A Review-Essay of Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture

The following appeared in The East-Central Intelligencer: The Newsletter of the East-central/American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, N. S. 17/2 (2003), 24-31.

Review Article: Recent Trends in Feminist Scholarship

By Ellen Moody

Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture. Linda V. Troost, Editor. Volume 2. New York: AMS Press, 2002. Pp. x + 351; illustrated.

Each essay tells a sad story of ignorance and neglect, powerfully evoking a new admiration for these poets' defiant brilliance in a world which stubbornly refused to take notice (Elisa E. Beshero- Bondar on Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, 335)

In Linda Troost's "Preface" to this aptly-titled volume, Troost argues that it registers refreshing new directions in feminist scholarship. She faults recent "theory-based criticism" for fragmenting audiences, and praises Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter, and Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (cited admiringly in the volume, e.g., 85-6n., 138n., 143-44n.) for being popular while containing much archival research. Troost argues Vickery's and Foreman's depictions of the "complexity of a remarkable person's life in the eighteenth century" show that "idea of separates spheres for men and women" is an inadequate explanation for "social relations in this era" (ix-x). However, while elements in these new trends (sometimes called "third-wave feminism") correct excesses, others represent retreats. Some of the essays in this volume attempt to redeem their particular subjects' enforced desexualization, passivity, poverty, and powerlessness through idealizations, redefined terms, and apoliticized analogies. The volume does exemplify recent trends in feminist scholarship, but its real strength, and what makes it a treat, is its European-wide scope.

Temma F. Berg's "Charlotte Lennox and Lydia Clerke: Reflecting on Letters," Pam Perkins's "Sixteenth-Century Queens in Eighteenth-Century Literature," and Elizabeth Franklin Lewis's "The Sensibility of Motherhood: Josefa Amar y Borbón's Discurso sobre la educación," uncover the clues left by women themselves about the mores, customs and conditions that limited their lives. In Berg's research for a biography of Charlotte Lennox, Berg found two unpublished letters from Lennox to her friend, Lydia Clerke. Berg reprints and embeds these in a circumstantial history of the lives of these two women and Lennox's children. Berg corrects commonly-accepted misinformation about Lennox and reveals how Lennox's inability to control how her money was spent or where she lived prevented her from making major decisions for herself and her children. An analysis of Lennox's fiction enables Berg to demonstrate that Lennox valued other women's friendships. Read alongside another essay Berg has published ("Getting the Mother's Story Right: Charlotte Lennox and the New World," Papers on Language and Literature, 32 [Fall 1996], 369-98), this essay retrieves Lennox's late epistolary novel, Euphemia, from analyses whose incomprehension of its author's yearning for maternal and homoerotic fulfillment have led to its dismissal as "bizarre" (see Janet Todd, Women's Friendship in Literature [New York: Columbia University Press, 1980], 311).

Pam Perkins explains why by the mid-eighteenth-century in European art the Catholic and sexually transgressive Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a political failure, and probably an accomplice to murder, was depicted as a model of exemplary femininity while (as her rival), the Protestant and apparently chaste Elizabeth I, successful on her own behalf, and an effective powerful leader on England's behalf, was depicted as a seething sexually-frustrated Machiavellian. Like Arbella Stuart and Lady Jane Grey (whose depiction Perkins also examines), Mary Stuart's life could fit a stereotype which presented images of beautiful women coerced into renouncing power while they continued to wield it. Mary's regalia of power endowed erotic interactions in which a beautiful woman submitted, resigned herself or despaired with glamorized importance. Elizabeth Tudor was too clearly powerful to be assimilated into such compensatory iconographies of victimhood. Her learning and unmarried state, which the majority of her audience would not identify with, were ostracized, and she became a grim projection of the miseries of unsubmissive women who do not aim to be loving wives. Perkins suggests that the flexibility and incongruities of these myths reveals the "normative" demand for female desexualization, domesticity, and submission might not have been as "suffocatingly oppressive" as later critics have assumed (133). The problem with Perkins's argument is she neglects the role of Catholic propaganda, a century of Stuart power, and eighteenth-century conservative Tory and anti-Jacobin reactionary politics. The sentimentalized Mary Stuart also stands in for Charles I, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette.

Elizabeth Franklin Lewis's essay is one of several on European women. Josefa Amar y Borbón (1749-1833) was a highly-educated physician's daughter who understood the value of "modernist" medicine "based on observation and experience" (209-14). She belonged to Spanish economic societies, read texts by Enlightenment thinkers and scientists, and wrote translations of English and Italian works as well as two original treatises in which she sought to improve women's lives: Discurso sobre el talento de la mujeres (1786); and Discurso sobre la educación fisica y moral de la mujeres (1790). Lewis deals with those sections of Amar's second treatise where she exploits the cult of sensibility and notions about "naturalness" (227), and in which she encourages women to act on their own behalf in childbirth, decide for themselves whether to breast-feed, and improve their own and their young children's physical well-being and strength of character. Lewis says that hitherto Amar scholars have explicated Amar's first treatise and those parts of her second which argue for developing women's talents through moral, social, and intellectual education, and argues these sections of her treatises are less important.

If sheer numbers are our criteria, given the era's high mortality rate of women in childbirth and of young children, and the probability that most women who married would have to concern themselves with bringing up their children, and if these children were their own and they were wealthy enough to afford a wet- nurse, whether to breast-feed, Lewis is probably right. However, Lewis's essay mischaracterizes the other sections of Amar's work, and Constance Sullivan's "The Quiet Feminism of Josefa Amar y Borbón's Book" (Indiana Journal of Hispanic Literatures, 2 [1993], 49-73), which does far more than simply inadequately defend Amar against urging unrealistic feminist goals on Spanish women of the era (Lewis 214). Sullivan demonstrates that Amar presented pragmatic solutions to improve women's lives as individuals in terms of the immediate cultural milieu. Amar's erudite curriculum is but one part of a many-pronged program meant to secure "secular happiness" for women (Constance, "Quiet Feminism" 52-56). Lewis repeatedly asserts as particularly admirable in Amar her "affirmation of the experience of motherhood" (e.g., 210, 219, 227, 237-38). But despite the presence in elite circles of artificial ideals drawn from French salon culture, motherhood as an admirable and natural occupation for women, was not then under attack in Spain then (nor is it in most places now). It is significant to note that in an earlier essay ("Feijoo, Josefa Amar Y Borbón, and the Feminist Debate in Eighteenth- Century Spain," Dieciocho, 12:2 [1989], 188-203), Lewis herself did justice to Amar's attempts to defend women's individual abilities, sexual behavior, and to criticize the notion that women are ontologically different from men ("Feijoo" 193).

Christine Goulding's review of Katherine R. Goodman's Amazons and Apprentices: Women and the German Parnassus in the Early Enlightenment contains an analogous reversal of priorities in which submission is presented as advance. Goulding usefully analyzes obstacles faced by German women who, like Amar, lived in a milieu influenced by French women writers and salonnières, and wanted to use their learning for something beyond private study. However, Goulding concentrates on Luise Adelgunde Victoria Gottsched, née Kulmus (1713-1762) who presented herself as her husband's "apprentice," and Goulding writes that "ironically" Gottsched's demand for a single standard of excellence for men and women "raised the bar on women's learning" so "virtually removed women from the playing field" (327). In actuality, Goodman's book focuses equally on Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (1695-1760), an "Amazon" who published under her real name (not a nom de plume), urged women to follow a French model, and found herself the object of cruel personal slander. Goulding says Goodman's work is "significant" because Goodman "defines the permissible scope of activity for a German intellectual woman throughout the modern era." Why women lost this battle is important, but this review takes sides with concession.

Mary Cisar's "Madame Roland and the Grammar of Female Sainthood" erases what Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlippon (born 1754, guillotined 1793) turned to in order to lead a life at odds with her era's mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Cisar argues that Roland was an unconsciously religious anorexic recluse through a chart which correlates a generalized life pattern of a typical saint with Roland's unsocial habits and, emptied of its political content, the record Roland left of her sexual and literary experiences; and through an insistence that a subset of religious books meant far more to Roland than all others. Cisar denigrates Roland: Roland's memoir is "a somewhat self-indulgent reminiscence" [173], her "intellectual journey hardly original" (166); she was reluctant to marry because she "considered all of [her suitors] inferior to herself" (175); her life was "flight from social obligation;" Roland's preference for communing with her books and thoughts and overt claims to "exceptionality" are treated with resentment (e.g., 183, 193). Cisar cites and then ignores Caroline Bynum Walker's Holy Feast and Holy Fast and "Women's Stories, Women's Symbols" (in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, ed, R. L. Moore and F. E. Reynolds [Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Relgion, 1984], 105-25) whose study of female saints, women's symbols and individual women differentiates actual life patterns and those of women from men. Cisar also dismisses Edith Bernardin's Les Idées Religieuses de Madame Roland (Paris, 1933), which does persuasively show Roland's faith to have been theoretically optimistic, secular, and Rousseauistic. Roland's references to Francis of Sales's "La Philothée" (which Cisar makes much of), consist of one ironic reference to its sensuality and one anxious one to its injunction to repress unprocreative sex (Mémoires de Madame Roland, ed. C. A. Dauban [Paris: Elibron Facsimile edition, 2002], 50, 67).

Cisar reads Roland's texts at face value. As has been shown by a number of scholars (e.g., Dorina Outram, The Body and the French Revolution, and Nicole Trèves, "Madame Roland ou le parcours d'une intellectuelle à la grande âme," Femmes savantes et femmes d'esprit, ed. R. Bonnel and C. Rubinger [New York: Peter Lang, 1994], 321-40]), Roland's writings are defensive, guarded, often disingenous, and contain a multiplicity of intellectual journeys. Cisar does not cite Françoise Kermina's Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1957; rpt. Perrin: Librairie Académique, 1976), which, like Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, is meant to reach a wide audience and based on thorough archival research of her subject's life. Kermina shows Roland to have been intensely ambitious: Roland's writings hide from view her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and "une amertume terrible" (the phrase is Trèves, 322). I would add that, like Lennox, Roland's writings reveal a woman who valued the friendships she managed to sustain. Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed (angry). When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander very like that directed at Ziegler), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.

Cisar is "entrenched in an inimical relation" to her subject (Heidi Thomson uses this phrase to characterize Toni Bower's relation to hers in Thomson's review of The Politics of Motherhood, 298). Cisar's hostility to her subject is unusual for this volume. Five essays testify to the continued strength of theoretical criticism, and, in these, older and well-known procedures and lines of argument are used to produce new woman-centered, empathic views of their subjects. Judith W. Fisher's "The Stage on the Page: Sarah Siddons and Ann Radcliffe" is an innovative influence study: Fisher shows that Siddons's theatrical techniques offered Radcliffe images which helped Radcliffe to produce an illusion of depth psychology. The gothic melodrama of Radcliffe's texts are one of its strengths; her and Siddons's depictions of crying and distress (which modern readers "tend to laugh at" or "be embarrassed by") were "real and in context, very moving." Through a creative inward look at treatises on acting Fisher is able to document suggestive connections between the usually hidden passions, outward behavior and art of a woman of letters and an actress, and between theatre and the female gothic.

In "Matrilineal Descent in the Gothic Novel," B. Evelyn Westbrook builds on psychoanalytic and sociological studies which argue that the Gothic centrally dramatizes "the problem of the mother-daughter bond" in order to compare "mother-daughter relationships and views of motherhood in The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, The Italian, Northanger Abbey, and Frankenstein" (267). The three novels by women "elegize" a "profound empathic identification" (277, 183). Following Vickery's (and other) redefinitions of activities usually thought of as occurring in the private sphere as a form of public negotiation, Westbrook argues that in these women's novels a mother's power is deemed able to protect her daughter at crucial moments. This point of view is also exploited by Glenda Hudson's 1992 misleadingly titled Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen's Fiction (reviewed in this volume by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh). Hudson suggests that Maaja Stewart's Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions is too emphatically about "political and economic realities." Hudson says that "the world of dependency, anxiety and repression" (Stewart 23, 72-75, 107) which Stewart uncovers by her clear demarcation of public spheres where men play determining roles, ignores Austen's affirmative presentation of women as "coequal" in the "domestic household" (Hudson xv). Westbrook wants us to recognize that while women's texts undermine, they also acknowledge the power of mothers (270) and an "ethic of care" (266) which can extend beyond their domestic territory.

Susannah Quinsee's "Mariana Alcoforda's Five Love Letters from a Nun to a Cavalier and Aphra Behn's Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister," Peter E. Morgan's "A Subject to Redress: Ideology and the Cross-Dressed Heroine in Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter," and Susan Klute's "The Admirable Cunégonde," also imitate recent trends in feminist readings of familiar texts. After stating that the attribution to Alcoforda of Five Love Letters from a Nun remains unsettled, and the evidence suggests it may have been by Gabriel-Joseph de Guilleragues, Linda Kauffman read the text from the vantage point of a woman who emphathizes with the nun to contrast what emerges with what has been written about this novella from a masculinist vantage point (Discourses of Desire [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986], 92-117); Quinsee similarly prefaces a semiotic reading of the novella with a statement that we are not sure who wrote or on what this text is based; she then goes on to analyze it as if it were by Alcorforda. For Quinsee Alcorforda's and Behn's texts reveal women writers using codes to break down restrictive, repressive and contradictory mores and create empowering portraits of women for other women to identify with. Morgan writes a close reading of Behn's The Widow Ranter which overemphasizes the limited active role allowed its one cross-dressed Dionysiac woman; by combining this focus with an analysis of Behn's sceptical exposure of many of the characters' self-serving treachery (justified as loyalty to a colonial establishment), Morgan shows Behn using female cross-dressing in her posthumous play to create spaces in which her muted but still defiant presence can live. Klute defends Voltaire's Cunégonde by teasing psychological depths out of caricature and interpreting such depths from a pragmatic woman's point of view which Klute argues Cungégonde dramatizes. Through identification and justification Klute seeks to rescue female characters and real women from derisory and masculinist interpretations.

The precedent for these attempts to change the presumed original perspective of texts and masculinist interpretations to one which endows women with authority, felt presence, and subjectivities which count, goes back at least to the eighteenth-century. In the eighteenth century Charlotte Lennox rewrote the Elizabethan tales upon which Shakespeare based his plays and then examined the plays from a woman's point of view (see Margaret Anne Doody's "Shakespeare's Novels: Charlotte Lennox Illustrated," 19 [1987], Studies in the Novel, 296-310). The question is partly how persuasive are such readings. To see the fictional nun in the influential novella as an alluring "androgynous ideal" (Quinsee 6-9) may be gratifying, but Quinsee bases her argument on her preferring to believe the author was a woman. We should also test the value of a reading by how it alters the text's criticism of political attitudes and social behaviors in an era. For example, something is lost as well as gained when you subvert Voltaire's biting philosophical satire to defend the compromises of pragmaticism. In "Eliza Haywood's Cross-Gendered Amatory Audience," Margo Collins feels Haywood's actual target audience is lost when critics argue that Haywood's "subversion of patriarchy" is intended to appeal to women (44). Collins defends Haywood against the charge that Haywood actually promotes "ideologies of female inferiority" (44-45) by arguing that Haywood identified androgynously. Collins treats Haywood's "complicit" rhetoric as a central element in seriously moral texts intended to appeal to and "reform" male as well as female readers (47-48).

There is no doubt about the gain in Karen Elliot's "The Luster of a Ballerina: Giovanna Baccelli on the Stage and Off," and several of the reviews. Elliot does not succeed in unearthing Bacelli's "emotional" existence and perception of what it felt like to live in an alien environment, but Elliot does provide enough information for the reader to discern an outline of the life of a silent female survivor (ca. 1753-1801) whose dancing was at the time written about critically as art. Elliot also reprints Gainsborough's portrait of Bacelli with an arresting look in her eye (140). Nicole Pohl on Paula Backscheider's Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century "Women's Fiction" and Social Engagement; Elisa E. Beshero-Bondar on Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Behrendt's Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception; Cheryl L. Nixon on Derek Hughes's six-volume Eighteenth-Century Women Playwrights, and Christopher D. Johnson on Josephine Donovan's Women and the Rise of the Novel, 1405-1726 demonstrate that today's scholarship has "re- imagined the . . . literary community" (Romanticism and Women Poets [Lexington: University of Kentucky Press], 6). Beshero- Bondar highlights how a text's first and subsequent receptions, its author's associations with other authors, and the reactions of politicized communities, can deny someone access to respected publication, and perpetuate misreading, prejudice and neglect. Johnson emphasizes that Donovan challenges the "Anglocentric" masculinist assumptions of the Ian Watt school; Donovan's rereadings include early modern French and Spanish writers of framed novelle. As Nixon writes in her seven-page essay on the apparatus and plays that comprise Hughes's collection, "Obviously, the importance of making these plays newly available cannot be underestimated" (302).

It is less cheering to consider that four out of the eleven books reviewed are devoted to Austen's small corpus and few surviving letters. The commercial reasons for this may be seen in one of these, Nicolas Marsh's Jane Austen: The Novels: intended for students, it retail for $44.00 (hb) or $27.50 (pb). Nora Nachumi who reviews Nokes's biography and Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen, A Life is rare among critics for, however grudgingly, recognizing that Nokes's "extensive apparatus marks it as a more 'scholarly' work than Tomalin's" (338). Gary Dyer also grudgingly praises Lorraine Fletcher's Charlotte Smith: A Literary Biography, as "a vivid work of biography and criticism, as well as a valuable resource for our study of Smith" (321) which "can be recommended to serious students of the literature of the Romantic period" (323). Dyer objects to the anxiety with which Fletcher defends her procedure of unravelling the threads of Smith's inward life from the woof of her fictional work and to the difficulty of knowing whether Fletcher's assertions are "based on a direct account . . . or inferred from one of Smith's novels" (322). To demand of Fletcher or Nokes a clear demarcation of the sources of their biographies is to deny the imaginative and intuitive nature of biographical art. Fletcher and Nokes both deserve more respect than they have received: Nokes attempts to break the mold of the "generally accepted" picture of Austen's life as a pleasant one in a family-controlled environment which Austen chose and throve in. Like Diana Bowstead (in a dissertation part of which was published as "Charlotte Smith's Desmond: The Epistolary Novel as Argument" in Fetter'd or Free?, edd. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski [1967] 237-65), Fletcher argues that Smith's work was disparaged and then ignored because she was a political radical who dared non-submissively to present her real suffering and weaknesses before the public. The preference for Austen's texts in the marketplace is in origin a political one; it is today also a commercial decision.

Yvonne Noble's essay-review of The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems: A Critical Edition, ed. Barbara McGovern and Charles H. Hinnant) is a sound assessment based on archival research and close readings of the texts whose vantage point is an accurate response to the tones of a text in the context of its immediate milieu and what we know of Anne Finch's life and outlook. She offers a history of the publication of the major manuscripts, corrects and adds to McGovern and Hinnant's apparatus, and concludes (as I did in a review published in The Scriblerian 33/2 [2001] 203-4) that while Hinnant and McGovern have performed a service in "seeing these poems into public print" (314), the edition and its index (which Noble calls "exasperating") leaves the poems in the original disarray, lacks adequate annotation, and contains misinformation and misleading readings. Noble worries that the transcription of the manuscript is not accurate (320). While Noble is right to say that editors who work from microfilms rather than original manuscripts are following an "unsafe practice" (320), if a careful check of McGovern and Hinnant's texts against a microfilm of the Wellesley manuscript be allowed in as helpful evidence, I can report that based on a microfilm of the Wellesley manuscript which I own, my check of their texts showed their transcription to be scrupulously faithful.

Eighteenth-Century Women does more than reveal recent trends in feminist scholarship. Much in it transcends immediate concerns. There is not space here to re-name all the women whose lives and work it places before us. Caroline Bowles Southey's fine poetry; Fanny Kemble's memoirs when she writes as an actress or wife of a plantation-, and slave-owner; the poignant history of the political dismissal and loss of much of Anna Letitia Barbauld's work; whether female cross-dressing was a new phenomenon in the Restoration or was in pre-modern Europe a common way for lower class women to dress outside the home and just not presented in elite literature, are just a few of the subjects this volume enables the reader to pursue. Its excellent index and generous bibliographies will also help the reader assess recent trends in feminist scholarship. However, these new trends include an attempt to appeal to a wider audience by deferring to a perceived backlash. For example, in the books praised by the reviewers in this volume, it is suggested that when we describe how women's activities occur mainly within their households, we should not use the verb "restricted" as to many women then and now this is not restriction. This is Anne Mellor's stance in Romanticism and Gender [1993] (110), praised by Hudson (whose book on Austen is one of those reviewed here). The implication is that earlier and still extant older trends in feminist scholarship are out of touch with the ordinary lives of earlier and today's women. Rather they seek to raise these women's expectations.

Ellen Moody
George Mason University

Giovanna Baccelli (ca. 1753-1801) in Les Amans Surpris (1772) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1778):

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated 13 August 2003