Making Status Legible: Self-Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century
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This project analyzes discourses of social legibility in eighteenth-century self-writing to argue that status-based conceptions of identity continued to influence perceptions of the self in society. Studies of the eighteenth century have been dominated by a "rise of the middle class" narrative that tends to underestimate the resilience and continued relevance of conceptions of rank as an essentialized or innate quality. However, social legibility--the idea that status was encoded on the body through clothing, manners, beauty, grace, and countenance--continue to function, particularly in the self-writing of this period. By examining these epistolary novels, fictional memoirs, diaries, autobiographies, and letters, this project clarifies how people imagined social hierarchy operating at the level of the body. The ways people recognize, enact, theorize, and represent status help us better understand how identity was reconceived between the Restoration in 1600 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.