Novel daughters: The family romance from Frances Burney to Jane Austen

Susan Celia Greenfield, University of Pennsylvania


Novel Daughters examines the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novel, which was generally seen as a female genre, and traces a plot structure repeated in several best-selling women's texts. The plot follows an orphan heroine who must discover her mother or her mother's true story in order to legitimate her own and her parent's identity. The opening chapters describe how the narrative functions in a number of works by once famous authors such as Agnes Maria Bennett, Elizabeth Helme, Regina Maria Roche, and Charlotte Smith. Drawing on various sources, I offer a cultural explanation for the story's popularity and demonstrate how the plot diverges from the Freudian model of the family romance, proving that current notions about identity formation and female sexual development are historically contingent. Because the daughter heroine can be seen as a symbol of the novel genre itself and her search for her mother as a myth about the novel's origins, the plot also challenges the Lacanian assumption that linguistic production is a paternal act. Reflecting the period's feminization of the novel form, the narrative represents textual creation and consumption as a matrilineal process. Separate chapters examine the different ways Ann Radcliffe, Frances Burney, Susanna Rowson, and Jane Austen employ the maternal myth. The third chapter focuses on the family romance of sexuality and argues that in The Italian, the love between the mother and daughter characters assumes homoerotic overtones. The fourth and fifth chapters concentrate on the family romance of authorship, demonstrating how in Evelina and in Charlotte Temple and Charlotte's Daughter, the absent mother is endowed with a superior ability to generate children and texts. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of Austen's complex representation of women's linguistic identity. In response to a society that threatens to erase them, several Austen heroines struggle to gain some form of literary control, often only to reveal that such control is--at best--illusory.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Greenfield, Susan Celia, "Novel daughters: The family romance from Frances Burney to Jane Austen" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9125656.