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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 8, Issue 2 (June 2010) : 277--304
Conversations as Signifiers
Characters on the Margins of Morality in the First Three Novels of Frances Burney
Christina Davidson
Rubric A: Literature and Ethics



This paper shows that Frances Burney used language and interaction features in the dialogue of her novels to indicate the moral worth of some of her characters. It also shows how Burney’s linking of language and morality allowed her to contribute to stimulating contemporary debates in which three major discourses of the enlightenment intersected: philosophical debates relating to the nature of goodness; consideration of the functions of language, in particular its potential to represent or govern morality; and discussions of the efficacy of spoken language in conversational contexts. 

In Frances Burney’s novels the criteria by which people should be judged are not so much social as moral, and her heroines are located in ethical spaces where predatory opportunists, pretentious egoists, and violent oppressors are to be recognized and spurned.  But recognition is not always easy, and sometimes polish and rank can mask unsavoury motives. Conduct books rarely tackled the complex issue of detecting pretence; nor did they offer a nuanced understanding of more complicated and therefore more demanding social contexts. Burney’s novels address such omissions, providing narrational schemata for working through diverse situations and relationships, through the various difficulties which the heroines encounter in their educative process. For Burney, speech is the index of morality, offering a reliable code to read an individual’s qualities and principles, beyond background, education, and gender. Making flexible use of modern linguistics, this paper shows how Burney encodes interiority in dialogue to signify moral marginality.


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