"Dangerous Liberties: Elizabeth Inchbald and the French Revolution"

By historical coincidence, Elizabeth Inchbald had given up her brief career as an actress by 1789 to become one of the foremost playwrights of her time. While Revolution raged in France, Inchbald penned a succession of comedies of manners in the style of Restoration comedy romps with libertine lords seducing unhappily married women to the regular amusement of London audiences. She also wrote two moderately successful novels: A Simple Story (1791), commonly regarded as the better of the two works, and Nature and Art (1796).

Sex, money and justice were recurring themes in these works and it is on the last of these that I would like to focus. In this paper, in the light of the French Revolution, I will discuss Inchbald's examination of justice in Nature and Art, a precursor to George Eliot's Adam Bede and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. In this novel, the young pregnant Hannah is brought before her seducer, Judge William, so that he can mete out her downfall both literally as well as figuratively.

The French Revolution sought to install a more democratic and just system of order on a nation exploited by an aristocratic elite. Given the often arbitrariness and brutality with which such order was imposed, the British felt self-satisfied and confident that their own system of Chancery was "impartial." Inchbald challenges this assumption. The justice of the Revolution becomes a convenient metonymy for the injustices suffered by women at the hands of men and the distortion of justice within the courts becomes a sympton of an imbalance or inequality which is barely recognized.

I believe that this text provides a rich resource for a discussion of the problematizing of law, justice and gender.