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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.3 (2006) 391-393
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The Great Remembering
Feminist scholars' endeavors to reposition women writers at the center of cultural and textual production have surely produced some of the most important developments in the field of eighteenth-century studies over the past twenty years. The recovery task that began with landmark publications such as Jane Spencer's The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986) and Janet Todd's The Sign of Angellica (1989) inevitably forced a reevaluation of dominant critical paradigms—such as the rise of the novel, the demise of manuscript culture, and the doggedly persistent ideology of separate spheres—which had failed to accord women writers their rightful place within literary history. As these and other works illuminated the complex ways in which women writers were informed by and influenced fellow authors, traditional interpretive frameworks became increasingly redundant. Simultaneously, the interrogation of these critical paradigms urged a more inclusive approach to print culture that might accommodate the manifold interventions made by women in the literary and cultural marketplaces. Norma Clarke's and Betty A. Schellenberg's studies of the professional careers of eighteenth-century women writers are openly indebted to the invaluable body of scholarship that precedes them. Both works reinforce critical scepticism of the public-private model and draw on the growing and fascinating body of work on gender, print culture, and authorship that has emerged in the studies of George Justice, Paula McDowell, Sarah Prescott, and Clifford Siskin, among others. Their collective [End Page 391] strength, however, lies in the timely and compelling cases they make for a reevaluation of the terms in which feminist criticism has negotiated women's place in eighteenth-century studies.
Norma Clarke's joyfully readable Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters—a work which envisages a wider readership than Schellenberg's study—offers lively accounts of the diverse career trajectories of a number of women writers from Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn to Anna Barbauld and Mary Wollstonecraft. The biographical details of many (but surely not all) of these women will be known to more enthusiastic scholars of women's writing. However, the strength of Clarke's descriptions lies not simply in the telling but in the skillful way that biographical details are accumulated in the patient building of the book's central argument. While attentive to those fascinating details that defy efforts to reduce these women to certain identifiable "types," Clarke nonetheless argues that a reading of the careers of female authors from the Restoration to Romanticism confirms a single, depressing truth: that the woman writer rose with the reinstitution of monarchical rule in 1660, only for her to fall from grace with "the beginnings of democracy and the undermining of a system based on deference" (3).
Clarke's thesis is not an entirely new one. Clifford Siskin's The Work of Writing (1998)—although not a work to which Clarke refers directly—similarly argued that the turn of the nineteenth century witnessed a systematic writing out—or "Great Forgetting"—of women writers by the new institutions of criticism that sought to masculinize the literary by privileging subjects traditionally gendered male such as economics and politics and marking out female-authored literature as the amateur "other" against which the preoccupations of the professional man of letters were defined. But despite its title, Clarke's work, in fact, corrects as much as it concurs with Siskin's account. In the first and possibly finest chapter of the book, Clarke offers a much-needed reassessment of the career and correspondence of Anna Seward. Taking advantage of her liberal upbringing—her father Thomas Seward was the author of the 1748 poem "The Female Right to Literature"—and the intellectual circle that gathered in her native Lichfield, the Seward who emerges here is a woman...