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In Pliable Pupils and Sufficient Self-Directors, Barnita Bagchi examines writings that focus on female education and development by five representative British women writers who flourished between 1778 and 1814 – Lady Mary Hamilton, Clara Reeve, Elizabeth Hamilton, Mary Brunton and the early Jane Austen. In a climate in which female education was a subject of anxiety in print culture and fiction a site of contestation, and in which women were emerging as major producers, both of educational writing and heroine-centred, ostensibly didactic fiction, these writers produced fictions of female education that were pioneering bildungsromans. Highly gendered, these fictions explore key tensions generated by the theme of education, including the dialectics between formal and experiential education, between the pliable pupil obedient to pedagogical authority-figures and the more self-sufficient auto-didact.
The writers of these fictions held conservative views on national politics, and categories such as gender, race and class are disturbingly aligned in many of their works. However, the author argues, as far as writings on female education are concerned, the terms ‘radical’ and ‘conservative’ have limited use. When, in an age of cultural and political revolution, gentlewomen wrote in the still upstart form of fiction about their own education, disjunctions and dialectics were stark. This freedom–control tug-of-war, according to Bagchi, should not be treated in a reductive way, and these women writers should not be straitjacketed as incipient subjects of an emergent hegemonic bourgeois order. Also, significantly, the journeys towards emancipation as well as the starkly disturbing closing-off of many such possibilities in the writings analysed here, remain with us today as burningly alive issues.
|Barnita Bagchi obtained a BA in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India, an MA from St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford and a PhD from the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge. She is also a translator of Bengali literature into English. Currently a Lecturer in Human Sciences at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, she teaches and researches a range of issues at the interface of gender, education and development, in contemporary India, early twentieth-century Bengal and Romanticera Britain.|