Reordering Perception of Literary History and Criticism from the Viewpoint of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers

Elizabeth Kraft
University of Georgia

To fully integrate women writers into the canon of British literature, we have to remake or re-perceive the world. The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660–1789 (Cambridge, 2015), edited by Catherine Ingrassia, documents the way that eighteenth-century scholars are doing (and have been doing, for some time) just that. The contributors to this volume have been laboring long on the task of establishing and evaluating the place of women writers in the eighteenth century—the period in which women writers and readers first began to wield significant cultural power. Since the 1970s, they and other scholars have been paying close attention to the full range of women writers of the long eighteenth century—the professional writers for the stage and journals, the letter writers for family and friends, the poets who published occasionally, the novelists who published regularly. Before the 1970s, some attention was paid to individual women writers—Montague Summers focused attention on Aphra Behn; Austin Dobson did the same for Madame D’Arblay (a.k.a. Fanny, now Frances Burney), placing these writers on library shelves in the early twentieth century. If nothing else, Behn and Burney were there to stand testimony to the kind of reputation Jane Austen had to try to avoid, on the one hand, and the one she could safely embrace, on the other. And often it was for nothing else but background to the emergence of Austen that Behn, Burney, and other women writers were invoked, negatively or positively, well into the twentieth century.

It is a great virtue of this Cambridge Companion volume, to my mind, that Austen is referenced only five times. While Austen certainly benefited from the lives, careers, and works of the women writers in Britain from 1660 to 1789, those writers did not exist for her sake. They wrote in their own contexts—contexts this volume makes available to readers seeking more specific knowledge of their literary moment, not their apotheosis in the works of their near-contemporary.

The first thing that struck me upon opening this volume was the chronology of the period. As one who has taught (and still teaches) at least two eighteenth-century literature courses a year since 1987, I am in the habit of reviewing (every August and January, and sometimes June) the significant events of the age for my students in order to provide the basic information they need to understand the preoccupations and concerns of the writers they will encounter in my course. I usually begin with 1603 and the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England (as James I) simply to connect dots I know are already in place in the minds of my students (the dot of Elizabeth I and the dot of George III). I was intrigued to find in this volume a chronology that begins in 1658 with the birth of Mary of Modena. I was a bit disappointed not to find in the ensuing essays an explanation of the significance of this birthdate, but I do agree that Mary of Modena is an important figure whose impact has been too little regarded in literary history and whose centrality to writers like Behn, Anne Finch, and Delarivier Manley has been too cursorily considered. The chronology goes on to situate the births, works, and deaths of women writers in the grand narrative of the Restoration, the Plague, the Fire, the career of John Dryden, Monmouth’s Rebellion, the “Glorious Revolution,” the lives and deaths of John Locke and Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson—as well as the accessions, rules, and events presided over by the Hanoverian kings. Beginning with the birth of Mary of Modena in 1658, the chronology ends with a spate of publications by Elizabeth Inchbald, ending in 1797 (she died in 1821). In this gesture toward the facts of women’s literary history in the period, this volume states its commitment to seeing the period through the eyes of the women who shaped it. And, significantly, most of these women were not queens, but writers.

The volume is introduced with a helpful overview of the eighteenth century’s own treatment of women’s literary history, a brief review of the reception of the works of the period’s women writers by contemporary critics and readers, and a discussion of the work done in the past three decades in terms of recovery, scholarship, and critical assessment. The collection of essays that follows is divided into two parts, the first treating the topic of “Women in Print Culture” and the second, the topic of “Genres, Modes, and Forms.” The rhythm of this volume (in general and in the essays included) alternates between close focus on individual women’s work and broad surveys of women’s literary participation in relation to both the men and women in their fields. The balance serves the subject well in terms of arguing for women’s participation in the dominant culture of their time and their interventions to mold that culture for the future. Consequently, the dual focus seems to re-order or re-imagine the world of literary history as we’ve known it for so long. The long eighteenth century witnessed a flowering, groundswell, burgeoning (all the available words seem inadequate) of women’s literary achievement. This volume offers no definitive explanation as to why that happened, but it does thoroughly canvas the questions of who, what, when, where, and how.

Print culture had a lot to do with the “how” (and perhaps, also, suggests why). There were new readers demanding material to read. Mark Towsey’s essay, “Women as Readers and Writers,” comes first in the volume, following the introduction, and powerfully canvases the milieu that would have defined the eighteenth-century woman’s literary experience: the circulating libraries from which books could be borrowed, the booksellers from whom books could be bought, the friends from whom books could be borrowed or with whom they could be shared. These activities and networks encouraged not only reading but writing, and it is no coincidence that very early in the period the first professional woman writer in England (Behn) makes her appearance and pursues her career. And, as Betty Schellenberg demonstrates in the following essay, “The Professional Female Writer,” the “type” introduced by Behn persists through the entire period during which Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Carter, Charlotte Lennox, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld all pursued professional lives in the literary marketplace. Schellenberg’s strategy of focusing on the “who” leads her to identify and explore exemplary cases while making it clear that other women also enjoyed writing careers in the period is one technique the contributors to this volume have employed in order to provide both a sense of depth and breadth. Sarah Prescott takes a somewhat different tack in her essay, “Place and Publication” (i.e., the “where”). She broadens our sense of the eighteenth-century literary marketplace in her review of “non-metropolitan, provincial, and rural” (55) women writers, mentioning many examples, not only in England, but in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales as well. There are focused discussions (a paragraph or two) in Prescott’s essay (on Lady Mary Chudleigh, Jane Barker, Mary Chandler, to name a few), but the comprehensiveness of this piece—the sheer number of names, some familiar, some not so familiar—begins to suggest an opening of vistas, not only for readers but for scholars.

The final two essays in part 1, similarly point to new areas of study and might be said to address the “how” of eighteenth-century women’s writing. Paula R. Backscheider notes that “the heartbeat of modern popular culture is women” (72), and in her treatment of Behn, Elizabeth Barry, Frances Brooke, Mary Ann Yates, and Inchbald, she maps out “some typical, evenarchetypal practices” (72) that will prove useful to analyses of other writers (male and female, eighteenth-century and later) who, unless income is not at issue, are inevitably involved in popular culture. And Kathryn R. King’s essay extends this insight (through focus on Haywood, Barker, and Mary Davys) to illustrate that practicing writers are not bound by the categories of literary history. Their aim is to create and express and, therefore, “their generic choices are probably better regarded as a set of interactive and evolving practices” (99). They engage with “tradition, convention, readers, and fellow writers” (99), without particular interest in or careful observance of boundaries—generic or otherwise.

The difficult task of part 2 is to address the contribution of women writers of the eighteenth century to specific genres. As Ingrassia points out in the introduction, the scope of the volume limited coverage of all the genres or modes in which women wrote in the eighteenth century, but most of the important ones are covered in the essays included on poetry (David Shuttleton), drama (Felicity Nussbaum), history (Rivka Swenson), satire (Melinda Raab), early fiction (Nicola Parsons), later fiction (Katherine Binhammer), travel writing (Harriet Guest), ballads (Ruth Perry), and periodical writing (Mary Waters). The one significant mode that I miss in the volume is one mentioned by Ingrassia—the religious. The other named omissions (political tracts and journalistic accounts) seem far less significant to me than the religious. It is an area of eighteenth-century women’s writing that has long been recognized as under-researched and inadequately analyzed. It is, admittedly, a tendentious and therefore contentious topic but, for full representation of women’s writing in the period, we are eventually going to have to get over our squeamishness about the faith of our foremothers. It was a domain of strength to many of them; we do them a disservice to avoid acknowledging that fact and in refusing to treat their written expressions of devotion with the same energy that we approach their questionings of and challenges to the patriarchal society into which they were born. These women were much more sophisticated than we are about the human need for belief in something other than oneself. Attention to their expressions of that need as it was fulfilled for them by religion would be richly repaid in terms of recognition of the nuances they bring to the topic and the craft with which they address it.

That caveat aside, the existing essays on genre, modes, and form are superb. Though the essays continue to employ the hybrid approach of suggesting breadth and providing depth in treatment of women writers of the period, the resulting landscape of eighteenth-century literature begins to transform with close attention to genre—probably because of the implicit requirement to deal with the male authors we typically assume to have dominated the fields. Shuttleton, for example, finds that the recovery of eighteenth-century women poets is leading to questions about how poetry was encountered in the period. Miscellanies and magazines did not privilege the male author or even the single author—and when we do not take such context into account, we lose a sense of the vitality of the literary culture of the period as well as a sense of significance of women writers’ contribution to that culture. Nussbaum asks us to take seriously women writers’ contribution to tragic as well as comic and romantic drama of the period—a corrective that I hope will be heeded. Even the comic and romantic texts, as Nussbaum points out, treat “darker themes” (127), themes which suggest an underlying discomfort with the “conventions of passive femininity” (132). In the same vein, Swenson calls for a new critical strategy toward the works of women writers of history in the eighteenth century; what she terms “recessive reading” (135) involves alertness to the ways in which women’s history (often secret history) writing provides “an epistemological critique of [the] historical discourse it deconstructs” (136).

Essays on early and late eighteenth-century women’s fiction by Parsons and Binhammer similarly invite readers to reinvent categories of interpretation. Parsons argues against the “dominant models” (165) of the origins of the novel by highlighting women writers’ willingness to embrace formal experimentation early on. I did miss engagement with Margaret Anne Doody’s The True Story of the Novel (1996) in this otherwise theoretically informed essay. Binhammer emphasizes the stress on the metafictional by women novelists later in the period, a topic that bears further investigation and elaboration, again without reference to, but probably indebted to, Doody’s work on the deep structure of the novel as genre.

Essays by Raab on satire, Guest on travel writing, Waters on periodical writing, and Perry on ballads are welcome—and provocative—correctives to the prevailing notion that these genres in the period were dominated by male writers. Raab is particularly incisive in her consideration of the way women’s satire exposes the “abuses framed by gender construction in public and private spheres” (162). Guest finds in the writing of Hester Thrale, Mary Robinson, and Mary Wollstonecraft important ways in which the activities of travel and writing about travel helped “shape and advance their identities as authors in a period in which the cultural and literary authority of women was markedly increasing” (196). Perry’s close study of Anna Gordon Brown’s major contribution to the ballad tradition elaborates the “connection between women and the oral tradition of balladry” (211), from the writing to the collecting to the dissemination orally and in print. In Brown herself, Perry introduces a major literary figure to a wider readership than she has yet enjoyed, one who had “a nimble sense of the interplay of words and melody” and one “who remembered and thus preserved for posterity three dozen of the finest old Scottish ballads” (223). Similarly, Waters’s study of the contribution of women to the periodicals of the eighteenth century extends our awareness of the influence of women on the cultural work of social and literary critique. Waters not only treats women’s work in this domain (from contributions, often anonymous, to John Dunton’s various enterprises to Haywood’s Female Spectator [1744–46], Charlotte Lennox’s Lady’s Museum [1760–61], and Elizabeth Moody and Barbauld’s writing for the Monthly Review [1749–1845]), she also demonstrates how the use of female personae was important to the periodicals of the time as well as how such activity paved the way for (as in the case of Wollstonecraft) or culminated in (for Moody and Barbauld) the acquisition of significant cultural power and authority.

This Cambridge Companion is a major step in a reordering of our perception of both literary history and literary criticism. Built upon decades of archival scholarship and critical reassessment, this collection offers both a synthesis of that work and, as importantly, provides guidelines, models, and challenges for work that remains to be done. Indeed, one important aim of the collection is, as Ingrassia posits in the beginning, to suggest avenues “for further exploration of genre, writers, and theoretical approaches” (17). In its presentation and synthesis of scholarship already completed and in its open invitation to continue the work, The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660–1789 is one of the most valuable volumes I have yet encountered in the prestigious series.