• “The More Things Change: Maria Edgeworth’s ‘The Modern Griselda'”

    Alison Langdon (see profile)
    Medieval Studies
    Twelfth century, Thirteenth century, Fourteenth century, Nineteenth century, British literature
    Item Type:
    11th to 14th century, 19th century, Gender studies
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    At a pivotal moment in Maria Edgeworth’s 1805 novella “The Modern Griselda,” a party gathers for a reading of “The Clerk’s Tale” at the home of the eponymous character and her husband. In response to Griselda’s vehement indignation at her medieval counterpart’s example, one member of the party comments that perhaps, “if Chaucer had lived in our enlightened times, he would have written a very different Griselda.” On the surface, that would appear to be true—certainly Edgeworth’s tyrannical Griselda seems much more like Chaucer’s Walter. And yet, the “modern” Griselda is herself as much created by the rhetoric of ideal womanhood as is her medieval counterpart, who so wholly embraces the ideal of wifely obedience expounded in medieval conduct manuals that she acquiesces to the apparent murder of her children. So, too, for Edgeworth’s Griselda. In his Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, one of the most popular conduct manuals of Edgeworth’s day, Thomas Gisborne suggests that negative characteristics such as vanity, caprice, and an almost insatiable need for displays of affection—precisely the characteristics this modern Griselda exhibits—stem not from a lack or rejection of desirable feminine virtues but rather a surfeit of them. In fulfilling too completely the ideals of womanhood extolled by their particular cultural milieus, both Chaucer and Edgeworth’s Griseldas become monstrous. This paper explores how Edgeworth’s story engages in the contemporary debates about ideal female conduct and essential feminine nature, particularly as they are manifested in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century conduct manuals. In the end, Edgeworth’s revision of the Griselda story belies the listener’s faith in his society’s progressive attitudes toward women.
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    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    6 years ago
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