Property, Education and Identity in Late Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The Heroine of Disinterest

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Sympathetic evil at times replaces intelligence or insight. As driven by ambition as she, Schedoni in turn manipulates her desire to secure the dignity of her house by proposing murder. In Radcliffe the saving grace—the element that allows the virtuous some hope for survival—is that the insensible also cannot see perfectly through the darkened mirror separating good and evil and consequently cannot acquire real understanding.

Both the sensible and the insensible are blind and at times self-deluded, but the blindness of the callous is irredeemable.


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She initially rejects any suggestion of economic motivation— even the desire to protect her rights from usurpation. As the aunt who will bequeath her property to Emily lies dying and imprisoned by her husband, she implies that her niece will need to guard her inheritance so that she can marry as she wishes. She cannot judge a man like Montoni from a corresponding capacity in herself, but she can imaginatively reconstruct his motives, after much observation and suffering. Disinterest, initially the consequence of sensibility and innocence, becomes an undoubted act of agency for her heroes and heroines.

Property, Education and Identity in Late Eighteenth-Century Fiction

When she first asks to return to her convent in Naples she pleads her desire for soothing rest and security. There is a middle ground, Radcliffe suggests, between self-sacrificing innocence and debasing cunning. While villainous characters lack the imaginative capacity for sympathetic engagement and consequently for morality, sensitive characters also fail if they falter and retreat after alarming and painful experiences, resorting to repression or superstition rather than reflection.

There is a third category of beings, consequently, morally Property, Education, and Identity between the tyrants who suppress history and the tender-hearted who busily gather memories.

Property, Education and Identity in Late Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The Heroine of Disinterest

Aubert and the Count de Villefort, who actively reject rather than engage with the past. Repression suggests a fatal lack of disinterest—an incapacity to rise above momentary grief to achieve the position of the spectator. Aubert, for only those who actively manage their memories can acquire and transfer real knowledge. As he is dying, St. Aubert advises his daughter to restrain her emotions. Critics generally have taken St. Aubert retreats with a wife chosen for love to cherish domestic values in the pastoral simplicity of La Vallee 1.

He withdraws from the society and conversation that Smith considered crucial to restoring a disturbed mind. Antisociability disables such men from the highest form of virtue, which includes the compassionate ability to sooth others in need. Crucially, St. Aubert fails to inform Emily of the ways in which passion, property, and gender intersect in her world and in her family, the knowledge he gained from his own early experiences.

This is the legacy of which she is most in need and, because of his own feminized relation to property as a younger son, that he is most capable of providing. A victim of the patrilineal ethos as well as his own temperament, St.

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He handles memories as ineffectively and with the same misguided good intentions as he handles money: He is singularly reluctant to share the disillusioning facts he has learned—his recollections—the horror of which renders him passive. In an early scene, he acts in a typical fashion, sighing and dropping a tear in memory of his wife.

But many such there are. Oddly, St. After this evasion, he insists they continue on their travels, a customarily inconclusive end to their conversations about family history or the follies of humanity, and a symbolic representation of his retreat from memory: leaving behind the estate, he takes his child farther into the mountains and forests. Although often taken as a pattern of male virtue in the novel, then, St.

Aubert is in the tradition of revered but inadequate fathers who endanger their daughters because of their own disengagement from the world and blinkered fixation on their child not inconsequentially, they always lack male heirs on whom to concentrate. When St. Aubert urges Emily to restrain her sensibility, what he is suggesting is not admirable self-regulation but repression, and what he is offering is not education but overprotection oddly accompanied by negligence.

After St. In recovering the history he suppressed, Emily discreetly acknowledges the failings of the paternal pedagogue whose benign neglect endangered her financially, emotionally, and physically. He draws on his own disappointing experience in urging Emily to abandon Valancourt for Monsieur Du Pont.

His tears undermine his claim that repression breeds fortitude. Emily, more experienced at this point, recognizes that memory itself provides strength to sensible minds. As in her scene with Montoni, she insists on the inalienability of her affections and her right to judge. In rejecting the instruction of this benevolent father figure, she signals her release not only from insidious evil but also from the pedagogical imperative built into the logic of the affective economy.

His real folly, however, is not his gambling or womanizing but his mishandling of loss and memory. As Valancourt grows increasingly aware of his moral decline, he attempts to repress recollections of happier times. Those memories become stones in the living stream of life, painful reminders of his inability to protect Emily and resist vice. Creative recollection, memory theorists say, provides comfort by reshaping the past to accord with preferred notions of the self. Like St. Aubert, Valancourt suppresses what he cannot reconcile with his knowledge of self and with his faith in humanity, but the repressed returns in uncanny shapes to haunt him.

He vows that his recollections of her grief will be his future protection from wrongdoing In both Udolpho and The Italian, the heroines scrutinize and interpret castles, mountains, precipices, and fortresses—and from them learn truths they are not yet capable of confronting directly. Shuddering at precipices as she travels, Emily St. Her horror, of course, is justified—Radcliffe is demanding that the reader, like the heroine, learn to judge for herself. Nature in childhood taught her to revere God; landscape in adulthood gradually teaches her to fear the evil in human nature Surveying her vast prison provides the heroine with a visual puzzle to interpret, a way to represent her own situation to herself.


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  • Emily begins to grasp the relativity of experience in the various viewpoints that allow the same landscape to appear in different guises. As Emily moves, seemingly endlessly, between castles, convents, and villas, she returns repeatedly in her mind to these landmarks of Property, Education, and Identity what she has learned and has yet to understand.

    At the chateau, she deploys the lessons she has learned from Udolpho, including her faith in her own judgment, gradually replacing her horror with understanding.

    Her tender recollections guide her as she rejects an eager suitor and comes to understand the failings of Valancourt, who also has encountered suffering but, unlike her, succumbed to the vices of Paris. In The Italian, Ellena also travels through thousand-year-old forests and across terrifying precipices.

    On the way, she reads landscape and interprets the nature of the buildings that she will enter—the property that seems to be determining her fate. The seaside hideout to which she is next taken is decaying, its gates swinging forlornly, and she knows her murder is planned. Yet the sublime landscape also takes her outside herself. The lofty mountains and gloomy grandeur surrounding a post-house renew her courage briefly. Like Emily, Ellena revives amid sublimity even as she comes to doubt the reality of golden visions of the happy past, the memories of bliss that in retrospect seem sprung from the genre of romance, not reality.

    The memories gained through experience become associated with certain objects, people, structures, and landscapes, which in turn give tangible form to the lesson. Knowledge inheres in landscape and architecture and can be gained privately, through the interaction of the thinking mind with natural and created forms.

    The tendency to conflate objects, people, and memories finds comic expression in the servant Paulo, who in the last chapters of The Italian refuses to lose sight of the roof of the building in which he believes his master to be held. O my master, my master! The roof, the roof! My master! The roof! Vivaldi admits to Paulo that, because trapped in a windowless dungeon, he cannot confirm where precisely he was held captive.

    When initially confronted with evil, the innocent and the ignorant become superstitious.

    Before Novels The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century English Fiction

    Superstition, like human character, comes in two primary forms: The fear of supernatural agents, which I will discuss below, is the most apparent. As Wollstonecraft suggests in the Vindication, it is this ghostly animation of property that corrupts society. Those who imagine the estate as a being—like Otranto—capable of enforcing the providential law of inheritance are likely to accord the illusory House more significance than the people within and consequently sacrifice girls and younger sons to maintain that entirely imaginary entity.

    While in Property, Education, and Identity Otranto the castle revives to restore the heir, in Radcliffe people rather than property victimize the rising generation on behalf of an estate animated by their superstitious minds. The dreaded ghosts turn out to be assassins hired by relatives, an explanation far more alarming than the rattling armor of the long-dead Alfonso. The other form of superstition, fear of the supernatural, is the consequence of inexperience or ignorance, the explanation of last resort for a mind not yet capable of grasping the truth of human nature and contemporary society—that ambition and greed powerfully motivate most of the human race and turn the myth of male protection into a tool for exploitation.

    When Annette in desperation calls Montoni to the scene, Emily seems only able to sense that he represents a form of evil to be avoided. He is, as Blackstone imagined, the witness whose private knowledge secures proprietorship.

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