Book Review: The Female Infidel by Anne M Powers (2018)

6 Jul, 2024

Book Review: The Female Infidel by Anne M Powers (2018)

This month’s book review is from Susan Fabbro who reviews The Female Infidel by RQG Member Anne M Powers.

The Female Infidel: The Vindication of Fanny Dashwood by Anne M Powers (2018,, ISBN 978-0-244-72416-0)

When RQG member, Anne Powers was researching the Lee family for her first publication, “A Parcel of Ribbons”, she came across correspondence referring to Rachael Fanny Antonina Dashwood, known as Fanny.

The book describes in great detail, the life of Fanny, born in 1774, the illegitimate daughter of a prosperous aristocrat and loving father, who died when she was very young. With the benefit of a privileged education, she developed into an exceptionally intellectual young woman. However, she defied the traditional expectations of women of her era, struggling to attune to societal norms whilst excelling intellectually amongst her male peers, for which she gained notoriety as “The Female Infidel”.

Despite her mother’s keen ambitions for her attractive daughter of noble lineage, the combination of Fanny’s illegitimacy, strong will and a series of unfortunate events, both tarnished her reputation and hindered her marriage prospects. Her romantic naivety led to poor choices, such as Matthew Allen Lee, with whom she eloped.

She emerges as a modern woman ahead of her time who was frequently the subject of scurrilous gossip, persecuted for her eccentricities and taken advantage of as a wealthy heiress. Even Thomas Jefferson criticised her lack of prudence. As a result, Fanny became more withdrawn, suffering bouts of depression and paranoia. She absorbed herself in extensive studies including theology, mathematics, languages and even mechanics and military design. Her notable publication, an ‘Essay on Government’, for which she sought recognition, was first published in 1808 with several editions reprinted thereafter.

In later life, she led an itinerant and often adventurous lifestyle, defying societal expectations as an unaccompanied woman. Many felt she was mad, viewing her independence as both threatening and unfeminine. However, her increasingly eccentric behaviour was most likely in response to earlier traumas including her abduction and rape in which it was implied she was complicit. She consequently devoted herself to publishing numerous pamphlets In defence of the many injustices which she believed had occurred.

Anne has produced a meticulously researched and captivating portrayal of Fanny’s life, featuring excerpts from her memoirs and correspondence. Fanny emerges as an unusual intellectual and determined woman who was frequently maligned and misunderstood. Often depicted as a victim, despite many bouts of ill health, she was very much a survivor.


Susan Fabbro
RQG Member & Comms Group team member

Joanne Kenyon

RQG Director

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