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Reviewed by:
  • Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850
  • Lisa Vargo (bio)
Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850, by Devoney Looser. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 234 pp. $55.00.

If William Wordsworth's well-known lines from Book First of The Excursion, "The good die first, / And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust, / Burn to the socket!"1 illustrate the familiar myth that male Romantic poets die young, Devoney Looser sets her sights on a less-noticed assumption that literary women in nineteenth-century Britain lived and wrote into old age. The longevity of women writers, an idea popularized in the Victorian era and encountered by Looser in a reading of Jerom Murch's Mrs. Barbauld and Her Contemporaries (1877), forms her inspiration for a well-written, imaginative, carefully researched, and fascinating study. Looser's recovery of writings by older women and account [End Page 378] of their stories challenge assumptions about gender, old age, authorship, periodization, and genre.

This work contains six short chapters ranging from twenty to twenty-seven pages on seven women writers (Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Catherine Macaulay, Jane Austen, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Anna Barbauld, and Jane Porter) whose case studies explore how in their later years these writers "encountered a new set of complicated prejudices for which they were largely unprepared" (p. 1). Looser's engaging style mixes an informal tone, most notably in her preface where she uses the first person to account for her interest in her study (and notes the kind of skeptical response she has received), with careful research, including reception history and close reading of primary documents and manuscripts. The introduction establishes her subject, arguing for its "potential to refigure radically and productively our visions of literary history, whether in terms of periodization, authorial and generic trends, or the literary marketplace" (p. 7). Looser considers modern scholarship on old age and uses documentary evidence to define "old age" as "the age of 60—except in the case of 'old maids,' who might have been considered old from age 30 or 40 onward" (p. 9) during a time when notions of authorship and longevity were simultaneously transformed by increasing interest in youth and celebrity.

The central chapters of the book seek to "provide a more nuanced account of literary history" (p. 27) through a variety of concerns facing aging women writers. When Frances Burney "pushed the envelope for expectations of women's aging" (p. 31) in The Wanderer, she received harsh reviews, while Maria Edgeworth's conformity in Helen led to a less rancorous critical reception. The historian Catherine Macauley's unpublished response to a lukewarm review of her Letters on Education demonstrates a case study of a woman's effort, albeit an unsuccessful one, to maintain her position as an author. A chapter on Jane Austen considers a particular form of old in the "old maid"; a reading of Emma suggests the perpetuation of late-eighteenth-century stereotypes of spinsters in spite of Austen's feminism. Hester Lynch Piozzi's last published and late private writings should be viewed in a new light of resourcefulness and desire to discover a more receptive readership in the next generation. Anna Barbauld pursued literary critical and editorial projects to make the work of earlier writers available in a manner that she hoped would be done for her own writings, while her controversial political poem "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven" is examined for how its negative reviews reflect stereotypes about old women. A chapter on Jane Porter traces her unsuccessful attempt to obtain a royal pension and her efforts to republish her earlier works and regain copyrights. In a brief conclusion, Looser returns to the questions raised in the preface to suggest a number of additional subjects and topics for further thought. [End Page 379]

The concision of the chapters, while being admirable for their economy, might make one wish for more on each of her subjects. But Looser's study clearly is not meant to offer the final word on these writers. This is a book that is generous in what it presents by way of new information about women authors and how...


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pp. 378-380
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