When the Anti-Jacobin Review described Memoirs of Modern Philosophers in 1800 as “the first novel of the day” and as proof that “all the female writers of the day are not corrupted by the voluptuous dogmas of Mary Godwin, or her more profligate imitators,” they clearly situated Elizabeth Hamilton’s work within the revolutionary debate of the 1790s. As with her successful first novel, Letters of a Hindoo Rajah, Hamilton uses fiction to enter the political fray and discuss issues such as female education, the rights of woman and new philosophy.
The novel follows the plight of three heroines. The mock heroine, Bridgetina Botherim—a crude caricature of Mary Hays—participates in an English-Jacobin group, leading her to abandon her mother and home to pursue her beloved to London in hopes of emigrating to the Hottentots in Africa. The second heroine, Julia Delmont, is another member of the local group; she is seduced by a hairdresser masquerading as a New Philosopher. She is left pregnant and destitute only to discover that her actions caused her father’s untimely death. The third heroine is the virtuous Harriet, whose Christian faith enables her to resist the teachings of the New Philosophers.
“Grogan’s attentive editing and contextual introduction to what has traditionally been called an ‘Anti-Jacobin’ novel, forces us to question easy classifications of the 1790s into the dichotomous camps of Jacobin and Anti-Jacobin or feminist and anti-feminist. By providing the contextual evidence and extensive footnotes which document Hamilton’s sources, Grogan has convincingly shifted our understanding of the novel from a simple satire of the New Philosophy to a complex questioning of the sexual and social politics of her day. Grogan provides the citations for Hamilton’s impressive referencing of literary, philosophical, political and anthropological texts (many of which Grogan then includes in her helpful appendices) and in so doing, this edition of Memoirs gives us a new and highly textured memoir of Hamilton’s time.” — Katherine Binhammer, University of Alberta