Skip to main content

Helen Thompson

Professor of English

Ph.D. Duke University


Helen Thompson (B.A. English and Chemistry, Amherst College; M.A. The Writing Seminars, Johns Hopkins University; Ph.D. Duke University) teaches eighteenth-century British and transatlantic literature, philosophy, the history of science, and feminism.  She is the author of two books.  In Ingenuous Subjection:  Power and Compliance in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), she argues that eighteenth-century conduct-book authors and domestic novelists critique Lockean social contract theory, which bases the liberality of modern government on citizens’ performance of voluntary or “ingenuous” consent.  By representing wives and female dependents who cannot ingenuously obey their tyrannical husbands and fathers, conduct-books and domestic novels expose a sphere of domestic governance in which power remains arbitrary and its subjects cannot willingly comply.  Thompson’s recent book, Fictional Matter:  Empiricism, Corpuscles, and the Novel (University of Pennsylvania Press, January 2017), explores the formative relations between eighteenth-century British novels and the history of chemistry.  Fictional Matter examines the chemical science of Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, John Locke, particulate theorists of race John Mitchell and John Arbuthnot, respiratory theorist Stephen Hales, and the founder of modern chemistry Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier to argue that the unit of particulate matter they posit, the corpuscle, produces perceptible qualities—like color—that are not fixed in matter as such.  Instead, the observable qualities and perceived identity of things, including persons, proceed from changeable particulate structure rather than essential elemental units.  Fictional Matter shows the corpuscle’s shaping influence on representation and form in the eighteenth-century British novel.  For leading exemplars including Eliza Haywood, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, the novel is not a transparent mirror of static objects, but a rendering of the power of bodies to produce perceptible qualities in dynamic relation with other bodies.

Thompson’s articles have appeared in Eighteenth-Century Studies, ELH, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and numerous edited collections. She is currently at work on a project entitled “Transmuting Forms:  Alchemical Secrets and British Literary Modernity, 1650 – 1740.” She co-organizes the Eighteenth Century Seminar at the Newberry Library, Chicago, and serves on the Advisory Board of the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies as of July 2017.

As an affiliate of the Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at Northwestern, Thompson teaches a lecture class on second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s (GSS 231:  Feminism as Cultural Critique) as well as a class on utopian and dystopian science fiction of the second wave.  In English, she teaches an array of courses in eighteenth-century literature from Boyle to Jane Austen and sometimes beyond.  She was placed on the Associated Student Government Faculty Honor Roll in Spring 2015 and received the E. LeRoy Hall Award for Excellence in Teaching from Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in Spring 2016.


Literary Theory, Gender Studies, Science & Literature, 18th Century


Fictional Matter: Empiricism, Corpuscles, and the Novel
Fictional Matter: Empiricism, Corpuscles, and the Novel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017)

Selected Articles

  • “Pernicious Science:  Artifice and the Form of Narrative in Eliza Haywood’s Secret Histories,” Restoration 44: 1 (Spring 2020).
  • “Chymistry, Primary Qualities, and Empirical Knowledge.” Emergent Nation: Early Modern British Literature in Transition, 1660 – 1714, vol. 3 of Early Modern British Literature in Transition, ed. Elizabeth Sauer (Cambridge University Press. 2019).
  • “The Crusoe Story: Philosophical and Psychological Approaches.” The Cambridge Companion to "Robinson Crusoe," ed. John Richetti. (Cambridge University Press. 2018).
  • “Sentimental and Domestic Fiction of the 1760s and 1770s.” English and British Fiction 1750 – 1820, vol. 2 of The Oxford HiAuthorstory of the Novel in English, ed. Peter Garside and Karen O’Brien (Oxford University Press, 2015), 129 – 47.
  • “‘It was impossible to know these People’: Secondary Qualities and the Form of Character in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 54: 2 (Summer 2013): 153 – 68.
  • “Secondary Qualities and Masculine Form in Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 24: 2 (Winter 2011 – 12): 195 – 226.
  • “‘In Idea, a thousand nameless Joys’: Secondary Qualities in Arnauld, Locke, and Haywood’s Lasselia.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 48: 3 (Fall 2007): 225 – 44.
  • “Hobbesian Obligation and the Durability of Romance in Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters.”  Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1830: Authorship, History and Politics, ed. Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 107 – 20.
  • “Charlotte Lennox and the Agency of Romance.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 42: 3 (Summer 2002): 91 – 114.
  • “Plotting Materialism: W. Charleton’s The Ephesian Matron, E. Haywood’s Fantomina, and Feminine Consistency.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 35: 2 (Winter 2002): 195 – 214.
  • “How the Wanderer Works: Reading Burney and Bourdieu.” ELH 68 (Winter 2001): 965 – 89.
  • “Evelina’s Two Publics.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 39: 2 (Summer 1998): 147 – 67.