Imagining the Female Nation

Eugenia Zuroski
University of Arkansas

Leanne Maunu’s Women Writing the Nation: National Identity, Female Community, and the British-French Connection, 1770-1820 (Bucknell, 2007) is a study conceived in triangles.   It argues that female British writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries produced a triangulated form of collective identity organized by the variously competing and intertwined discourses of gender identity, British nationalism, and the imagined “otherness” of France.   It builds this argument through close readings of texts by a triumvirate of female authors: Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Wollstonecraft.   And it ultimately reveals three possible stances, within these texts, on the matter of collective identity: one that vilifies France and glorifies Britain in the name of British women’s virtue; one that critiques Britain and idealizes France in the name of British women’s enlightenment; and one that suspends the very notion of national identity, both British and French, in the name of a transnational community of women.

The book’s argument is thus broadly conceived but not sweeping in its execution.   Four of the five chapters are single-text case studies (two each devoted to Burney and Smith) and the chapter on Wollstonecraft focuses closely on two texts that followed her better-known Vindications .   In a field like eighteenth-century studies–which seems lately to inspire ever more cosmographical approaches to book-length projects, so that it can seem difficult to say anything without saying everything –it is undeniably refreshing to find a work conceived so close to the ground, and this one makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the three authors at its core.

Chapter One offers a reading of Evelina (1778), Burney’s most popular novel both in her own time and ours.   Focusing on two marginal but significant characters–Madame Duval and Captain Mirvan–as embodiments of violently competing national identities, the chapter offers an interesting discussion of the threats posed to Evelina’s, and thus the novel’s, world view by “dual” or multinational identities such as Madame Duval’s.   It also provides insights into the British association of the French with violence and, through it, the threat of cultural infection.   Chapter Two presents Charlotte Smith’s Desmond (1793) as a kind of counterpoint to Evelina ‘s combined francophobia and pro-British bent.   It argues that Desmond represents British nationalism in terms of personal moral failings, as British characters tend unrelentingly toward jealousy, gossip, and the willful misrepresentation of others–specifically, the French.   By overcoming these forms of weakness and closed-mindedness, Smith’s main characters offer a hopeful vision of improved individuals and Britons both.   Inverting Evelina ‘s characterization of France as the site of British corruption and misery, Desmond portrays France as an idyllic site where the British free themselves from their native limitations and achieve true knowledge and happiness.

These opening chapters lay out two opposing formulations of British happiness, particularly the happiness of the British woman.   One locates that happiness in the heart of an imaginary Britain insulated from French influence; the other locates it in the heart of an idealized France protected from British propaganda.   Chapters Three and Five proceed to complicate these divergent but equally idealistic visions through readings of the authors’ later novels.   Chapter Three shows how Smith’s The Young Philosophers (1798) reveals its author’s later disenchantment with both British and French national projects, and looks instead to America to imagine a form of community untainted by divisive national prejudice and power struggles.   This was, in fact, my favorite reading in the entire book, because it showed how Maunu’s triangulated model of identity ultimately leads us beyond its own three terms.   Here, the combination of woman, Britain, and France somehow adds up to America .   As the site of a unified present community of individuals of heterogeneous origin, America thus represents a new formulation of nation as a community organized, fundamentally, in the present rather than by the past.

Chapter Five returns to Burney, reading her last novel, The Wanderer (1814) as a revision of Evelina .   Maunu argues that, while Evelina presented a world in which social order depended on the transparency of character, and nothing threatened that order more than the possibility of French influence and transnational identity, The Wanderer reflects a more mature world view in which characters are universally more complex and difficult to decipher.   This complexity is powerfully embodied by the novel’s protagonist, Juliet, whose combined British-French identity traverses the very national boundaries that upheld the world of Evelina .    By allowing a more fluid notion of national identity, The Wanderer reveals the necessity of other forms of community and common interest, specifically among women.   Unfortunately for Juliet, the bonds of female friendship upon which she relies are repeatedly compromised by hegemonic forms of nationalism and intolerance.   Juliet’s struggle thus enables us to perceive with increasing desperation the need for cross-cultural ties among women in the modern world.

The greatest strength of these four chapters is their demonstration of the way Burney and Smith use novelistic characterization to create imaginary maps of social feeling and prejudice.   At times, these maps align with existing national borders; at other times, they transgress or even transform those boundaries in the collective imagination.   If the modern nation is, as Benedict Anderson persuaded us, an imagined community, these novels show that they are also affective communities, bound by social veins of fear and sympathy.[1]   At times, however, I found Maunu’s interpretation of the texts strained to fit her critical narrative.   For example, her reading of Evelina as an “immature” novel limited by a naïve subscription to British xenophobia requires her to understate the novel’s use of strikingly perverse forms of humor in its characterization of Captain Mirvan, and the odd sympathies they provoke both in the novel’s protagonist and its readers for the otherwise vilified Madame Duval.   Although the end of the chapter discusses the ambivalence of Mirvan’s character, the earlier sections overstate his humorous and sympathetic qualities in order to argue the novel’s nationalistic stance; he is, I think, a much more sinister and disturbing character than this reading allows, and the complexities of Burney’s use of him as a representative of one form of British nationalism beg a fuller explanation than the short treatment offered in the chapter’s concluding paragraphs.

But this is the kind of quibbling over textual interpretation inevitably produced by interesting claims drawn out of close reading.   The more significant flaw in this project is the limited treatment of gender in its explorations of triangulated forms of collective identity.   Maunu’s analyses of the gender component of what she calls “the Britain-France-Woman Triad in the writings of Burney, Smith, and Wollstonecraft” (37) confine themselves to representations of the female character, even when her readings point to a wider diffusion of gendered language within and among her primary texts.   One of the most stimulating insights of Maunu’s reading of The Young Philosophers , for example, is how gossip behaves as a pernicious discourse that poisons relations among women at the personal level and nations at the political level; curiously, though, the chapter does not pursue an equivalent analysis of the novel’s discursive antidote to gossip, the sentimental.   If gossip represents a destructive form of feminine discourse that undermines political and personal unity alike, sentimentalism recurs in many of the passages Maunu quotes as a more productive feminine register, one inhabited by both men and women of sound moral sensibilities, that allows individuals to transcend social and national distinctions through appeal to universal human feeling.   Both of these discourses, though, work through their infectious qualities–their ability to generate sensations in individual subjects and carry them through multiple subjects.   The fact that such different people as Smith and Edmund Burke could turn to the sentimental to make divergent claims about, say, the French nation, reveals the flipside of Maunu’s primary argument that British writers of this period imagined “female community” through the language of “the nation.”   The role of sentimentalism in both fictional and political texts shows how British writers of this era also could not think about “the nation” without recourse to imaginary gendered formations.   To make this case, however, Maunu would have to broaden her own definition of such formations beyond “female community” to include the lifeblood of imaginary communities, discourse itself.

I have saved my discussion of the book’s chapter on Wollstonecraft for the end of this review because I think it is the weakest chapter of the five, precisely because it fails to pursue these lines of inquiry that might weave Women Writing the Nation ‘s individual case studies into the foundation of a broader sustained argument about gender as a public discourse, not just a category of identity.   Chapter Four, which reads Wollstonecraft’s political writings on women against her later treatises on the French, shows how, together, these texts recognize identical forms of weakness in British women and the French people as a whole, including vanity and excessive sensuality.   While Wollstonecraft is arguably optimistic about the possibility of reforming both the female sex and the French nation, Maunu suggests, her ideals are predicated on a standard of morality and citizenship that is both “masculine” and “pro-British” (146).   The readings make clear Wollstonecraft’s disgust for certain “effeminate” traits, whether in men, women, or national characters, but again I wished the readings would move beyond detailing the texts’ positive and negative representations and move toward an argument about how Wollstonecraft’s mode of political argument belongs to the same conversation generated by novels of the period.   As Maunu’s readings reveal, Wollstonecraft’s aversion to the present character of women and the French is conflated with a loathing of sentimentalism.   Her political argument with Burke takes on his sentimental rhetoric, which Wollstonecraft considers insulting to rational intelligence, and she attributes the “sinister sort of sagacity” that characterizes the French to “a kind of sentimental lust [that] has prevailed” in that nation (169).   And, as Maunu points out, Wollstonecraft also dismisses the novel as a community-building medium, precisely because it promotes these weaker forms of feeling instead of reason, understanding, and moral feeling.   This is a provocative observation, particularly in the middle of a book that has, up to this chapter, focused primarily on novels as the site of women’s participation in national and other communal discourses.   Wollstonecraft’s contrast to both Smith and Burney in her preferred mode of discourse invites questions about whether the communities Maunu is analyzing can be sustained across generic lines as well as across gender and national ones, and an explicit discussion of the role of discursive trends such as sentimentalism that crop up in her discussions of different authors might help integrate the Wollstonecraft chapter into the book’s overall argument.   As it is now, the chapter stands as an isolated essay that represents Wollstonecraft as a lonely stalwart of old-fashioned republican values.

Ultimately, such short-sightedness with regard to the potential reach of the book’s claims proves instructive.   The design of this project–its commitment to triangulated building blocks–reveals the promise of sharp focus in a field overrun with rich ideas that run the risk of cross-breeding before they are brought to full maturity through attentive research and close reading.   But these limitations prove productive only if they aim to generate an entirely new idea out of the initial terms.   In this case, we begin and end with three terms: Britain, France, and women.   It would have been exciting to see what previously unimagined thing those three terms yield through literary fermentation.   Women Writing the Nation concludes with some thoughts on “the legacy of female community,” which, we are told in the book’s last words, “is still very much with us today” (260).   I cannot help feeling that the book could have taken us to a further shore of understanding.


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 1991).