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NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 180-185

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An Anthology: Life-Writings by British Women, 1660-1815 edited by Carolyn A. Barros and Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000, 417 pp., $50.00 hardcover, $20.00 paper.
Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the Eighteenth-and Nine-teenth-Century British Novel by Alison A. Case. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999, 223 pp., $37.50 hardcover.
Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century Women's Fiction and Social Engagement edited by Paula R. Backscheider. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, 288 pp., $39.95 hardcover.
Hungry Heart: The Literary Emergence of Julia Ward Howe by Gary Williams. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999, 288 pp., $34.95 hardcover.

This collection of life-writings appears in the context of an explosion of canon-making studies that have formed one current of the feminist critical challenge to traditional literary study. Anthologies and reference works such as the newly expanded An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers (Schleuter and Schleuter 1998) and others devoted to laboring-class women writers, to particular literary genres, and to more focused times and places respond to that primary inquiry: Who are the long neglected writers? What evidence about their lives and careers remains? What theoretical constructs enable us to appreciate better their experiences? Given the constraints of textual space in anthologies, the limited number of weeks on the syllabus, and the various human limitations binding scholars, the idea of a canon remains seductive: a finite selection of works or authors, a manageable corpus, a teachable narrative flexible enough to sustain multiple interpretations and theoretical examinations while providing something like a shared beginning point for critical conversation.

On the other hand, collections like that of Barros and Smith's An Anthology: Life-Writings by British Women, 1660-1815 continue to advocate vital strains in feminist scholarship: inclusiveness, discovery, and recovery. So while those cognizant of a growing "canon" of early Western women writers might be disappointed at the omission here of figures such as Frances Burney and Hannah More, they might well applaud the inclusion of fascinating figures like Mary Blandy, whose little-known life story and trial were sensations of the late eighteenth-century London press. While well-known literary figures such as Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Mary Wollstonecraft are represented, the "scandalous" theatrical memoir of Charlotte Charke is a welcome surprise. While there are lamentably few excerpts in this volume, the selections, by and [End Page 180] large, are imaginatively chosen and open relatively neglected genres like the "scandalous memoir" and the conversion narrative to further critical scrutiny. The editors are especially to be congratulated for recognizing the preface as an important autobiographical location. Beyond affording a site for the conventional apologia women gave for the "necessity" of writing, the preface gave women, such as the novelist and poet Charlotte Smith, a chance to reveal something about their own life circumstances and to create public personae.

Somewhat in contrast to Barros and Smith, Alison Case's Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the Eighteenth-and Nineteenth-Century British Novel provides a lucid and learned study that follows a well-worn path and shows the persistent hold of the traditional canon. Her subtitle might suggest that the idea of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century British novel was more or less a fixed phenomenon, a well-established body of work in need of a revitalizing critical narrative. With a fairly amorphous critical question as her beginning point--what might we mean by "feminine narration"--Case tries to squeeze her critical judgments into today's densely populated critical industries surrounding Richardson, Smollett, Brontë, Barrett Browning, and Dickens.

She places her study within feminist narratology, building on the work of critics such as Susan Lanser and employing the critical terminology of Gerard Genette ("homodiegetic" and "autodiegetic" narrators, for example) to examine the relationship between author...


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