Domesticating the Empire: women writers and colonial discourse in late eighteenth-century British literature
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This dissertation examines five late eighteenth-century British women writers to demonstrate the ways that domestic fiction negotiates the racial and sexual tensions of the colonial contact zone. Previous scholarship has shown that the novel was a highly politicized genre in the 1780s and 1790s; women writers in particular used it as a vehicle for entering domestic debates, including responding to the French Revolution. What has gone largelyunexplored is the role that this fiction played in imagining the British Empire and its impact at “home,” troubling over its evolving moral character. Moreover, we have not yet considered the correspondence between imperialism and the variety of political affiliations women assumed at this time. Examining the fiction and poetry of Anna Seward, Jane West, Elizabeth Inchbald, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Maria Edgeworth, I argue that these texts helped to domesticate theEmpire—to make it part of the everyday vision of British life in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. Not all of the texts I examine consider territories directly colonized by Great Britain. However, in each case Great Britain is rendered in a position of superiority—actual or ideological—over a colonial “other” such as the West Indies, India, the Far East, and Africa. This hierarchical relationship underwrites the social and political issues portrayed in each text's domestic narratives. I argue that what we have called conservative or progressive in these women's writings ought to be revisited, as it relies on a complex set of ideas about what it meant to be a British citizen in a global, imperialist age.