- Before NEWW(New approaches to European Women’s Writing): Prolegomena to the Launching of an International Project
The project New approaches to European Women’s Writing (NEWW) is an international collaborative network that has begun to take shape over the past decade. It seeks to produce new historiography about European women’s writing, viewed from an explicitly transnational and relational perspective. Unlike previous histories of women’s writing, it takes as its starting point not the production side of women’s literary works, but their reception—especially by readers contemporary to the publication. This approach means that we do not restrict ourselves to those writers who have survived canon formation or even to those who have (re)emerged recently thanks to feminism. We take into account all female contributions to the literary field, with connections to male contributions when relevant, but with a particular focus on the reception of women’s writings by other women. A second innovation is that women’s writing is viewed from an explicitly transnational perspective, foregrounding the many networks that existed between individual women writers in different countries and language areas before the advent of organized feminism in the late nineteenth century. Finally, the project is organized around an ever-expanding database ( www.databasewomenwriters.nl ), which at present holds some 18,000 entries containing references to the reception of women’s literary works before 1900.
The present NEWW project grew out of an increasing awareness among a group of researchers based in the Netherlands that we lacked the tools necessary to carry out adequate research into the history of women’s writing. This was because, as we discovered, we were not sure how to evaluate and contextualize the few surviving, canonized women authors in the literary field of their day.
The start was Suzan van Dijk’s work on French women’s literature and [End Page 151] its contemporary reputation, especially eighteenth-century novelists such as Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni and Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont, as well as George Sand in the nineteenth century. Sand’s work in particular had been studied, re-edited, and discussed in international conferences since the eighties, but with little attention paid to its impact during the nineteenth century. Although positive reactions to Sand’s works by Henry James and Dostoyevsky had not been completely forgotten, they remained isolated statements. Their isolation and lack of context explained in part the ease with which Sand had been dismissed until recent years.
At a 1992 conference in Debrecen, Hungary, for the first time the subject of Sand’s international contemporary reception was on the program. From then on a variable group of researchers has been working on the subject. Once we started to get an impression of the number of translations in European languages, others—in particular the organizers of the 2004 bicentennial “Année George Sand”—also became convinced of the important international status of this author, who enjoyed wide recognition among her contemporaries. For the Netherlands, where Suzan was working, Sand’s reception raised questions that could not be answered while remaining within a bilateral, Franco-Dutch context. The reception seemed relatively meager, especially in the domain of translations (three or four of them were known at the time), given the large number of sand’s publications (more than one hundred titles). This impression was in need of confirmation and explanation; it called for more thorough research in Dutch sources, especially those that allowed for a comparison of the Dutch reception of Sand with her reception elsewhere.
It turned out that comparison was, as it were, inherent to our material. In Dutch “reception traces” (comments and articles in the periodical press) Sand is constantly compared to other authors, particularly to other women: to George Eliot of course, but also—not always with the best intentions—to those German women writers who were said to smoke cigars and to have been influenced therein by Sand, such as Louise Aston, and those—like the German-born Countess Hahn-Hahn—whose morals were considered to be as loose as Sand’s own. But critics also established oppositions between Sand...