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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 124-126
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History in Context: Female Authors and the Genres in Which They Wrote
Devoney Looser. British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Pp. 272. $45.00 cloth.
Hilda L. Smith, editor. Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. xiv + 392. $69.95 cloth.
Looser and Smith present complimentary studies of the mutual influence of gender and genre in historical and political writing by women. Although Smith's volume focuses on political writing, it can answer Looser's observation that "There is no reference work exploring early modern women's historical texts" (5). Looser's study of women's historical writing meets Smith's criteria of examining writings by women relatively unknown outside of feminist scholarship (2).
Although their formats differ, their theses are similar. Looser's monograph proposes to prove "women were much more involved in the burgeoning genre of history than we have formerly thought" (2), and Smith's collection of sixteen essays written by scholars of the early modern period has a similar goal for women's political writing. She states: "It focuses on the political ideas of a range of women authors who were more familiar to, but seldom fully accepted by, their contemporaries than they have become to those studying early modern politics and political thought" (xiii).
Their discussions of gender and genre also overlap on three key issues. They pursue a redefinition of genre (history, political writing) that takes gender into account, then each work is contextualized in the society and culture that produced it through emphasizing the importance of how texts and their individual authors were seen and received. Thirdly, they examine the language and narrative structure of each text to determine the genre's discursive relationship to gender. Looser terms this "how [female] subjects participate in and shape textual modes" (2). Each author's handling of these issues helps redefine what is meant by a feminist reading of a text.
According to Looser, contemporary scholars have not seen the true breadth of women's contributions to history because they have defined the genre too narrowly (21). Her redefinition reveals the artificiality of the socio-cultural and literary historical trends that increasingly sought to separate fiction as an acceptable genre for female authors from history as a genre dominated by male authors. This separation also forms the definition most widely accepted by contemporary scholars of historical writing as a chronicle of political events. Thus, the six women's works that she chooses to analyze present history in modes, such as memoirs, letters, and fiction, that stretch the accepted definition of history writing. She begins with Lucy Hutchinson's memoirs of her husband in the Civil War, and ends with Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. In between she treats writings by Mary Wortley Montagu and Charlotte Lennox as well as Catharine Macaulay's History in Letters and Hester Lynch Piozzi's Retrospection. In studying each, Looser contextualizes the works by pointing out the importance of society's reaction to each author as a woman and as a historian. Looser's observation that reviewers attributed [End Page 124] Piozzi's lack of historiographical skill to her sex (169) is applied in some degree to all of the women. Each of the female authors had to live up to the public's expectations in the writing of their histories and the living of their lives. For example, in Looser's analysis, Macaulay's decision to dedicate the History in Letters to the Reverend Wilson, responsible for Macaulay's lavish birthday party, her house in Bath, and a statue of her, instead of her daughter, suggests an allusion to an inappropriate relationship instead of the expected and acceptable maternal instruction.
The essays that compose Smith's anthology offer a similarly broad definition of women's political writing and examine texts, ranging from Christine de Pizan's monograph on statecraft to Aphra Behn...