Review of WSG Seminar, 19 September 2020 by Miriam Al Jamil

The first seminar of our 2020-2021 programme took place via zoom on 19th September. It was an inspiring start, with papers from Stephen Spiess, Sonia Villegas Lopez and Anthony Walker-Cook (see programme) and our usual lively discussion to follow. The papers represented research into the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which covers most of the period with which the group is concerned. There were many interesting connections between them through their discourses on shaping narratives of power and chastity by monarchs and mistresses, and their sensual evocations of the beguiling incense of the seraglio and the grease and smoke of the country house kitchen.

Stephen Spiess presented an intriguing discussion of the ‘sexual conversion narrative’, the manipulation of female chastity as a status which could be regained and rewritten. He used the example of Anne Boleyn who was executed as a ‘harlot’ but was quietly reinstated as a chaste wife at the time of her daughter Elizabeth I’s coronation. Ecclesiastical records reveal at the other end of the social scale, the 1589 case of Ursula Shepherd who publicly repented her ‘whoredom’ and vowed ‘hereafter to lead a chaste life’. Spiess asked how this renewed ‘chastity’ might have been accepted by the community and effected in practice. He is interested in the social formation that constructed the ‘epistemology of the whore’ in early modern England as part of an ongoing project. Questions after his paper focussed on the continual making and remaking of sexual representation, the traditions of whore narratives such as that of Mary Magdalen and on the patriarchal institutions which formulated the narratives and why. Legal and religious structures, but also the fact that
women themselves were often the loudest accusatory voices were discussed, and the flexibility of spousal contracts which might condone pre-marital sex if formal marriage then took place. Chastity was clearly a fluid idea, composed of complex socially agreed and reinterpreted meanings.

The beautiful oil paintings which accompanied Spiess’ presentation deserve a mention. Sonia Villegas Lopez examined the idea of libertinism in the seventeenth century which was seen as primarily a male transgression but one which female writers such as Behn and Haywood increasingly redefined (see Laura Linker, Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures and the Rise of Sensibility, 1670-1730). Lopez based her argument on two ‘Oriental’ or as Lopez prefers
‘transnational’ texts by Sébastien Brémond, Hattige, or the Amours of the King of Tamaran (1680) and Homais, Queen of Tunis (1681) which were thinly veiled critiques of Charles II’s court and the power of royal mistresses. Though at the boundaries of society, the women used their bodies to shape the opportunities which their confined lives presented, and to exploit the fallibilities of the
monarchs who ostensibly control them. The novels play with cross-dressing and multiple identities and show sexuality and politics as almost interchangeable. Ideas raised in discussions after the paper included the possibility that class was more important than gender in novels which featured
kings who raised lower status women to positions of power. This female power could safely be discussed in settings of ‘far-away places’. It was pointed out that Behn’s work demonstrates many of the prejudices against women, not least in terms of age and power. For example, Onahal, the old
wife of the king in Oroonoka, retains much of her power though relegated to second place and communicates with Oroonoko on behalf of Imoinda.

Anthony Walker-Cook took us into the eighteenth century and on a journey to the Underworld and the Mock-heroic as a way of writing in the epic mode through the work of Sarah Fielding and Mary Leapor. He analysed their use of Classical references, particularly from Homer and Virgil. We looked at Fielding’s The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (1759) which uses the references to frame commentary on her contemporary world, one which mirrors the chthonic confusion and dark recesses of myth and its powerful stories. Mary Leapor employs the tradition of ‘katabasis’ (descent)
in her poem Crumble-Hall to take us into the lower levels, the domain of the lower classes, workers and domestics who labour unseen like so many hideous mythological figures. She constructed ‘female narratives within a classical space’, where Sophronia kneads her dough and

‘thro’ her Fingers squeeze
Ambrosial Butter with the temper’d Cheese:
Sweet Tarts and Pudden. Too, her Skill declare;
And the soft Jellies, hid from baneful Air’

(in A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, ed. Christine Gerard, 2006, p.209).

Who could resist those tarts and ‘puddens’?! During the discussion, the tone of the poem was compared to Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Washing Day (1797). The translations of Classical work, particularly Horatian Odes by Bluestocking women and the lesser known Mary Goddard were mentioned.

The particularly harrowing image of Hector’s dead body dragged behind a chariot in The Iliad sparked several examples in womens’ writing, notably Mary Wortley Montagu in her poem Saturday (1747) which conjures up the horror in a meditation on the effects of smallpox:

‘A glass in her right hand she bore,
For now she shunned the face she sought before.
‘How am I changed! Alas! How am I grown
A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!’ (line 1-6)

Thanks are due to all the speakers and to the host and chair of our first zoom meeting as a group. If this was a taste of what is to come, we can expect an exceptionally erudite and stimulating season of papers!

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