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.

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