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Reviewed by:
  • Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770-1902
  • Juliette Berning Schaefer (bio)
Miriam Elizabeth Burstein, Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770–1902 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 228, $74.95 cloth.

In the introduction to Narrating Women's History in Britain, Miriam Burstein defines women's history as "any study of women that analyzes changes in their social position and agency across time . . ." (1). That is, she contends that women's history was written well before the twentieth century. In six chronologically arranged chapters, Burstein addresses the "what," "how," and "why" of gender and society with regard to women's history as it was narrated from the Enlightenment through the late nineteenth century. She includes thoroughly researched readings of the social theories and various genres of each period.

In "The Situation of Women and History's Situation: Gender and Historicism, 1771–1779," Burstein analyzes "competing Enlightenment discourses surrounding women and historical knowledge . . ." in terms of the "running conflict between romance and history within Enlightenment women's history . . ." specifically addressed by various authors, including John Millar, Antoine-Leonard Thomas as translated by William Russell, and William Alexander (17, 18). She fully explains their writings in terms of how they wrote a public discourse of women's history.

Burstein then uses chapter two, "Spectacles and Sentiments: Disembodying Women's History, 1789-1810," to show how the "soft constructionism" of Millar and Alexander "came under pressure from a discourse emphasizing the revelation of 'pure' female virtues" (50). In the first section, "Transforming 'Influence," Burstein discusses female moral agency and human sexuality. In the second section, the translation of the German text The History of the Female Sex (1808) by Christoph Meiner and the role of sensibility are examined. In the third section, Elizabeth Hamilton's Memoirs of the Life of Agrippina, the Wife of Germanicus (1804) is addressed as a "case study in the 're-Christianization' of women's history" (51). The last section concerns the "lyric utterance" in Felicia Heman's Records of Woman (1828) (51).

In chapter three, "'Beautiful and Poetic Creations': Scott and the Fictions of Women's History," Burstein argues that in Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) "the downfall of the Ashton family is symbolized by the historical erasure of femininity altogether . . ." (96). In addition, she contends that "femininity and historicity are not binary opposites" (97). Scott's work, she argues, does not submit to the "easy divisions into fiction/femininity and history/masculinity" (95).

In chapter four, "From Good Looks to Good Thoughts: Forgetting Women's History, c. 1832-c. 1876," Burstein examines "Victorian texts [End Page 77] that either wrote the history of 'Woman' or put that history to political use, including biography collections, universal histories of women in 'all ages and nations,' periodical articles, and devotional materials" (99). In this chapter, she moves from author-centered to text-centered ideas such as biography, Christianity, "eventful lives," "exemplary women," and the "masculine woman" (115, 117, 119).

Chapter five, "Families and Other Fictions: Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond, Anti-Catholicism, and the 'Birth' of Domesticity" is divided into two parts. In the first part, Burstein addresses the role of the family in Anti-Catholic fiction. She includes authors Charlotte Elizabeth (Tonna), Anna Eliza Bray, Rev. William Sewell, and Elizabeth Rundle Charles, among others, in her discussion of domesticity, the figure of Mary, self-sacrifice, and the Catholic confessional. In the second part, Burstein provides a reading of Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond (1852), which she calls "a mélange of competing visions of history" (129).

In chapter six, "Charisi's Trunk and Grandcourt's Estate: Gender, Love, and History in Daniel Deronda," Burstein argues that "all of the characters [in Eliot's novel] exist in a world where historical consciousness itself is fleeting, denied, or non-existent" and "women's history is written in Jewish rather than Protestant terms" (154, 155). She specifically analyzes the characters of Lenora, Gwendolen, and Mirah and differing modes of cultural transmission in terms of both gender and race. She then includes an "Epilogue" in which she explores "the significance for later women's history of the theological and racial anxieties manifested in...


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