Urban Plunge: Novel Heroines in Eighteenth-Century London

Elizabeth Porter, Fordham University


This dissertation examines how and why novelists depict their heroines being plunged into the sensory overload that was eighteenth-century London. Daniel Defoe in Roxana (1724), Samuel Richardson in Clarissa (1747-8), Frances Burney in Cecilia (1782), and Mary Wollstonecraft in The Wrongs of Woman (1798) showcase the options for physical and socioeconomic mobility that city life offered. For periods, women can authorize their own bodily and mental movements, imagining possibilities and learning more about the social context they inhabit in London. Defoe in Roxana maps the movements and conflicts of the genteel Roxana, and of servant women Amy and Susan, to illustrate the confusion inherent in a changing city. The title heroine in Clarissa gains physical mobility when appearing to take on a lower class position. Upon relocating to a commercial region of Covent Garden, she experiences physical and financial mobility. Ultimately, she uses London’s communication, transportation, and commercial networks to arrange for the movement of her property and her Will to her father’s home upon her death. Burney’s Cecilia goes from being an heiress who navigates the city with relative freedom to an abject spectacle who is mistaken for a prostitute and madwoman. Despite the instructive value of urban travel for women, there is the risk of being objectified—and violated—in crowded, public spaces. Finally, in my epilogue, I argue for the significance of the London setting in Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman (1798) as a potential site of activism for women from different class backgrounds (such as Maria and Jemima) to find common ground and resist the “wrongs” they face.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Porter, Elizabeth, "Urban Plunge: Novel Heroines in Eighteenth-Century London" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10620815.