We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

ASECS, Atlanta: Politeness, Science & Poetry, Paratexts & Women's Memoirs · 30 April 07

Dear Harriet,

The plenary talk on the third day occurred before lunch. Lawrence E. Klein gave us a meditation on politeness. He wanted to use its criteria for social interaction with others as a way of reimagining the boundaries of the 18th century. When did what we think of this era begin? and when did it end? As criteria for action, he also asked how this ideal facilitated opportunities individuals had for self-realization?

He began with Anna Laetitia Barbauld who wrote in her edition of the Spectators that a revolution in taste and feeling had occurred in her later years: in 1750 Addison’s writing and ideas were seen as living and vital; by 1804 they were seen as belonging to the past. In his time, Addison had offered a new culture of taste to encompass all the middling classes. One person who profited from Addison’s ideals was Thomas Passions, a stone mason who would stop work to read him. In 1767 Thomas Passions was a stone mason and carver in Bath. Passions had worked in the Earl of Sherburn’s house unpacking vases, and on one visit had been invited to stay to breakfast and dinner, to walk through the house and look at paintings. In other words, he was treated as a man of taste. Passions belonged to a Baptist Society where he addressed his fellow member on the culture of tribes as barbarous. Klein suggested the hierarchy Passions experenced was the 18th century way to harnass talents of society, and politeness itself a technique for managing interactions which gave more people opportunity to fulfill all their talents.

Since then the value of this culture of politeness has not been understood. For example, later in the 19th century Frances Jeffreys inveighed against politeness as an ideal, for it precludes originality and passion. Jeffreys saw this culture as shallow, and wrote in it an individual’s greatest fear was to be ridiculed. He would not value (as Shaftesbury did) conversation as a way of producing vital ideas. He also did not think about how important a neutral non-milieu and class-specific arena is for productive relationships between people to develop.

Mr. Klein concluded that the informal mixed societies of the era were important as ways for ordinary people to get into contact with the currents of thought, art, and music of the day. Such people used these societies to publish poems and other texts. Mary Somerville (1780-1872) science writer and polymath (second in reputation to Caroline Herschel), William Somerville (Mary’s husband, an inspector of the Army medical board who assisted Mary in her research), and Caroline Herschel (1850-1848) and William Herschel (1738-1822), both astronomers, he was also a musician and she an accomplished soprano and mathematician (as well as his companion, partner, housekeeper and local networker), were typical of the people who belonged to such communities and were given a public space, found like-minded people and fufilled their talents as well as contributing to society at large.

Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1979), Caroline Herschel’s place setting

Mr. Klein’s talk was in praise of 18th century ideals. This stance has grown to be unusual. Prof. Nussbaum’s talk on the Arabian Nights the day before with its sharp criticism of sexism, racism, and prejudiced colonialism in this text is much more typical. There is something to be said for praising the era one has spent one’s lifetime studying.

I can offer some more examples of people in whom this milieu of politeness enabled, empowered.

Whether William Somerville (1675-1742) was related to Mary and her husband I can’t tell, but I know they came from the same milieu, and Somerville wrote wonderful Georgic poetry of the kind discussed in the panel on romanticism of the 1780s, e.g., from his at moments sardonically ironic

The Chase

The huntsman now, a deep incision made,
Shakes out with hands impure, and dashes down
Her reeking entrails and yet quivering heart.
These claim the pack, the bloody perquisite
For all their toils. Stretched on the ground she lies
A mangled corpse; in her dim glaring eyes
Cold Death exults, and stiffens every limb.
Awed by the threatening whip, the furious hounds
Around her bay; or at their master’s foot,
Each happy favourite courts his kind applause,
With humble adulation cowering low.
All now is joy.

He was friend to and supported William Shenstone (1714-1763), himself a friend and supporter of favorite woman poet of mine, Henrietta St. John Knight (1699-1756). Married off to a cruel cold horror (Lord Luxborough), Henrietta fled him to a house with no windows and doors (despite her being Bolingbroke’s sister). But then helped along by Frances Thynne Seymour, Lady Hertford (1699-1754), Henrietta built a new endurable & meaningful life for herself among people like the Somervilles and Herschels and wrote engaging and occasionally powerful letters and poetry:

Written to a near neighbour in a tempestuous Night, 1748

You bid my my muse not cease to sing,
          You bid my ink not cease to flow;
Then say it eer shall be spring,
          And boisterous winds shall never blow:
When you such miracles can prove,
I’ll sing of friendship, or of love.

But now, alone, by storms oppressed,
          Which harshly in my ears resound;
No cheerful voice with witty jest,
          No jocund pipe, to still the sound;
Untrained beside in verse-like art,
How shall my pen express my heart?

In vain I call th’harmonious Nine,
          In vain implore Apollo’s aid;
Obdurate, they refuse a line,
          While spleen and care my rest invade.
Say, shall we Morpheus next implore,
And try if dreams befriend us more?

Wisely at least he’ll stop my pen,
          And with his poppies crown my brow:
Better by far in lonesome den
          To sleep unheard-of—than to glow
With treacherous wildfire of the brain,
Th’intoxicated poet’s bane.

I have not yet given up my desire to write a small paper on the life, poetry and letters of Henrietta St. John Knight.

Mr. Klein extended the 18th century to 1848, based on the idea this culture of politeness extended well into the mid-19th and I think would have included the fringe Trollopes, both Fanny and Anthony.


For lunch I went to the womens’ caucus and ate with a old friend, someone who recognized my name from C18-l, and a new acquaintance I had just met. Then it was time for the session where I was to present a paper.

The problem I had was no one but me was interested in a feminist issue or even literature as such. They wanted to explore how literature is made or framed by paratexts. Pat Rogers’ paper on Edmund Curll’s printing practices was amusing and enlightening. I learned how Curll made and sold books by putting together all the writings he could find attributed to or by an author and publishing that without permission or vetting for their accuracy. What kinds of texts did Curll use? All sorts: letters, diaries, memoranda, poems. His practices gave him a competitive advantage. Mr. Rogers suggested that Curll had blundered into innovation.

While I was at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past fall researching into women’s autobiographies and reading George Anne Bellamy’s, I read two lives of Anne Oldfield (1683-1730): the Authentick Memoirs of the Life of that Celebrated Actress, Mrs. Ann Oldfield (1730) was written shortly after her death, was short and made up of a very few personal testimony documents, mostly unsensational; the Faithful Memoirs of the Life, Amours and Performances of that Justly Celebrated, and Most Eminent Actress of Her Time, Mrs Anne Oldfield (1731), was much longer, just stuffed with materials from all over the place, a lot of it not trustworthy and lurid. This was put together by Curll and corresponded to just the sort of thing Prof Rogers said was true of most of Curll’s book productions. As Prof Rogers meant to show ironically researchers have found this later book as or more invaluable than the earlier one once they sift the texts and take from them what other documents confirm is probable truth. The bogus history reveals the norms and other realities of 18th century actresses’s lives.

Anne Oldfield, from an engraving by Jonathan Richardson (1665-1745)

I admit I find book history dull unless it is charged by the politics of the book trade, professional writing and different audiences, and was too nervous after I gave my speech to take down what the other two people said. I do have a comment on paratexts: recently I read an article about the Michael Caton-Jones 1995 film, Rob Roy adapted from part of Scott’s novel. The film picks up the story of the book about 2/3s the way through, omitting Scott’s careful framing of the highlands with lowland and bourgeois life, his (dull) Waverly hero, Frank Osbaldistone and his lively (even feminist) heroine, Diana Vernon, who becomes involved with an amoral criminal-type male in the civilized society mode. Scott also had a deft portrait of a successful bourgeois man meant to parallel Rob Roy. But I admit the book came alive, began to be thrilling and took stylistically too once we went into the highlands and Rob Roy becomes its center.

Except. Except that the preface which Scott tells you is a chronicle of clan life before the book begins and during its era is no such thing. It’s Scott’s retelling of such a chronicle: wild, bold, filled with seething bloody wars, and implicit sexual and familial betrayal. This preface, together with some of the notes and appendices in Rob Roy are the actual best pieces in the novels. Now they are all paratexts. Scott got away with this mateial by sticking it in paratexts where it would not garner too much attention or any description. And he denied authorship by making himeslf the redactor and Dryasdust, just offering the pedant’s stuff in the back of the book.

Scott does this sort of thing with a lot of his novels. It’s usually regarded as anonymity within anonymity, but he uses paratexts.

My paper was, as I have said, called A hole in the manuscript big enough to put your finger through:’ the misframing of Anne Murray Halkett’s autobiography about how the destruction of the paratexts beginning and ending Anne Halkett’s biography have facilitated misreadings of her book to erase her real sexual life and present her book as sentimental, pious romance. I argued that an inattention to the nature of the real sexual contract (as Carole Pateman called it) that disconnects women from society at large has prevented scholars from hearing the story Halkett told. I aligned her autobiography with that of five other women autobiographers of the later 17th and 18th century where the woman writer intends to show how the way she was treated sexually determined her fate to permit the following conclusion: the story not heard, altered or destroyed is that of a woman, propertyless by definition, who is continually at risk of convenient expulsion from her local community. My other texts were by Hortense and Marie Mancini, Francis Hawes Vane, Catherine Jemmat, and George Anne Bellamy.

I suggested that the story they told was that as women they were excluded from social protection once they marry. They write to prove that whether they freely entered the relationship or were abducted or deceived, they cannot return to their original community. They are profoundly shocked, and become depressed, ill, at first unable to act or then flee when they discover law and custom disable them. Their stories are intended to demonstrate that far from being the solution, marriage customs as then practised have caused their misfortunes. This is how Mary Astell understood Hortense’s memoir in her Serious Reflections on Marriage.