novel was a tool of ideology through which narration, as a system of ideas and ideals, has formed part of our learned behaviour.Google Scholar
  28. 37.
    See Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment: An Evaluation of Its Assumptions, Attitudes and Values (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), p. 9. Michel Foucault asserts that Enlightenment arose at a certain stage of development of European societies; Frank Hearn argues that it was an eighteenth-century phenomenon.Google Scholar
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    Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648–1789 (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1970).Google Scholar
  37. 40.
    See Brian Morris, Western Conceptions of the Individual (New York: Berg, 1991);Google Scholar
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    See Marshall Brown, ‘Romanticism and Enlightenment’, in Stuart Curran (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993);Google Scholar
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    See Linda Colley, ‘Radical Patriotism in Eighteenth Century England’, in Raphael Samuel (ed.), Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity, Volume 1, History & Politics (London: Routledge, 1989).Google Scholar
  43. 45.
    For an erudite and compelling critique of how models of antiquity have exorcized Egypt from the idea of European civilization, see Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume 1, The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785–1985 (London: Free Association Books, 1987).Google Scholar
  44. 46.
    For explorations of this problematic, see Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993);Google Scholar
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    See H.W. Fowler, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 196; Jane Rendall, The Origins of Modern Feminism, op. cit., p. 1; on the changing definitions of feminism, see Barbara Caine, English Feminism, op. cit., pp. 2ff.Google Scholar
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    See Sabina Lovibond, ‘Feminism and Postmodernism’, New Left Review, Number 178 (1989), 11.Google Scholar
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    See Janet Todd, The Sign of Angelica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660–1800 (London: Virago, 1989), p. 235.Google Scholar
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    See introductory essay by Jones (ed.), Women and Literature in Britain, op. cit., p. 14. Jane Rendall’s declaration also yields significant resonance here: ‘the history of women’s political activity is not identical with the history of feminist movements, though at many points the two must overlap.’ See introductory essay by Jane Rendall (ed.), Equal or Different: Women’s Politics, 1800–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), p. 4.Google Scholar
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    See Eva Figes, Sex & Subterfuge: Women Writers to 1850 (London: Pandora, 1982), p. 1. This needs further qualification, for we are really talking about women of the middle classes.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Literary theory, history and criticism have made significant strides in the treatment of literature, which is clearly way beyond the scope of any mainstream sociology of it. This rule, like all good rules, has an exception: Mary Evans, Jane Austen and the State (London: Tavistock Publications, 1987). Evans is a sociologist. Historians too have begun to treat literature seriously. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, recognizes the importance of literature for historical studies not as an indicator of the spirit of the times as historians have, she argues, a tendency to register it, but as an integral feature of moral, intellectual and cultural activity which is historically specific. Warren Roberts, a historian, has focused on Jane Austen.Google Scholar
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    See Gary Kelly, English Fiction of the Romantic Period, 1789–1830 (London: Longman, 1989), p. 25. Middle-class women wrote the majority of the primary source texts examined in this work, available in many latter-day editions; though it must be admitted that not all the women writers in this work were in fact middle class. Women of the middle to upper classes have produced the majority of feminist records. Their membership of those social classes, of relative to absolute privilege, may very well have determined, or rather framed, their concerns, desires and perspectives for betterment, but this does not invalidate the understanding they had of the workings of the middle to upper echelons of the British ancien regime. Nor does it invalidate their understanding of the relations of patriarchy to which they were subject and, more importantly, against which they often agitated. In the last analysis, the bottom line in class politics is that class membership does not in itself prescribe ideological and political leaning; it simply means that there is a pressure for one’s class position to be commensurate with a particular ideological and political rationale.Google Scholar
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© Eamon Wright 2005

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