Women’s Lives and the 18th-Century English Novel 
by Elizabeth Bergan Brophy.
University of South Florida Press, 291 pp., $29.95, April 1991, 0 8130 1036 5
Show More
Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel 
by Ruth Bernard Yeazell.
Chicago, 306 pp., £19.95, August 1991, 0 226 95096 4
Show More
Show More

Both of these books are on ‘women’s subjects’. That is to say, they deal with the major arrangements of a society in its (usually uneasy) dispositions of property and power, including control over reproduction. Elizabeth Bergen Brophy’s book is a response to the question which must have occurred to every reader of 18th-century novels: ‘Are the novels really at all like life at the time?’ Were there ‘real life’ counterparts to Clarissa Harlowe and Sophia Western – and to the other ladies, old and young, married, widowed or single, who turn up in the pages of 18th-century novels? Brophy has undertaken an impressive labour in reading a couple of hundred separate (and often, one gathers, large) manuscript sources, collections of journals and letters by various women who lived between the late 17th and the early 19th centuries. She has also consulted the substantial number of such collections already published. Her strategy is to lay side by side the accounts of women’s lives in the novels and the accounts emanating from the women themselves.

The accounts are very literally laid side by side. The author gives us a section of information derived from the novels, restricted to the work of seven novelists: Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Scott, Clara Reeve and Frances Burney. (There are occasional references to other writers, such as Jane Austen.) A segment on, for instance, ‘Daughters’ will discuss daughters and the code of daughterliness as represented in the novels. But the much more interesting sections afford us a glimpse of women living their daughterly lives, as revealed in their letters and journals (all quotations modernised). The chapter most likely to interest the greatest number of readers is the chapter on ‘Courtship’ – we do like having a glimpse of other people’s love affairs, a nosiness on which novelists have long relied. The novels themselves are very interesting, but the reader is likely to weary of glorified plot summaries and any reader who already knows the novels in question would be well advised to skip to the ‘real life’ segments. There Brophy has done us a signal service in rescuing this multitude of voices from death and all oblivious enmity. Most of these women write well, and some very amusingly. It is rather reassuring to find out that housewives in the 1690s dealing with major renovations are likely to have the same experience as housewives in the 1990s: Jane Papillon was unable to join her husband in London ‘by reason of mending the ceilings’, a job ‘which might long since have been done, but that the workmen come for a day or half a day and leave me a week’. Jane Papillon seems to have been a woman happily married (a cheerful destiny in which Brophy takes much interest), but a great many of these women writing to other women voice a strong distrust of matrimony. Sarah Cowper, whose woes in marriage are here recounted, takes her caustic wit to the marriage ceremony: ‘I chanced to be present at a wedding, the most melancholy sight one can see ... To hear a simple woman promise to love without cause and obey without reason is amazing.’ The respectable and redoubtable Marthae Taylor wrote in 1736 to a suitor rejecting his offer of marriage, which she interprets as ‘the desire of being absolute master’ of herself and her fortune: ‘What? Shall I bribe high to enslave myself? Resign all and then cringe to my master’s purse for a pair of shoe strings?’ As Brophy does not point out, such sentiments are reserved, in novels, to wicked women, such as Lady Bellaston and Roxana.

One of the drawbacks of Brophy’s collection of evidence is that she is sticking entirely to the middle class. Yet within the range of the middle class, too, she prefers the upper or genteel end, and we get relatively few glimpses of the hard-working workaday world of both women and men. A wicked immigrant Roxana or a lowborn Moll Flanders have no place here, and we hear far more of Richardson’s Clarissa and Harriet than of his Pamela before her marriage. A more serious but not unrelated defect is the lack of information about the social status, economic level, religious affiliation and general background of the ‘real life’ writers. In presenting us with fascinating quotations from private papers, in a manner very like that of the 18th-century novel, Brophy ignores what the novelists themselves never ignore – the hard facts of parentage, professions, income. At the end of the book, we still know much more about the social placement and economic struggles of any of the major novel characters than we do of these once-living persons. Brophy tends to whip them up into a nice homogeneous blend. She is far too acquiescent in Lawrence Stone’s view of ‘companionate marriage’ and spends time working out whether some woman had a ‘really happy marriage’ or not – although the difficulties of figuring out, even among one’s contemporaries, whether a marriage is ‘happy’ are monumental. Brophy is to be heartily commended, however, for having brought so many lively writers to our attention. We should hear more from some of these women. Now they have been freshly discovered, we may hope to have a printed collection of letters and journals – especially the letters of Elizabeth Amherst, the diary of Sarah Cowper, the Papillon papers and the letters of Marthae Taylor.

Elizabeth Bergen Brophy presents us with much material, the object of which is to prove that the novels were essentially accurate but repressive. Brophy’s conclusions leave things pretty much as they were. Ruth Yeazell presents us with an analysis that changes the picture. Fictions of Modesty investigates, with relentless wit and in fascinating detail, the creation and sustenance of a large social fiction. Yeazell’s point is not that ‘modesty’ is found in conduct books and novels alike, but that ‘modesty’ is a fiction wherever it appears. ‘Modesty’ in the post-Renaissance world has certainly meant ‘female modesty’. If Yeazell’s book has a defect, I think, it is in its unwillingness to recognise the development of ideas of ‘modesty’ in young men, a notion of great importance to antique societies and of some importance later. The modesty of young males is not a reflection of sexual innocence so much as the projection of a pleasing sort of powerlessness, reassuring to the older males who may lay down the law but cannot entirely remain unaware of the threatening strength of their juniors. Augustine of Hippo registers both kinds of modesty when in his teens he is embarrassed at hearing his father’s loud joke about Augustine’s developing masculine attributes. Augustine gives us a rare glimpse into the interior of the modest one – the unspoken anger which contributes to the effect of a ‘modesty’ designed by the outside world.

Yeazell picks up ‘modesty’ in its most important 18th-century manifestations. Hume analyses the functions and origin of modesty, tracing it to the need to keep the line of inheritance pure – that great felt need which, rather than Christianity, commands the chastity of 18th-century women. To keep women chaste, Hume argues, it is not enough to punish females for lapses: ‘’Tis necessary ... that beside the infamy attending such licences, there should be some preceding backwardness or dread’. Yeazell comments: ‘Such “preceding backwardness” is of course modesty – though ... Hume never appears to notice his own witty oxymoron. Indeed, whenever he defines that elusive virtue, even this most lucid of philosophers seems to find himself inadvertently reaching for paradox, as in the almost comic contortions of “a backwardness to the approaches of a pleasure, to which nature has inspir’d so strong a propensity”.’ Yeazell is very witty herself in analysing the 18th century’s problems with comprehending how such a ‘backwardness’ can be trained into a human being as an educated and willed response. For once ‘modesty’ becomes openly willed, it cannot be defined as ‘natural,’ and most writers were more reluctant than Hume to admit that ‘modesty’ is not ‘natural’. ‘Natural instinct’ is, as Yeazell shows, a very double-minded concept, and in itself paradoxical. The male is supposed to have a ‘natural’ love for his own child: but of course the anxiety about the pure inheritance betrays the doubt that a male could easily and ‘naturally’ begin to love a child which was not his by ‘nature’. Incidentally – and this is not a point made by Yeazell – Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a novel which queries all forms of modesty through contorted display, also represents a family line in which the unthinkable, the ultimately immodest abomination, has taken place: Tristram, the heir, is not Walter Shandy’s son. But nobody seems to notice.

Yeazell has very little difficultly in tracing the use of ‘modesty’ in conduct books and novels, books which fulfilled in part the function of training women in that approachable ‘backwardness’. The ‘modesty’ of English females made English courtship possible, and created plots in which the love story could linger. Yet if female modesty supplies a plot line for novels, it also creates problems. The ‘modest’ woman must not be truly resistant either to heterosexuality or to contemporary marriage arrangements (the two being conflated); a true servant of Diana would be a monster. A statement like Marthae Taylor’s is a downright statement of will, as undesirable as prowling lust. A girl must seem sexually ready but charmingly ignorant, her resistant innocence supplying the object of the male quest. Thus she is a plot all on her own. Conduct books constantly urge women to notice that immodest women are less attractive than modest ones. But new dangers arise; snakes beneath snakes lie hidden in that grass. For once a woman thinks about being attractive through modesty, her modesty becomes a trap. A fiction inwardly acknowledged pollutes all.

The modest woman resists now the better to accede later: so men imagined her to serve the ends of courtship. But the more intently they wish her to serve those ends, it often appears, the more they wish her not quite to know where she is going. For the man who woos her, the woman who says ‘no’ while consciously aware that she intends to say ‘yes’ is worse than a hypocrite: she is actively engaged in manipulation ... Under the cover of modesty, in other words, a woman who knows her own desires always threatens to take secret charge of the scene.

The female should have no consciousness – no self-consciousness. Consciousness, like sexuality itself, should be awakened by the lover, that fairy prince whose kiss will at last startle the gratified mind into something like thought. In creating ‘modesty’ as a value, social engineers of the late 17th and 18th centuries were attempting to create a secondary nature, to form that great oxymoron (and paradox), an artificial instinct. The novelists, especially the female novelists, had to sound as if they believed in the innate and not created nature of modesty. As Yeazell points out, even Cleland’s bawdy Fanny Hill really subscribes to the same beliefs: when with her Charles, the amorous heroine suffers, as Cleland would have it, from ‘this conflict betwixt modesty and love-sick longings’. A heroine who is not bewildered by her modesty, who is not ignorant of the nature of sexual acts and contracts, is in great danger of seeming to be a manipulator – as Richardson’s Pamela is often thought to be, Yeazell points out, because in some ways she breaks the modesty code by her degree of knowledge and of consciousness. A woman writer like Frances Burney had to go to great lengths to create such an ‘artless’ heroine as Evelina – though Yeazell makes the common mistake of confusing Evelina with the whole of Burney’s work, and Burney’s later novels do not employ the disguised gentle narrative voice of the innocent young girl. In her chapter on Mansfield Park, however, Yeazell is magnificent, and gives us a very fine reading of Austen’s sense of the double face of ‘modesty’ and the paradoxes which it inspires. ‘Fanny Price’s Modest Loathings’, as the chapter is entitled, picks up the fine lines of Austen’s plotting of Fanny’s consciousness – a consciousness which, according to the fiction of modesty, is not yet supposed to exist. In this novel, according to Yeazell, modesty threatens to collapse altogether, is ‘always in danger of acquiescing – which is why at moments of crisis the novel abruptly puts a stop to the action and focuses instead on the marking of spatial boundaries, of arbitrary lines between the dirty and the clean’. Women writers such as Austen, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell could employ and change the concept of modesty in order to find some standing-ground for female resistance, not only to male sexuality as that is imposed on women, but to masculine orderings of the world, and to male behaviours. Fanny’s objects of ‘modest loathings’ include her own rough and spirituous father. This is not, however, the form of ‘modesty’ that society has wished to foster.

In a grand chapter on the scientists of the 19th century Yeazell points out that the naturalists (very much including Darwin) endeavoured to provide ‘modesty’ with what it had lacked previously: a scientific rationale that identifies it as ‘natural’. Nineteenth-century scientists anthropomorphose even when they deny doing so. Yeazell points out that Darwin’s text sometimes ‘registers almost no awareness of the disparity between the behaviour being observed and the fiction in which it is encoded’. Fear of the spider-woman surfaces in the horrified description of the female spider who sometimes ‘carries her coyness to a dangerous pitch’; the ‘horror and indignation’ registered at the spider female who eats her male suitor may, Yeazell suggests, help to illustrate ‘the courtship narrative that Darwin has inherited’. Darwin is, however, saved from utter horror by his inherited belief that female humans are naturally modest and have little sexual desire – a comforting belief inherited from systems of the late 18th century, particularly, Yeazell suggests, from Rousseau. Only in humans who are ‘savages’ do we find deviations from the codes of what is comfortably ‘natural’ among civilised ladies and gentlemen. With ‘savages’, as Yeazell shows us, Darwin like other contemporary scientists was unwilling to deal: ‘savage’ life stands for that which has fallen away from the natural order, tumbling into the pit of licentiousness and abomination. ‘Good Englishman that he is, he much prefers animals to “savages” and prefers them because he imagines them as instinctively imbued with the virtues of his own civilisation’.

Yeazell’s book provides a very telling record of the construction of an extremely important social idea, and has implications beyond its special topic. It is really a work of ‘deconstruction’, without ever using the rhetoric and jargon that so offend some modest ears. Anyone reading the book must become deeply aware of the extent to which notions – and even emotions – that we conceive as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ are really the products of artifice and cultural design. We may wonder uneasily what among our present behaviours and accounts of human things will reveal itself as visibly artificial and contrived to the eyes of another generation – but that generation, too, will have its artifices, its necessary ‘fictions’. So we may console ourselves – retaining our own complicit fictions the while, and enjoying the curious felicity of doing ourselves and others damage without noticing.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences