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  • Women's Nature:Curiosity, Pastoral, and the New Science in British America
  • Susan Scott Parrish (bio)

In the section of his Natural History of Barbados (1750) devoted to shells, Griffith Hughes defended the inclusion of women in his audience by stating: "I have heard several of the Fair Sex, who are fond of Shell-work, frequently ridiculed, as wasting their Time in a trifling and useless Manner." On the contrary, he argued, configuring shells into designs not only answered Mr. Addison's idea of "The Beautiful," but it particularly suited the "Genius of Women," who have a facility for putting "Shape and Colour artificially . . . together."Moreover, it was so much better than "murdering their Time in Gaming!" Hughes imagined instead that "one of our modern Calypso's, after having thus adorned her Grot, would no doubt chuse to reap the Fruits of her Labours, by making it a Place to cultivate her mind in by Musing." Of the various pursuits of natural history, he went on, this one was the most appropriate for women, for "we cannot suppose, that our Cynthia's and Flavia's can leap a five-barr'd Gate, or walk half a Day with a Gun in quest of a Wood-cock." He thus offered his description of Barbadian shells not only to "gratify the Curiosity of the inquisitive Philosopher, but to improve the Imagination of the Female Artificer" (267– 69).1 In these remarks, Hughes included women in his audience and in the heterosocial scene of natural history, yet he delineated for them a distinct relationship to nature and to knowledge, associating men with natural philosophy and its central attribute of disinterested curiosity while associating women with imagination, artifice, and the need for improvement. Male naturalists might range deep into the woods with rifles, while a female did better to adorn a contained natural site ("her Grot") and hence cultivate her mind's analogous inner realm.

Hughes's defense of female shell-work stands at the rhetorical crossroads of a number of eighteenth-century discourses concerning women, [End Page 195] knowledge, and nature that are the subject of this essay: in particular, promotions of scientific and imperial endeavors, and conduct literature (addressed to women) that conflicted with popular science texts (intended for a mixed audience) and with Augustan pastoral poetry. Apologies of the New Science2 and of New World exploration, in often overlapping ways, adapted the narrative template from Romance to give heroic credentials to their projects and practitioners:3 in this narrative—originating in Bacon's manifestos and Raleigh's Discovery of Guiana (1596) but sustained, for example, in James Grainger's The Sugar Cane (1764)—a male leaves the place of complacent familiarity, travels far away to penetrate and lay claim to the hidden recesses of Nature (imagined as female and exotic), retrieves new resources and information, and returns to his point of origin, which he now enriches. The female, in this formula, is equated with the fixed ground that gets broken open, like a mine or virgin soil, for treasures.4 A separate discourse that likewise excluded women from the subject-position of the explorer or investigator, also rooted in Renaissance thought but continuing through the Enlightenment, was the condemnation of female curiosity produced in conduct books like Banabe Rich's My Lady's Looking Glass (1616), William Kenrick's Whole Duty of a Woman (1737), and fairy tales like Blue Beard (1729).

Conflicting with these rhetorical traditions and genres were two others. First, books and especially journals, like Noel Antoine Pluche's Spectacle de la Nature (1740–48) and Eliza Haywood's The Female Spectator (1740s), produced in the late seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth in Europe (and imported to the British colonies) that popularized the advances of the New Science for a mixed audience, represented women taking part in scientific societies and projects, even if sometimes needing the guidance of a fraternal figure. Second, pastoral poetry, from modern translations of Virgil to Augustan examples like James Thomson's Seasons (1730) and Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1743), provided models for women to imagine themselves living in a particularly female-centered green space that was authorized...


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