Miss-behaving: Conduct, the underread, and the history of the novel, 1800–1830
Nineteenth-century underread novels are unmoored narratives. Published during an era that still, in large part, belongs to the major Romantic poets, the novels in this study are often attached to the work of Jane Austen but left out of histories of the novel. My work with the fiction of Maria Edgeworth, Amelia Opie, Susan Ferrier, and Mary Shelley anchors them in what is often called the Age of Revolution. These texts, I argue, concerned themselves with challenging the underpinning notions of England's establishment, specifically as it manifests itself in domestic spheres, by offering alternative portraits of women's conduct, class mobility, and England's contrary projects of empire and abolition. I read them within the ideological discourse of Rousseau, Burke, Wollstonecraft, and Godwin and consider how they both reflect and reject the model of womanhood proposed by conduct literature of the period.
Reading them as courtship novels organized around the tensions and conflicts of the period, I consider how the men and women in these texts attempt to overcome moral, ideological, and class difference in order to form imperfect unions. Paying careful attention to the different roles of the narrative and the narrator, I argue for a reading of these novels that questions what is at work in the stories they tell. Juxtaposing their stories with the canonical novels we associate with the period, I suggest that they allow for the complexities within Britain's elite classes at a time when its boundaries were being redefined by ideological shifts and the socio-historical transitions they set into motion.