- The Feminization of Fame, 1750–1830
Although its title suggests a wide-ranging reconceptualization, this book is a series of detailed case studies held loosely together by the argument, powerfully advanced in the introduction but less convincingly demonstrated within individual chapters, that during this period “fame as a concept underwent a process of feminization, allowing women to embrace celebrity” (1), and that it became acceptable to desire fame in one’s own lifetime rather than to hope simply for posthumous renown.
Brock observes that recent critical work on the “democratizing process,” by which fame in the “age of personality” became more accessible, has hitherto been explored “only in relation to men,” although in fact “women came increasingly to dominate a feminized literary culture” (1). Central to her argument is that classical concepts of masculine, military heroism gave way to more “feminine” ideals: the “silent virtues” of “common life” (5–6) became more highly prized, validating a growing interest in the private lives and subjectivities of famous people, especially writers. Brock builds upon recent scholarly work on gender, sensibility, and authorship in the Romantic era, but under-acknowledges her debt to other scholars, either by taking as read some important assumptions, or by oversimplifying recent investigations. Hence, there is no real discussion of the complex reorientation of gender roles during this period, beyond the labeling of this process as “feminization”; and “print culture” is frequently invoked without definition or discussion.
The first of Brock’s case studies is Rousseau, on whose British critical reception she sheds interesting new light by examining letters and diaries written by acquaintances (including Hume and Boswell) as well as more distant admirers. Women and men alike were seduced by the amorous intensity of Rousseau’s writings, and they conflated author and text in their passionate responses to a “feminized” Rousseau. Brock’s equation (in this chapter and throughout) of “sentimental” with “feminine” begs various questions—about Rousseau, about sentimentalism, about gender. It also sits oddly with Rousseau’s self-characterization as seductive libertine. Brock cites the praise of the European Magazine—typical of many newspapers and magazines—for his “bewitching eloquence,” which “makes one forget, at least overlook, the immorality of many of his actions” (32). In 1783 this kind of moral appraisal hardly suggests that Rousseau or his fame is simply “feminized.”
Succeeding chapters present case studies in the literary careers of Catherine Macaulay, Mary Robinson, Frances Burney, Germaine de Staël, and William Hazlitt. Brock nicely explains how Macaulay reconceptualized heroism in her History of England—downplaying military prowess and celebrating women who embodied the quieter virtues of steadfastness and morality—and also in the statue of herself [End Page 595] as “History,” erected by admirers in the London church St. Stephen Walbrook. The next chapter describes how Mary Robinson exploited “the increasingly sophisticated print culture of the late eighteenth century” (77) and actively “managed her fame in the newspapers and periodical press” (87). Brock here challenges “the current critical obsession with Mary Robinson’s inability to deal with excessive public attention” (82). Recent biographies by Paula Byrne, Hester Davenport, and Sarah Gristwood—their publication after the completion of Brock’s own study is acknowledged in a footnote—have in fact complicated this view of Robinson. In any case, “current critical obsession” is overstated and symptomatic of Brock’s tendency to critical one-upmanship, which degenerates into Scriblerian absurdity at times: “What I will label Hazlitt’s contemporaneity . . . will entail proposing an argument exactly opposite to that of previous Hazlitt scholars” (171); “The capitalization of ‘SECOND’ has never been commented on by Burney critics” (121). In the chapter on Burney, much is made of other critics’ overemphasis on her modesty, against which Brock argues forcefully for Burney as “self-obsessed, secure in her famous image and eager to enhance it at any opportunity” (111). Although Brock makes effective use of the letters and journals to challenge the view of Burney as colluder in her own nothingness, she overstates her case—not least in suggesting that the famous dedication of Evelina to...