“Ovid was a mere fool to you”: Clothing and nationality in Frances Burney’s ‘The Wanderer’

Stephanie Russo

Abstract


Frances Burney’s last novel, ‘The Wanderer’, published in 1814, is also her most explicitly political work: set during the height of the French Revolution, the novel explores ideas about nationhood in a time of political crisis. Throughout the novel, characters muse about what it is to be ‘English’, but increasingly find they are unable to locate a distinctive and convincing answer. Instead, as the narrative progresses, Burney’s characters find that national identity can be as ephemeral and easily created, or discarded, as the clothes one wears. Burney continually undermines popular perceptions of the French, and indeed, over the course of the novel, presents England in an increasingly unflattering light. Burney’s exploration of nationality is inherently bound up in her exploration of the symbolic significance of clothing. Virtue does not belong exclusively to either the English or the French, and neither England nor France is privileged: a remarkable position, given that Burney was representing France at the height of Revolution. Rather, private morality and personal worth are the only means by which to accurately judge another person. The ability to either create or disguise national and/or racial identities suggests that such identities are simply a matter of performance: that they can be put on or put off with one’s clothing. In emphasizing the performative nature of national identity throughout ‘The Wanderer’, Burney undermines the very nature of nationhood itself. Published at a time when patriotism was at its zenith, Burney’s portrait of nationhood was radical indeed.

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