- Women in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction and Transatlantic Politics
The study of women's writing in the long eighteenth century has grown dramatically since the 1970s. As Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan point out, the topic's maturity as a field of research is now evidenced by the revisionist nature of the essays in the volume they have edited: "The romance of 1970s feminism, with its larger-than-life heroines and its sharply drawn social and political binaries which gave a Manichean and melodramatic edge to public/private, left/right distinctions between women, is being merged with, and in [End Page 90] some cases supplanted by, a less ideologically clear-cut and narratively neat 'true history'" (14).
The authors included in British Women's Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century were all presenters at "Women's Writing in Britain, 1660–1830," a conference held 13-15 July 2003, and drafts of all but three of the papers in this volume were first presented there. The conference was occasioned by the opening of the Chawton House Library and Study Centre in the Elizabethan manor house in Hampshire once owned by Jane Austen's brother Edward. The library enjoys a close association with the University of Southampton, which offers the Chawton MA in eighteenth-century studies, an interdisciplinary curriculum for which the Chawton collections (some 9,000 volumes of primary and secondary printed material, plus a small manuscript collection) are a central resource. A valuable continuing project at Chawton House is the online presentation of some of the rarer novels in its collection at http://www.chawton.org/library/novels.html. Several biographies of authors are also included.
The Batchelor-Kaplan volume is divided into two sections: "Authorship and Print Culture" and "History and Politics." The various essays' topics range widely, encompassing obscure authors, famous ones, and such genres as poetry, drama, journalism, and letters, in addition to the volume's primary focus upon prose fiction. The contributors include such distinguished and familiar luminaries in eighteenth-century women's studies as Isobel Grundy, Cora Kaplan, Felicity Nussbaum, and Janet Todd. But new voices are represented, too. Moi Rickman contributes an essay on the connection between racial theories and the language of sensibility, while Katie Halsey analyzes allusions in Mansfield Park. And Helen Thompson contributes an essay on Aphra Behn's Love-Letters, exploring the Hobbesian aspects of sexual politics, which she covers at greater length in her Ingenuous Subjection: Compliance and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel, discussed below.
A revisionist focus is evident from the volume's first pages, as Batchelor's essay, "Woman's Work: Labour, Gender, and Authorship in the Novels of Sarah Scott," argues that the novels present work as a "fulfilling and viable alternative to marriage" (25), challenging Nancy Armstrong's claim, in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987), that "work was an anathema to emergent constructions of femininity and female authorship in this period" (25). In "Anna Seward: Swan, Duckling, or Goose?" Norma Clarke uses Seward to illustrate a shift to which contemporary scholarship has paid little attention: as critical journals staffed by men grew more influential in the early nineteenth century, critical opinion, "once the province of mixed gatherings of the like-minded (often presided over by an exceptionally brilliant woman, such as Elizabeth Montagu, the 'queen' of the bluestockings in London, or Seward in Lichfield) became professionalized and in the process women were effectively squeezed out" (37–38). [End Page 91]
Some of the volume's essays are of lighter weight: for example, Judith Hawley's discussion of Coleridge's relationship with Mary Robinson, Janet Todd's comparison of Austen...