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Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century ed. by Tiffany Potter (review)

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 215-218 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0018

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First the disclaimer: I have known the editor of this collection and more than half of its contributors, some for more than twenty years, and have edited some of their essays in Lumen, the proceedings of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and TransAtlantic Crossings. Given that csecs has had its own annual meeting since 1971 and that the pool of eighteenth-century scholars in this country is a relatively small one, it would be difficult to find a reviewer who was not connected in one way or another. However, I am not, at present, engaged in any projects with any of the authors in Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century. In order to minimize a perceived conflict of interest, I intend to steer toward essays whose authors I don’t know.

The dust jacket, featuring “A View of the Grand Walk,” offers a splendid view of an outdoor concert at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, well attended by women in the latest style of wide-bustled dresses. The first names of the Nuremberg-born engraver who set up a print shop in London circa 1744, Johann Sebastian Müller (circa 1715–1792), are not given in the credit, and the date of this, circa 1751, is missing. He worked with the painter-designer, Samuel Wale, who was a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. The design shows a woman, backed by a small group of musicians, singing from an elevated bandstand to a crowd of well-dressed strollers. In an age that knew no film, television, or radio, this was the perfect, genteel (and much healthier) afternoon entertainment.

The editor of this volume has previously published a monograph on Henry Fielding (Honest Sins: Georgian Libertinism, 1999), edited Robert Rogers’s 1766 tragedy about Pontiac, Ponteach, or the Savages of America (2010), and co-edited collections on Battlestar Gallactica (2007) and The Wire (2009). Some essays fix on more customary subjects, “from theatres, plays, and actresses, to novels, magazines, and cookbooks, as well as populist politics, dress, and portraiture” (xi). To demonstrate just how far she is prepared to push the popular-culture envelope, Potter boldly leads this collection with a dazzling leap from The Rape of the Lock to the 2009 adaptation, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century blends eighteenth-century studies with twenty-first century multimedia. If the dust jacket lulled you into thinking a staid gathering was to follow, well … we’re not in tranquil Vauxhall Gardens any more.

Potter divides this collection into three parts: the first (after her own essay on zombies) more or less rooted in the eighteenth century, the second focusing on reading and writing, and the third bringing us up to speed on recent adaptations of the long eighteenth century in our so far short-lived twenty-first. So this avoids being an exclusive club for period-limited studies but is, rather, a gathering where specialists can let their hair down (something both male and female authors could do) and make connections between their academic interests (which have to combat the stigma of relevance) and their cultural surroundings. Anyone who thinks the eighteenth century is a dry vacuum between the Renaissance and Romantics (or the hole in the Early Modern donut) will be pleasantly shocked to learn more about the role women played in every aspect of life.

Berta Joncus looks at two sopranos who used their enormous appeal to transform their roles. Lavinia Fenton took some of the sting out of John Gay’s satirical lines, turning Beggar’s Opera into “a sentimental vehicle” (25). Kitty Clive, who starred in some of Fielding’s ballad operas, had strong views on how best to interpret the script. Sir Charles Hanbury Williams witnessed an argument between Fielding and Clive, sparked by his intention of casting her as the bawd in The Wedding Day. Hanbury Williams then recorded their heated exchange in rhyming couplets, published as the first poem in The Foundling Hospital for Wit (6 volumes, 1743–1749), which renders the actress lambasting the author thus:

Ye lye! ye lye! ungrateful as thou art,
My matchless Talents claim the Lady’s Part;
And all who...



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