My Year in Nonfiction 2018 | 18th-century women writers

Hi, folks,

I am late to the game, but I am discussing here the first prompt of Nonfiction November, posted during week 1 and hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness. I am thinking about dividing this discussion over two (or more…) posts, so as to make a longer overview of my nonfiction reading over the year. Let’s see how it goes…

The main discussion prompt last week was

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

Yes, I do! I’ve been particularly interested in 18th-century women writers this year, and I’ve read four nonfiction books on the subject (so far…). Each of these books explores different ways of posing (and answering) the following question: what did it mean for a woman to write in the eighteenth century England?

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Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Centuryby Cheryl Turner (1992)

The book explores the development of women’s fiction from 1696 to 1796, tracing the pattern of women’s emerging literary professionalism in this period, as well as analysing their contribution to the rise of the novel as both contributor to and reflector of changes in society.

Turner seeks to contextualize the rise of women’s prose fiction and the emergence of female literary professionalism, examining the social, cultural, and economic features that affected not only what these women wrote but also how and why they did it. Basing her research on a variety of secondary and primary sources, the author discusses the seventeenth-century foundations of female literary professionalism and of the later growth of women’s fiction in the eighteenth century: the different modes of survival in a competitive market; the response of the publishing trade to women authors; the social and economic backgrounds of these writers; and the social attitudes, in general, to writing as a female occupation.

Turner attributes the expansion in women’s fiction to the rise of domestic moral authority, rooted in the more conservative writers – such as Hannah More, Elizabeth Rowe and Penelope Aubin – who legitimized women’s literary voices by incorporating a depiction of virtuous women in their novels, as well as by writing didactic tracts and children’s literature – which made authorship respectable for women, while also restricting the range of what women were expected to write about.

However, the author’s approach is primarily historical, rather than literary. By examining the social and economic backgrounds of the professional authors, Turner points out that many of them were middle-class women left destitute – this, in an environment where, from the few respectable professions open to women (such as teaching, tutoring, dressmaking, millinery, or acting), writing was the one which demanded less training and capital, and had more guarantees of success.

I found particularly engaging the chapters where Turner explored the reasons for women’s economic vulnerability, the role of publishers in their professionalization, as well as the role of literary connections and of provincial presses and circulating libraries in promoting women’s writing. I also enjoyed the discussion over the price of novels, the various financial arrangements for publishing, copyright issues, women’s earnings with writing, and other sources of additional income. Finally, I found interesting the exploration of the role of the publishing industry in the eighteenth century as a kind of replacement for the aristocrat-based patronage system that existed previously.

The book includes two valuable appendices, comprising a list of women’s novels published in book format, from 1696-1796, along with its publishers and places of publication; and a list of women novelists who published books between 1696-1796, organized chronologically by year.

The main flaw of the book, for me, was a lack of conceptual framework to assess the cultural position of the writing career for women in the eighteenth century. While asserting that that century saw the “emergence of writing as an accessible career for middle-class women”, Turner also acknowledges that writing was neither an especially widespread nor a reliable means of livelihood. One gets to question whether writing was considered an acceptable source of income for women precisely because it was a kind of unwaged work performed at home – thus, more as a reinforcement of the prejudice against money-making careers for middle-class women, than as a true form of liberation from this prejudice. The book would have done better, if it had more deeply explored the ambiguous nature of women’s literary labour in the eighteenth century as a kind of work not really considered as such.

Nevertheless, as an introduction to the topic, I think the book does a good job at providing an overview of women’s writing in that century, as well as at exploring why and how middle-class women tried to earn a living by the pen at the time.

About the book

  • Routledge, 1992, 272 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars

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The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship, and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century Englandby Sylvia Harcstark Myers (1990)

The book examines the first generation of Bluestockings, from 1740 to 1800, and centres on the lives and works of Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Talbot, and Hester Mulso Chapone. Drawing on previously unpublished material – diaries, journals, poems, but mostly letters exchanged between the Bluestockings -, the author traces their backgrounds, their education, works, family, friends and mentors, as well as their views on the woman condition, marriage, and writing in general.

Myers first discusses the circumstances that enabled the Bluestocking group to be formed; and then, she analyses the development and usage of the term ‘bluestocking’, between 1756 and 1775: from (1) its origins in the blue worsted stockings of the eccentric botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet, who wore them to gatherings when more expensive white silk stockings would have been the norm; to (2) meaning intellectual men and the intellectual companionship they held with women; then, to (3) referring to the needs of women for education and for a life of the mind; and, finally, to (4) the derogatory connotations to women intellectuals the term acquired in the end.

Myers goes further, and argues that the misconceptions about the term ‘bluestocking’ are grounded on a number of mistaken ideas, such as: that (1) women intellectuals were unattractive and even dressed carelessly; that (2) they were either eccentric or immoral; or that (3) the ‘Bluestockings’ were mere dilettantish hostesses at salons where male intellectuals gathered.

Myers’ premise is that the Bluestockings were more than patrons and dilettantes, more than appendages of intellectual men: those women were aspiring intellectuals seeking intellectual autonomy. Having this in mind, the Bluestocking Circle is understood as a supporting network for their learning efforts and personal development.

The Bluestockings were well aware of the educational deprivation of women as a way of assuring their subordination. Montagu wrote to a friend in 1763: “Talents put a man above the World, & in a condition to be feared and worshipped; a Woman that possesses them must be always courting the World, and asking pardon, as it were, for uncommon excellence.” The circle was, then, a way for educated women to exercise their intellectual independence in a socially acceptable form. They aimed to assert the image of the educated woman as a respectable member of society.

That aim was not without its ambivalences: all four of the first Bluestockings – Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, Catherine Talbot, and Hester Mulso Chapone – suffered from a sense of unease at taking a part in public life or even at appearing to be learned women. Elizabeth Montagu took care not to let anyone know that she had ever read anything but her “Grandmothers receipts for Puddings & Cerecloths for Sprains” until she knew that person very well. They were ambivalent about publishing, or even about writing for a livelihood, and preferred to see their work as something done for pleasure. They were anxious to distance themselves from any hint of moral licence, sexual laxity or madness; and they prized conventional ‘feminine’ skills as well as moral teaching and respectability, as central elements to the acceptance of women’s writing.

In Myers’ view, those four Bluestockings tried to do everything possible to dispel the association between immorality and women’s intellectual independence, so as to bring into public notice that women could study and remain respectable. It is true that they wanted better opportunities for women’s education – but, according to the author, the Bluestockings were not interested in social or legal reform as such: they were politically and economically conservative; and they emerge from the book as “examples of virtuous, domestic women with intellectual interests”.

The book was very informative for me, but I must admit that the writing was too clunky and dry; the text itself is cluttered with dates and quotations, and the multiple system of referencing is rather confusing. The worst flaw, for me, though, was the fact that Myers is so intent on following the Bluestockings’ own concern with preserving their reputation for virtue, that the book ends up reinforcing their stereotype as dull, prudish women. Any hint of these women’s romantic relationships with men or their homoerotic attachments is promptly dismissed. I also think it is a mistake to consider the Bluestockings as a single static entity, instead of several interlocking circles of intellectual women, changing over time.

Moreover, Myers persistently avoids to frame her research with feminist tinges, and even refuses to make any critical commentary: the information she collects is rather reported to us than properly analysed and discussed – as if the author had decline to immerse herself in the more interesting questions raised by her own research. Myers’ Bluestockings are trespassing on male territory, but they seem to do so in a very self-conscious way.

About the book

  • Clarendon Press, 1990, 260 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 3,5 stars

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British women’s writing in the long eighteenth century, edited by Jennie Batchelor (2005)

The book is an essay collection centred on eighteenth-century women writers. The collection explores a range of genres, as well as some more obscure literary figures. Sarah Scott, Anna Seward, Mary Robinson, Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Hannah More are, each of them, the subject of an essay in this volume.

In “Hobbesian Obligation and the Durability of Romance in Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters”, Helen Thompson explores the meaning of the body in Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, and its relation to the philosophical writings of Hobbes, as a form of accommodation of “the mechanics of Hobbesian political obligation to the specifics of sexed chastity”. Judith Hawley’s essay questions Coleridge’s self-representation as Mary Robinson’s patron, as well as examines their collaborative relationship from 1797 to 1800. In “British Women Write the East after 1750,” Felicity Nussbaum problematizes critical assumptions about British women’s travel writing about the East.

Jennie Batchelor’s essay explores the emergence of women’s literary professionalism as constitutive feature of female authorship – highlighting, in the work of Sarah Scott, the pattern of heroines who entered “the labour market to avoid patriarchal oppression or abuse”; women who fell “into, and successful negotiation of, the labour market.” In “Anna Seward: Swan, Duckling or Goose?”, Norma Clarke explores the conflict between Seward’s claim of her right to practice criticism, and the “condescending courtesy” she met with when critical authority became gendered as male after the professionalization of literary criticism.

Katie Halsey’s essay analyse the haunting presence of Fanny’s reading material in Mansfield Park as “spectral texts” that lend complexity to Austen’s novel. Janet Todd, on the other hand, explores Austen as a “miniaturist”, illuminating her exactness and skill, her mockery of Enlightenment grand narratives, and her rejections of both cosmopolitanism and nationalism. Brian Southam points to the risks of close reading Austen’s texts, in the absence of manuscripts with which to adjudicate between different versions of the same work.

Harriet Guest’s essay explores Hannah More’s ambiguity in trying to reconcile her belief in female subordination and her desire for social change. Moi Rickman analyses Mary Wollstonecraft’s response to Samuel Stanhope Smith’s essay on racial differences. Finally, Isobel Grundy traces a brief history of the Chawton House, as well as discusses the gathering of books by women for its library: “A writer who, for whatever reason, does not enter the communal literate consciousness, who fails to appear or remain on the radar screen, must forever continue to be missing from some parts of the critical discourse. Her reception history continues to preserve that gap or blank. And blanks are dangerous. No matter what the dominance of the very latest critical theory or attitude, older ideas lie beneath the soil like older varieties in the biological gene-pool, needed not for merely nostalgic reasons but for their potential for future new development.”

Although informative and varied, I found that this collection was somewhat dry – and lacked focus, leaving behind a strong feeling of incompletion. Nevertheless, I think it does a good job at reflecting the main features that mark our twenty-first-century engagement with the eighteenth century.

About the book:

  • Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 208 p. Goodreads
  • 3,5 stars

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Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730-1830, edited by Elizabeth Eger (2013)

The book is an interdisciplinary essay collection based on a conference associated with the exhibition ‘Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings’, curated by Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, at the National Portrait Gallery, in 2008. The collection explores not only the ways the bluestockings made use of performance, patronage and visual representation to advance their cultural presence; but also, the many restrictions upon female identity and public appearance imposed on them by social conventions about feminine representation.

The book is grounded on an expanded understanding of the ‘bluestockings’, including a wide range not only of writers but also performers, from Elizabeth Carter through Felicia Hemans to Anna Jameson. In a more general sense, the book explores the dynamics of print culture and public image and the connection between reputation and representation, in relation to the eighteenth-century shifting and ambiguous views regarding intellectual women, virtue, and female professionalism.

The collection is divided in three parts – ‘Portraiture’, ‘Performance’ and ‘Patronage’ – which reflect the main features of the bluestockings’ network. Part I – ‘Portraiture’ – explores the connection between visual representation and public reputation, analysing the ways the bluestockings used visual media to create a respectable image for themselves; as well as the ways their changing public image was reflected in their representation in print.

In the essay ‘Romantic bluestockings: from muses to matrons’, Anne Mellor gives us an overview of the gradual transformation of the public perception of intellectual women – from marginalised muses, in the early eighteenth century, through threatening feminists, late in that century, and finally to respectable matrons during the Victorian era. Elizabeth Clery’s ‘“To Dazzle let the Vain design”: Alexander Pope’s portrait gallery; or, the impossibility of brilliant women’ explores Pope’s influence on the verbal and pictorial representation of intellectual women, who were usually portrayed with masculine features, such as a soldier’s garb and a long nose.

In ‘Virtue, patriotism and female scholarship in bluestocking portraiture’, Clare Barlow argues that the portrayal of bluestockings as scholars, writers, mythological and historical figures was used as a way to promote the women’s right to a life of the mind, as well as to display virtue, patriotism and learning as the main features of the ‘bluestocking identity’. Yarrington’s ‘Anne Seymour Damer: a sculptor of “republican perfection”’ discusses the relationship between sculptor Anne Seymour Damer’s radical politics and her artistic reputation. In ‘The blues gone grey: portraits of bluestocking women in old age’, Devoney Looser analyses portraits of bluestockings in old age, and explores how these representations cast light on the eighteenth century’s prejudices against and expectations for elderly women.

Part II – ‘Performance’ – addresses the role of singing, acting and sociability in defining the bluestocking identity. In ‘“Mistaking Earth for Heaven”: Eliza Linley’s voice’, Joseph Roach explores different definitions of voice – both as an individual’s capacity to produce sound, and as one’s vocation -, and argues that soprano Elizabeth Linley, once faced with her husband’s ban on public performance, recaptured her lost voice and made it public in verse, by projecting her own persona poetically. In ‘The learned female soprano’, Susan Staves considers how eighteenth-century female sopranos challenged the reigning gendered assumptions about the leading roles in opera.

Shearer West’s ‘Roles and role models: Montagu, Siddons, Lady Macbeth’ examines how Elizabeth Montagu, Sarah Siddons and Anna Jameson read the character of Lady Macbeth as a woman plagued by the norms of piety and virtue that were the landmarks of the first-generation bluestockings. In ‘Hester Thrale: “What Trace of the Wit?”’, Felicity Nussbaum analyses Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’s published writing, in order to explore the gendered nuances of social reactions to female wit.

Part III – ‘Patronage’ – analyses the ambiguous nature of women’s literary authority both as patrons and beneficiaries of patronage. The essay ‘Reading practices in Elizabeth Montagu’s epistolary network of the 1750s’, by Markman Ellis, examines the books mentioned in Montagu’s correspondence, to explore how she engaged in social literary criticism and, ultimately, “taught herself to have the authority to make public utterances on books and other cultural products through a series of critical practices, refined through her correspondence with a closely-knit group of men and women”.

In ‘The queen of the blues, the bluestocking queen and bluestocking masculinity’, Clarissa Campbell Orr looks at the bluestocking’s difficulty to reconcile the social requirement of female domesticity and virtue with the representations of role models as imbued with manliness. Finally, Harriet Guest’s ‘Luck be a lady: patronage and professionalism for women writers in the 1790s’ explores the relationship between the old systems of patronage and the new forms of professionalism and publishing.

I found this book very informative and engaging, and considerably less dry than the other scholarly essay collection I mentioned above. My sole criticism has to do with the fact that, considering that this collection is grounded on visual representation, the prints and portraits reproduced in the book should have been presented in a better quality. Nevertheless, I think the collection offers a fresh perspective on the scholarship on eighteenth-century women of letters.

About the book

  • Cambridge University Press, 2013, 323 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars

That’s all for now, folks. Later, I will continue talking about some other nonfiction trends I noticed in my reading this year.

Yours truly,

J.


Bernard D’Agesci – Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard
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