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).[Notice]

  • Michelle Levy

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  • Michelle Levy
    University of California, Los Angeles

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. In her …