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Elizabeth Hamilton, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers. Ed. Claire Grogan. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2000. ISBN: 1-55111-148-9. Price: US$12.95 (£8.95).

  • Michelle Levy

…plus d’informations

  • Michelle Levy
    University of California, Los Angeles

Corps de l’article

Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers is a novel firmly situated in the ideological battles of the 1790s. Traditionally regarded as an anti-Jacobin novel, Memoirs features merciless attacks on Godwin and his brand of "Modern Philosophy". The novel follows the fortunes of three female characters one of whom, Brigetina Botherim, is a savage portrayal of Mary Hays. Like Mary Hays' heroine in her own autobiographical novel of 1796, Memoirs of Emma Courtney, Brigetina recklessly pursues a man who obviously disdains her. Brigetina spouts entire paragraphs of Godwin's Enquiry into Political Justice, aping his necessitarianism and quoting with particular fondness those infamous passages most subject to ridicule by Godwin's contemporaries. For example, she repeatedly asserts Godwin's claim that familial or marital obligation should be disregarded for general utility: "I ought to prefer no human being to another, because that being is my father, my wife, or my son, but because, for reasons which equally appeal to all understandings, that being is entitled to preference. In a state of equality, it will be a question of no importance who is the parent of each individual child. It is aristocracy, self-love, and family pride, that teach us to set a value upon it at present". Brigetina, who measures her own progress in philosophy by the degree of contempt she feels for her parents, is, in Hamilton's estimation, as repugnant as the Godwinian thinking she espouses. The New Philosophy, as depicted by Hamilton, makes women insufferable, corrupting them intellectually (Brigetina is incapable of independent and rational thought) and physically (she is terribly unkempt), as well as threatening their sexual purity.

But if Brigetina secures the novel to the 1790s, the other two female characters, Julia Delmont and Harriet Orwell, suggest the ways in which the novel, published in 1800, stands as a bridge between two centuries of fiction. Though Julia's seduction by the villian, Vallaton, is in fact a seduction by the New Philosophy—used by Vallaton to persuade her to disobey her father and, finally, to run away with him—Julia is in all other respects a heroine of the sentimental fiction of the eighteenth century. Julia is so conditioned by her own reading of sentimental fiction that she fantasizes about uncovering Vallaton's noble birth, a desire that becomes pressing when she discovers that he is a hair stylist. True to the New Philosophy he espouses—that relationships are voluntarily begun and may be unilaterally ended—he abandons her to die pregnant and begging her father for forgiveness. Julia suffers because she is a slave to an imagination fed by incessant novel reading, much in the same way Brigetina suffers from her own slavish devotion to the New Philosophy. The novel's narrative structure, which includes a fictional editor who claims that the manuscript was written by a recently deceased lodger and begins in medias res (the first fifty pages having been used for kindling), also attaches the novel to its eighteenth-century predecessors, most obviously Henry MacKenzie's Man of Feeling.

Hamilton's other heroine, Harriet Orwell, looks forward to the heroines of the nineteenth century. Independent, intelligent and resourceful, Harriet's main struggle is to overcome the obstacles which prevent her from becoming permanently attached to the man she loves. These impediments are the standard fare of Jane Austen's novels: the lovers' lack of income and prospects; their confusion about whether a prior attachment exists; the attentions of new suitors; and, of course, their reticence in declaring themselves. And indeed Harriet is a heroine worthy of Austen, whose quiet faith enables her to suffer her trials calmly and so to deserve her heart's desire.

Memoirs of Modern Philosophers will therefore appeal not only to students investigating the radical politics of the 1790s, but to students of fiction who are interested in how the novel of the Romantic period responds to conventions and themes of eighteenth-century fiction, and anticipates those of the nineteenth century. Broadview's new edition of the novel—the only version in print—has a potentially wide readership, for the novel may be read as responding not only to English Jacobinism, but to contemporary debates about literature, religion, women, marriage and the family. This broader appreciation of the text is largely attributable to Claire Grogan's careful editing. The scholarly apparatus she provides includes an introduction, biographical chronology, notes, appendices and a detailed bibliography. Grogan's notes and appendices, which include excerpts from relevant passages of Godwin's Political Justice and Hays' Memoirs of Emma Courtney, provide detailed information about the historical, literary, theological and philosophical contexts which inform Hamilton's writing. Grogan also helpfully provides a selection of contemporary reviews and a selected bibliography, which introduce readers to the novel's reception history and provide direction for further research.

In her introduction, Grogan expands the traditional reading of the novel as a satirical examination of the New Philosophy to consider the novel's thoughtful engagement with the question of women's position in social life, and to suggest that the novel is ultimately concerned with providing moral guidance to women. Grogan persuasively asserts that Hamilton was not a political reactionary, and that she asserted a generous view of women and their capacities. By depicting positive roles for women even outside of marriage, albeit in traditional occupations such as teaching, nursing and philanthropy, Hamilton does accord women some measure of independence and satisfaction. This edition should therefore be of interest to students and scholars examining debates about women's rights and work during the period.

What the Broadview edition fails to do is to make an even broader claim about the literary significance of the novel. Published in 1800, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, which contains a heroine of the eighteenth century, a heroine of the 1790s, and a heroine of the nineteenth century, is itself a rehearsal and an anticipation of fictional forms and conventions in the two centuries that saw the rise and arguably the perfection of the novel. The novel, therefore, has a place in courses on Romantic fiction and more general fiction survey courses. However the length of the novel—just under four hundred pages—means that it may not be easily accomodated into existing courses. Moreover the novel suffers for its length, as the assaults on Godwinian beliefs, and the ridiculousness of Brigetina's conduct, become increasingly tiresome. Still, the novel is enjoyable and instructive, and this edition deserves to be considered for courses engaged with the political, gender and literary history of the period.