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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 135-141
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Imagining the Possible
In their recent publications both Patricia Comitini and Carol Sherman re-imagine the limits of the eighteenth-century literary canon—Comitini for England and Sherman for France. Both also insist on moments of literary imagination [End Page 135] particular to the eighteenth century, and particularly female. Comitini analyzes four female authors: Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Dorothy Wordsworth and finds what she terms "vocational philanthropy." This philanthropy was the creation of women authors and their imaginative contribution to the class, gender, and national ideologies that developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. Sherman, on the other hand, is more interested in finding themes in eighteenth-century French fiction that were transitory, liminal, and did not survive. She does this in the hope to discover the wide range of possibilities in eighteenth-century thought and to suggest that contemporary society could benefit from the discovery of such unfamiliar paths. Though Comitini's book lacks an explanation for the transmission of the vocational philanthropy ideal to the poor and laboring classes, and despite the difficult language of Sherman's account, both books would be useful and insightful to scholars interested in western European literature, women's experiences, and class-based experience and consciousness.
Comitini's work "examines how writing was used as a form of philanthropy by upper- and middling-class women during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries" (1). Late eighteenth-century philanthropy had differentiated from earlier forms that focused on material and financial support of the poor to become more focused on a generalized love of mankind and a form of self-help ideology for the poor. Comitini sees female authors as central to the creation of this ideology, stating that "it is women who heed the call to the 'vocation' of philanthropy and charity, and consequently this social practice, and the benevolent and altruistic qualities associated with it, becomes 'feminized' at this point in history" (1). Vocational philanthropy was manifested through writing and reading and efforts to teach the poor proper reading habits in order to better themselves (28).
Comitini focuses on four English women authors from the late eighteenth century and analyzes how their specific writings demonstrate women's creation of and engagement with vocational philanthropy. She coins the term vocational philanthropy to describe "a social practice which produces literary discourses designed to 'teach' individuals how to improve their 'habits and behaviors'" (4). This discourse turns a public effort to ease the burdens on the poor into a privatized, individualized effort at improvement. Because the historical context of philanthropy is central to her argument, Comitini provides a historical chapter that outlines the history of charitable and philanthropic work in the eighteenth century as well as the increased interest in and practice of literacy and the role of women in both of these endeavors. "Thus, literacy, and who controls the production of texts, becomes a primary means of social control and ideological dissemination. Though attempted and accomplished with the utmost benevolent sincerity, what I have come to call vocational philanthropy is a contradictory form of 'self-help'" (28). This form of self-help "relies on the internalization of particular ideologies defined and disseminate through texts" (31). Women were the definers and disseminators of this ideology, according to Comitini, and she therefore centers on their contribution to this form of philanthropy.
Her second chapter opens with a discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and considers briefly A Vindication of the Rights of Men and other texts. By linking literacy with women's special access to moral and social improvement, Wollstonecraft positioned women as central to any positive change. "This endeavor characterizes an important feature of vocational philanthropy: women, particularly, must read and ultimately write...