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  • Narrative or Network?Eighteenth-Century Feminist Literary History at the Crossroads
  • Paula McDowell (bio)
A Literary History of Women's Writing in Britain, 1660-1789, by Susan Staves. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 536 pp. $184.99 cloth; $30.99 paper.
Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre, by Paula R. Backscheider. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 514 pp. $70.00 cloth; $37.00 paper.

Strolling through Hyde Park with their terrestrial guide Lady Intelligence, the goddesses Astrea and Virtue in Delarivier Manley's Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality, Of Both Sexes. From the New Atalantis, An Island in the Mediteranean (1709) spy a fine lady riding in a coach. Intelligence happens to be carrying a copy of an unpublished poem by the lady. Sharing it with the goddesses, she explains, "The Lady once belong'd to the Court, but marrying into the Country, she made it her business to devote herself to the Muses, and has writ a great many pretty things."1 A didactic poem follows, addressing life's disillusionments and the virtues of retirement. Astrea responds to the poem with praise and a suggestion for improvement: "The Lady speaks very feelingly, we need look no further than this, to know she's her self past that agreeable Age she so much regrets. . . . if she had contracted something of the second and third Stanza, it had not been the worse" (1:171). Astrea also comments on the lady's privileged material circumstances, which she imagines must have given her time to polish her writing: "I presume she's one of the happy few, that write out of Pleasure, and not Necessity: By that means its [sic] her own fault, if she publish any thing but what's good" (1:171). As many contemporary readers would surmise, the "Lady [who] once belong'd to the Court" was Anne Kingsmill Finch, one-time maid of honor to Princess Mary of Modena. Finch had fled London for the countryside in 1689 and returned in 1708, one year before Manley's incorporation of her poem into Atalantis.2 This scene—one of several in Atalantis in which Manley's female narrators read, discuss, and evaluate poems by female authors while [End Page 137] also commenting on the latter's material circumstances—foregrounds for us issues such as the female readership, as well as authorship, of poetry; the circulation of verse in manuscript (and sometimes voice), as well as print; the contingencies affecting artistic production and aesthetic evaluation; and the diversity of women's writings (here, a formal, polished poem intended for genteel manuscript circulation and a hastily written, multivolume political scandal chronicle intended for commercial print). As such, this scene provides a useful point of departure for the following consideration of two of the most important works in eighteenth-century feminist literary history of this decade: Susan Staves's sweeping "narrative literary history of a national literature" (p. 1) and Paula Backscheider's genre-mapping "exploration of the forms in which women poets wrote" (p. xiii). An economically and ideologically motivated venture as well as an exuberant generic experiment, Manley's hybrid text also raises for us questions as to the extent to which the discipline of "English literary studies" can and cannot fully encompass our efforts to identify, study, and disseminate knowledge about early women's writings. Equipped with unprecedented tools such as searchable digital archives and electronic publishing, while also confronting institutional and market shifts likely to be as transformative as the eighteenth-century legal, political, and print trade developments that enabled the explosion of print commerce and the rise of "English literature" in the first place (not coincidentally in the same era), it behooves us to contemplate the future of feminist literary history even as we take this opportunity to identify and celebrate what has been achieved by these two major studies.

Staves's narrative tells a story of the gradual acceptance of women's writing, beginning in 1660 when female authors seemed an anomaly and ending in 1789 when women who exemplified certain qualities were conditionally accepted as authors. Her story is strictly chronological: she divides up the years...


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