Evading the Salic law of wit: The female satirist and sentimental community in Sarah Fielding

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Felicity Nussbaum


British and Irish literature, women writers, eighteenth century, Sarah Fielding

Subject Categories

Literature in English, British Isles


Satire is conventionally a male genre, constructing women as victims not authors and excluding them by what a seventeenth-century woman calls "Great Apollo's Salic Law." Yet eighteenth-century women write satire, and Sarah Fielding (1710-1767) is a major contributor to that development. This dissertation focuses on five novels in which Fielding appropriates and revises a misogynist satiric tradition to allow it to intersect with the developing discourse of sensibility. She offers not only fresh interpretations of masculinity but also a new conception of women as strong and educated, able to see the world from a satirical perspective and critique it from a position of virtue, constrained by but not limited to domesticity.

Chapter One, "True Wit and Tender Care," focuses on David Simple (1744) and gender issues in current satirical theory. "Chearful Looks and Soft Compliance" argues that in David Simple Volume the Last (1753), Fielding satirizes the misuse of sensibility by those who affect it for self-approbation. "A Method of Being Perfectly Happy" examines the notion of female community in The Governess (1748), a notion vastly different from the fraternal social-contract theory that has been taken as the norm. In this children's novel, Fielding attempts to install the ideology of female community by teaching her readers the necessary technologies of the self. "Consuming Worlds" discusses Fielding's attempt in Cleopatra and Octavia (1757) to break out of the sentimental vision of woman as suffering victim, an attempt thwarted by Fielding's own precarious position as a mid-century female satirist who claims the protection of the sentimental vision even as she attempts to transcend it. "Rank Distinctions" examines the contrast between virtuous middle-class communities and the corrupt aristocracy in The Countess of Dellwyn (1759). "A Nobler Kind Of Riches than Peru or Mexico Can Yield" argues through Ophelia (1760) that the commodification of female virtue in the mid-eighteenth century makes reputation the basis of community. My conclusion examines Fielding's contribution to the mid-eighteenth century rethinking of gender issues.


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