Pioneer Feminizers and the Eighteenth-Century Welcome of Female Authors

Devoney Looser
University of Missouri-Columbia

E. J. Clery’s The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England: Literature, Commerce, and Luxury (Palgrave, 2004) is a valuable study of “the way that women came to be used as a measure of commercial growth and resulting historical changes,” particularly in the literary marketplace (1).   Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the book examines the milieu of the coffee-house and the periodical press in relation to the cultural and economic project of feminization, as well as its fallout after the South Sea Bubble of the 1720s.   The second half of the book is devoted to the Richardsonian literary revolution of the 1740s and 1750s.   As a result, the book might more properly have added “1690-1755″or a similar range of years to its subtitle, indicating its focus on the feminization debate in the first half of the eighteenth century.   But this is a small quibble about a learned, provocative book, one that not only puts forward a revisionary thesis, but illuminates it with wide-ranging and compelling examples.

Clery makes explicit her concern with exploring feminization, rather than effeminacy (10).   She considers only “representations that approve or even advocate the acquisition of certain characteristics gendered ‘feminine,'” rather than derogatory and supposedly feminine qualities as expressed by men (9-10).   In so doing, she both pays homage to and differentiates her work from Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction. [1]   Clery indicates that by showing how women of letters “were brought to public prominence in the early to mid-eighteenth century,” and tying that phenomenon to conversations about commerce and luxury, her book considers the feminization debate as “a factor quite distinct from the history of sensibility or of domestic ideology” (11).

The political consequences of such a debate are not her central concern.   Considering whether or not the discourse of feminization was a good thing for women, Clery concludes, “to some extent the question is peripheral to the aims of this study” (11).   Instead, Clery speculates that there was a dialectical relationship between “the feminism of Wollstonecraft and the feminization of the Bluestocking era”–a claim that goes largely unexamined (12).   What is demonstrated throughout the book are the ways in which feminization served to open doors for women writers.   Clery persuasively argues that such a phenomenon should not only serve as cause for celebration, since feminization could be “also a trap, locking women into an association with economic innovation, including new and extreme forms of social injustice” (12).

In chapter 1, “Sexual Alchemy in the Coffee-House,” Clery investigates the public sphere and eighteenth-century coffee-houses to conclude that, contra Jürgen Habermas, “the history of the coffee-house . . . suggests . . . they were political at first, then literary” (16).[2]  This is important to Clery’s investigation of feminization and effeminacy, ultimately leading her to a fascinating consideration of the coffee-house barmaid.   Clery makes sense of representations of the female barkeeper as a “Circe . . . [who] turns men into swine, or swine into gentlemen . . . akin to those other female figures of transformation who embody the anxieties of the nascent capitalist system of finance: the allegories of Trade or Public Credit” (24).

Chapter 2, “The Athenian Mercury and the Pindarick Lady,” examines John Dunton’s 1690s periodical and innovative “introduction of platonic love into the supposedly masculine and bourgeois discourse of coffee-house culture” (30).   From there, Clery turns to Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s important literary contributions to that publication, concluding that she “was the equivalent on a higher literary plane of a barmaid: an object of idealizing cathexis” (35).   The legacy of the Athenian Mercury is envisioned as having established “the case for the transformative influence of women on men, and of literary women on the newly emerging reading public” (42).   Dunton is provocatively labeled a “pioneer feminizer” and Rowe “the first coffee-house idol” (46).   Dunton’s career, Clery suggests, “illustrates in a striking fashion the rise and fall of the first wave of feminization” (49).   The chapter’s argument is broad and its evidence compressed; these intriguing chapters could easily serve as a springboard for their own book-length study.

Previous mentions of the South Sea Bubble coalesce in chapter 3, “The South Sea Bubble and the Resurgence of Misogyny: Cato, Mandeville, and Defoe.”   One of the most interesting parts of Clery’s investigation is her making sense of the fact that “unusually large numbers of women” were South Sea shareholders (56).   The popular notion that the ruin of the South Sea Company was a result of “vexatious, old ugly whores” takes on new meaning in Clery’s analysis (56).   The chapter’s compelling reading of Daniel Defoe’s Roxana sees that work as “a blind alley in the history of the novel” that “chronicles the acquisition of male characteristics by a woman rather than female characteristics by men” (71).   Roxana’s feminism is dubbed “meretricious,” and the post-South Sea Bubble writers of the 1720s are cast as having worked to prevent the rehabilitation of women as “emblems of a new moralized economic order” (73). That revolution, in Clery’s version of literary and cultural history, must wait until the arrival of Samuel Richardson on the literary scene in the 1740s.

Before moving on to Richardson, however, Clery takes us into chapter 4, “Elizabeth Carter in Pope’s Garden: Literary Women of the 1730s.”   Here she offers perhaps the most textured and important treatment of Carter as a literary figure since the contributions of Sylvia Harckstarck Myers and Harriet Guest.   Clery discusses in detail the rise of Carter’s literary star, her intricate relationship with the Gentleman’s Magazine, and her strange interactions with Alexander Pope, among other things.   It also makes sense of Carter’s lifelong attempts to associate herself with domesticity, and her friend’s work to clear Carter of charges of being slovenly (the alleged result of a woman’s commitment to a life of the mind).   Lady Mary Wortley Montagu serves as an intriguing foil throughout the chapter.

The book’s final two chapters on Richardson are arguably its most important ones.   In “Clarissa and the ‘Total Revolution of Manners'” (chapter 5) and “Out of the Closet: Richardson and the Cult of Literary Women” (chapter 6), Clery puts forward the notion that “Richardson’s femino-centrism” was evidence not of his detachment from politics but rather of his “engagement with current political discourses” (97).   By establishing in his fiction “the radical otherness of women, freed of invidious analogy,” Richardson shows women’s “redemptive capability” in a groundbreaking way that reinvigorates and refocuses the feminization debates of several decades earlier (100).   As Clery puts it, in Richardson’s fiction, “instead of being dragged down by the love of a woman, a man might be saved” (100).   A long discussion of Lovelace as a rake leads Clery to the conclusion, “as women are elevated in Clarissa, so men are denigrated” (113).  Clarissa emerges as a progressivist narrative, as Richardson “detaches luxury from a degenerative or cyclical theory of history,” upholding commercial prosperity and the reformation of manners, without compromising the feminine ideal (131).

As Clery writes, “this book began with the coffee-house . . . [and] it will end with the closet” (132-33).   Chapter 6 uses the space of the closet to connect the private “intimate” sphere with the literary public sphere at mid-century.   Far from an “empty receptacle,” Clery cleverly argues, “the closet was in effect a counter-boudoir” (135).   From there, she returns to a discussion of Carter and her correspondence with Catherine Talbot, focusing on the two women’s difference of opinion over Richardson’s fiction.   The chapter catalogues Carter’s unusual interactions with Richardson, arising principally from her (then anonymous) poem, published in the pages of Clarissa.  Such a discussion, according to Clery, provides a “view in miniature of the impact of the new feminizing current in literature on two talented female authors,” Carter and Talbot (138).  Although Carter “would prove the most grumpy and recalcitrant” of Richardson’s disciples, she and Talbot serve to illuminate the ways in which Richardson’s feminine ideal, his “moral mission,” also “nurture[d] the writing talent of virtuous women as a retaliatory force” against the nation’s anti-Clarissas, such as Teresia Constantia Philips (144; 149).   A discussion of Sir Charles Grandison follows, in which Clery suggests that the novel comes to serve as “a self-addressed love-letter sent by an earlier generation of literary women, as they hesitated, poised on the threshold between domestic retirement and public intervention, dizzy with the opportunity Richardson held out to them to ‘become eccentric, I may say, burst our orb'” (162).   These are indeed important interventions in Richardson studies.

Following these fine chapters is a coda on David Hume, which includes a close reading of three essays–“On Essay Writing,” “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” and “Of Luxury.”   It provides an argument for seeing Hume as helping to “lay the ground for the economic theodicy of Adam Smith: a providential theory of capitalism” through feminization, fusing women and luxury as a metaphor (178).   As Clery concludes, “I have argued in the course of this study that the overcoming of misogyny was a vital part of the moralizing of commerce.   Although Hume and Richardson were divided on many issues, they both recognized that the moral recuperation and elevation of women within public discourse was an urgent task, if a vision of progress was to become a possibility” (178).   A more extended conclusion to the book would have been a welcome addition, but this final statement must for now serve to bring together the myriad contributions of this strongly argued and highly fruitful study, which deserves a wide readership .


[1] Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York, 1987).

[2] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass., 1989).