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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 132-135
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Reading the Season in Work on Women Writers:
A Time to Mourn, A Time to Celebrate?
Betty A. Schellenberg
The title of Paula Backscheider's important new book, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets And Their Poetry, announces its ambitious scope, while its subtitle, Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre, promises to link writers' self-conscious negotiations of a cultural field with genre as one of the constraining and enabling conditions of that field. Initially, the book makes us aware of the near-impossibility of finding sense-making patterns among such a vast range of disparate writers—"literally hundreds," Backscheider tells us—writing in a full array of genres yet in most cases absent from the grand narrative of literary history, and now subject to the vagaries of what materials have survived. Adding to the difficulty of the task are the spottiness of scholarship on women poets, the "gender balkanization" which has tended to submerge difference within women's writing in the interests of creating an alternative tradition, and more broadly, our critical blindspots respecting all eighteenth-century poetry, particularly to its pervasive grounding in religious belief. In the face of these considerable odds, Backscheider chooses to work from the poets and their poems outward, tracing and exemplifying the contributions of about forty women to poetry in general, as a culturally central site of political [End Page 132] and social debate in the period, and to such prominent period forms as the hymn, friendship poetry, and the sonnet. Her goal is to make the case for "a revised, more complex and subtle literary history" and for the incorporation of women poets' career achievements into that history.
Backscheider's culminating, extensive treatment of the sonnets and other poetry of Charlotte Smith illustrates just how fully the book's goal is achieved. This chapter makes the convincing case that Smith is a major transitional poet between Augustan and Romantic sensibilities, and then, surprisingly, that her very "transitional" nature is paradoxically representative of the poetry of eighteenth-century women in its sustained allegiance to particular forms such as the friendship poem and in its insistence on "Enlightenment optimism." Thus eighteenth-century women's poetry, if only we attend to it, unsettles our most stubbornly held period dichotomies. In the initial three chapters, on the other hand, I found my reading experience somewhat entangled in the difficulties of the task at hand. Although the introductory chapter admirably demonstrates the cultural importance of poetry in the century and the centrality of women in its production, it raises only to put on hold theoretical questions of evaluation and canon-formation, and struggles with the need to make generalizations about the poetry of women while accurately conveying its diversity. The next two chapters combine, to sometimes uneasy if suggestive effect, surveys of popular and public poetic forms (especially the fable and the theatrical piece) with more extensive treatments of the complex careers of Anne Finch, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Elizabeth Singer Rowe.
Backscheider acknowledges the compromises of these early chapters, and strikes a much more comfortable balance once the book turns to its focused treatments of poetic "kinds"—the overlapping forms of religious poetry, friendship poetry, retirement poetry, the elegy, and the sonnet. The method is one of extensive exemplification, using an effective blend of short quotations, full citations of some poems, and paraphrase to ground pithy appreciative commentary and identify patterns. In this manner the erudite scholar-critic stands aside in order to bring the reader into direct contact with the poetry of the women themselves. As we read line after line of Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Jane Brereton, Elizabeth Carter, or Elizabeth Tollett, we are...