Flight, fear or fantasy: abduction plots in fiction of the Eighteenth century 1740-1811
Wright, Katherine Jane
This thesis brings together eighteenth-century attitudes to the abduction of women portrayed by the law, by newspapers, and in fiction. I focus attention on the interest these different forms of narrative share in scrutinizing women’s behaviour and argue that the abduction plot is more important than its status as a stock literary convention would imply. Rather, it is a pliant, complex, and nuanced motif that allows writers the space to explore the difficult and contradictory position of women and attitudes to sexual relations. This thesis is divided into two parts. The first part comprises two chapters that look at abduction from an historical perspective. The first chapter examines the legal context of abduction as a criminal act and the second chapter examines the social context of ‘abduction’ as a euphemism for a sexual adventure. This part includes preliminary analysis of abduction plots in Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline, the Orphan of the Castle (1788) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne: A Highland Story (1789). The second part comprises three chapters in which I read a range of novels for their abduction plots and scenes. Chapter three focusses on reviewing and on lesser known novels that are not widely read today. It examines the uneasy dialogue between novels and the way they were conveyed to readers. I argue that reviewing presents a discourse of aggression towards women. Chapter four considers abduction plots in domestic fiction focussing on a short story from Eliza Haywood’s The Female Spectator (1744-46), Samuel Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54), and Sarah Fielding’s The History of Ophelia (1760). Chapter five considers the gothic abduction plot in Frances Burney’s Camilla, or a Picture of Youth (1796), Charlotte Smith’s The Young Philosopher (1798) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791). I take an historicist approach and underpin my analysis of fictional abduction plots with newspaper research that suggests ‘abduction’ had a meaning in social and cultural discourse that associated it with gossip and innuendo. This research demonstrates that newspapers played an important role in establishing the ambiguity of ‘abduction’ in the public consciousness. I argue that this journalistic discourse contributed to the suppression of abduction as a violent crime that endangered women. I suggest that the introduction of comprehensive reviewing created the space for a discourse of aggression to flourish. Many reviews are short, pithy comments criticising a novel as derivative, badly written, and immoral. I argue that a series of reviews appearing on a single page gives the impression that violence towards women is a normal everyday occurrence and abduction is a familiar hazard on the road to domestic felicity. I conclude that ‘abduction’ is a porous term in which disparate ideas – sexual aggression, violent crime, and euphemistic social commentary – are held in tension with each other. This tension enables a complex interpretation of what at first appears to be a simple narrative of violent male aggression and female culpability. The ambiguity this tension creates reveals the abduction plot as a versatile motif that challenges the social hierarchy and posits an alternative narrative for women.