Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (Veliko Tarnovo)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Femininity and Other Worlds in Robert Bage's The Fair Syrian (1787)

Vesselin Budakov (Shumen University, Bulgaria)


Robert Bage's The Fair Syrian (1787) is set variously in America, Ireland, England, France, and Turkey as long as the letters' superscription in this epistolary novel may be credited as truthful signposts of the locations. In the novel, two main story lines of the lives of two male letter writers paradoxically become the background against which the history of Miss Honoria Warren, the Fair Syrian, will be unfolded. Letter fiction, which in most of the cases places readers in medias res and has no narrator to guide reading, relies on the commingling of narratives written and sent in a sequence, yet often independently, as well as on the external readers who are expected to match up the time, space, and consequence in the epistolary converse. In the sentimental fiction, most notably in the literature after Richardson, the psychological and the moral aspects prove to be coupled tenets in the problematization of individual and societal questions, whose instructive aims almost without exception choose to epitomize a female character to be the speaker of the ethical precepts of a nation. In what follows I want to suggest that the social and economic changes in Britain in late eighteenth century had a serious impact on the characterization of women in the fiction of the period. The representation of the Fair Syrian, I will argue, is achieved by means of intersected class, gendered, and colonial notions to raise questions of identity in the late eighteenth-century British domestic and public spheres.


The attractions of a foreign culture, especially for those who had never lived in it, was a matter of fascinated discussion in eighteenth-century literature, as European writers speculated, often somewhat anxiously about what critics today call "transcultural" individuals. Often in the impersonated foreignness much intellectual load was charged to view, discuss, and elucidate those features of a native culture that, paradoxically, because of mundaneness, remain unnoticed. Thus exoticized characters who were born elsewhere, like the exotic visitor type, conveyed excessive intellection and sensitivity, kindness, and morality: attributes all springing from their otherworldliness that the instructive characters of mid-and late-eighteenth-century novels attempted to promulgate. In point view here are works like The Female American, or the Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield (1767), whose heroine, the narrator, is biracial, multilingual, and boasts of a transnational heritage, being the daughter of a Native American princess and an English settler. Emmera, the heroine in Arthur Young's The Adventures of Emmera, or the Fair American (1767), who though born in England keeps no memory of civilized Europe and lives in a georgic bliss, rather a paradise-like abode, untouched by civilization. Emmera's otherworldly upbringing makes her demands incommensurate with the circumstances she faces in an English environment. Voltaire's L'Ingénu (1767) also uses the same plot device of a European, born and raised among the American Indians. This device of what I call native outsider is embedded in Robert Bage's Hermsprong (1798), whose main character easily passes comments on America and England. Within this line of works of the latter part of the eighteenth century that based their plots on the naïve/native outsider is one of Robert Bage's earlier works, The Fair Syrian (1787). Like Hermsprong's repeated references to himself in Bage's 1798 novel as being "born a savage" (139), Miss Honoria Warren, the Fair Syrian, of his 1787 novel repeatedly announces she was a foreigner

Two main lines of histories and correspondences, one of the Marquis de St. Claur and the other of Sir John Amington, will converge to enable the appearance and the problematization of Miss Warren, the Fair Syrian. The Marquis de St. Claur serves a punishment in America for his rather unrestrained life in France. In his mother's words, it is rather a moral duty: "it ill becomes a son of the house of St. Claur to waste his youth in the soft lap of a mistress" (10; vol.1). In America, though they happen to be enemies in the conflict between England and her former colonies, he befriends a Captain Amington of whom he writes, "he is a philosopher; that is to say, he loves knowledge, and embraces every opportunity to obtain it" (20; vol.1). In turn, Captain Amington, in a letter to his father describes the Marquis de St. Claur as "a very amiable gentleman, who joins to French wit, and French vivacity, English good sense, and English probity. He has demanded my friendship and obtained it" (25; vol.1). After Captain Amington father's death, they both go to Ireland, where in Kilkenny they meet with the "lovely Miss Clare," who acquaints them with the tragic circumstances that have befallen a lady unknown to them. Captain Amington, now Sir John Amington, goes on corresponding with Mr. Osborne, a long-term friend and former fiancé of his sister's and with his sister and brother-in-law, in London. Both Sir Amington, in his letters to England, and St. Claur in his letters to France describe their own versions of the chastity, innocence, and sensitivity of the unjustly accused and victimized Miss Warren. According to the scanty account of Warren's identity she came to Ireland with Miss Clare's aunt, who had returned from Aleppo "to end her days in her native country, and brought with her a young lady, the child of misfortune, the child of virtue" (102-103; vol.1). In a chivalric manner corresponding to his social status, class, and education, Sir Amington fervently declares support to defend her of the charges and to save her. The second volume describes Miss Warren who is currently residing in London with Lady Bembridge, Sir John Amington's sister, where she was advised to go to after she was exonerated of any accusation, for two main reasons: to help restore Lady Bembridge's former sensitivity and to reconsider Sir Amington's proposal to become his wife.


Social Theory, Classes, and Representations

The Fair Syrian is a narrative both of class and gender relations. Modern critics have repeatedly pointed out that late eighteenth-century culture witnessed an unexpected disruption or transformation in its social basis. Such social changes affected all aspects of culture and were also recorded by the literature of the day, mainly in that it allowed characters to act and think according to the standards of a certain class that the public sphere had elicited as either normative or polemical. The literature of the 1780s and 90s thus combined a variety of introspective preoccupations that mingled the taste of the day with the ideological stigmata of the public sphere. For the whole of the eighteenth century, it should be noted, when writers dealt with political, social, and individual matters to illustrate what society considered moral or to brandish what it viewed as immoral, uncivil, or barbaric, they almost invariably chose to discuss the condition of women, seeing them as a conventional epitome of the nation. The depiction of women, however, was not uniform and it also reflected the overall gradual transformation of eighteenth-century society, which, as Markman Ellis argues, was by no means institutional but rather cultural as it mainly affected the field of mentality (48). Bage's The Fair Syrian is no exception to the pattern; only what makes it more complex is the affiliation of gendered notions with class-based relations, depicted through the fashionable argot of sensibility and presented against the background of a colonially re-mapped British national identity.

The portrayal of Miss Warren is achieved against, and by means of, the background of the political and socio-economic processes that the late eighteenth century accumulated for the representation of intricate female characters. The complexity of such representations places Honoria Warren in a contemporary polemical envisaging of society that inscribed the public and private spheres with moral values, normative of a gradually stabilized middle class, gradually turning these values into a social and national normativity. In their studies of the history of the novel, literary historians such as Ian Watt and later Michael McKeon have repeatedly referred to the genre's stimulation from, and link with, the transformation of society, the rise of capitalism and individualism, tenets that were first impressively researched by Max Weber, Jacob Burckhardt, and R. H. Tawney in the early twentieth century. Recent literary and cultural studies now seem to be more indebted to Jürgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962).

Habermas's theory of modern civil society distinguishes between the sphere of the market which he calls "private" and "the sphere of the family, as the core of the private sphere," which he terms "intimate," a realm that was considered to be independent of the former, yet entirely bound up with the needs of the market. He contends that the private and the intimate spheres co-existed with their ambivalent features: family members came to be "held together by patriarchal authority" and were attached to one another "by human closeness;" at the same time, "a privatized individual" (i.e. a bourgeois) appeared to mean both a property-owner and "one human being among others" (55). He assumes the ambivalence of the latter to be the agent ingredient of the public sphere, "depending on whether privatized individuals in their capacity as human beings communicated through critical debate in the world of letters, about experiences of their subjectivity or whether private people in their capacity as owners of commodities communicated through rational-critical debate in the political realm, concerning the regulation of their private sphere" (55-56).

Whichever contractual role privatized individuals would take, the social structure remained predominantly based on the patriarchal relations which were far from being just "familial or located in the private sphere" but rather social (Pateman 12). Social contracts and interrelationships may thus, recent feminist critics argue, be considered as gendered notions, allowing only men to "pass back and forth between the private and the public spheres" (Pateman 12); while standing for either their subjectivity or their political rights, it is presumed, they legitimized their male sex-right as the social code of dominance in both realms and thus predetermined the female focal interest to run in the domestic/familial/intimate sphere. The social transformation predominantly in the mentality of eighteenth-century individuals and the emerging class-related social stratification affected in the ideology of domesticity, which "gave women a limited and sex-specific role to play, primarily in the home" (Cott 5). Thus, as Barker-Benfield comments, it was a society of a male-dominated public in which "as men elaborated their political and economic sphere, women continued to be excluded from it" (92).

Although the eighteenth century was still an age of aristocrats, the rise of commercial capitalism necessitated a decreasing interest in aristocratic virtues as a formerly prevalent socio-cultural role-modeling; it had brought about a "masculinization" of a variety of trades and labors (alongside the "feminization of others") and gradually started to reduce the female activities to the family and the household (Hill 260). The propagated female social role within the domestic autonomy placed an emphasized mark on the metaphorical epitome of woman as "domestic" nation in contrast to the sexualized woman from abroad. Felicity Nussbaum's Torrid Zones particularly makes explicit the contexts of the representation of womanhood in eighteenth-century England. She argues that the culture of the period invented "the `other' woman of empire" and suggests the need of defining the "consolidation of the cult of domesticity in England and the association of the sexualized woman at home with the exotic, non-European woman" (1). Foreignness, exoticism, and sexuality seem to be the predominant attributes of the "other" woman that may be seen in contrast to the privatized, market-related virtues of the sexually controlled female domestic role. Robert Bage's The Fair Syrian (1787) addresses most issues pertaining to the socio-cultural transformation of late eighteenth-century British society.

In Bage's novel the dialogue and discord between the social layers displays a hierarchical separation in ranks and castes achieved by economic, circumstantial, ideological or hereditary principles. The epistolary characters in it are pretty much representatives of the public sphere's forming social divisions. The novel's letters narrate people who speak from their couched social background, describing others as different in terms of wealth as much as different in terms of ethics. There are aristocrats, foreign and domestic (The Marquis de St. Claur, Lord Bembridge, Lady Bembridge), highborn landed gentry (Sir John Amington), low gentry (Mr. Conner), magistrates described as the closest friends of the gentry, and lower class people, presented for the most part either as manipulated instruments used for vicious purposes in the hands of wealthier and immoral men, which altogether suggests a negative attitude toward the economically disadvantaged, or illustrates an idealized picture of them focusing on their innocence and exemplary good nature. Kelly claims that the main social controversy in Bage's novels is between aristocrats and "the middling sort" (30-35). Indeed, in The Fair Syrian, the societal tangling proves to be mainly between the depraved aristocracy, the morally stable wealthy gentry, the immoral and acquisitive lesser gentry, and the merchant capitalists, who, as Bage depicts them, seem to be financially most vulnerable as economically they are more liable to risk.

Bage seems to have clothed his narrative with the concerns of his social background of commercial capitalists and entrepreneurial landed gentry. William Hutton, a long-term close friend of Bage's, gives details of the author's life that disclose both Bage's vision of the times entangled in his characters and of the "social change that was only just beginning in earnest" (Kelly 54). Two aspects of the rising middle class civic virtue and mentality as generating drives of social change which social historians have defined and which William Hutton also speaks about in his "Memoirs of Robert Bage" include the themes of self-fashioning and of the self-made man. Two pervasive concepts-one specifies the intellectual and socio-cultural tenets of the transformation, the other unfolds the socio-economic and political ideation of the change. Barker-Benfield's use of self-fashioning certainly supplements Habermas' understanding of the public sphere as a conceptual pace of debate. Self-fashioning was the visible outcome of the "civilizing process" that emanated from the reformation of the familial sphere. A new manner of childrearing was affected by the appearance of "gentler, more ambitious, and self-fashioning fathers, and increasingly literate mothers, recognizing the potentials to fashion selves." This more educated childrearing inevitably inspired parents to be the sponsoring factor of "England's commercial and consumer capitalism" (Barker-Benfield 101). William Hutton's "Memoirs" stresses these theoretical issues and helps outline the cultural features of eighteenth-century society that Bage's characters voice out. From Hutton's narrative it becomes clear with which group in the social scale Bage expressed most sympathies to manifest them in his Fair Syrian as the concerns of the day, unlike Richardson, the patriarch of the epistolary mode of writing, who, paradoxically, restricted them, in more than several sets of volumes, to isolated domestic scrutiny. Although Bage also stressed the laceration of family ties, his narratives critically attempt to instruct the moral causes of the social damages on individuals as they rather "pertain more to Rousseauistic pathos than to Richardsonian domestic tragedy" (Kelly 28).

In his "Memoirs," Hutton notices that Robert Bage's first concern was his private life despite his engagements in both industries on the literary field and in the paper mill: "he found more happiness in domestic life than is usually experienced" (355). In a way Bage's personal interest in domesticity strikingly reminds us of the portrayal of Sir John Amington's father who finds more pleasures in educating his children at home rather than be interested in the public affairs of the state; according to him, such a reclusive life is potentially loaded with more responsibilities to the mother country. A letter to Osborne describes that Sir John Amington and his sister Lady Bembridge were brought up in an amiable domestic atmosphere. After the early death of his mother-an event that also happened to Bage himself in his childhood as Hutton and other biographers point out-Sir John remarks that his father lost "all relish for public, and, what is called social life. He retired to his place, and spent his time in acts of benevolence, and superintending the education of my sister and myself" (62; vol. 1). As the novel reveals later, the brother and sister spent their days in lively conversations on philosophy and serious considerations. In his letter to his father from America, Sir John complains that this domestic serenity was damaged when his aunt Lady Jervaise managed to gain custody of his sister, which he anticipated to be a detour from her education as she would be exposed to the pleasures of the city: "she was at that period of life when grandeur and pleasure strike with the greatest force" (26; vol. 1). Throughout the novel, epistolary characters raise the question of familial relations against the background of regions, whether it is the city, or the countryside, or abroad. The family, it may be presumed, is well set only when it is away from the metropolis. In the letter to Osborne, Sir John disagreeably comments that his aunt thus robbed his "sister of her native sweet simplicity" (62; vol. 1). In this way Bage focuses attention on the opposition between the city and the countryside, between the moral depravations that society can cause to people and the isolated morally preserved familial unity in the country. Bage's Sir John seems to agree with his father that the moral foundations of a nation may by all means be searched in the education in the family which should be left unaffected by the touches of the society's immoral acts on men. In the letter to Osborne, he renders his father's opinion of national/familial duties: "[my son] may give, in private life, an example, a much wanted example, of temperance of pleasures; of kindness to afflicted merit; of general benevolence. Let me be able to give him these habitudes, I give him happiness, I give my country its best citizen" (62-62; vol. 1).

The idealization of family integrity as the cornerstone of nation building and of the family's no less idealized seclusion from the city by no means suggests a backward parochialism. Bage's two Amingtons, the father and the son, seem to maintain that distancing from the "social life" stimulates a compensatory self-fashioning and entrepreneurship in the privatized domestic sphere, which they view as a prime duty to their mother country. In his letter to Osborne, the son lists a reference to the guided education he received from his father, ascribing his duty to the state and society primarily to the individual's intellectual and business progress: "Thus I lived, occupied by the sciences till the age of nineteen, at which time my Father thought I ought to make myself acquainted with the arts, those in particular which make a country flourish. We spent two years in visiting our native island, inspecting its manufactures, its agriculture, its provincial and local differences" (63; vol. 1).

John Amington is obviously aware that his early education tended to bring together "trade" and more elevated occupations. In his "Memoirs," William Hutton draws out a similar reference to Bage's life, in which a son inherits his father's involvement in business and never fails to self-model his world-view with a life-long education. Hutton describes Bage as an erudite young man who showed difference in both class and intellect: "My father often held him up to me for imitation ... I was then but little acquainted with him, for he moved in a sphere more elevated than I." Similar to Sir Amington's conviction to "assume [his father's] title and estate" (60; vol. 1), Bage follows his father's trade; Hutton observes that Bage "was trained to his father's business" (355).

Further Hutton's essay on Bage particularly alludes to the association of the familial institution with entrepreneurship: "Having embraced the marriage state, he entered upon a paper-mill at Elford, four miles from Tamworth, which he conducted to the time of his death." The conventional concept of the self-made man that refers to the economic rationale of the rising middle class mentality is effectively refocused by what Barker-Benfield describes as self-fashioning: "During my acquaintance with him he learnt music and the French and Italian languages, without a master. Being inclined, in 1760, to learn the abstruse branches of mathematics, he applied to Thomas Hanson, a celebrated teacher, and spent a night in Birmingham once a week for instruction" (355).

Critics such as Faulkner and Kelly emphasize that Bage's novels display a discord between the depraved aristocracy, the morally healthy class of the landed gentry as inheritors of traditional domestic virtues, and the socially and economically vulnerable early English industrialists into which group Bage himself may fall. Horse-racing, gambling, and card playing seem to be the essential virtues that embed the aristocrats' living; serious considerations are not shown to be of any interest to them. Lord Bembridge, for example, announces, "swearing to [the Marquis de St. Claur], in confidence, that two days more of philosophy would bore him to the devil" (70; vol. 1). Instead, his mind is deeply occupied with "the several thousand pounds depending upon Potoooooooo," the name of a horse, and, consequently, as the novel further proves, with a series of bad debts. Sir Amington's sister, Lady Bembridge speaks of philosophy with disparagement and exalts the "beau monde" as a structure of the elect who scornfully disregard everything that evades fashion. Speaking of the bon ton, Lady Bembridge ascribes a national and civic importance to her own class:

[I]t is become an universal topic of the lower ranks to abuse the people of fashionAnd for what? ... Is it that we love pleasure? Everybody loves pleasure. Is it that we dress well? This is a fund for the industrious. That we support operas, theatres, and public assemblies? It is for the honour of an opulent nation that its nobility should be splendid (195-6; vol. 2).

Her self-justifiable narrow-minded frivolity invalidates her own consideration of her own class. Neither she nor her husband Lord Bembridge are hard-working people, nor are they culture-sponsoring magnates, judging from her timetable: "I rose early. The clock had scarce struck eleven. A few dear agreeables called in upon me at one ... prescribed the public walks-the three o'clock concert-the evening assemblies" (183-4; vol. 1). In another letter to her brother, she sarcastically degrades philosophy to the practices of pleasure and behavior: "the amusement and the etiquette of the ton form a complicated system, which would have puzzled Sir Isaac Newton-a mass of erudition, which Lock would not have got to the bottom of in half a century" (229; vol. 1). Certainly Bage meant to satirize the superficiality of the English aristocrats as socially inefficient members of contemporary society. At the same time his satire also suggests a different attitude toward conventionalized Enlightenment tenets. Although he satirizes Lady Bembridge and her class when she considers "wisdom, science, [and] contemplation" as "unfashionable," such an assumption is not quite groundless. The satirical reference to Newton and Lock in fact suggests a revision of the Enlightenment project from the point of view of the late 1780s and challenges the two philosophers' contribution to the sensational psychology of the late seventeenth century. Rationality and the sensational aspect of psychology are now outdated demesnes of science. Bage's satirical implication points to the socially viable sensationalism as a fashion of public manners.

Aristocracy for Bage acquires a predominantly urban connotation with all the civilization's weaknesses that the city may brand on citizens. The landed gentry-though so virtuously presented through Sir John Amington as a class propagating domesticity and by that also meaning healthy nation building-proves to be in Bage's novel a melancholic, hypersensitive, and philosophically-minded social rank that reminds of Richardson's days. The representation of Sir Amington and his class shows an oscillation between a "Knight Errant" and the errand of mercy, while, at the same time, after he has "rescued [his] damsel from the jaws of a fell monster oppression," his courtly loyalty turns blemished by his reinventing Miss Honoria Warren into an exotic, sexualized territory to conquer. Bage's reading of the distinctions in the eighteenth-century social scale displays empathy of the classes he himself was part of, in particular his wife's and his own. From Hutton's "Memoirs" we understand that the main business initiatives in Bage's life started, as another biographer puts it, after he had "contracted a happy marriage, and with the help of his wife's dowry he was enabled to establish a paper manufactory" (G. B. S., 863). Whether it is made to look like a marriage of convenience or not, both Bage's life and his characters' happen to be quite suggestive of the eighteenth-century union of the public and private virtues; both show that the rising middle class needs a moral and financial support. This fact entirely evades Hutton's "Memoirs" which presents Bage as the model self-made man: "and all, like the wealth of a merchant who rises from nothing, he acquired by himself." Business, Hutton even suggests, played a stimulating role in his self-fashioning: "the trade which is thought to corrupt the mind, made no such impression on his" (355). Marriage in The Fair Syrian has exactly this meaning of a class-supportive initiative only that, in the novel, it is in the reverse: Sir Amington's rescues Miss Warren from jail, and, with his marriage proposal, he offers her a compensation for the social injustice that has incurred her class.


Sentiments of Inclusion, Sentiments of Exclusion

Volume one finishes with the successful defence of Miss Warren at the trial and volume two sends her to London where she relates to Lady Bembridge that story of her life that has been kept secret. The particulars of the Oriental colouring of this relation is deliberately made missing during her imprisonment in Ireland. Being all convinced of her innocence and virtue, certainly the Oriental tincture would only have raised more sentimental attachment to the characterisation of Miss Warren. A dramatic story of enslavements, abductions, quick-witted escapes from sexual assaults are included in the sentimental checklist of eighteenth-century literature and, therefore, would have readily provoked immediate sympathy for the eponymous heroine. Arguably, the delay of the disclosure of Miss Warren's Oriental background more convincingly justifies the support she receives from her friends in Ireland, particularly Miss Clare, Sir Amington, and the Marquis de St. Claur.

The introduction of the Oriental theme helps depict two drastically opposing worlds, none of which is the allegorical counterpart of the other, meaning that the loaded message should not be searched into ironic similarities between the East and the West but into the deficiencies these two worlds generate. In other words, Bage representes Miss Warren as liminal for two incomensurate worlds, both hers and nether of them really her own. In so doing, Bage seems to achieve a correction of the conventionally idealized representations of the East as a geographical space of opulence, by making use of the common knowledge of the East as a territory of tyranny. On the one hand, references of otherworldly exoticism brings about romanticized speculations which help bring in suspense in the novel; on the other, otherworldliness is depicted in accord with Montesquieu's ethical and psycho-geographical claims of the East as the weaker region or the incarnation of weaker, feminine nature that should be defended and supported. Thus the depiction of Miss Warren as born in the East, though of English origin, involves the whole arsenal of eighteenth-century stereotyping of displacement and neithernorism.

The scanty references to her foreignness are designed to provoke a romanticized intrigue about her past, the more so as she herself has announced a couple of times her native outsidedness: "tho' born and educated in a distant country, I am not so ignorant of the laws here" (128; vol. 1). Her foreignness, however, is never questioned, registered, problematized, or taken into account to be of a substantial importance to the plot. It is presumably an intended effect that aimed to reduce sentimentalism based on stories of Eastern mishaps and thus to strengthen Miss Warren's innocence and to validate her native outsider's/foreign outsider's virtues and objectivity. Sir Amington even willingly attempts to silence Miss Warren's past with the excuse not to enliven memories that obviously still seem to be haunting her. Past is somewhat deliberately avoided. "I endeavoured," writes Sir John to Mr. Osborne that "our conversations should run upon general subjects of science and manners, avoiding all retrospect of the past, and consideration of the future" (198; vol. 1). In his next letter to Osborne, Sir John emphasizes again his reluctance to raise the question of the past: "[t]hough I wished to hear the story of her life, I durst not ask it, because I would not renew her grief; and though I wished to know her schemes of the future, I did not chuse to anticipate anxiety" (236; vol. 1).

Though the emotional stress falls twice on tactful sensitivity to avoid animating the past, Robert Bage seems also to subscribe the characterization of Miss Warren to a faint yet stable rhetorical convention that many writers of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and even much later constructed in depicting self-reflexive appraisals of displacement that travel and the change of time and space caused to the mind. By placing characters in an entirely new environment, writers conformed to the general opinion that the remote world abroad (necessarily of a different culture and religion) may have little effect on the world at home, i.e. the West. Satires such as Marana's Turkish Spy (1684-91), Montesquieu's Persian Letters (1721), Goldsmith's The Citizen of the World (1762), or Johnstone's The Pilgrim (1775) of the foreign observer type of letter fiction expressly emphasize the impossibility to look at and into one world through the prism and with the culture burden of another. This assumption was particularly made clear in the General Preface to The Eight Volume Writ by a Turkish Spy at Paris (1691) which had contoured the perspective that contemporary readership was expected to accept in discerning the epistolary narratives from Oriental foreigners residing in the Western world. According to it, in order to be on an equal footing with the people in Europe, Marana's character is described as a philosopher and a spy who has voluntarily erased his past, suggesting a general understanding that identity was believed to change with the change of place and that past and memory were expected to have a silent (if any) repercussion on this change, certainly known only to the subject of travel and enunciation. Similarly what elsewhere I have termed a symbolic new birth abroad remains partially unchallenged by Robert Bage. In making Miss Warren keep her Oriental past secretly veiled for the larger part of the first volume, Bage complies with the pattern of liminal and multiple identity. Initially he draws a tension as to her identity, then he gradually acquaints readers with details of her past to raise sympathy and to provoke a sentimental identification with her; in the second volume, when she is finally involved in the story as an epistolary character to reveal details of her Oriental background, Bage seems to suggest that Miss Warren's otherworldly background was deliberately made unregistered earlier in the novel in order to avoid mistrust in readers with regard to her virtues and to make herself and the other characters convinced of her native yet outsider's reasoning, without coloring her misfortunes in Ireland with the Eastern mishaps of her past. Not problematizing her foreignness, however, only does her credit.

Bage's Honoria Warren may be labeled a typical eighteenth-century sentimental virgin, brimming with timid innocence and with knowledge of the world, well-spoken and educated, as well as sensitive of others in any environment she happens to be. This idealized perfection in Warren's characterization was not accidental; it possesses textual and extra-textual goals. Impressed with her virtuous ease and serenity of mind, Sir Amington decides to send Honoria Warren to London to keep company with his sister, and through communication with Miss Warren to help his sister restore her once purity of mind that obviously she has lost in marrying Lord Bembridge. This, in fact, may be considered a contractual play with the eighteenth-century readership, a plan, which obviously proves to be successful in mid-second volume: Lady Bembridge confesses that Honoria Warren is a kind of savior for her. Such a speculative plan, however, appears to unfold the expectation thrust upon the readers in general. Characters in novels, Hunter points out, "typically give readers a sense of what it would be like to be someone else, of how another identity would feel" (24). In the like manner, a presumable identification with the heroine (especially, one born a savage or elsewhere but retaining a native identity) establishes a vicarious empathy between character and reader. The injustice done to the eponymous heroine in wrongfully accusing her in Ireland to have murdered her patroness in order to get an easy access to a better fortune and the tragic events of her enslavement in Syria are elements that likely validated a psychological effect on the readership. These are undertones that articulated, but most of all promulgated, compassion and sympathy. "Reading sentimental fiction," Markman Ellis argues, "was to be an improving experience, refining the manners by exercising the ability to feel for others" (17). To be sure, this is how the textual and extra-textual goals in The Fair Syrian come together: in familiarizing with the misfortunes of Honoria Warren, readers were expected to improve and instruct themselves the way Lady Bembridge has.

Honoria Warren's sentimental benevolence is depicted as otherworldly and, due to the place and the family she was brought up in, as if distanced from what the majority of the civilized society can recognize as virtuous,: "my father," she writes, "scarce ever talked of England" (27; vol.2). She lifts the veil of her foreignness, i.e., her native outsideness, by detailing dates and birthplace: in Tripoli, "about the third hour of the ninth day of the month Moharram, in the year of the Hegira 1136 [...] I first opened these radiant eyes upon the sphere" (36; vol.2). The sophisticated way to express herself also somewhat betrays her foreignness: the device of defamiliarization, that is, the metaphorical way of describing familiar things and making them sound distanced from conventional verbalization, seen as the argot among naïve exotic tourists in the West, is evidently part of her discourse. In this sense, the choice of "fair" prefixing the epithet for Miss Warren may be said to be quite adequate. Though a substantially long list of titles bearing "fair" in front of appellations may be found in eighteenth-century fiction, here it clearly aims at more profound ends. The Oriental tincture of expression, birth and upbringing elsewhere is also metafictionally reiterated in the characterization of Honoria Warren, particularly in the story she relates to Lady Bembridge, and most notably in the way she does it.

The influence of Oriental literature had a decisive impact on the Western European culture, by stirring the imagination of writers and their public with the glamour of the East. Above all, structure, the frame-tale including many stories within a tale, attracted the attention of the writers; it allowed them to add color and variety to their works, and arguably it laid the bases of a new literary genre in the West, the novel. Martha Pike Conant asserts that the "Arabian Tales was the fairy godmother of English novel" (243). This story-telling technique of a story within a story may easily be observed in The Fair Syrian of telling and interrupting the story, of including the story within the story of the letter. At the same time, her virtuous benevolence, clarity of mind and intelligence is somewhat, though remotely, based on the "Story of Nourredin and the Fair Persian" from Galland's Arabian Nights' Entertainment and on the "Story of the Fair Arouya" in de la Croix's Persian Tales. While, however, in the Oriental tales, the emphasis is initially placed on the physical rather than on the moral beauty, as in the end these Oriental female characters cunningly retrieve what in the course of events they have lost, in The Fair Syrian, as in many other sentimental novels, the representation of women in literature was refocused with regard to the socio-economic changes that touched every level and every aspect of the social structure. One aspect of it involved a "redefinition of femininity and, in consequence, of the role women played within a family" and within society. As scholarship contends, this affected both the production and the representation of femininity, by both female and male writers. Habermas and a number of scholars like Dena Goodman, Barker-Benfield, and Elizabeth Heckendorn Cooke argue that an aristocratic ideal ceased to dominate the social scene and was replaced by a bourgeois model founded on a new set of values. Barbara Zaczek's reading of this change seems most penetrating: "If an aristocratic woman was viewed as desirable in terms of physical attractiveness, noble origin, and sensuality-attributes necessary for a perfect companion of a courtier-a bourgeois woman represented spiritual rather than physical beauty, professed rigid moral standards, and displayed tireless concern for the well-being of others" (22).

Zaczek's observation may be quite applicable to the characterization of the main correspondents in Bage's novel. Obviously, Miss Warren shares none of the other characters' social status. They all appear to be upper class, while in her epistolarized story we understand she is a daughter of a converted gentleman into a merchant. Similar to what Zaczek argues, Miss Warren is apparently a virtuous stronghold of moral assumptions that all characters in the novel gradually start to follow. Certainly, the improvement of the other epistolary characters is based on all the circumstances that the exchange of letters will provoke. While discussing with her how presumably they have changed, they also unconsciously make their best to nicely fit in their letters the missing pieces of sympathy with and knowledge of the enigmatic, eponymous heroine. In other words, by bridging the distance of time and space in her narratives of her different lives, epistolarians in the novel seem to reconstruct the dissipated identity of a native outsider.

Honoria Warren represents a mixture of different contemporary enunciations: feeling both foreign and native in both England and Syria; a daughter of a self-made man who showed an excessive interest in self-fashioning, giving a liberal and diverse education to his children; a stronghold of virtues, yet hypersensitive and feeling of others. She is what Nussbaum has termed, the other woman of the British Empire: both seen as a model female companion in domestic felicity and sexualised in terms of re-imagined geographical place of birth. Sir John Amington considers her an answer to his prayers; yet, when she refuses to merry him for virtuous reason of social and class impropriety, he immediately reconsiders her as an object of sexual desire: "you have seen the world-the Eastern world-where the union of the sexes puts on a variety of forms-where millions err" (250). Certainly for Miss Warren it is unacceptable as it fails to conform to the ethical norms of her domestic experience in Syria: "In Asia, could I have submitted to such a state, I might have lived in all the splendour of that country. The thought was death to me ... how should I bear it in England where it is reprobated by all whose esteem it is virtue to cultivate?" (253; vol. 1). The sexualised attitude toward her fails to reduce Sir John's interest in Miss Warren as a future wife. Nether could the orientalized/sexualised notions of her personality affect her virtues. In the second volume, in the company of aristocrats she succeeds to back off Lord Bembridge's sexual attack, who while courting her calls her "charming creature ... by heaven, made for love," presumably reinventing her because of her otherworldliness into something exceptional; when rejected, he once again looks at her through the prism of foreignness: "Irish thief, and Irish bunter" (184; vol. 2). In addition, Bage epitomizes Honoria Warren as a colonial British woman who is both foreign and native, who possesses a sexual appeal being foreign and who proliferates with domestic virtues when considered English. Bage highlights this double image of the foreign insider in Lord Konkieth's examination of Miss Warren: "Yes, she is certainly a foreigner ... But whether from the East-Indies ... or the Wet? ... I really cannot affirm ... Prey has she any relations in England? ... Scarce any that will own her I suppose. " (191; vol. 2).


Robert Bage's The Fair Syrian shows an intersection of number of eighteenth-century concerns. It depicts a period in English history, which, according to social historians, witnessed drastic transformation in the socio-economic and cultural basis in the Western European world. In his Fair Syrian, Bage illustrated these cultural changes, which were taking serious form in late eighteenth century, mainly the idea of domesticity and its place in the public and national intercourse. The ideology of domesticity, however, presupposes a problematization of the female role in the familial sphere and suggests an idealization of womanhood as the moral bedrock of the British nation-building in different climates. Miss Honoria Warren, the Fair Syrian, is exactly such an epitome that Robert Bage seems very much to sympathize with, drawing it from his experience both as a manufacturer and a writer. Along with the social issues of class stratification and antagonism between the layers in the social scale, Bage charges his novel with gendered and colonial tenets to emphasize that late eighteenth-century domestic virtue will not entirely victimize sexuality for the sake of a social normativity. As an epitome of a nation, the woman with the dissipated identity of a native outsider, it may be presumed, provides privatised domestic sphere with the public sphere's moral fortitude of the colonizing early-British nationalism.

© Vesselin Budakov (Shumen University, Bulgaria)


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Hunter, J. Paul. Before Novels: The Cultural Context of Eighteenth-Century Fiction. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1990.

Hutton, William. "Memoirs of Robert Bage, Author of `Mount Henneth'." The Port-Folio. Vol. 4. Issue 45. November 10, 1804: 355.

Nussbaum, Felicity. Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Pateman, Carole, The Sexual Contract. 1989. Oxford: Polity Press and Blackwell Publishers, 1995

Zaczek, Barbara Maria. Censored Sentiments: Letters and Censorship in Epistolary Novels and Conduct Material. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Vesselin Budakov (Shumen University, Bulgaria): Femininity and Other Worlds in Robert Bage's The Fair Syrian (1787). In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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