The "Improperly Educated" Woman in British Novels, 1790-1801
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This dissertation identifies the character type of the "improperly educated" woman, who is both rationally educated and passionately outspoken, and examines the delineation of this recurring figure, in relation to the female education continuum, within the evolving discourse on female learning during the period of 1790-1801. British women writers, who opposed the deficient education offered to females, contributed their voices to collectively challenging the notion that education deprived the female sex of their femininity. Consequently, women novelists exploited the "improperly educated" female character as a means to explore alternatives to the existing curriculum, specifically rational and classical knowledge and to consider the negative effects of restrictive gender identities on female education. I employ feminist literary history and criticism to evaluate the participation of Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays, and Maria Edgeworth in this continuing educational debate through their advocation for restructuring of the educational system and their effective use of versions of the "improperly educated" woman to portray women as intellectually capable. Challenging the conception of "feminine" as a natural state, Inchbald, Hays, and Edgeworth used fictional narratives to show the difficulties of strict adherence to proper femininity and to portray the irony of an education that does not enlighten but rather restricts and censors. Inchbald's A Simple Story, Hays' Memoirs of Emma Courtney, and Edgeworth's Belinda respectively demonstrate the important role played by this character type in regards to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century women writers' efforts to promote improvements in female instruction, encourage female autonomy, and demonstrate women's capabilities for self-improvement. Undeterred by traditional custom, women novelists renewed literary efforts to display similarities between women of diverse social classes and levels of learning, thus exposing the adverse consequences of the conventionally transitory and inferior education, which the majority of the female sex experienced. This character makes a significant impact in promoting improvement in the educational system and revising the definition of proper feminine behavior within British society.
SubjectEnglish Literature--18th Century
Feminism in Literature
Mary Hays--Criticism, Maria Edgeworth--Criticism
Feminist Literary History and Criticism
Osbourne, Lacie (2012). The "Improperly Educated" Woman in British Novels, 1790-1801. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from