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Abstract

Eliza Fenwick's Secresy; or the Ruin on the Rock (1795) and Mary Robinson's The Natural Daughter, with Portraits of the Leadenhead Family (1799) present sexually informed heroines who challenge familial and cultural mandates of gendered behaviour that require innocence as the emblem of virtue. According to Roxanne Eberle, most novels of this period feature a heroine who "'purchases' the status of wife with her well maintained chastity and the promise to obey a complex set of behavioral rules.' Secresy’s Sibella and The Natural Daughter’s Martha, however, develop a critical subjectivity which allows them to reject commonplaces that conflate sexual and moral innocence and identify hypocrisy in those who do. Both women are tested by nefarious fathers and sexual partners whose restrictive codes of feminine deportment demand that they act, as Secresy puts it, like “docile and grateful creature[s].” By foregrounding each heroine’s rational sincerity—and providing each woman with a female friend for support—Secresy and The Natural Daughter arm Sibella and Martha with resources that may potentially rescue them from their families’ narrow views of female sexuality and gendered behaviour: Sibella tries to convince her uncle Mr Valmont to allow her to marry his illegitimate son Clement, and Martha endeavours to support herself financially and care for a young ward after her husband accuses her of infidelity and expels her from their home.

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