Women writers and the genealogy of the gentleman: masculinity, authority, and male characters in eighteenth-century English novels by women

Mary Beth Harris, Purdue University


This dissertation demonstrates that women authors in the eighteenth century carved out a space for their authority not by overtly opposing their male critics and society’s patriarchal structure, but by rewriting the persona of the gentleman—the poster boy for eighteenth-century society’s moral, masculine, and patriarchal values—and thereby advocating for novels as an important site for cultivating proper masculine behavior as well as a means of renegotiating gender relationships. Eighteenth-century feminist criticism has charted the wide-ranging and creative avenues women carved out for themselves within a male-dominated, patriarchal culture. However, critics have typically dismissed the male characters of eighteenth-century female authors as poorly written or fantasy wish-fulfillment, often assuming women had no real means of influencing masculinity. Genealogy of the Gentleman addresses this critical blind spot by focusing on one of the most iconic archetypes of masculinity: the gentleman. I argue that women writers used their novels to define and popularize the gentleman as the ideal version of Western masculinity, and that they did so for strategic, professional purposes. My dissertation charts how, over the course of the eighteenth century, women writers commandeer the moral power of this gentleman persona, particularly his literary authority as the ideal author, reader, and critic. This intervention contributes to masculinity studies, which has made strides in correcting assumptions about Anglophone masculinity—that manliness is universal, innate, and rational, rather than particular, contextual, and performative. My approach offers to this conversation a crucial perspective on how women played a vital role in creating dominant standards of masculinity, and they did so by taking advantage of the performative nature of these standards in order to naturalize their own authorship.




Powell, Purdue University.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Gender studies

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