Shakespeare's "Propriety" and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Novel: Sarah Fielding's The History of the Countess of Dellwyn

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Early in 1759, Sarah Fielding published a novel whose plot ran against the grain of her previous fiction. In the opening pages of The History of the Countess of Dellwyn, the young and vain Miss Charlotte Lucum – a far cry from Fielding’s earlier, virtuous protagonists – marries the decrepit Lord Dellwyn for advancement. The remainder of the novel sees their miserable relationship guiltily unravel into adultery, divorce and social exile – testimony to the authorial message that the ‘natural Tendency of Virtue’ is ‘towards the Attainment of Happiness; and, on the contrary, that Misery is the unavoidable Consequence of vicious Life’. The fifty overt appearances of Shakespeare in this quotation-filled, didactic novel might prompt the casual assumption that he represents an ethical authority in the work, ‘a moral touchstone by which to try heroines’, as Nicola Watson has summarised Shakespeare’s role in eighteenth-century fiction more generally. By contrast, this essay will argue that the word ‘propriety’ that is linked to Shakespeare within the novel does not signal the reliable morality of the Bard (who, we should recall, was still dubiously associated with the stage at this time), but rather connects him with a contemporary discourse concerning sympathetic judgement, which was also articulated in 1759 by Adam Smith. To assert, repeatedly, that the Countess could not ‘with propriety’ be described in, say, Viola’s words, was simultaneously to invoke the reader’s moral judgement and to deny the Countess sympathetic identification with Shakespeare’s heroines, in a process that occasionally issues in darkly comic effects. By focusing on the History’s Shakespearean allusions, this essay will thus challenge critical assumptions about Sarah Fielding’s role as an earnest, deferent author, heavily dependent on prior literary authority (including that of her brother, Henry), and show how her fiction – and the sympathetic judgement that it demanded of the reader – contributed to the conferral of a new kind of emotional authority on Shakespeare in 1759.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReading 1759
Subtitle of host publicationLiterary Culture in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and France
EditorsShaun Regan
Place of PublicationLewisburg
PublisherBucknell University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-61148-479
ISBN (Print)978-1-61148-478-6
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Publication series

NameTransits: Literature, Thought & Culture, 1650-1850)
PublisherBucknell University Press


  • Sarah Fielding
  • Adam Smitth
  • Shakespeare
  • quotation
  • propriety
  • novel
  • prose fiction
  • eighteenth century
  • reception
  • authority


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