Recovering Ellen Pickering
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The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000) 437-452



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Positions: Recovery Redux

Recovering Ellen Pickering

Mary Poovey


I initially wrote this essay for the 1999 annual conference of the British Women Writers Association. In their letter of invitation, the conference organizers had described the BWWA's goal as recovering "women's writing that has been ignored, overlooked, or excluded from the canon." I gave some thought to the entire project of canon-revision, to which the recovery of women writers has made such a valuable contribution, and then I decided to test some of the theoretical issues implicit in this project by taking the conference organizers at their word. I decided to choose, virtually at random, a woman writer I had never heard of, read as much of her work as I could, then determine how, if at all, I could "recover" this writer for modern scholars and students. The resulting lecture, which appears below, turned out to provoke a much wider range of responses than I had anticipated. When I wrote the paper, I considered it relatively innocuous. I saw it as a scholarly exercise in archival recovery whose interest as a public performance (as a keynote address) depended on a good bit of interpretive ingenuity, which I derived from contemporary theoretical paradigms. I didn't think that anything I had written would be particularly controversial, since no one in my audience was likely to have read the novel I was discussing and since all of us know that scholarly recovery, performative lecturing, and literary interpretation all require some measure of ingenuity. The consternation some members of the audience voiced in the question-and-answer period showed me how wrong I was and led me, ultimately, to the reflections I append to the end of the printed text of this lecture. I clearly touched a nerve in some of the conference participants, and the twinges I observed and have since felt have alerted me to some of the unsettling issues that give our moment of literary history its particular poignancy. [End Page 437]

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The lecture you are about to hear unearths a writer almost none of you have read and whose name may even be completely new to you. I have been reading the novels of this forgotten writer partly in order to meet the challenge the conference organizers set me: to recover "women's writing that has been ignored, overlooked, or excluded from the canon." 1 Partly, I have been reading her novels in order to address a number of theoretical questions implicit in the entire project of recovery: Does looking at a writer who apparently enjoyed success among her contemporaries but achieved no lasting legacy enable us to draw any conclusions about canon formation? How can one make writing that no longer has an audience accessible--and interesting--for late-twentieth-century readers? Is there any point in recovering a writer's work, just because the author belongs to a category--in this case, the woman writer--that we and our students consider important? And finally, once we recover a writer previously lost, have we learned more about our distant ancestor or ourselves?

You should think of this lecture as a case study intended to address these theoretical issues. The nature of my subject will require a certain amount of detail work--I'm going to have to give biographical and plot particulars just to get this going--but my real interest is in these larger theoretical issues about the nature of recovery, access, canonization, and the work of scholarship. I'll return to these issues at the end of the lecture, but for now we're going to get our hands dirty in the details of a forgotten woman writer's work.

The woman I have chosen to discuss is Ellen Pickering, who published 16 triple-decker novels in Britain between 1826 and 1848. I chose Pickering on the advice of NYU's rare book librarian, Marvin Taylor, who had just acquired a complete first-edition set of her novels and was hoping for some scholarly interest to justify...