Carnegie Mellon University

Rights and Rites: Revolution, Performance, Gender, and Religion in British Novels of the 1790s

Author: Jamie Smith

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2018

The late eighteenth century has long been considered a crucial moment in the development of the modern “self.” This period – particularly the 1790s – saw a radical transformation in the ways identity was conceived as Enlightened revolutionaries considered how the notion of “universal human rights” might interact with preexisting political power based on citizens’ genders, races, and classes. Religion, however, has often been excluded in literary criticism that considers the politics of eighteenth-century identity because of a secular prerogative: since religion is often positioned as antithetical to reason and the emancipating ideals of the Enlightenment, religion as a category of identity has been dismissed as suspect, repressive, or always already of the past. Only lately has religion been examined as a mutable identity category that is constructed, compulsory, and performative.  Concurrently, emergent studies in intersectional feminism have encouraged a reconsideration of the ways in which gendered power dynamics are contingent, and how interactions between and imbrications of different identity categories can reconfigure our notions of gendered hierarchies.

This dissertation proposes that these modes of thought – the literary and cultural reconsideration of the universality and virtue of secularism, the theoretical model of religious identity as mutable and open to individual resistance and institutional flexibility, and the examination of correspondences between religious and gendered identity – when applied to eighteenth-century literary critique, can help us arrive at a more nuanced vision of the construction of both gendered and religious identity in the modern era. This project examines how Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Dissent are represented in four novels from the revolutionary period: Charlotte Smith’s Desmond (1792), Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story (1791), Helen Maria Williams’ Julia(1790), and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797).  These books depict the ways in which the French Revolution called preexisting political and identity-based hierarchies into question in Britain and demonstrate how religion and gender have been implicated in structures of power ever since.