Reminder: WSG seminar November 2021

The third seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 27 November 2021 (GMT).

This seminar will take place on Zoom. Please be aware, you must be a member of the WSG to gain access to the Zoom sessions. The links are distributed through our WSG mailing list 24-hours before the event. Becoming a member means you will be able to attend the Zoom and in-person seminars for the 2021-2022 season.


Nora Crook

During the first part of the twentieth century, Mary Shelley’s editing of the work of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after his death, was widely considered to be, together with the writing of Frankenstein, one of her two major achievements (indeed, her only two achievements worth remembering). In the last fifty years her work has undergone a major reclamation. Her other works have been brought back into print, and there have been at least four major biographies. She has emerged as a major woman of letters during the years 1820–1840, while Frankenstein is the most taught novel at university level.  Her role as editor, however, has tended to recede into the background, almost as an embarrassment. While it is commendable that she is no longer esteemed above all as the piously devoted literary widow, this recession has had the regrettable consequence of obscuring the remarkable nature of her achievement, in a climate where it was uncommon for a woman to be an editor at all, let alone to be given the task of editing the work of a major British writer, and, in this case, solely by herself. Sara Coleridge, daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the only nineteenth-century British woman editor whose work is comparable to hers.

I begin with an overview of the different kinds of editing open to women during the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, including that of editing the remains of a dead author (usually father, husband, or female friend). I then turn to the difficulties under which Mary Shelley laboured, first in gathering up her husband’s scattered manuscripts, the enmity of her father in law, the libel laws that prevented her publishing an uncensored version of her husband’s poems, and attempt an assessment of her place among women editors of the nineteenth century.

Amy Solomons

‘A book is either the best treasure, or the greatest evil’: The Circulation and Readership of Conduct Literature in National Trust Libraries, 1680-1830.

Women’s reading was a highly policed, social experience in the long eighteenth century. The period, characterised by Amanda Vickery (1998) as a ‘dramatically expanding culture of female literariness’, saw a rapid rise in women’s access to and engagement with print material. Attitudes towards women’s reading were contradictory, suggesting that their reading was expansive and thought provoking, but that their reading experiences were highly controlled and regulated. Conduct literature responded to these anxieties through an emphasis on women’s reading, education, manners and behaviour.

Through an analysis of the National Trust’s library collections and the ESTC, this paper explores both the circulation and readership of thirty conduct literature titles published between 1680-1830. While scholarship on women’s education has long cited conduct literature, few studies have sought to examine the reception to prescriptive texts. Through a mixed methods approach, this paper shifts focus from a theoretical to a practical perspective. A statistical analysis of the ESTC allows this study to chart the prominence of conduct literature based on number of editions. This numerical evidence is then used alongside examples of material use of books in National Trust libraries to comment on female readership and responses to conduct texts.

Amy Prendergast

‘a means of my doing better’: Eighteenth-Century Diary Writing as a Tool for Individual Improvement

Although defined and interpreted in multiple ways, ‘improvement’ is generally understood as the opposite of revolution, as a project undertaken for ‘gradual, piecemeal, but cumulative betterment’.[1] Whether a person was striving for individual or social improvement, their method was one characterised by regularity and steadiness, eventually producing an aggregate. Such a process perfectly corresponds with the genre of the diary, with its individual entries accumulating over time to produce a final text. Built upon autonomous though interconnected entries, the diary form was an ideal one to employ in order to partake of this ethos of slow progress, and to facilitate any scheme based on gradual and cumulative development. Drawing in particular on two diaries from Ireland – that of the aristocratic Anne Jocelyn, the Countess of Roden (1797–1802) and Mary Mathew, the independent unmarried daughter of a Munster Church of Ireland landowner (1773–74) – this paper aims to explore how we might consider diaries as an unexplored aspect of the ethic of improvement, demonstrating also how these female diarists drew upon but challenged the discourse of improvement, and contribute to a larger tradition of improvement writing. Women in this period were frequently the target audience of manuals, conduct books, and literary collections with ‘improvement’ in the titles, designed to initially create and then reinforce polite ideals of femininity, rather than improve the individual person. These improvement diaries depart from such intentions, instead representing self-care interventions that see these women privileging ideas of individual betterment. Inclusion of such diaries places women at the centre of improvement projects rather than as peripheral actors, and transforms our understanding of their participation in improvement culture.

[1] Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford: OUP, 2015, 1.

For further information, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

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