Vashe prevoskhoditel'stvo derzhas' pravil'nogo mneniia, chto chislo pisatel'nits kakoi libo strany pokazyvaet osobuiu stepen' prosveshcheniia onoi, izvolili vozlozhit' na menia, vse tvoreniia Rossiiskikh pisatel'nits nakhodiashchiiasia v prekrasnoi vashei biblioteke otobrat' v osoboe otdelenie, i sostavit' tem pisatel'nitsam istoricheskii slovar'.
(Your Excellency, while holding the correct opinion that the number of any nation's woman writers shows its particular degree of enlightenment, has deigned to place on me the task of separating into a special section all the creations of Russian woman writers in your wonderful library and of compiling a historical dictionary of these women.)—Stepan V. Russov, Bibliograficheskii katalog rossiiskim pisatel'nitsam (1826)
Many have written amply about women as authors, subjects, and readers of poetry, fiction, drama, autobiography, letters, nonfiction, and criticism, but another important genre, bio-bibliography, is often consigned to the realm of tools. Recent bio-bibliographic compilations of women writers display a critical awareness not only of literary history but also of the generic form of the bibliography, which by necessity is selective and thus like literary history likewise constructs narratives. Bibliographies came into their own as [End Page 314] classificatory tools in the nineteenth century and, as the epigraph indicates, a powerful impulse at the heart of bibliographies was the construction of narratives of nation, here through the international competition for learned women.1 Yet issues that concern feminist bio-bibliographers today were recognized and addressed by their predecessors in innovative, substantial ways that are still relevant. Like any text, no compilation stands alone. This is especially true of bio-bibliographic and other compilations of women, which turn out to contain long-overlooked, rich, alternative narratives of women's transnational literary histories that go back centuries.
With Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris (Famous Women [1361-1375]), such compilations spread across Europe, country by country, becoming a tremendously varied national and European historical genre. This article is part of a book project that traces the development over the past six hundred years of a highly coherent yet dynamic genre. Compilations of women have taken many forms over the centuries: as anthologies of biographies and works, biobibliographies, bibliographies, literary histories, and recently as databases, and they often combine several subgenres. Still, it is not necessary to survey all such compilations of women, especially those of women writers, to demonstrate that they form a genre. They have essentially selected themselves for this study because they cite each other, thus participating in long-standing national and international debates about what constitutes notable women.2 Compilers rely on, disagree with, and often simply borrow their predecessors' work—all basic features that make the genre cohere over centuries and across many nations. As compilers, these writers, antiquarians, bibliophiles, bibliographers, publishers, journalists, philosophers, priests, lawyers, and so on belong to the networks of cross-cultural transfers of texts in such diverse literary and especially nonliterary areas as medicine, science, travel literature, religion, politics, law, and history throughout Europe.3 Individual compilations then and now gain their full significance in a web of relationships with other such texts, forming a remarkably resilient discourse across centuries and national and linguistic boundaries.
This article emphasizes the quantitative, the extensive, the diversifying aspects of bibliographic compilations, which present a generically and geographically complex picture of women's literary history and strategically challenge the canonizing narratives of national literary history. Rather than dip in selectively, we ought to read bibliographies—especially those quantitative compilations that resist reading—from cover to cover, together with their titles, prefaces, illustrations, and other appendages, as whole texts. The generic conventions of paratexts are not a frame to skip over to get to the data but are essential means of historicizing the data. Bibliographies have long confronted such basic issues about the shape of women's literary [End Page 315] history as the categories of author, genre, publication, literature, and nation that continue to concern bibliographers today. The great variety of materials found in bio-bibliographic compilations of women writers, together with the diverse approaches that compilers have taken, destabilize the givens of women's literary history. How do...