Between Concealment and Revelation: Oblique Modes of Female Self-Expression in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Life Writing
Date of Degree
English Language and Literature
eighteenth-century literature, celebrity, marriage, etiquette, cosmetics
This dissertation examines the social landscape of eighteenth-century Britain as one that was especially inimical to women and analyzes instances in literature and life writing in which female characters and historical figures negotiated the various restrictions they faced in social settings by “hiding in plain sight” and devising alternative strategies by which they might be seen and heard: by engaging in what I am referring to as a play between concealment and revelation. I explore texts where female characters who have been silenced and forced to conceal their presence in social situations craft diffuse strategies through which they express themselves in an oblique or “sideways” manner, including through the manipulation of external appearances, discursive renderings, curatorial undertakings, and constructions of sartorial artifice.
Closely reading works composed between 1748-1834 by (or about) Frances Burney (1778), Charlotte Charke (1755), Sarah Siddons (1834), Samuel Richardson (1748), and Samuel Jackson Pratt (1790), my dissertation offers to extend our understanding of the cultural discourses surrounding female expression by situating textual examples within their respective cultural contexts: eighteenth-century etiquette, celebrity culture and gossip, the marriage market, and aesthetic rhetoric. Like the diffuse strategies employed by the characters and historical figures examined in this study, I too rely on a diffuse array of texts that includes the canonical and noncanonical alike. My dissertation is by no means meant to be a comprehensive study on the topic but rather, a discursive and idiosyncratic one.
In keeping with the overarching theme of this dissertation, I take an avid interest in what is “hidden” or not readily disclosed or too hastily dismissed or overlooked. It is with this in mind that I stake a claim for fiction as a mode of truth-telling that can sometimes be as viable—if not more viable—than firsthand accounts based on lived experience. While representations of women in fictional and biographical texts do not necessarily mimic the lived experiences of actual women, such literary constructs are nevertheless valuable in that they offer insights into the unconscious undercurrents that thread through the social fabric of eighteenth-century Britain. None of the texts represented in this study are explicitly “about” the dialectic between concealment and revelation and yet, in each of them, we see female characters attempting to sidestep their respective states of coerced social exclusion by inventing oblique strategies of self expression. In doing so, they offer an alternative to the dominant narrative and its glorification of sociability.
Sunseri, Sophia N., "Between Concealment and Revelation: Oblique Modes of Female Self-Expression in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Life Writing" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
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