The Authoress in Winter

Marilyn Francus
West Virginia University

Scholars generally neglect the varying phases of authors’ careers, for archetypal narratives tend to shape the expectations and responses to authors and their work: the young writer whose talent is discovered early, and who lives up to expectations (as in the case of Alexander Pope), or who dies young after a flash of glory (Thomas Chatterton, John Keats); the accidental writer who achieves fame unexpectedly, like Samuel Richardson; the professional writer who achieves fame belatedly after years of toil, like Samuel Johnson; and so on. Both the popular and scholarly tendency is to focus on the initial moment of fame, and to use that moment to define a career and expose the flaws of subsequent literary production, or lack thereof. Devoney Looser’s Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850 (Johns Hopkins, 2008), challenges this habit of literary assessment by illuminating the status of writers as they reach the age of legacy—not only to rebalance scholarly understanding of the entire trajectory of authorship, but also to draw attention to authorial efforts to shape career and reputation, and to measure the impact of the intersection of age and gender on the reception of authors.

To focus on a whole career changes the perception of time and, as Looser astutely points out, often authors who are chronological contemporaries are not perceived as such because scholars define them by when they first published rather than when they lived. Maria Edgeworth and Frances Trollope were contemporaries, but Edgeworth is slotted as an eighteenth-century author and Trollope as a Victorian largely because of the dates of their initial publications. Missing the contemporaneity of authors warps the assessment of any cultural moment, and diverts our attention from recognizing and analyzing the relationships among authors who in many cases knew (or at least knew of) each other. Similarly, the reliance upon the traditional periodization creates anomalies in our perception of literary history. Looser cites Virginia Woolf’s comment that Jane Austen should have laid a wreath on the grave of Frances Burney—an appropriate acknowledgment of influence but impossible, since Burney lived until 1840, long after Austen died in 1817. Through a series of case studies, Looser looks to redress such anomalies, and advocates rethinking the assumptions of literary history, female authorship, and the effect of age on literary reception.

In chapter 1, Looser analyzes The Wanderer (1814) and Helen (1834), the last novels of Burney and Edgeworth, respectively. The coupling of Burney and Edgeworth is smart: they were near contemporaries, both had long writing careers in a variety of genres, and both produced their final novels after a long publishing hiatus. Burney was sixty-two years old when The Wanderer appeared in print, and Edgeworth was sixty-six at the time of Helen’s publication. Both The Wanderer and Helen feature older characters, and Looser works through the representations of age, aging, and garrulity in both novels, generally finding a more sympathetic rendering of old age in Edgeworth’s Lady Davenant than among the older characters in Burney’s novel.

But the strength of Looser’s argument lies in her analysis of the reception history of these novels and novelists. Looser begins with John Wilson Croker’s vicious review of The Wanderer (37–39), in which he argues that the novel evinces the decline of Burney’s talent from its heights in Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782). Croker declares that it is completely inappropriate for an older woman to be writing courtship novels, characterizing Burney as a grotesque coquette. Croker’s expectation that Burney could only (re)write the novels of her early career puts her in a trap, and Croker is oblivious to the substance of The Wanderer, as signaled by Burney’s subtitle, “female difficulties”: the challenges facing women regarding employment, independence, and socio-economic status. Looser also cites other contemporary reviews that portray Burney as being unaware of contemporary literature because she published a long novel set in the revolutionary 1790s in 1814. (It seems odd for reviewers to exclaim against historical fiction, given that Sir Walter Scott’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful novel about the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, Waverley, was also published in 1814). The criticism that Burney was out of touch gestures towards the fact that Burney had not published a novel in eighteen years—seemingly another sign of her age, and the passing of time—and the reviewers’ comments on the excessive length of The Wanderer signals their reading of Burney as a garrulous old lady. All in all, reviewers’ choice to use her age as a critical lens reveals more about the cultural expectations of age than it does about Burney’s novel, which is precisely Looser’s point.

Looser suggests that Edgeworth’s Helen received a kinder critical reception because Edgeworth set the action of her novel in the present, and acknowledged the differences between the past and present in her narrative, thereby avoiding the charge of being ignorant of contemporary culture (45). But Edgeworth’s Helen received less attention than The Wanderer, and perhaps better notice for it. Edgeworth was described as “the great forgotten” (48) as early as 1823 according to Looser—and the comments that Edgeworth received were of polite condescension due an elderly woman who was decorously disappearing. Looser argues that the divergent treatment of Burney and Edgeworth can be explained by Edgeworth’s compliance with the role of old woman novelists: by the 1830s Edgeworth was dutifully fading away, while Burney, returning to England in the early 1810s after living for years in revolutionary France, had been adventurous. I would add that the divergent response was heightened by the strong association between Burney and her protagonists, which Edgeworth lacked. Burney had been identified with (and sometimes was referred to as) Evelina since 1778. When she published Evelina, people were surprised to discover that Burney was not a seventeen-year-old on the cusp of entering society, but a twenty-six-year old heading towards spinsterhood. From the beginning of her career Burney was defined by the writings of her young adult years; for better or for worse, Burney could not escape that definition. Edgeworth’s early authorship was not characterized by her age so much as by the educational works she wrote with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth—an association that Edgeworth overcame with time and publication in other genres. The inevitable recognition that Burney was no longer a young woman was bound to disillusion in ways that Edgeworth moving beyond her father’s shadow would not.

The first chapter highlights a recurring theme in Looser’s book: that women writers witnessed the devaluation of their late works and the waning of their careers, and could do little to shape their reputations and legacies. In chapter 2, Looser presents Catherine Macaulay’s futile efforts to fight against the depreciation of her literary reputation. After a highly successful career as a historian, Macaulay published her last full-length work, Letters on Education, in 1790 at age fifty-nine. A discursive and digressive text that “ranges far beyond its titular subject to offer a patchy how-to guide for contemporary life” (55), Letters elicited a negative review from The Monthly Review in November 1790. Although other reviews of the Letters ranged from indifferent to positive, Macaulay wrote a long, angry, defensive response to The Monthly Review demanding that a second reviewer assess her work, or that her response be published in the periodical. Both demands were denied. Macaulay’s unpublished letter is the pivot on which the chapter turns, and this archival find is a fine one, as Looser demonstrates that Macaulay wrestled with the evaporating status of an older woman writer: one who is seeking consideration based on her age, gender, talent, and education, and fails to find it. Looser contextualizes The Monthly Review incident with the events that, fairly or not, adversely shaped Macaulay’s reputation. Macaulay’s marriage to a much younger man while in her forties (52) and her tacit approval of the statue in her honor erected by Dr. Wilson in his church (59–60) point toward narratives of sexuality and ego that certainly did not help Macaulay’s public character, and may have contributed to the negative review. Looser also traces Macaulay’s posthumous reputation, which was wrecked by Isaac d’Israeli’s accusation that she had mangled manuscripts while pursuing research in the British Library (68–71). Despite the efforts to recuperate Macaulay’s authorial standing by her husband and others after her death in 1791, according to Looser, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Macaulay became known among historians as the historian who had been forgotten (73). It is possible, as Looser suggests, that Macaulay’s radical politics would have been more au courant, if still problematic, had she lived to the end of the century; but it is just as likely that her politics would not have saved her reputation either. Macaulay’s story is a cautionary tale about the difficulty of shaping and maintaining reputation, and the ease with which an eminent author can lose status.

The third chapter, on Austen, centers on the representation of old maids in her fiction, primarily in Emma (1816). Looser argues that Austen repeats most of her culture’s mildly negative stereotypes of old maids rather than defending women against them. Her analysis of Emma is convincing (89–96), and Looser frames her argument strongly with evidence of the popular discourse regarding old maids in the period (81–89), and with representations of age and aging from Austen’s other completed novels (77–80). But this chapter is something of an outlier; it does not align well with the others, and Looser seems to be aware that Austen does not fit the emergent pattern of her study. As she notes, unlike Burney, Edgeworth, and Macaulay, Austen did not live to old age. While the status of “old maid” is related to that of “old woman,” it is acquired sooner, and resonates differently as a marker of identity, sexuality, and experience. Nor did Austen experience a significant loss of reputation during her lifetime, and afterwards her family successfully controlled her personal and literary reputation, making her something of a counterexample. Looser spends comparatively little time on Austen’s reputation or literary reception other than noting that Austen’s old maid status had “enormous explanatory power” (76), as critics either followed Henry Austen’s memoir of his sister Jane as a good spinster author, or they used negative stereotypes of spinsters to write her off altogether. In all fairness, the story of Austen’s reception and reputation has been frequently told, but nevertheless, it raises avenues of inquiry that seem relevant to Looser’s overarching project. An analysis of the differences in Austen’s profile would clarify the cultural responses to older women writers—and an assessment of the effective strategies of the Austen family, in light of the ineffective efforts of other authors in this study, would bring into focus the dynamics of managing authorial reputation in the period.

Chapter 4 on Hester Piozzi works well as a companion piece to the second chapter on Macaulay and, in doing so, reinforces the somewhat awkward placement of Austen in this study. Looser capitalizes on the similarities between Piozzi and Macaulay, who both made unusual marital choices, did not fully anticipate how their private lives would be judged by the public, and cared deeply about their reputations as authors. As Looser notes, most studies of Piozzi’s later years comment on her eightieth birthday party and her relationship with the much younger actor William Conway, and little else (98). Yet Piozzi was writing constantly—in her journals and letters (where she happily noted that she had outlived her enemies), and for the public. Looser analyzes Piozzi’s self-presentation as an older author, who unabashedly refers to herself as an “Old Acquaintance of the Public” in her Three Warnings to John Bull before He Dies (1798), and whose unpublished Lyford Redivivus is subtitled “A Granddame’s Garrulity” (100–1). Piozzi seemed unafraid of acknowledging her age or the stereotypes of female aging in her work, and unafraid of publishing after a poor review. Her last published text, Retrospection (1801), reflected the sixty-year old Piozzi’s age and perspective through its subject and elicited reviews suggesting that she was past her prime as a writer (103). Piozzi recognized the risk of losing the audience that she had acquired through her earlier publications on Johnson and her travels, and she responded by trying to shape her legacy by cultivating literary executors including James Fellowes, Edward Mangin, and particularly Conway (108–9). Looser reads the Piozzi–Conway relationship as affectionate mentoring rather than romance, as Piozzi envisions herself playing Dr. Johnson with Conway as a version of her younger self (109). Unlike Macaulay, Piozzi did not disappear from literary or cultural history, largely because of her knowledge of Johnson; but her late works did not have a lasting impact—and her reputation has been contested by Johnsonians and Boswellians alike, for her version of events and characters often challenges Johnson’s status and James Boswell’s veracity.

After Piozzi, Looser turns to the late career of Anna Letitia Barbauld in chapter 5. Like Macaulay and Piozzi, Barbauld manifests retrospective and historical turns in her work, which Looser contends demonstrate the authorial consciousness of time and literary (im)mortality. Looser suggests that Barbauld pursued editorial projects in her later years, like the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson (1804) and The British Novelists (1810), in the hope that someday her works would be recuperated in a similar fashion (121). Perhaps. If true, Barbauld’s strategy seems less effective than Austen’s and Piozzi’s, or even Macaulay’s, for it seems optimistic to trust one’s literary reputation to anonymous readers and undesignated editors, rather than to attempt to exert one’s authority over literary posterity.

As it turned out, Barbauld’s reputation was strongly influenced by her niece, Lucy Aikin, who claimed that the critical response to Barbauld’s late poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” stopped Barbauld from publishing creative work, which was demonstrably false, as Looser shows (137). Aikin also categorized her aunt’s editorial writings towards the end of her career as lesser work, a charge that Looser also overturns, much to the delight of editors everywhere (124–31). The poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” which was published in 1812 when Barbauld was sixty-nine years old, envisions the downfall of Britain, as Barbauld invokes the life cycle to argue that empires, like people, inevitably rise and fall. In an age of confident, surging nationalism and empire building—even with skeptical radical discourse—one could imagine that a satiric, prophetic poem would not be welcome. Croker, perpetually furious, produced a vicious review of Barbauld’s poem (135–36). That Aikin chose to read her aunt’s reaction to the criticism of “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” as hurt withdrawal once again speaks louder about the expectations of gender and age, and Aikin’s reflexive assumption that Barbauld fulfilled those expectations, than it does about Barbauld or her poem. Similarly, Aikin’s response to Barbauld’s editing as mindless work, the refuge of a grieving widow and superannuated writer, reflects more upon literary hierarchies and aging than the editions themselves. (It is worth noting, however, that editorial work was not necessarily a sign of literary failure in the period: Scott produced editions of the works of John Dryden [1808], Anna Seward [1810], and Jonathan Swift [1814], while Elizabeth Inchbald published editions of plays in The British Theatre [1806–9] and The Modern Theatre [1811], with seemingly no detrimental effect to the literary reputation of either.) Yet the invocation of such stereotypes and expectations of older women writers makes Looser’s point: at the end of a career, when a writer may be most consciously seeking a narrative for posterity, the greatest difficulties in shaping her legacy emerge from fixed expectations of age and gender that are beyond her control. Looser concludes that the reactions to Barbauld’s late career were driven by her gender, her politics, and her religious practice—all of which were buttressed by ageism.

Looser’s last chapter focuses on Jane Porter, whose financial struggles add yet another layer to the emerging profile of the authoress in winter. At the suggestion of a royal physician, Sir Andrew Halliday, Porter wrote Duke Christian of Luneburg; or, Tradition from the Hartz (1824), a novel about King George IV’s ancestor, in the hopes of currying favor with the king and acquiring a pension for herself or preferment for her brother, and preferably both. As Looser notes, Austen was placed in a similar situation when the Royal Librarian, James Stanier Clarke, asked her to write a historical romance about the ancestors of the royal family—an assignment that Austen politely and firmly refused. Austen’s reputation was enhanced by her refusal to toady to royal pressure, but Austen could afford—in all senses—to make that choice, while Porter could not (143–45). Porter’s Duke Christian was not as critically successful as the works that established her reputation—novels like Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) or The Scottish Chiefs (1810)—and the tepid response to Duke Christian did little to advance Porter’s prospects with the court or the public. In a superb use of archival materials, Looser teases out the politics of the court and the Royal Pension Fund and Porter’s ongoing, futile campaigns to acquire recognition and funding (157–64). While some recipients of pensions were genuinely more needy than Porter, others leveraged literary connections that Porter lacked to obtain support. Porter’s frustrations over the financial inequities are matched by her anger that authors who seemed less deserving were rewarded—and that successful authors, like Scott, failed to acknowledge their creative debts to her work (148–49). Porter’s efforts to maintain her dignity, fiscal solvency, and literary reputation crumbled, as she was haunted by the humiliations of her sycophancy to the court.

Looser convincingly demonstrates that ageism played a significant role in the literary reception of women writers, and consequently in literary history, particularly in her analyses of Burney, Edgeworth, Piozzi, and Barbauld. It is less clear that Macaulay and Porter were subjected to discrimination based on their age, although they certainly felt that they were. Her persuasive analyses call for a conclusion that draws these case studies together and makes broader claims about the intersections of age, aging, gender, and authorship. Instead, Looser modestly characterizes her study as an initial foray into the subject and calls for further scholarship on the representations of old age in literature, and the ways that authors worked with or against the cultural expectations of age, aging, and gender. I wish that Looser had been bolder; her work is so careful, rigorous, and perceptive that she is perfectly positioned to proffer critical frameworks for this emerging field.

The late writings of Burney, Austen, and Piozzi all reinforce the cultural stereotypes of older women—and, as Looser notes, the older characters in Austen and Burney have secondary and tertiary roles, and Piozzi is not a protagonist in her later publications. Some older women writers, like Macaulay, Barbauld, and Porter, did not feel obligated to write about aging at all. (Writing about history or historical figures may not signal concerns about aging, after all.) None of these writers challenged the commonplaces of older women in their publications, even if they had done so in their personal lives. As a result, Looser’s survey of older women writers implies that they perpetuated the cultural commonplaces that marginalized them as writers and as women. Other older women writers in the period may have responded differently—and Looser rightly argues that the late careers of Elizabeth Montagu, Jane West, Mary Hays, Ellis Cornelia Knight, Susan Ferrier, Amelia Opie, and Mary Somerville merit study (172–77)—but Looser’s case studies do lead to a working hypothesis that merits pursuit within this volume.

In general, Looser is in a position to elaborate on the avenues of inquiry she proposes in her conclusion. Looser’s pairings—of Burney and Edgeworth, Macaulay and Piozzi, Porter and Austen—are illuminating, and the introduction of a third or fourth writer to each pair would add further resonance and breadth to aspects of her argument. Her studies of Macaulay and Piozzi highlight the cultural discomfort with the sexuality of middle-aged and older women, especially in relation to younger men, which becomes a key factor in their personal reputations and affects the evaluation of their work. When Burney is added to this pairing, the cultural anxiety regarding older female sexuality is underscored, as any evidence of sexuality was turned against the aging woman writer. Like Piozzi and Macaulay, Burney married in her forties and she made a socially suspect match; although Burney’s public profile was more modest than Piozzi or Macaulay’s, she was nevertheless attacked as an inappropriately sexualized older woman based on evidence from her publication history. This blurring of the professional and the personal also occurs among the unmarried authors in this study. As Looser notes, while Austen’s family purposefully manipulated her biography to shape the reception of her works, Porter failed to do so in her pursuit of recognition and a pension; with the addition of Edgeworth, this triumvirate of old maids suggests possibilities about sexuality, reputation, and the distinctions between “old maid” and “old woman” that get to the core of Looser’s project. Such linkages provide a template to respond to Looser’s concluding call for an analysis of the marital, parental, and caregiving status of older women writers, and the effects on their writing and reception. Looser’s other suggestions for further study—on professional networks, the impact of finances on authorship, on political affiliation, and the effect of genre on authorial reception—are signs of a comprehensive, sophisticated vision for the field of literature and age studies, which I hope she will pursue in her next book.

In the end, Looser returns to questions of literary chronology and periodization, which are the larger issues that frame a study of age and literary reputation. If scholars used authors’ death dates rather than publication dates to determine literary chronology, we would have a very different schematic—but as Looser points out, not necessarily a more illuminating one. Looser recognizes that the date of publication, or even the date of composition, may matter more in measuring the impact of a text than the author’s age at publication. Yet her study does not overturn accepted literary periodization, nor the convention of using an author’s literary triumphs as the benchmarks by which to assess a career. But in focusing on the later stages of women writers’ careers, Looser brings to the forefront truths worth remembering: that an author’s career has an organic shape, and to measure it solely based on success generates misunderstanding of the whole; that judgments of literary merit are affected by chronology; that the accumulated weight of an author’s personal and literary histories is inescapable as a career progresses; that the desire to shape a career and a legacy is perhaps more poignant as an author ages and time slips away; and that the perceptions of age and aging are often very different from the actual experience. If Looser’s sampling of authors is indicative, as I suspect it is, the material conditions of the aging woman writer—financial, social, professional, personal—carried as much if not more weight in determining the rate, timing, and quality of literary production than age. Yet Looser demonstrates that the response to the aging woman writer was powerful, and usually toxic: the negative stereotypes attributed to female age—of garrulity, selfishness, cluelessness—were wielded dangerously and far more frequently than the positive counterparts of wisdom, maturity, and benevolence. By drawing attention to the contemporary responses to age and through astute readings of the later careers of women writers, Looser’s Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850 lays a strong foundation and points the way for future scholarship on age, gender, and literary production.