Women Writers: Restoration and 18th Century

Ballaster, Ros, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684–1740, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992,; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, Landry, Donna, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain 1739–1796, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990 Myers, Sylvia Harcstark, The Bluestocking Circle: Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990 Pearson, Jacqueline, The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642–1737, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988; New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988 Spencer, Jane, The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen, Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1986 Todd, Janet, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660–1800, London: Virago Press, 1989; New York: Columbia University Press, 1989 PEARSON’s survey is a solid introduction to the study of women dramatists in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The first part of the book discusses the literary context in which women wrote and explores the role that women played in the theatrical world, not only as writers, but also as actresses, managers, and members of the audience. She is arguing against the view that women had to write like men to succeed in the period, and instead concentrates on a “female tradition” by locating similarities in dramatic themes, images of women, sexual politics, marriage, education, chastity, and virtue in plays by women.

These themes are compared with contemporaneous plays by male dramatists, and between women writing in the Restoration period and those writing in the early eighteenth century. The second part of the book concentrates more specifically on individual dramatists, such as Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, Mary Pix, Catherine Trotter and Delarivier Manley, as well as “minor” dramatists such as Eliza Haywood and Mary Davys. Pearson’s book provides a wealth of detail, biographical and textual, and to those unfamiliar to the subject the appended “List of Plays by Women Dramatists” and the secondary references should prove invaluable as a base for further study. SPENCER’s influential study is a comprehensive and stimulating exploration of female contribution to the “rise” of the novel.

The first part of the book assesses the formation of women’s literary authority as writers in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and investigates the movement towards morality in the novel, from which women writers were to gain (conditional) acceptance as professional authors. In the second section of the book, Spencer is concerned with how writers negotiated their special position as “women writers” and she charts the responses to this position by using the linked themes of “protest”, “conformity”, and “escape”, which are expressed in fiction through the figures of the seduced heroine, the reformed heroine, and the romance heroine respectively.

This thematic approach allows for an extensive survey of fiction written by a range of women writers and provides a sustained and coherent survey of the developments and continuities between the roles of women writers and the fiction they produced. Spencer’s claim that the entry of women writers into public discourse in the eighteenth century was negated to some extent by the increasingly restrictive expectations placed upon them as women supports her argument that their success as writers was not necessarily a “simple gain” in feminist terms. This paradox has become a central feature in contemporary criticism of eighteenth-century fiction written by women, and Spencer’s account is the most clear and concise exploration of this phenomenon.

TODD takes as her starting point a sign that the prostitute, Angellica, in Aphra Behn’s play The Rover, displays herself to attract customers. This “sign” comes to signify Todd’s concern with the various strategies that women writers from 1660 to 1800 employed to negotiate their roles as public and professional authors. Todd explores how this “constructed nature of femininity” was formed in the fiction written by women in the period. She traces the development of these self-representations both by writers of fictions (including here memoirists and autobiographiers) and in the fiction itself. The representation of the woman writer is seen to move from the relatively “frank” expression of the Restoration, through to an emphasis in the mid-century on sensibility and sentimentalism.

The last section of the book describes the contradictory reactions to this new respectable image, yet Todd also stresses the gains for later writers of the creation of a female literary authority based on morality. The readings of work by individual authors, such as Delarivier Manley, Sarah Fielding, Fanny Burney, and Ann Radcliffe, are intermingled with a historical account of the social, political, and economic conditions in which they wrote, to provide a context for the achievements of particular writers. Todd describes her work as an “overview”, and it is successful and informative on this level. However, the volume of material included can be overwhelming and tends to obscure the finer points of her theoretical approach.

BALLASTER’s study places a welcome emphasis on women’s novelistic writing “prior to the rise of the sentimental myth inaugurated by Richardson’s Pamela”. By reassessing various theoretical explanations for the development of the novel as a form, Ballaster argues that the continuing appeal of non-realistic forms (such as the seventeenth-century French romance) and the particular contribution of women writers to novelistic discourse had a specific and instrumental role in the development of the novel. Ballaster stresses the need for a more sophisticated analysis of the narratives that focus on the themes of love or seduction by placing “seductive forms” in a party-political context, and by viewing seduction as a metaphor for the literary power of the woman writer over her “seduced” reader.

The second section of the book provides a detailed exploration of the fiction of Behn, Manley, and Haywood in the light of this revisionary context. MYERS examines the term “bluestocking” as it developed from a description of intellectual men who showed an interest in the conversation and acquaintance of women to its usage as an ambiguous term denoting women who aspired to “the life of the mind” through literature and learning. Myers’ approach is primarily biographical. She traces the lives, marriages, social circumstances, and writings of Elizabeth Carter, Elizabeth Montagu, Catharine Talbot, and Hester Chapone, among others, in an attempt to convey a measure of their accomplishments and of their acknowledgement of the inevitable limitations placed on female education.

Myers places great emphasis on the importance of female friendship in this literary group. She characterises these friendships as “supportive”, dedicated to creating a communal image of virtue and chastity, which helped to establish the “bluestocking” women as respectable and useful members of society. This concentration on the personal biographical details of the writers under discussion does not lend itself easily to a theoretical context, and Myers’ attempts to incorporate feminist theory into her thesis often seem rather forced. Nevertheless, Myers provides a detailed and fascinating account of an immensely significant aspect of the history of the woman writer.

As with all the critical works discussed here, LANDRY’s book constitutes a challenge to the traditional (male) eighteenth-century literary canon. However, Landry stresses that feminist literary history must not only be content to “rediscover” texts by women, but must address issues of class, race, and nationality, as well as gender. The objects of her study are what she terms “laboring-class” women poets, in opposition to a clearly defined “working-class” movement usually associated with the nineteenth century. Landry emphasises the necessity of a Marxist, feminist, and New-Historicist approach in which she grounds her readings of the poetry of, for example, Mary Collier, Mary Leapor, Phillis Wheatley, and Ann Yearsley.

The insights that such an approach provides are often productive, as with her reassessments of Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, but the theoretical language she employs could be seen as potentially alienating or too dense. The major significance of this book is that it forces the student of eighteenth-century women’s writing into the realisation that the history we study is largely that of middle-class women. By widening her discursive field to include other considerations apart from gender, Landry not only provides insight into a largely neglected area of eighteenth-century women’s poetry, but also provides a different perspective from which to view, for example, the “bluestocking” women of Myers’ study. SARAH PRESCOTT