Roberts argues that Clarissa's, Hester's, Isabel's, and Tess's "heroism" or "greatness" is measured not by her actions but by the extent to which others are moved by her. Therefore, the character cannot be studied without studying the response she generates, which, in these novels, is sympathy. Roberts asserts that each of the novels can be understood as a school of sympathy, through which we learn to behave and feel as gendered subjects, and that our response to the heroine is as carefully crafted as the character herself. Schools of Sympathy addresses issues of masochism, female victimization, the power of passive seduction, and the possibilities of heroism. As a counterpoint to these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century male perspectives, Roberts examines works by Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter that explicitly address these issues.
"Schools of Sympathy is an excellent work. Roberts convincingly argues that a comparison of constructions of female subjectivity in male- and female-authored novels provides for a critique of historical perceptions of female agency and of conditioned aesthetic responses to feminine representation. The author's graceful prose and discerning perceptions engage her readers, and her work provides a provocative and informative analysis of the texts under study." Priscilla Walton, Department of English, Carleton University