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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 331-334
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Shaking the Spheres:
Public and Private Lives of Women
St. Francis Xavier University
Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir, Penny Warburton, eds. Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Pp. xii + 320. $59.95.
Linda Veronika Troost, ed. Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in their Lives, Work and Culture. Volume 1 (New York: AMS Press, 2001). Pp. xi + 356. $89.50.History is never as neat, and the participants in it never as separate, as theorists would like to make them. Now the existence of the spheres—the private and the public rather than the crystalline—and their gendered construction are [End Page 331] being questioned by feminist scholars. The primary aim of Eger's collection of twelve essays is to challenge Jürgen Habermas's model of the new public culture figured as predominantly male with women firmly entrenched in the private realm. Noting that "[t]here remains a danger that [women's] work is understood as occupying its own sphere of values" (2-3), Eger's volume examines the range and diversity of women's participation in eighteenth-century culture. The first section of the book offers two particularly fascinating studies of "Women in the Public Eye." Markman Ellis's essay on coffee-women juxtaposes The Spectator's reforming vision of the coffee-house with contemporary views of it to show "a more complex model of social interaction than that proposed by Habermas" (32). Rather than a space for masculine sociability, "the coffee-house proposes a fractured sociability riven by significant gender difference" (32-3). Ellis shows how the female proprietor is a subversive figure who "retains some of the worrying power of the whore" (38), "disrupts the coffee-house's sense of its own prestige and status" (39), and whom The Spectator aimed to eliminate. Caroline Gonda's essay examines the media spectacle surrounding accused parricides Mary Blandy and Elizabeth Jeffries; Irish beauties Elizabeth and Maria Gunning; and the penitent prostitutes of Magdalen Hospital. Her study of public reaction to these women leads Gonda to ask the questions that have always plagued women's participation in the world: "Is the 'public sphere' in some sense always already a stage, and therefore an improper space for women or a space only for improper women? If 'bad women' are 'necessarily public,' are all women's public appearances shadowed or tainted?" (66).
While part one presents the cultural anxiety caused by women's perceived performances in the public sphere, the essays in part two, "Consuming Arts," address representations of women in art (Grant; Eger) and reconstructions of femininity in relation to the marketplace. In a compelling study of the slavery debates, Kate Davies explores feminine sympathy for the abolition movement through Wedgwood's cameo pin and sentimental, anti-slavery poetry until abolition became tainted with "the luxury of feeling" (142). The "purely human" had to dissociate itself from the marketplace through the "self-sacrificing act of generosity" in ladies's abstention from sugar at the tea-table (144).
Part three, "Learned Ladies: From Bluestockings to Cosmopolitan Intellectuals," focuses on particular women's attempts to negotiate social prescriptions for femininity in the public sphere with their own desire to participate in it. In his essay that begins this part, Gary Kelly methodically summarizes the "social, ideological and political context and content of bluestocking feminism" (163). The section includes essays on Catharine Macaulay, the republican historian who could not control the "problematic dynamic between her [History of England] and its reception" (Wiseman, 192); Maria Edgeworth and her ambiguous reactions to French revolution author Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis (Ó Gallchoir); and Helen Maria Williams's translation of Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative in which she aimed for a balance of 'male' reason and 'female' imagination for a "form of discursive hermaphroditism" (Leask, 227).
The last section, "The Female Subject," is the most disappointing, not for any fault in the essays, but for the inevitable sense of dénouement after the exhilaration of women...