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Biography 26.4 (2003) 734-737

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George L. Justice and Nathan Tinker, eds. Women's Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 245 pp. ISBN 0-521-80856-1, $60.00.

In one of the central essays in this scholarly collection, Margaret Ezell, one of the most distinguished scholars of women's manuscript circulation in the world, writes of her wish that "some new source" of "serendipitously preserved artifacts" about lives and writing would be found. She and the other contributors to this book suggest that, at least to some extent, manuscripts are those artifacts. Ezell's essay is on posthumously published manuscripts by men and women, and she claims that "posthumous publication . . . has . . . been left unexamined" (124). These claims may be largely true about literary historians and critics, but they are certainly not true for biographers. In fact, as one who has written lives and criticism, I was reminded yet again of the lamentable divides between the two groups, and even worse, the considerable blindness about the "other field" and about the sophisticated tools and insights produced by one side that the other does not use or seek to know. Whether this state is the result of New Criticism and other lit. crit. movements, the increase of biographers without any familiarity with powerful theoretical tools developed primarily in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, or an information explosion that makes it impossible to "read everything," the results are lamentable. I've reviewed biographies such as Morris Brownell's impressive The Prime Minister of Taste (Yale UP, 2001) and regretted the fact that the most rudimentary acquaintance with Pierre Bourdieu's theories of taste and cultural capital, or with John Brewer's The Consumption of Culture, would have increased the biography's significance. More and more theory is used without off-putting and difficult jargon—invisibly adding dimensions and new insights. Fears that use of it will affect the general appeal to which biography is committed are groundless.

With few exceptions, these essays suffer from unfamiliarity with the sophisticated ways that biographers have discovered, earned the trust necessary to publish, and analyzed all kinds of evidence in manuscripts. Take posthumous publication. If, as Ezell says, literary critics have failed to notice or care about it, biographers have taken for granted the need to look for it and leap upon, contextualize, analyze, and interpret both publication and manuscript. Ezell writes, "we find three parallel types of posthumous practices." Biographers could easily add several more. For example, scanning Roger Lonsdale's fine biographical sketches of the women poets in his Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (Oxford, 1990) suggests how many friends and relatives brought about publication because they believed in the merit of the [End Page 734] poetry, or understood that publication would, for instance, support the indigent and elderly parent of a poet.

Another distinguished star represented in this collection is Kathryn King, author of the fine biography Jane Barker, Exile (Oxford, 2000). She has taken on the complex history of perhaps the most admired and influential woman poet of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, about whom King is an expert. King has published both biography and literary history, and she works through much of Rowe's publication history and manuscript circulation, tying them as good biographers do to Rowe's circles of friends and acquaintances and to the pressures and aspirations that can be identified in her life. King seems surprisingly cramped for space, for one of the great advantages of publishing in collections rather than scholarly journals is usually the ability to write longer essays. Perhaps because she does not consider the novelistic qualities of Letters from the Dead to the Living or the publication of History of Joseph (1736), a biblical paraphrase that blends many elements from the popular novel to tell four stories of forbidden love and sensationalizes some emotions, she does not pick up on Rowe's obvious engagement with the rising form, the novel, as an impetus to publish in print...


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