19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 2 (2006)

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Reason vs Revelation: Feminism, Malthus, and the New Poor Law in Narratives by Harriet Martineau and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna

Ella Dzelzainis


My article examines the profoundly influential presence of eighteenth-century stadial or ‘four stages' theory in industrial fiction of the early Victorian period. Axiomatic within this Enlightenment theory was the assumption that the treatment of women was a reliable index to the civilized status of any society. The two women writers studied here, Harriet Martineau (1802-76) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846), took opposing sides in the debate over Malthusian political economy and interpreted stadial theory in correspondingly different ways. Martineau's enthusiastic Malthusianism in the Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-4) foresaw a feminist future brought about by illimitable progress and the spread of reason. With the deliberate aim of countering Martineau's views, the pre-Millenarian Evangelical Tonna asserted the truth of revelation in The Wrongs of Woman (1843-4) and positioned women's domestic subordination as integral to England's continued pre-eminence as a commercial nation. This essay examines the religious, social and political grounds on which these two adversaries staked their arguments, and does so through an analysis of their fictional accounts of the status, role, and treatment of working women in an industrializing society.

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