My dissertation argues that silence provides a lens through which we can trace the development of the Romantic novel from the eighteenth century novel. In the eighteenth century, anxieties about female selfhood and identity become linked to proper modes of communication that reveal class and/or gender differences that could threaten the social order they were meant to uphold. If performed correctly, it was thought, expressions of sympathy would contribute to the development of sociability by establishing a prescriptive narrative to teach readers how to respond to suffering bodies. The sentimental novel silences female experience and rewrites it into a teleology that can be used for an observer’s emotional and moral advancement. I argue that Romantic novelists including Ann Radcliffe, Walter Scott, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen adapt situations and themes from the sentimental novel to reframe silence as an empowering form of expression that mitigates social and historical anxieties about female selfhood and individuality. As representative authors of the gothic, historical, and domestic novels, Radcliffe, Scott, Burney, and Austen rework silence into a positive exploration of the social implications of sympathy. My dissertation advances a theory of the novel’s development that addresses the conflict between appropriate means of communication and women’s disappearance from the publishing marketplace by reframing silence not as a symptom of female vulnerability but a communication strategy that emerged as a way to overcome repressive market forces.
Following an introduction that situates the popularity of the sentimental novel between the moral ethos set by Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) and the critical uncertainty faced by women writers, my first chapter investigates settings in Radcliffe’s gothic novels where silence proliferates to show how her heroines overcome their inability to protest their suffering by escaping to sublime landscapes. My second chapter develops the gothic’s critique of sympathy as a social phenomenon through an investigation of visual scenes and moments of aphasia in Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor (1819). Building on Scott’s development of the historical novel, my third chapter examines the limitations of class-based sympathetic responses in Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer (1814), to show how the protagonist’s refusal to speak about her identity limits her mobility. My fourth chapter concludes my dissertation by examining the impact of Austen’s development of free indirect discourse on the novel’s ability to represent female interiority. Beginning with an investigation of conduct books that advocated reticence as the proper means for women to communicate, I argue that Austen’s development of free indirect discourse permits the reader to see through the artificiality of society’s mannerisms and conversation. When read as a group, these four novelists show the variety of means by which the Romantic novel recuperates silence as a positive form of female self-expression.