Promising Happiness and Domesticating Desire: female homosociality and novel-reading in Frances Burney’s Camilla and Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
This thesis considers dominant assumptions and polemical arguments about femininity, female desire and domestic happiness in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and how Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, respectively, negotiate these ideas through the dynamic of female-female relations in their novels Camilla (1796) and Belinda (1801). These novels register the principles of female education and desire outlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Émile (1762) and espoused by later eighteenth-century conduct-book writers, moralists and pedagogues, as well as the polemical arguments forwarded by Mary Wollstonecraft and other feminist writers in the 1790s. Camilla and Belinda exemplify the fraught relationship between women’s same-sex relationships and a dominant ideological vision of domestic heterosexuality and happiness. As Burney and Edgeworth depict and comment on various relationships between their female characters, they engage with this gendered dialectic, and position themselves and their novels within a discussion about both appropriate female role-models and appropriate reading material for young women. I begin by considering changes in popular conceptions of the family in the eighteenth century, and women’s place in it. Focusing on Camilla, I consider how the loving mother-daughter relationship was instrumental in ensuring the authority of the father, and in upholding hegemonic gender relations generally. I then consider anxieties surrounding the young woman’s “coming out.” Camilla and Belinda register the different ways in which women’s social relationships might threaten an ideological vision of domestic happiness and heterosexuality that rested on female passivity and selfdenial. I conclude this thesis by considering how Burney and Edgeworth address simultaneously issues surrounding women’s same-sex relationships and novel reading, as they forge virtual (homosocial) relationships with their imagined readers, through their depiction of textual relationships between characters. The novels present polemical ideas about women’s female happiness and independence. However, Burney and Edgeworth register the fact that dominant discourse: defines women as passive, prescribes women’s happiness in domestic terms, regulates women’s relationships with other women, and circumscribes, even penalizes, women’s attempts to articulate their experiences. As Burney and Edgeworth accentuate the pressure exerted by this discourse (on their characters and on their novels), they implicitly challenge it.