Representations of the American War of Independence in the late eighteenth-century English novel

Tarling, Barbara Frances (2010). Representations of the American War of Independence in the late eighteenth-century English novel. PhD thesis The Open University.



For metropolitan Britons, the American War of Independence began as a traumatic civil war and ended as a global conflict that threatened the integrity of home and empire. This thesis examines the ways in which writers of popular fiction engaged with that crisis, considers why their preoccupation with the dispute continued for so many years after the peace treaty was signed, and suggests some reasons why the subject ceased to resonate as the century drew to a close. Through a series of individual case studies it explores the diverse ways in which the war is presented in a selection of novels published in Britain during the 1780s and 1790s, and reveals how they are shaped in response to contemporary political imperatives.

There has been a tendency to associate the overt politicization of the novel with the intellectual and political ferment of the 1790s but my research shows that this was not the case. Political critique was a key element in fictional representations of the American War. Topical controversies were hotly debated, the morality of the conflict was fiercely contested, and competing constructions of patriotism, nation and empire were interrogated and explored. Few of these works have been studied, however. Charlotte Smith, Robert Bage and Helen Maria Williams are better known for their radical responses to the French Revolution than for their fictional engagement with the events of the American War, whilst writers such as Samuel Jackson Pratt, Eliza Parsons and George Walker are now almost entirely forgotten. Nevertheless, the novels in this study are worthy of attention. Irrespective of their literary merit, which in some cases is considerable, they offer unique insights into the ways in which British writers and readers engaged with the politics of war, empire and revolution both before and after the momentous events of 1789.

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