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Making Good Use of History: Sarah Robinson Scott in the Republic of Letters BETTY A. SCHELLENBERG I. There can be few historians of eighteenth-century English literature who remain unfamiliar with Sarah Robinson Scott, reclusive woman novelist and Utopian writer, living in genteel poverty in provincial England, choosing physical distance from the glittering and ambitious salon circle presided over by her Bluestocking sister Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, where she might have attained a higher public profile through her wit and intellectual acumen. Indeed, Sarah Scott, b. 1720 and d. 1795, appears to have sought to live out her life in the role of private gentlewoman, called upon to perform quietly the Christian duties of her social station to the extent afforded by her kinship relations, a few long-term friendships, her limited means, and her poor health. To this identity, private in multiple senses, she seems successfully to have subordinated her activities as author, whether published professional or coterie correspondent. Thus at the age of 70, she writes to her sister, in the context of the political stresses of the Warren Hastings trial, "IfI were to write any thing it must be a Satire on Juries..., it is therefore lucky for me that I am not a Writer."1 Even if ironically intended, such a comment suggests a model of identity very different from the one we tend to assume for the woman author within eighteenth-century print culture.2 The identity of "writer," for Sarah Scott, far from being an ambition to be pursued or a shame to be avoided—and in either case, therefore, an essential component 45 46 / SCHELLENBERG of one's self that must be acknowledged—seems rather to have been an option that could simply remain unexercised. Scott's place in the history of women's writing is secure on the strength of her Utopian fiction Λ Description of Millenium Hall (17'62) and its sequel The History of Sir George Ellison (1766),3 grounded as they were in her own experiments in alternative community living.4 It might seem best, then, to leave well enough alone, to acknowledge the novelist and respect the place she herself appears to have been content to hold as a modest footnote to the main text of eighteenth-century literary history. Yet the figure behind the footnote is more complex than such a solution would imply. In contrast to considerable interest over the past several decades in Millenium Hall and its sequel, little attempt has been made to place Scott in the republic of letters as the author of at least three book-length histories, published over a 13-year period encompassing these fictions: The History ofGustavus Ericson King of Sweden (1760), The History ofMecklenburgh (1762), and The Life of Theodore Agrippa D 'Aubigné{\112).5 But Scott apparently valued herself more on these histories than on her fictions and translations. In 1763, for example, finding that her father knows she is author of Millenium Hall, she writes to her sister Elizabeth, "You may if You please tell him in confidence that he bears the same Relation to Gustavus, for I am surprized he does not feel some apprehensions, lest if I apply myself only to Novels, I may endeavour to arrive at a denouement myself in spight of my mature years." As for the translation of French novels, she calls this being "the interpreter of nonsence," and declares that she would be satisfied to earn 40£ a year in that capacity.6 As a highly educated and well-read intellectual, a frequently published author in a range of genres, and the co-author of a 55-year-long correspondence with Elizabeth that records the details of her domestic, social, readerly, and authorial life, Scott offers the literary historian an opportunity to test models of the English public sphere, or republic of letters, for their ability to illumine the practical realities of an intellectual life lived in mid-eighteenth-century England. In short, what shall we make of the paradox of Scott, as formulated by Gary Kelly: "Sarah Robinson Scott ... was the most published yet one of the least known of the first-generation bluestocking writers in their time"?7 And...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 45-68
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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