ABSTRACT

Until recently, this has been the usual opinion of her critics, both admirers and detractors. However, since I970, a number of studies have taken a different attitude, arguing that on closer inspection she was not merely a bystander to contemporary events and currents of opinion, but a participant in them. The change has been stimulated by a new interest in the fiction of her contemporaries. On the whole, the fiction of the close of the eighteenth century has been largely ignored, regarded as distinguished by a few minor classics, such as Fanny Burney's Evelina (I 778), William Godwin's Caleb Williams (I 794), and Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (I 800), and otherwise by works of chiefly historical interest, such as Henry Mackenzie's The l\fan of Feeling (I 77 I) and Robert Bage's Hermsprong (I 796). Conventional assumptions can often reduce the appeal ofliterary works below their merit: Hermsprollg has been serialized on Radio 4, and this is not likely to happen to a work of no popular interest. It is still more important to recognize that a period which seems not to have produced much of importance in a particular form may not only be underestimated but may also have been very lively in the use of it ideologically. As long ago as I 932 J. ~1. S. Tompkins, in the Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800, showed how fruitful were the last thirty years of the eighteenth century

The eighteenth century has been commonly known as the 'Age of Reason', dominated as it was in its opening decades by Isaac Newton (1642-1727), one of the most influential of all European scientists. However, reason may induce scepticism, and scepticism can bite the tail of rationalism, stimulating a reaction against itself. One of the most influential thinkers to occasion a reversal of the dependence on reason was the philosopher David Hume (171 1-76), whose scepticism encouraged the view that, however great the respect paid by human nature to reason, it was seldom guided by it. II uman nature is motivated by its emotions, induced by the circumstances in which human beings find themselves in society, advantageous or otherwise. Such an attitude is ambiguous: it may encourage the belief that human beings seldom arrive at sound conclusions about their welfare, which is best left to those who can judge them disinterestedly; it may, on the contrary, nourish the belief that the cultivation of feeling is what really matters, and that most individuals are in some degree the victims of a society which, in its institutions governed by vested interests, is intrinsically unfeeling. The latter attitude stimulated the trend of 'sentimentalism', a natural fuel for the spirit of radical reform especially in imaginative literature.