The feminist discourse of the late eighteenth century has been identified by critics as both politically and socially intrusive on the domesticity of the revolutionary age. While more attention has been garnered by the radical women writers of this period, Lisa Wood focuses on the conservative element of women writers as a worthy addition to the literary canon. In her text Modes of Discipline: Women, Conservatism, and the Novel after the French Revolution, Wood investigates conservative feminine (not feminist) writing that enlarges the body of eighteenth-century feminist writing to show how the traditional values of women intersect with an emerging feminist discourse that both transgresses and supports these values. The didactic-novel form explored in this study serves a dual purpose, a review of an unpopular genre of literature with the radical female writer and, perhaps even more poignantly, an understanding of the conservative nature of those female writers advocating the conservative politics of church and state. Beginning with the 1790s Wood’s analysis crosses genres and decades in order to represent the diversity of the antirevolutionary novel in form and style as well as to reconfigure its relationship to the revolutionary writings of this period.
Although at times repetitious in her attempt to isolate didacticism in the history and literature of these times from its revolutionary counterparts, Wood effectively highlights the less attractive but central ideology of moral literature. Consequently, a new perspective emerges on moral literature as an established and respected literary genre that can now be classified as a form of feminist discourse assisting the reader to situate the rise of revolutionary feminist writing in relationship to a broader context of politics, religion, and social convention. While she carefully explains her application of the terms antirevolutionary, counterrevolutionary, and conservative as descriptions of political activism, Wood prepares the reader to accept that the conservative women writers undertaken in her study were not openly displaying their political intentions. Instead, these writers intended to develop conduct and moral literature as a respectable genre that identified women in middle-class and aristocratic households as females who not only embraced values of propriety in their moral lives but also demonstrated reliable and dependable thinking in their intellectual lives. Wood emphasizes that the authority of the female voice was based on trustworthiness not from an oppositional perspective but from one that achieved its respectability through an adherence to conforming ideologies.
Borrowing from a medical view of the diseased body in need of an antidote, Wood carefully draws her analogy of the novel form as a literary embodiment of a sick or healthy ideology. The healthy novel provides the reader with an antidote to the poisonous novel which portrays women as politically radical thinkers and immoral creatures. The reader can then attach herself to the moral comfort of the text in order to repel the vile contents of revolutionary sentiments. Wood’s purpose is not to pass moral judgment on the nature of this genre but to present the less told story merely because it is less appealing, unexciting, and even bordering on the mundane, in contrast with the passionate rhetoric of a revolutionary ideology. She points out that “antirevolutionary novels appear insubstantial by post-Romantic standards” (75) and have been overlooked by critics in their substantial importance to the revolutionary age.
Wood’s study explores didactic women writers such as Jane West, Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Hannah More who are juxtaposed against revolutionary women writers such as Helen Maria Williams, Mary Hays, and Mary Wollstonecraft as well as the political polemics of William Godwin and Tom Paine. What is particularly insightful about this exploration is how Wood examines the didactic-novel form as a counterrevolutionary function of the narrative to illuminate truthful arguments while, ironically, the literary narrative inherently functions as an instrument of untruth. Relying on Foucault’s theory of rehabilitation vs. punishment, she argues that literary didacticism teaches self-discipline through rehabilitating the negative exemplary heroine as a didactic conservative approach to reclaim the individual through self-reforming behavior. The reader then identifies with the protagonist resulting in a persuasive text whose purpose is to teach and correct the immoral behavior. According to Wood, one aspect of this strategy is to generalize advice to “any young lady” using terms like “always” which leaves the selectivity of individual behavior to the social pressure of the group’s persuasion. Additionally, Wood points out that the politically charged strain of coercion and repression apparent in the literature of these texts illustrates that the writers’ political interests are more dominant than their religious or social counterparts. Wood’s analysis intends to measure the success of these novels by the ability of the narrative “to limit meaning and to provide closure” (66). As she weaves her analytical threads of form, style, and narrative content throughout several chapters, Wood relies on feminist theorists like Nancy Armstrong and Susan Rubin Suleiman to situate her interpretation of narrative strategies by those antirevolutionary women writers who write to coerce the reader with their conservative didacticism.
Working against a ground of traditional domesticity, Wood discovers heterogeneous ways in which the conservative woman writer builds on this ground through an Evangelical approach such as in Hannah More’s novel Coelebs in Search of a Wife or as in Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story which indicates a movement of ideas from the “language of restriction” to an “idealization of the companionate marriage” (71). While I am not convinced that Wood’s study authorizes her argument that didactic and moralistic narration supersedes story, she does, however, prove that the didactic approach reinforces the restrictions of a woman’s domesticity as mother and wife and further justifies this role by sanctioning it with “reason, religion, and love.” A division of duties is not necessarily evidence of a companionate marriage although it may suggest the potentiality of this egalitarian position. Whether or not a happy wife is a virtuous wife appears to be a question better answered by a more profound examination of the evolutionary term “virtuous” during the eighteenth century, not in contrast with a revolutionary mode of radical behavior among women but as a value embedded historically as well as socially. Yet, Wood recognizes a central problem with the didactic texts relying on stock plots of marriage and courtship such as those of the happy wife to persuade the reader of virtuous means in marriage. She explains that to expect a reader to accept that one receives rewards, especially material good, from virtuous behavior is both unrealistic and contrary to Christian belief, and so the desire for a good marriage signifies comfort in a material reward. Rather, from a truly Christian perspective, sorrow and affliction often accompany those who are most pure in heart and mind, and so a plot that ends with a happy marriage becomes less convincing and effective in its intent to teach good morals through the desire to be good for good’s sake alone. Consequently, Wood ascertains that these moral novels, apparently naïve in their literary form, fail to transcend the values of gender and class embodied in the fiction of the eighteenth century thereby raising the question of the reforming nature of moral novels among revolutionary texts. She notes, however, that the writings of conservative women do embody a “range of value systems” as they incorporate religion, class, nation, and gender in the formation of the middle-class and that in this endeavor these values signify virtue as patriotism.
That feminist discourse pervades the conservative novel becomes more apparent as Wood examines the structural components of Jane West’s novels where narrative text alternates with discursive rhetoric even using notes as a site for didactic arguments. In her description of these narrative texts, Wood emphasizes the use of form as opposition wherein conservative women writers like West wrote to oppose and neutralize revolutionary women writers with their didactic approach. In other words, these conservative writers did not write to be original in plot or style but to counter-attack their opposition using the very same textual narratives but through their own interpretations of these radical texts. The revolutionary approach characterized the individual’s experience through a personal voice to carry the political message while the conservative approach privileged the voice of the community. Through this strategy of character generalization, the privacy of voice within personal letters is interrupted by a voice of authority as the community voice in the novel. Then, along with the narrator’s third person perspective, the author seeks to avoid the potential subversiveness of the personal voice as the reader sympathizes with a conforming attitude toward female behavior. Consequently, Wood further demonstrates that political intentions of the conservative writers underlie the plot structure, as evidenced by the tension between individual and community values.
Most importantly, Wood points out the inconsistencies that arise among these didactic texts to subvert the revolutionary ideas among radical women writers. She notes that a subversion of narrative authority in these moral texts serves to complicate the narrative’s ideology rather than establish clear moralistic guidelines. As such Wood questions the genre’s potential for literary and historical accuracy recognizing that its form conflicts with its purpose in attempting to undermine the revolutionary texts with subversive methods of its own. Wood acknowledges that the novels of the late nineteenth century elicit more sophistication in the shift of the didactic form. She cites critics such as Nicola Watson, Gary Kelly, and Janet Todd to support her explanation that this shift was predominantly motivated by political interests in objectifying and legitimizing the voice of authority to distance the personal voice and individual sensibility of the character. Finally, Wood’s examination of the conservative women writers and their texts locates a critical site for this genre as a mode of domestic transformation that has political and literary implications which shed important light on these unromantic texts in a Romantic Age.