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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 320-323
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Saint Mary's University
Ann Messenger. Woman and Poet in the Eighteenth Century: The Life of Mary Whateley Darwall, 1738-1825 (New York: AMS Press, 1999). Pp. xii + 273. $59.50 cloth.
Janet Todd. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000). Pp. xxii + 516. $25.00 cloth.
The two books under review here show that the field of literary studies today has room for a quiet book about the minor poet Mary Darwall and a daring blockbuster of a biography about feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft. Feminist literary studies owes a debt of gratitude to critics like Janet Todd and the late Ann Messenger. Todd is one of today's most important scholars of the eighteenth century, with a steady list of publications, from her recent biography of Aphra Behn to her editions of Mary Wollstonecraft, her invaluable Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, and the many works in between. Ann Messenger specialized in the works of Anne Finch and enthusiastically drew attention to lesser-known women poets as well. Such steady scholarly efforts have helped to create a climate conducive to the study of the life and the work of eighteenth-century women writers.
It is a virtue of her book that Ann Messenger never tries to make Mary Darwall (1738-1825) out to be a more important writer than she is. The author of two collections of poetry, Darwall was a minor eighteenth-century poet, who led an ordinary life. Yet, it is that very ordinariness that makes her story an interesting one. The eighteenth century was a time when hundreds of women published poetry, gaining a brief moment of fame before vanishing into oblivion. Recently, anthologies like Roger Lonsdale's and Joyce Fullard's have brought these poets back to life, and many of us would like to know more about them. In A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf asked what Elizabethan women "did from eight in the morning till eight at night"; the same question might well be asked of the forgotten women poets of the eighteenth century. But Mary Darwall's case illustrates how difficult it is to find out more, and Messenger makes a heroic effort to piece together a biography by making the most of what little information is available.
Ann Messenger divides her book into three sections that foreground the social status of the eighteenth-century woman: Part I: Virgin; Part II: Wife; Part III: Widow. Born to a farming family in a village near Birmingham in 1738, Mary Darwall (née Whateley) was known for her love of literature as a girl. In 1759, she published her first two poems under a pen name in Gentleman's Magazine, a journal she read regularly, which provided an important "window" on the world of letters for "an isolated country girl" (18). She was also befriended by the writer William Shenstone, who lived nearby and who, before his death in 1763, helped her to find a publisher for her first book of poetry. The long subscription list shows how valuable it was for her as an unknown writer to have some connections, however slight, with neighbouring clergy, Oxford friends of her neighbours, and men of letters like Shenstone. Original Poems on Several Occasions, by Miss Whateley (London: Dodsley, 1764), sold well and was reviewed prominently. Her friend John Langhorne praised the book in the Monthly Review. [End Page 320]
Messenger describes Darwall's early poetry as being primarily in the pastoral tradition, in praise of country life and friendship. She was an elegant writer, sometimes reminiscent of Anne Finch, and the nocturnal poem "The Pleasures of Contemplation" exemplifies the best of her work, with its intelligence and pleasing style. In 1766 she married John Darwall, vicar of the Anglican church in nearby Walsall. They had a large family, and as husband and wife collaborated on hymn writing and in the operation of an amateur printing press. A poem entitled "On the Author's Husband Desiring her to Write Some Verses" deals...