- A Feminine Enlightenment: British Women Writers and the Philosophy of Progress, 1759-1820 by JoEllen DeLucia
JoEllen DeLucia’s absorbing study, A Feminine Enlightenment: British Women Writers and the Philosophy of Progress, 1759-1820, is an important contribution to scholarship on the relationship of women writers to the Scottish Enlightenment. The sweep of the title notwithstanding, it is [End Page 273] primarily a close examination of the ways in which literary women from the Bluestockings to the Romantic-era novelists Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth, and Regina Maria Roche seized on the heterodox possibilities opened up by the “ancient” poems of Ossian, which appeared in 1760-1763. “Translated” from the Gaelic by James Macpherson, these poems were in fact sophisticated counterfeits. As DeLucia explains, the Ossian poems were both a quintessential product of the Scottish school of conjectural history and a subversion of many of its central tenets.
For those with an interest in how women were positioned in relation to the mainstream Enlightenment thinking of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Lord Kames, the first stop might be Karen O’Brien’s Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2009) or the seminal work of Jane Rendall. In DeLucia’s work, a new trail is successfully blazed by looking at the ways the literary controversy over the Ossian poems gave educated women the invitation they needed to join the conversation on historical change, progress, and the nature of modernity. These women seemed relatively untroubled by the question of whether the poems were authentic and instead “embraced Ossian’s inauthenticity and hybridity and used him to craft associations that unsettled standard national, political, and familial frameworks” (p. 191).
In recent years, Macpherson’s ruse has stimulated a great deal of discussion on nationalist cultural identity. Nation is certainly a feature of the writings explored in this book, but rather than focusing on the Scottish or Celtic dimension of the Ossian phenomenon, DeLucia looks at the way it licensed a subversive form of comparative historicism among female authors south of the border. Authors like Elizabeth Montagu and Anna Seward were fascinated by the spectacle in Ossian of a primitive society different from the ancient androcentric civilizations of Greece and Rome—a society where feminine refinement of manners and delicacy of sentiment were apparently combined with masculine primal virtues of public spirit and military courage. This fusion was an apparent violation of the stadial theory propounded by Adam Smith and John Millar, which linked material progress with the progress of culture. Modernization involved an implicit feminization, and some, like their associate Adam Ferguson, expressed alarm. The Ossian poems provided evidence that this sort of gender-bending could be found in antiquity, in the special circumstances of the Celtic fringe of Europe, and only needed to be rediscovered by the moderns. The poems gave the new female intellectual aristocracy of Bluestockings a sense of origins, centered on the legendary figures of Malvina and Darthula, who sang songs and feasted with men and even fought alongside them.
DeLucia has gone further than any other scholar I have encountered in demonstrating the depth and range of women writers’ responses to [End Page 274] the Ossian cycle, entirely overlooked by the main authorities. There are marvellous sections on Montagu’s regular “feasts of shells,” at which guests would drink from a “nautilus shell to the immortal memory of Ossian”; on Catherine Talbot’s spirited imitations of Ossian; and on Seward’s “queer” literary rendering of the homosocial idyll of the Ladies of Lllangollen in deepest Wales (p. 59). A later chapter revisits the interesting topic of Radcliffe’s selection of epigraph verse in her Gothic fictions, noting the prominence of progress poems by Scottish and Welsh bards, such as James Thomson, James Beattie, Thomas Gray, and, of course, Ossian. The final chapter introduces the potentially valuable term “stadial fiction,” inclusive of both national tales and examples of the Gothic genre. The category allows the shared Enlightenment agenda of Edgeworth and Roche, generally...