Women’s Studies Group at BSECS 2016

WSG will be at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference in January 2016 presenting the “WSG Panel: Minds, Bodies, and China as Sites of Female Growth, Expansion and Contraction in the Long Eighteenth Century”.

Our three papers consider women in confrontation with the great and the little, and their movements between them, whether mentally, physically, or through material objects. Dr Tabitha Kenlon begins by considering the engagement between gothic novels and other literature of the time, particularly conduct manuals, whose functions they often perform, both extending and restricting women’s boundaries by presenting heroines who defy
and embody social conventions. Just as conduct manuals provided guidelines for young ladies to be recognized as proper women, the gothic novel often features heroines searching for their appropriate place in society. Understanding the connections between
gothic novels and conduct manuals provides a more nuanced and complete picture of the ways texts worked together to construct ideals of female identity in the eighteenth century.

Carolyn D. Williams discusses textual representations of physical size and its bearings on female sexuality. Expansion and contraction are seen both as creating characters who are bigger and smaller than the normal run of human beings, and as the process of changing physical size. Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671) and the anonymous Aristotle’s Master-Piece (first published c. 1680) are cited in a discussion of controversy over the proper size of women’s generative organs. Swift’s Travels (1726), Parts I and II of Thomas

Killigrew’s  Thomaso, or, The Wanderer (1663) and Part II of Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1681) are brought to bear on the question whether people of non-standard size are ordinary humans on a different scale, or are monstrous, evil, and bestial. The plays combine both senses of expansion and contraction by introducing two Jewish sisters from Mexico, one a giant and one a dwarf, who wish to be transformed to normal size. Killigrew’s work in particular, where characters undergo magical sex changes that are
accompanied by transformations into giants, reveals a close and complex relationship between size and sexuality requiring further exploration.

When Alexander Pope, in his Epistle to a Lady (1735), described his ideal woman as ‘mistress of herself, though China fall’, he was both punning and reflecting a common eighteenth-century assumption that the passion for porcelain was a major threat to women’s sense of proportion. It is therefore appropriate that Dr Emma Newport’s paper, which concludes this panel, should explore the complex relationship between china the
substance and China the nation in British cultural consciousness. The focus of her research is Lady Banks’s porcelain dairy and the complementary text of her ‘Dairy Book’.
Her achievements re-imagined the aristocratic porcelain dairy as a site of research, of social arts and as a synthesis of male and female collecting practices. They engender both expansion and contraction: as gateway to wider narratives, technologies and aesthetics, but also contracting as the porcelain metonymises these wider representations.

Go to the BSECS website for the full conference programme.

Teaching Hannah Cowley in Dubai

WSG member Tabitha Kenlon, Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai, reflects on a recent teaching experience…

In an attempt to integrate my personal research into my Introduction to Literature course, I assigned my students selections from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Dr John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, as well as Hannah Cowley’s play A Bold Stroke for a Husband in its entirety.

Our initial discussion of the play focused primarily on clarifying the plot and some eighteenth-century terminology (we had a debate on the true meaning of “making love”). By Act 2, though, the battle lines were being drawn. Most of the male students didn’t understand how Victoria’s male disguise could possibly be convincing and thought her scheme was “psychopathic,” while most of the women admired her decision to take action to get back her husband and the family fortune.

All the students seemed to recognize quickly the rules guiding eighteenth-century conduct. They knew that Olivia was supposed to obey her father when he told her who to marry. The women were particularly amused by her behaviour to the suitor Don Vincentio, when she followed her father’s guidelines so exactly that she parroted back some of his suggested topics of conversation word for word.

But many of the discussions split on gender lines. When a male student joked about Olivia’s passion for Don Julio, which was based on just a glimpse of him at a party, a young woman pointed out that the men in the play judge the women by their physical appearance and asked why the women couldn’t do that too. By Act 3, the same male student was willing to concede that the male characters only seemed interested in “physical stuff” with women.

I was curious about the reception the play would receive among students living in a predominantly Muslim society, at a school in which some female students have been rumoured to fail classes so they can stay longer in Dubai, a comparatively relaxed environment. One of my students last semester told me that her husband made fun of her when he caught her reading or doing homework.

Unsurprisingly, the students never made explicit links between the material and their own lives. Some of them made passing comments that even in the twenty-first century marriages were sometimes arranged and took place when women were young. Most of these observations came from female students. When students consulted me about their essays analysing the play, they often did make more direct connections. One young woman explained that she wanted to write about how parents who arranged marriages for their children only had their best interests in mind and that children should trust their parents since they had more knowledge and experience. I asked her how she would feel if her parents arranged a marriage for her. She hesitated and then said she wouldn’t mind, but her parents wouldn’t do that – hers, she said, was not a “typical” Muslim family.

I am now toying with the idea of staging the play here, set in twenty-first century Dubai. One of my students (for fun!) created a poster and explained how the veiled women’s eyes revealed their characters. The idea of women in veils is not new to these students; that was one plot device they accepted with ease, and they seemed intrigued that their culture did not have a monopoly on the concept.

Overall, it was a good experience, and I will certainly assign the play again in the coming semester. Students said the play is still relevant today because, as they put it, society doesn’t really change – we still deal with sex, cheating, arranged marriages, social networks, gossip, and responsibility.