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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 266-269
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Mothers of the Nation:
Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830
Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830. By Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. 172 pp.
The most important development in the study of British Romanticism during the past two decades has been the rapid expansion, as unprecedented as it was unforeseen, of the field itself. Not only has the number of poets regularly taught and written about, which had dwindled to six or seven by the 1960s, grown much larger, thanks to new attention to women writers, but poetry no longer dominates the field as it had since the constitution of Romanticism as a literary-historical period. The domestic novel (especially Jane Austen), the gothic, the historical novel, the early feminist movement (especially Mary Wollstonecraft), abolition, antislavery writing, the slave narrative, political and economic writing, popular fiction, and even early children's literature have established themselves as legitimate objects of study. One consequence has been the demotion of the term Romanticism, now often displaced (as in the subtitle of Anne K. Mellor's latest book) by chronological markers like "1780-1830." The results of this broadening of the field are hard to overstate. It is surely no accident that it has coincided with the rise of a whole array of new journals, conferences, professional organizations, and book series devoted to Romanticism and its cognates. It [End Page 266] may also have kept Romanticism from disappearing as a hiring field at a time when English departments have had to devote slots to new areas of study, often while facing a net loss of full-time positions.
Few have done as much as Mellor to promote the more capacious and democratic constitution of the field, through her books, her conference presentations, and her (coedited) anthology British Literature, 1780-1830 (1996). From her 1988 study of Mary Shelley to her current title, Mothers of the Nation, Mellor has worked to place gender relations at the center of Romantic scholarship and to bring Romantic-era women writers into serious critical consideration. Of course, she is not alone in this task, and one feature of Mellor's career has been her eagerness to promote, build on, and synthesize the work of fellow scholars. Mothers of the Nation, then, not only represents Mellor's latest thinking and research on the topic but serves as an introduction to more than a decade of work by various hands on previously neglected issues, genres, and texts, from the involvement of women writers with political questions to the popular theatrical successes of dramatists like Hannah Cowley and Elizabeth Inchbald. What gives the book coherence is its program to underscore women's activities in the public sphere—as political poets, playwrights, reviewers, novelists, and cultural critics—by arguing that the politics of admonishment and reform practiced by many women writers shaped the British national ethos in ways unsuspected or underplayed by prior scholarship.
Mellor suggests that much of this activity may have been invisible to literary and cultural historians because the ideology of "separate spheres," which relegated women to the domestic or private sphere and reserved political and large tracts of economic engagement for men, has been confused with actual practice during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This is probably so. But the solution is not necessarily to "discard" the separate-spheres model "altogether" (7). It would seem enough to keep in sight the distinction between ideology and practice, understanding as well that practice varied markedly with social status. (Lower-class women were urged into the public economic sphere during the early nineteenth century, because they were widely seen as more easily trained for factory work than men.) Without a fairly robust sense of the public-private dichotomy functioning at an ideological level, however, it would be difficult to grasp the point of feminist arguments against conduct-book values (as in Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman) or against economic discrimination...