“Copies of life, and models of conduct” : realism and female virtue in the novels of Charlotte Lennox, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen.


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In the field of British literature, it is well established that during the eighteenth century the novel came into being as a genre with distinct characteristics, namely, realism. It is also well established that the developing novel of the eighteenth century had a marked concern with imparting virtue to its readers. However, the connection between realism and virtue has not been given much critical attention. Furthermore, the kind of virtue portrayed in the novels of authors traditionally associated with the development of the novel is either male virtue or a masculine conception of female virtue. Considering that the realist novel becomes the dominant form of the novel in the nineteenth century and that the form essentially begins with the novels of Jane Austen, my dissertation investigates the means by which a key component of that realist novel—complicated notions of female virtue—came into acceptance. To do that, I trace the moral philosophy of the latter part of the seventeenth century and eighteenth century to uncover the ways that a specifically feminine concept of virtue was formulated in the eighteenth century. I then explore how, in a mid-to late eighteenth-century culture profoundly influenced by sentimental moral philosophy and therefore filled with misrepresentations of idealized female virtue, select female novelists portrayed female virtue in a manner that was more reflective of the lived experiences of eighteenth-century women and yet remained acceptable to the male literary establishment. Lennox’s Female Quixote stresses the need for proper moral education in its heroine, thereby challenging sentimental virtue and socially constructed virtue. Burney’s Evelina emphasizes the need for its heroine to practice virtue in society, simultaneously accepting passive sentimentalism and giving her sentimental heroine agency. Austen’s Sense and Sensibility illustrates a Christian Aristotelian moral philosophy, rejecting sentimentalism in favor of the classical emphasis on moral education, the practice of the virtues, and a teleological perspective. By examining these texts through the lens of moral philosophy with regard to female virtue, we can see how each makes a unique contribution to literary realism.



English novel. Eighteenth century. Women and literature. Virtue ethics. Realism.