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My doctoral thesis, submitted as a monograph provisionally entitled Cultivating Simplicity: Women Writers and British National Identity in the Romantic Age, explored the representation of national identity in women’s writing of the Romantic period. Spanning the years of the French Revolution, the Act of Union of 1801, the Napoleonic wars, and the Great Reform Act of 1832, this project considered how English and Irish women writers responded to the long-standing cultural rivalry between Britain and France and more particularly to the pressures political events placed on the conceptualisation of Britishness, showcasing how women championed simplicity as the foundation of national identity and its role in modern Britain. Building on recent critical discussions of nationalism in literature of the Romantic period and in women’s fiction more specifically, Cultivating Simplicity examines the intersections between simplicity, gender, and the construction of British national identity in the works of Jane Austen, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. It argues that simplicity was central to women writers’ conception of Britishness, a highly contested term. More easily defined by what it is not, simplicity resists representation, offering the golden mean between nature and culture, challenging male representations of simplicity and its association with primitivism and a return to nature. At a time when the borders of the British state were being redefined following the Act of Union of 1801, simplicity served as an important agent of national cohesion. How did female writers imagine Britishness, and did their representations of simplicity support or challenge contemporary views on national identity? If the abstract concept of the nation, often symbolized in figures such as Britannia or Hibernia, was understood as feminine, the discourse of nationalism insisted on the masculinity of Englishness, and patriotic virtue was articulated through ‘manly’ values such as courage, discipline, and strength. Through the notion of simplicity, women writers challenged this masculine conception of virtue. The novel allowed women, denied direct political participation, to engage with public debates on the nation. By insisting on the notion of character as the foundation of the nation, women writers, regardless of political allegiance, complicated the distinction between the public and private spheres. Through their examination of simplicity, central to the articulation of British national identity, Austen, Burney, and Edgeworth contributed to the reputation of the United Kingdom as a paragon of politeness. The first study to explore the complex history of simplicity in the Romantic period, Cultivating Simplicity offers new readings of the prose works of Jane Austen, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth, alongside other English and Irish authors of the Romantic period such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, and Mary Leadbeater, placing literary texts in the context of conduct literature, reflections on language and rhetoric, political theory, and visual and popular culture, and reading them through the perspective of social and political history as well as gender studies.
My current research project (Habilitationsschrift), provisionally entitled Dramatic Expressions: Women, Voice, and the Theatre, 1660-1830, explores the representations, circulation of, and responses to British and Irish women’s voices in the theatre of the long eighteenth century. Intersecting with acting practices, developments in language theory, and social, political, and philosophical debates about women’s identities and position in society, the question of voice is essential to a re-examination of eighteenth-century theatrical culture and to feminist historiographical practice. By focusing on the collaborative nature of theatrical practice, my project seeks to recover the overlooked yet significant female contributors, as playwrights, performers, critics, and theatregoers, to eighteenth-century theatre, with a specific focus on the connection between voice and changing conceptions of femininity. Influenced by performance studies and theatre history, Dramatic Expressions argues for the importance of attending to the theatrical moment of a given production for a more systematic understanding of responses to female speech. The attention to women’s voices in the theatre participates in the re-evaluation of the Habermasian model of separate spheres and challenges conceptions of the long eighteenth century as a gradual restriction of women’s position in society. While gender is at the heart of my study, I am also concerned with issues of class, age, national identity, as well as race and ethnicity.