- The Cambridge Companion to Women's Writing in the Romantic Period ed. by Devoney Looser
Newcomers and seasoned scholars alike will appreciate the range and depth of topics presented in this wonderfully informative collection by some of the most accomplished scholars in the field. Herein we find the comprehensiveness expected from a Cambridge Companion that further considers writers "poised for revivification" alongside others for whom skepticism remains about the "greater notice" given them (p. xvii). Despite Stephen Behrendt's identification of over 500 women poets published between 1770 and 1835 (p. xiii), women's writing of any kind was seldom included in our tomes prior to the 1980s and 1990s (p. xiv). The editor pinpoints in her fine Preface that, regardless of why we choose to read them, it was these women who "created the conditions for what we came to call male or female—or, more properly, masculine or feminine—in literary [End Page 166] terms" (p. xvii), establishing a vital link to how we continue to think about gender construction in literary study.
Looser delivers on the intention here "to convince [us] that we stand to gain vital knowledge by looking at Romantic-era women writers en masse" (p. xviii, emphasis original) lest we "risk misconstruing the reach and implications of … gendered patterns in literary history, as well as how such patterns led the way to where we are now" (p. xvii). To that end, the first four chapters provide exceptional overviews of women's contributions to the major genres from notable scholars Behrendt (poetry), Anthony Mandal (fiction), Catherine Burroughs (drama), and Anne K. Mellor (essays and political writing). Among the vital information presented in these early chapters, we learn that poems written by women "exhibit their authors' awareness of their ambivalent and often contested position in the literary and cultural scene" (Behrendt, p. 13), at the same time that women were "the primary consumers, experimenters, and producers of fiction" (Mandal, p. 25). Burroughs suggests that Aphra Behn's prior success ensured that "throughout the eighteenth century, theater managers would make it more common to stage a play by a woman even as they rationed, in effect, the number of spots available to women writers in their repertoire" (p. 34). Mellor shows that women writers engaged in direct political commentary "emphasized rational exchange among women" (p. 44, emphasis original), defying assumptions that women were incapable of producing such discourse.
The ensuing eleven chapters bring together a rich body of scholarship organized thematically or by subgenre on such topics as the Gothic, travel writing, history writing, writing in wartime, feminism, the global context, social and familial networks, economics, age and aging, nationalism and identity, and sexualities, respectively. It seems unlikely that anyone could read this full complement of articles without rethinking or filling in some major gaps in knowledge. Angela Wright finds, for example, that circulation of the Gothic across genres, particularly the recurring "combination of a heroine and a castle," reveals a pattern of shared concern over the "ownership and exploitation of property" and of "women being dispossessed of their rightful property" (p. 59). Caroline Franklin challenges the assumed allegiance between feminists and bluestockings, noting that "the ideology of the bluestockings had never been especially conducive to the rise of feminism but directed female energy into bourgeois paternalism" (p. 117), although she finds an ongoing "dialectical relationship" (p. 120). Noting that "the stereotypical sexual repression associated with the Victorians … was not the standard in Romantic-era women's writings" (p. 199), Jillian Heydt-Stevenson shows that women "developed multiple rhetorical strategies" by which to convey "the era's understanding that sex unites brain, body, and spirit" within "companionate unions, both traditional and non-traditional" (p. 198).
Travel writing was an "ideal outlet" for women (p. 73) by which, says Elizabeth A. Fay, they avoided "the bravura of the men's accounts while cultivating a perspective better suited to women's socially acceptable discernment and interests" (p. 75) [End Page 167] that still allowed for expression...