Robin Runia, The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery

The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery. Edited by Robin Runia. New York and London: Routledge. 2018. Pp. 185. £110.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781138571372.

Robin Runia’s edited collection The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery makes both a fascinating and timely historiographical intervention within eighteenth-century literary studies. This is a discipline that for some time has enacted important acts of recovery, particularly by recentring into the forefront of critical discussion, women writers, editors, and critics who have traditionally fallen outside of literary canons. As Runia’s ‘Introduction’ sets out, the collection represents an attempt to argue for the continued necessity of such feminist scholarship of eighteenth-century literature in the face of perceptions that this important work has now been ‘done’. Yet, in the age of the digital humanities, in which a huge number of eighteenth-century texts have been made available through digitisation projects, the recovery of forgotten texts by women writers is easier than ever. At the same time, the important shifts that have characterised feminist movements in the last few years, such as #MeToo and the rise of intersectional approaches, mean that a critical reassessment of this feminist scholarship, including the politics and methodologies that underpin ‘recovery’, has never been more necessary.

Collectively, the various essays included in this volume highlight the continued vibrancy of feminist scholarship of eighteenth-century literature. Together the chapters represent a broad range of approaches to the idea of recovery, with some authors actively considering recovery as a framework for their scholarship, and others passively employing the methodologies associated with it (such as reassessing existing accounts, and bringing new attention to overlooked women authors) as part of their analyses. Of the latter, Karen Bloom Gevirtz’s chapter, ‘Philosophy and/in Verse: Jane Barker’s “Farewell to Poetry” and the Anatomy of Verse’, offers a compelling reassessment of Jane Barker’s use of rhetoric and structure in the ‘investigation and explication of the experience of feeling’ (55) within the experimental philosophy of the New Science. Likewise, Jennifer L. Avery’s chapter, ‘The “English Sappho’s” Daughter: Reading the Works of Maria Elizabeth Robinson’, argues for the necessity of a critical reassessment of Robinson’s works, particularly her gothic novel, The Shrine of Bertha.

However, the volume is most successful when it tackles issues of recovery head on. Kate Parker’s essay ‘Recovery and Translation in Cross-Channel Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing’, for example, makes an important argument about the nature of the texts that feminist scholarship has previously favoured for recovery, that is, the privileging of ‘original’ and ‘creative’ writing over the intellectual work associated with the production of translated texts. As such, Parker’s chapter demonstrates how recovery, normally viewed as an act which disrupts traditional notions of value as ascribed to canonical texts, in fact reproduces, albeit in a different form, this hierarchical approach to literary culture.

Beyond this theoretical emphasis, the volume is also concerned with contemporary relevance of historic texts, with a number of essays asking how the reading and recovery of these eighteenth-century narratives might shed light on current attitudes, ideas, and issues. For example, Shawn Lisa Maurer’s chapter, ‘Lydia Still: Adolescent Wildness in Pride and Prejudice,’ asks how our reading of Lydia Bennet shifts when we read her through a contemporary lens, as a stereotypical ‘teenager’. Likewise, Brittany Pladek’s chapter ‘Beyond the Poet-Physician: Letitia Landon’s Reader-Centred Therapy,’ attempts to redefine and bring nuance to the stock figure of the poet-physician by integrating Landon’s reader-oriented model. In so doing, she asks how recovering ‘alternate traditions of literary medicine’ might offer ‘a historical resource for present and future approaches to humanistic healing’ (72).

Perhaps the most useful consideration of the relationship between past text and literary present, however, is Cynthia Richards’s contribution to the collection. This chapter attempts to square what Richards refers to as ‘the transhistorical nature of trauma studies’ (15) with historicist accounts of the eighteenth-century, reading the rape of Richardson’s Clarissa in relation to DSM-IV and post-traumatic stress disorder. At the same time, she highlights the lack of trauma studies within eighteenth-century studies, enacting her own kind of productive recovery by bringing these two fields into conversation. Although the type of retrospective diagnosis intimated by this approach is often bemoaned by historicists, the chapter highlights how these readings resonate with current readers of the text, specifically students. Richards’s account provocatively draws out the unavoidable contemporary resonances of books like Clarissa in an age of #MeToo, thereby offering a compelling exploration of the dynamic potential of using the lens of trauma studies to interrogate these historic documents.

This dual emphasis on history and present day is also echoed in the volume’s attention to the figure of the reader, who appears in both contemporaneous and current forms throughout. In her modern manifestations in the volume, a critically-aware author-reader emerges who rethinks eighteenth-century texts through multiple layers of historiography, the current cultural and political climate, and personal experience. Indeed, both Runia’s introduction and Richards’s piece reflect on their own experiences from panels at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, framing these discussions in relation to the acts of recovery their own scholarship enacts. The eighteenth-century author-reader is also given attention through Stacey L. Kikendall’s account, ‘(Imprudent Travel): The Politics of Locations and the Gendered Experience in Mary Wollstonecraft’s and Mary Shelley’s Travel Writing’. In this essay, Kikendall skilfully reads the women’s travel writing in terms of a dialogue of included versus excluded detail, wherein the prudent author anticipates the aspects of a text that might be judged as imprudent by its potential readers and edits accordingly. Like Runia and Richards’s contributions, Kikendall’s essay is dependent on a dense historiography around both women and their writing, including edited private letters and biographical texts, which serve to sharpen Kikendall’s reading of Wollstonecraft’s and Shelley’s authorial prudence, resulting in a complex analysis of authorship that functions on multiple levels and through different timeframes.

As such, each of these chapters offers a refreshing analysis or use of recovery as a strategy for writing about eighteenth-century literature, as inflected by previous scholarship, present debates, and digital technologies. Yet ‘recovery’ as feminist praxis is not simply a literary concern, particularly within eighteenth-century studies. Indeed, important work has been done on once obscure women artists such as Anne Seymour Damer and Mary Linwood, while the field examining women’s material and craft productions during this period is flourishing. Due to the hierarchical divisions between art and craft that have previously characterised canonical art historical scholarship on the period, such work has reflected deeply on the utility and limitations of feminist recovery as a methodology. As such, I feel that the broader implications of this study could be more successfully teased out through an interdisciplinary volume, one that reflects the multitudinous approaches to recovery that characterise research undertaken by a wide range of scholars working in the highly interdisciplinary field of eighteenth-century studies. Emily M. N. Kugler’s essay, ‘Fantasies of Emancipation: Collaborations and Contestations in The History of Mary Prince’, is one of the few essays in this volume to take advantage of such an approach, using a compelling analysis of surviving material objects against the texts which are part of her discussion, which together work to show how new digital approaches can bring material and textual cultures into fascinating dialogue.

Overall however,The Future of Feminist Eighteenth-Century Scholarship: Beyond Recovery represents a welcome addition to the reflexive historiographical conversations that have long characterised eighteenth-century studies. Just as Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown’s The New Eighteenth-Century: Theory, Politics and English Literature asked vital questions about the discipline’s use of (and then resistance to) theory in 1988, so too does Runia’s edited volume offer an important reassessment of those concerns and methodologies in light of the current scholarly and cultural climate.

FREYA GOWRLEY
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

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