Histories of female progress in Memoirs of Modern Philosophers
Elizabeth Hamilton's novel Memoirs of Modern Philosophers deploys the rubric of philosophical or conjectural history in order to argue for a model of female domesticity and to score many of her satirical points. Hamilton's satire subverts radical pretensions to progress by linking sexual opportunism with social opportunism: first, by identifying it with Hottentot savagery via Bridgetina and her Jacobin friends, and their plans to emigrate to Africa, and second, by identifying it with a barbarous era exemplified by Julia's seduction and ruin. By aligning Jacobinism and the New Philosophy with savagery and barbarism, Hamilton opens the way for Harriet, the only one of the three female characters who rejects the New Philosophy, to be aligned with the most advanced state of civilization, a modernity that sees the rise of female and domestic virtue. Hamilton's Whiggish history of female progress thus presents a challenge to certain understandings of conservative culture in the 1790s that implicitly align anti-Jacobin writers such as Hamilton with nostalgic defences of tradition.