History Repeating: Mothers, Daughters, and Incest in Mary Robinson’s Vancenza and The False Friend

Stephanie Russo, Macquarie University
Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring 2018), 67-90

Mary Robinson’s first and penultimate novels, Vancenza (1792) and The False Friend (1799), both center on orphaned daughters, who appear doomed to replicate the fate of their fallen mothers. For Vancenza’s Elvira and The False Friend’s Gertrude, this replication involves incestuous desires; Elvira falls in love with her brother while Gertrude obsessively desires her own father, driving them both to madness and premature death. Furthermore, even the women who exist on the periphery of Elvira’s and Gertrude’s stories find that the romance plot is a delusive promise. A consideration of how The False Friend extends Vancenza’s bleak vision of the dangers of sexual desire sheds light on Robinson’s increasing disillusionment with the idea of romantic love and the institution of marriage and her attempts to devise a new script for female identity. In The False Friend, Robinson posits the independent woman as an alternative model of femininity, allowing a divorcee, Miss Stanley, to take the position of a scribe of women’s narratives. One hundred years before the New Woman novelists, Robinson rejects the marriage plot altogether and instead suggests a solitary life of the mind as a more fulfilling option for women.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]