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A Feminine Enlightenment

British Women Writers and the Philosophy of Progress, 1759-1820

JoEllen DeLucia

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Revises established understandings of British women writers’ contributions to Enlightenment narratives of social and historical progress

Drawing on original archival research, A Feminine Enlightenment argues that women writers shaped Enlightenment conversations regarding the role of sentiment and gender in the civilizing process. By reading women’s literature alongside history and philosophy and moving between the eighteenth century and Romantic era, JoEllen DeLucia challenges conventional historical and generic boundaries. Beginning with Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), she tracks discussions of “women’s progress” from the rarified atmosphere of mid-eighteenth-century Bluestocking salons and the masculine domain of the Scottish university system to the popular Minerva Press novels of the early nineteenth century. Ultimately, this study positions feminine genres such as the Gothic romance and Bluestocking poetry, usually seen as outliers in a masculine Age of Reason, as essential to understanding emotion’s role in Enlightenment narratives of progress. The effect of this study is twofold: to show how developments in women’s literature reflected and engaged with Enlightenment discussions of emotion, sentiment, and commercial and imperial expansion; and to provide new literary and historical contexts for contemporary conversations that continue to use “women’s progress” to assign cultures and societies around the globe a place in universalizing schemas of development.

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Introduction: A Feminine Enlightenment
1: The Progress of Feeling: The Ossian Poems and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments
2: Ossianic History and Bluestocking Feminism
3: Queering Progress: Anna Seward and Llangollen Vale
4: Poetry, Paratext, and History in Radcliffe’s Gothic
5: Stadial Fiction or the Progress of Taste
Epilogue: Women Writers in the Age of Ossian

About the Author

JoEllen DeLucia is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Women and Gender Studies at Central Michigan University. She has also published essays on women’s writing, travel literature, Romantic-era literature, and Enlightenment thought.


A Feminine Enlightenment combines sensitive close reading of little-known texts with a perceptive overview of both eighteenth-century and current critical debates about the relationship between gender, history and economic progress. This book builds upon a large body of feminist scholarship but takes this work in exciting new directions, leading it into an important new phase of development. 


- Dr. Elizabeth Eger, King’s College London

It succeeds triumphantly, partly because of JoEllen DeLucia’s readiness to cross the boundaries which constrain so many approaches to this period. She ranges across Scottish, English, and Irish literature, explores the complex connections between genres, and confronts contemporary interpretations of the Enlightenment in Britain, including feminist interpretations.

- Jane Rendall, University of York, Eighteenth-Century Scotland. 29, Spring 2015

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