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  • A Literary History of Women's Writing in Britain, 1660-1789
  • April London
Susan Staves , A Literary History of Women's Writing in Britain, 1660-1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Pp. xi, 536. $150.00.

Genre stands at the center of Susan Staves's book, the source of its critical and methodological sophistication as well as the considerable pleasures it offers as a survey of eighteenth-century women's writing. As Staves notes in the opening pages, David Perkins's foundational question—Is Literary History Possible? (1992)—very nearly undermined this mode of enquiry, completing a challenge that began in part with feminist scholarship's early attacks on the existing canon. Writing from within that feminist tradition, Staves acknowledges the institutional and individual contingencies that shape the "operative canon" and in the process deny literary history the fully coherent subject—"literature"—that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commentators assumed. But she also asserts a common-sense confidence in the possibilities of ordering: "we can identify works of literature" and "we can write histories of them" (2). Her solution to the problems of narrating the past is to give full play to eighteenth-century understandings of the literary, allowing these concepts to inform and when necessary qualify modern constructions of the period. The success of the tactic depends on its exact match with her strengths: an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field, particularly of such once important but now understudied modes as nonfiction prose, religious writing and translation, a skeptical response to current critical orthodoxies, a willingness to invoke evaluative and aesthetic criteria, and a commitment to conceptual and expressive clarity. 


The division of the study into seven chronologically defined periods, each segment introduced by a short account of significant events and closing with a summary of the major themes considered, provides the basic structure. Individual chapters pursue multiple lines of enquiry, but each also focuses on a leading theme appropriate to the historical period, thus allowing a developmental (but not naively progressive) narrative: the first two chapters, for instance, are dominated by political and religious partisanship, respectively; the third by manners; the fourth by the expanding literary marketplace; and the fifth through seventh by the prevailing terms of sentiment as realized in constructions of the "literary family," bluestockings, romance, and history. Alongside this evocation of contemporary ideas and practices, including those relating to book history, Staves explores innovatory elements in those works she investigates in detail and so anticipates subsequent developments, sometimes by several decades. Later in the study, the reverse process will be observed, as she reminds the reader of the origins of recurring strategies, genres, and authorial representations. 


It quickly becomes evident that this is not an uninflected celebration of women's writing but an astute and informed history interested in observing complex patterns of continuity and change, and on occasion, instances of regression. A well-managed balance of analysis and evaluation determines the space dedicated to particular writers: Eliza Haywood's much-studied Love in Excess, for instance, is given relatively short shrift, whereas the works of her contemporary, the underappreciated Elizabeth Singer Rowe, receive more extended consideration. The motives for this departure from precedent are not simply reactive or compensatory. Staves advances an important political argument here, one that the broad sweep of this study makes possible: Haywood looks back to the libertine culture of Delarivier [End Page 125] Manley; Rowe forward, through Richardson and the bluestockings, to Austen. Moreover, as we soon recognize by the flag of "it seems to me," Staves's skeptical responses to critical orthodoxies concerning the centrality of the novel or the superior interest of rebellious heroines are often accompanied by pungent judgments unusual in academic writing, and hence all the more invigorating. Thus, having detailed the abjection that routinely accompanies the empowerment of women in the supposedly transgressive Haywood, Staves notes: "Indeed, it seems to me, that although some of Haywood's tales have intriguing plots, her characters remain rudimentary, limited by their recurrent obsessions with greed, revenge, and, especially, stereotypical passion" (193). Or, in reference to Manley: "Personally, I find The Royal Mischief energetic but ridiculous, even pathetic and misogynistic, and Homais, bereft of moral scruples or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 125-126
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-01
Open Access
No
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