Research Stream


Amelia Dale
Nanjing University, in Shanghai (formerly at The University of Sydney)

Lessons in Feeling: Quixotic Mothering in Late Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing

Late eighteenth-century literature presents its readers with emotional practices they can imitate, emulate and perform. How does this relate to changing attitudes to the role of motherhood and its fraught, symbolic relationship with female writing?


This project uses Mary Charlton’s quixotic novel Rosella; or, Modern Occurrences (1799) as the basis of a re-examination of the relationship between the role of the mother in the late eighteenth century in guiding her children’s emotional practice and the role of the female author in the emotional socialisation of her readers. Due to her popularity, Charlton was one of the most important novelists working in the Minerva Press. Despite increasing interest in women novelists in the 1790s, Charlton’s work remains relatively unknown.

Eighteenth-century literature is littered with a rich range of representations of female readers who respond mimetically and quixotically to the literature of sensibility that they consume; they use sentimental heroines in their reading as the basis for their own inappropriate or inadequate performances of sensibility. The trope of female-authored literature ‘mothering’ its readers must be read alongside eighteenth-century cultural conceptions about mothers’ role in ‘writing’ the emotional behaviour of their children. Numerous female writers from across the political spectrum identified their writing as maternal. However, the association between ‘mother’ and ‘female author’ was neither straightforward nor politically neutral. Invested with increasing power as the century progressed, the role of the mother was contested, evolving and sentimentalised.

Related Presentation

Dale, A. ‘Lessons in Feeling: Quixotic Mothering in Mary Charlton’s Rosella’, British Women’s Writers Conference, Athens, Georgia, USA, 2-5 June 2016.

Image: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Young Schoolmistress, 1736, Wikimedia Commons