- The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England: Literature, Commerce, and Luxury
E. J. Clery's trenchant, thought-provoking, and readable study, The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England, provides a welcome rereading of gender, commerce, and the luxury debates from the 1690s through Samuel Richardson's heyday in the 1750s. It identifies a process throughout the century of feminization, which Clery defines through a move away from civic humanist virtue to a cultural model in which women are seen as indexical to civilization and commercial growth. This book selects a series of familiar reference-points-coffee-house culture and the emergent periodical, the South Sea scheme and nascent capitalism, Pope's literary dominance during the 1730s, and Richardson's recuperation of the feminine-but tells the narrative through attention to figures who are often either overlooked or insufficiently considered in relation to one another. The book's stated focal point is the work of Samuel Richardson, whose novels are read plausibly as a feminizing reflection of the debates over progress and commercial growth during the first half of the century (2). The result is a cogent rethinking of the vicissitudes of attitudes to luxury and to misogyny throughout the century that ought to be seriously attended to by any eighteenth-century scholar with interests in the gender and literary culture.
The book is structured chronologically, with six chapters devoted respectively to coffee-houses, John Dunton and Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Mandeville and Defoe, Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot, Richardson's Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. From the beginning, the study promises usefully to problematize the usual categories of eighteenth-century scholarship by tracing intellectual currents between satirists (Mandeville, but also Swift and Hogarth), Bluestockings such as Elizabeth Carter, and sentimental novelists such as Richardson. This resituation of Richardson in relation to an earlier satiric tradition is particularly valuable for scholars of his work, as is the focus on historicizing his novels and on treating them as historiography in themselves, which is possibly the most useful aspect of the study. The Feminization Debate is hardly a book only for the Richardson scholar, however; Clery's well-informed and suggestive exposition of the interplay between gender, literature, and economic history makes the present study important to a much wider audience. From the beginning, it helpfully complicates accepted notions, taking issue with Randolph Trumbach's influential model of effeminacy and separating feminization [End Page 124] out from other categories with which it is normally connected, such as sensibility and domesticity (10-11). The first chapter, which has already been published elsewhere, risks feeling slightly detached from the rest of the book, but profitably reviews the study's obvious reference points of Habermas and Pocock, while drawing out the masculinist nature of civic humanism.
The book really begins to come into its own in chapter two. This chapter and those subsequent embark on a series of interlinked case studies, using in-depth scrutiny of the lives and writings of various figures to trace Clery's trajectory of feminization. These figures are often under-studied (or at least critically isolated) and their juxtaposition marks one of the book's real strengths. For example, the invocation of John Dunton's Athenian Mercury as a precursor to the Spectator and Tatler papers is part of an overdue renewal of interest in his work, and by placing him at the beginning of her narrative, Clery helps to re-establish him as a necessary reference point in considerations of women and periodical culture. Her case for reading him as feminizing is succinct and carefully made, as is her subsequent reading, in chapter three, of Hogarth's The South Sea Scheme and especially of Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees. In focusing on the latter, this chapter, too, takes a writer who is often brought in merely as a footnote and turns the beam of critical inquiry onto his writing, not as a background to more interesting literary works, but as an integral part of the picture. The case study approach provides...