"Well-Dispos'd Savages": Elite Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century British Literature
Veisz, Elizabeth Hayley
Rosenthal, Laura J
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Writers in eighteenth-century Britain catered to, and helped create, public fascination with the brazen, sometimes illicit, often violent exploits of elite and aristocratic men. Literary critics have seen this elite male figure as part of an outmoded order superseded over the course of the century by the rising British middle class. Debauched aristocratic characters are often reformed over the course of eighteenth-century narratives, reflecting a larger societal shift in values towards polite restraint. As expressed in my dissertation's title phrase, however, many of the period's writers develop elite male characters whose behaviors and self-presentation blur those very boundaries between oppositional categories, like savagery and civilization, on which both Enlightenment theories of human progress and polite culture's prescriptions for decorum were presumed to rest. Through an examination of this paradoxical figure in novelistic, dramatic, and autobiographical literature, my dissertation demonstrates that the oft-repeated reform-of-the-rake narrative calls attention to obstacles and resistance to the ascendancy of a middle-class culture, not to the inevitability of its rise. Each chapter centers on a site that is accessible to a larger public only through literary or dramatic accounts, including the club, the elite school, the court, and the overseas estate. Chapter One, "`Our imperial reign': Addison, Steele, Gay and the London Mohocks," examines writings about a gang of rakish gentlemen rumored to prowl the streets of Augustan London. Chapter Two, "Schools for Scandal: Elite Education and Eighteenth-Century Narrative," uncovers a relationship between key mid-century novels and a longstanding debate about elite schooling. The final two chapters trace the influence of late-eighteenth-century discourses of liberty and sensibility on constructions of elite masculinity. Chapter Three, "Command Performance: Boswell's Libertine Diplomacy," focuses on the journals and travelogues of James Boswell, a self-professed libertine who strove, with mixed results, to restrain his appetite for power and pleasure. Chapter Four, "A `strong transition of place': Cultural Encounter and the reform plot in Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl," offers a new framework in which to read the genre of the national tale by shifting the critical lens from the novel's Anglo-Irish marriage plot to a parallel plot of intersecting and competing masculinities.