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Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850

Devoney Looser

Publication Year: 2008

This groundbreaking study explores the later lives and late-life writings of more than two dozen British women authors active during the long eighteenth century. Drawing on biographical materials, literary texts, and reception histories, Devoney Looser finds that far from fading into moribund old age, female literary greats such as Anna Letitia Barbauld, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Catharine Macaulay, Hester Lynch Piozzi, and Jane Porter toiled for decades after they achieved acclaim—despite seemingly concerted attempts by literary gatekeepers to marginalize their later contributions. Though these remarkable women wrote and published well into old age, Looser sees in their late careers the necessity of choosing among several different paths. These included receding into the background as authors of “classics,” adapting to grandmotherly standards of behavior, attempting to reshape masculinized conceptions of aged wisdom, or trying to create entirely new categories for older women writers. In assessing how these writers affected and were affected by the culture in which they lived, and in examining their varied reactions to the prospect of aging, Looser constructs careful portraits of each of her subjects and explains why many turned toward retrospection in their later works. In illuminating the powerful and often poorly recognized legacy of the British women writers who spurred a marketplace revolution in their earlier years only to find unanticipated barriers to acceptance in later life, Looser opens up new scholarly territory in the burgeoning field of feminist age studies.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix-xvi

A decade ago I opened a copy of Victorian critic Jerom Murch’s Mrs. Barbauld and Her Contemporaries (1877). Skimming the slim volume, I noticed that it concluded with a short section titled “How Long They Lived!” followed by a table of female author’s names, listing the year in which they died and sorted by their ages at death. (Barbauld was squarely in the middle, at age 82.)...

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Introduction. Women Writers and Old Age, 1750–1850

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pp. 1-30

Jane Austen died at age 41. Her death in middle age, long decried as one of literature’s notable tragedies, has led to some peculiar errors in grasping her position in literary history. In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf describes Austen as owing a debt to a foremother. Woolf argues passionately, “Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney.”1 ...

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1. Past the Period of Choosing to Write a “Love-tale”?: Frances Burney’s and Maria Edgeworth’s Late Fiction

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pp. 31-50

To the world, Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849) and Frances Burney (1752– 1840) in old age seemed to be enduring periods of silence, inactivity, or stagnation. Each then went on to publish new fiction. Their novels appeared after a long hiatus—for Burney, from 1796 to 1814, and for Edgeworth, from 1817 to 1834. (During this time, their previously published novels continued to appear in new editions or reprintings, keeping their names before the reading...

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2. Catharine Macaulay’s Waning Laurels

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pp. 51-74

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759– 97) generously praises the late Catharine Macaulay Graham (1731–91). Wollstonecraft calls Macaulay the woman of the greatest abilities ever produced by Great Britain and then expresses her grief: “When I first thought of writing these strictures I anticipated Mrs. Macaulay’s approbation, with a little of the sanguine ardour, which it has been the business of my life to depress; but soon...

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3. What Is Old in Jane Austen?

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pp. 75-96

Jane Austen (1775–1817) may not seem an obvious candidate for a study of old age, especially because one of the biographical details most remembered about her is that she led a life cut short. Nineteenth-century critics clearly thought of her in relation to her long-lived contemporaries, as they used her in contrast to them; for a time, Austen served as the exception that proved the...

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4. Hester Lynch Piozzi, Antiquity of Bath

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pp. 97-117

Though Hester Lynch Piozzi’s life and writings have received significant scholarly attention, her later years have not been given their due. As we have seen in previous chapters, this is not a condition peculiar to Piozzi (1741–1821). Like many of her long-lived female contemporaries, Piozzi remained an active writer up until her last days, although in prominent biographies her old...

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5. “One generation passeth away, and another cometh”: Anna Letitia Barbauld’s Late Literary Work

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pp. 118-140

Poet, critic, and essayist Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825) remained on the fringes of literary history during the Victorian era, when many eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women writers vanished. That may mean little for the woman whose fame was once described as “second to none among the female writers of her country.”1 One critic predicted that after her death...

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6. Jane Porter and the Old Woman Writer’s Quest for Financial Independence

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pp. 141-167

Jane Porter (bap. 1776–1850) did not enter into her twilight years unthinkingly. As an author who lived much of her adult life with her beloved sister (author Anna Maria Porter [1780–1832]) and their widowed mother, Porter knew that old age brought financial challenges for the unmarried woman writer.1 Though the sisters enjoyed early fame and considerable acclaim, by ...

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Conclusion. “Old women now-a-days are not much thought of; out of sight out of mind with them, now-a-days”

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pp. 168-178

In The Work of Writing (1998), Clifford Siskin describes what he calls “The Great Forgetting” of women writers, enjoining us to keep in mind that “there is much remembering to be done, and admirable progress has recently been made. But . . . we also need to find out how we forgot.”1 In the wake of what we might now call our great remembering of early modern British women ...


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pp. 179-204


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pp. 205-226


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pp. 246-234

E-ISBN-13: 9781421400228
E-ISBN-10: 1421400227
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801887055
Print-ISBN-10: 0801887054

Page Count: 252
Illustrations: 2 halftones
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 794701466
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850

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Subject Headings

  • Women and literature -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Old age -- Social aspects -- Great Britain.
  • Edgeworth, Maria, -- 1767-1849 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Burney, Fanny, -- 1752-1840 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Pembroke, Mary Sidney Herbert, ǂcCountess of, ǂd1561-1621 ǂxCriticism and interpretation.
  • Older women -- Great Britain.
  • Barbauld, Mrs (Anna Letitia), 1743-1825 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Women and literature -- Great Britain -- History -- 18th century.
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