Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English & Film Studies

Program Name/Specialization

Gender and Genre


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Eleanor Ty

Advisor Role



Polish or Work? Four Women Novelists and the Professionalization of Accomplishment, 1796-1814 examines the ways in which cultural models of accomplished, industrious femininity find expression in four novels written by women during the Romantic period: Amelia Opie’s The Father and Daughter (1801), Mary Brunton’s Self-Control (1811), Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1796), and Frances Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). This dissertation reads accomplishment as a pervasive and familiar cultural practice that writers use to interrogate domestic ideology and middle-class women’s position in commercial society within the space of popular fiction. I focus, specifically, on instances in which the genteel heroine turns privately honed artistic skills to remunerative labour, what I refer to as the professionalization of accomplishment. I do so in order to complicate the critical assumption that domesticity occupies a fundamentally antithetical relationship to work in Romantic-era fiction by women. Accomplishment, in these novels, assumes import as a specialized realm of knowledge, application, and self-fulfillment, and offers the rhetorical framework through which these writers narrate the heroine’s search for economic self-sufficiency, moral self-government, and social integration within but also beyond the confines of the private sphere and its ideology of domestic femininity. In doing so, this project challenges a critical heritage in literary studies, British women’s history, and art history that has long dismissed female accomplishment and the decorative arts as the distraction of leisure hours and the polish of ornamental femininity in the private sphere. Linking accomplishment to the Protestant ethic of self-regulation and self-improvement through work, these novels claim a place for their heroines in society as rational subjects, contributors to public, economic life, moral reformers, and creators of culture. Read collectively, these novels represent a broad feminist appeal for social justice in which individual merit and self-exertion supplant hierarchies of sexual difference in shaping the social, cultural, and economic relations of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain.

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