Martine van Elk’s Early Modern Women: Lives, Texts, Objects is a fascinating blog that offers interdisciplinary and comparative analysis of early modern women authors and artists. The blog emphasizes that authorship, writing, and artistic endeavors were often interlinked as different aspects of self-expression. It has a search function, as well as an archive drop down by month and a category filter with options such as courtesans, biography, marriage, and religious women. Van Elk also accepts guest posts, which seem to represent more than half of the entries.
Its greatest strength is that Van Elk highlights the lives and works of a transnational group of women, typically English and Dutch, which reflects her 2017 monograph on early modern women writers in England and the Dutch Republic. She argues that seventeenth-century women need to be examined from a cross-cultural perspective to more fully understand the collective experience of early modern women as a whole.
The blog is suitable for both a general and a scholarly audience, as she highlights little know women and topics that could be introductory to students and those interested in the early modern period, yet every entry contains a section with references for further reading and most entries engage with the historiography of the subject. The entries are typically about 2,000 words and take many different foci, from one single object, such as the handkerchief (18 September 2016), to a theme, such as mottos (18 October 2016) or engraving (22 February 2017), to case studies of a specific woman or group of women, such as Celia Fiennes (18 June 2018) and Susanna Teellinck (10 July 2019).
My favorite entry is on female engravers, one written by Van Elk herself. In this post, Van Elk explores to what extent copper engraving was a gendered activity, in that it would have taken place in a male-dominated print shop. She finds print-making to be a collaborative activity between a designer, engraver, and publisher. Seventeenth-century female engravers were rare, but when known, it seems like they also had male relatives who were engravers and they worked within a family business. Magdalena van de Passe (1600–1638) was daughter and sister to male Dutch engravers, and created prints by the time she was 14 years old. Her engravings often were derivative of other engravers, which Van Elk suggests could be understood as translations, in the way that translation of texts was a more suitable activity for women than was original writing. Sadly, the most recent blog entry is from July 2019, and it was written by a guest. As many of Van Elk’s own posts stemmed from research for her 2017 book, hopefully new posts will arrive as she works on her own new research. She is also a main contributor to the Early Modern Female Book Ownership blog (previously reviewed here), where her newest entries can be found.
Valerie Schutte has published widely on royal Tudor women, book dedications, and queenship. Her second monograph, Princesses Mary and Elizabeth Tudor and the Royal Gift Book Exchange, will be published with ARC Humanities Press in 2021.
Despite the recent cold weather, the atmosphere at the Women’s Studies Group February seminar was as warm and welcoming as ever. We were treated to three very different, but equally fascinating papers, the individual chronologies of which stretched from the mid-seventeenth century to the 1820s and covered subjects as diverse as death and dying, legal and textual subjectivities and observations of nineteenth-century Chilean culture. At the heart of each, though, lay careful analyses of how women in the past constructed themselves and the world around them through the written word. The seminar was conducted via zoom and ably chaired by Trudie Messent.
First to speak was Dr Sarah Ailwood of the University of Wollongong. Sarah lectures in law and has previously authored a book on Jane Austen and masculinities. Her talk for the WSG, however, was entitled ‘In justice to myself’: Legal and Textual Subjectivities in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Memoirs’. Sarah’s central thesis was that by ‘harnessing emerging genres of popular, published life writing’, namely the print memoir, ‘women forged a new form of legal subjectivity.’ She began by outlining the theory developed by Costas Douzinas that those living within a modern liberal democracy will be typically both subjectus and subjectum in relation to the law: that is, simultaneously under the authority of the law and a participant in its creation. In contrast to this, women of the eighteenth century were only subjectus, bound to obey the law without participating in its creation. Sarah also cited the work of Peter Goodrich – that the power of the law rests in its cultural influence, as well as institutions and legal texts. From this theoretical starting point, Sarah explored the idea that the female-authored mid-eighteenth-century legal memoir allowed women to ‘create a new, resistant form of legal subjectivity’ and evidenced this through the work of two eighteenth-century women: Sarah Rippon and Anne Bailey. Rippon published The True State of the Case of Sarah Rippon in 1756 and used the subjectus persona of a poor, vulnerable widow to challenge both the legal system and the men who conspired against her, showcasing her knowledge of the system and her abilities as a litigant as she did so. Bailey constructed a similar subjectus persona through her 1771 text The Memoirs of Mrs Anne Bailey. In this she positioned herself as a victim caught in a cycle of debt, assault and exploitation even though the true purpose of the book was to publicly shame the men who had wronged her. Sarah argued that although both women ostensibly cast themselves as oppressed victims of the legal system, their memoirs speak to their authors’ resistance of that role and their determination to assert agency over the narrative of their life.
The second speaker was Daisy Winter, a PhD student at Northumbria University. She examined the writings of Lady Elizabeth Delaval within the context of seventeenth-century women’s devotional meditations. This was a time when women were expected to examine and reflect upon their behaviours, not least to use written texts to curate a ‘good death’ for themselves when the time came. However, Daisy argued that the motivations for Delaval’s musings were complex and may not have stemmed solely from a fear of judgement in death. Two meditations were considered in detail. The first, written in 1662, was entitled ‘Upon the Singing of a Lark’. In this, Delaval used the ‘Godly’ bird to rebuke her habit of sleeping in late. The second was a cluster of prayers written as a response to a severe bout of toothache. This was allegedly caused by an infestation of more than two hundred worms(!) and inspired Delaval to contemplate her own mortality. Intriguingly, this gory episode may not have had its roots in personal experience. Daisy cited the work of Sara Read, who suggests that Delaval may have appropriated it from a letter originating at the court of Charles 1. As Delaval’s family were Stuart sympathisers, the tale could also function as an indication of political allegiance. Further, Daisy argued that Delaval’s writings also link to wider cultural concerns surrounding disease, death and decay: this was a time when the plague swept across England and Delaval, like so many of her contemporaries, was personally affected by it. Indeed, toothache was also not the inconvenience it is today but a potentially deadly illness, with tooth problems regularly appearing as a cause of death in contemporary bills of mortality. Daisy also explored the temporal disruption between the composition of the texts and their later transcription by an older Delaval into the curated manuscript that exists today, possibly as a precursor for publication. Daisy concluded by saying that although Delaval’s approach to crafting a good death was complicated, it was likely she did experience a fear of her own mortality, when ‘her neglect of her “penitential hours” [came] to haunt her.’
The final paper was given by Valentina Aparicio, from the University of Edinburgh. Her paper was entitled ‘Maria Graham’s Journal of a residence in Chile (1824): a transnational community of women’ and forms part of a wider research project concerning Scottish women who travelled to South America at the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries. Her paper for the WSG focussed on Maria Graham, who was born Maria Dundas and later became known as Lady Callcott. Graham travelled to Chile with her husband. However, he died before they arrived and she landed in South America as a widow. Rather than return home, she elected to stay in the town of Valparaiso and, during the year she spent there, Graham mixed with people from a number of different backgrounds, nationalities and classes. Generally, Graham appeared to be more sympathetic towards Chilean women, rather than the expatriate British women she met, whom she likened to Mrs Elton from Austen’s Emma. Valentina examined two of Graham’s encounters in detail. The first featured an elderly neighbour with a large flower garden who used her horticultural knowledge for healing purposes – La Chabelita. The second was with the women of La Rinconada who made the pottery Graham used at home. One of the most striking observations Valentina made was that Graham did not appear to apply her own British, classist, world-view to the Chilean women she encountered. Rather, she was prepared to meet with them in their own contexts and engage with them upon their own terms. For example, when she visited the female potters she was eager to sit down with them and join them in their work. As was later discussed during the questions, this may well have reflected a (post)Romantic ideal of the labouring poor but equally may have been something she would not have felt able to do in her own country where strict notions of class propriety would apply.
It was a stimulating and enjoyable session that provided much food for thought and a number of lively discussions during the questions. Huge thanks to all our speakers and to everyone who made February’s session possible.
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!
In June 1780, Angelica Kauffman (1747–1807) was paid one hundred guineas for a prestigious commission: the creation of four ceiling paintings at Somerset House in London. Representing ‘The Elements of Art’ – Invention, Composition, Design and Colouring – critics lavished praise on ‘the celebrated Angelica Kauffman’, whose ‘very capital pictures which adorn the ceiling’ had ‘an infinite deal of character, and sweetness’ (cited on p.18). The four paintings commemorated Somerset House’s new function as home of the Royal Academy of Arts, where Kauffman was one of the thirty-six founding Members, one of only two women Members. It is these roundels– the only known examples of murals painted by a woman artist in the eighteenth century –which would have been at the heart of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, which was scheduled to open on 27 June 2020.
Members of the WSG will have greatly lamented the cancellation of the London iteration of Angelica Kauffman, which was one of the first exhibitions to be removed from the RA programme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the sheer number of international loans that made up the show (from at least 34 institutions, plus private collections), it may have proved too difficult to coordinate a delayed installation in London. Instead, the catalogue’s good quality, 144 colour illustrations now serve to remind us of what fresh research and exciting loans we have missed. It is not clear if the show will be rehung at a later date (as we have seen with the National Gallery’s rescheduled Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition) but the German instalment, at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, has been extended to 29 September 2020.
The exhibition catalogue is edited by Dr Bettina Baumgärtel, the exhibition curator and Director of the Angelica Kauffman Research Project(AKRP). Generously illustrated and handsomely designed, it opens with four relatively short, thematic essays. The first and the longest is a chronological account of Kauffman’s extraordinary life, written by Baumgärtel, and contains research that will be familiar to many Kauffman scholars. Baumgärtel covers Kauffman’s early years, her training in Italy, her arrival in London in 1766, her cultivation of female clients and finally, her return to Rome. Next, Helen Valentine writes on the RA’s four ceiling roundels, which, she confesses, languished in the basement of Burlington House for thirty years in the mid-nineteenth century – representative, no doubt, of Kauffman’s secondary reputation at that time. In the third essay, Johannes Myssok is concerned with the friendship between Kauffman and the sculptor Antonio Canova, whom Kauffman counted as her ‘amico pregiatissimo’ (highly prized friend) and who went on to coordinate her funeral in 1807. Opening amongst the cosmopolitan milieu of late eighteenth-century Rome, Myssok’s new research is based on unpublished documents and provides a fascinating glimpse into the companionship enjoyed by these two artists. The final essay, written by Inken Maria Houlbec, makes a technical examination of two paintings in the collection of the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf: Agrippina Mourning over the Ashes of Germanicus (1793) and Portrait of the Impromptu Virtuoso Teresa Bandettini Landucci (1794). These mature and sophisticated compositions were created in Rome, and Houlbec’s astute scientific analysis is illustrated with helpful cross-sections and coloured details.
The majority of the book is given over to the catalogue, which is organised into nine sections, detailing eighty-one familiar and surprising works. Reciting the organisation of the catalogue gives an indication of the exhibition’s contents: ‘I. Stagings of the Self’; ‘II. Training in Italy’; ‘III. The History Painter: The Homer and Shakespeare Revival’; ‘IV. Founding Member of the Royal Academy of Arts’; ‘V. The Portrait Painter as the Arbiter of Fashion’; ‘VI. New Heroines’; ‘VII. Beautiful Young Men as beau idéal’; ‘VIII ‘Parnassus of the Muses: Masquerades and Role Play’ and finally ‘IX. Rome, Residence of the Fine Arts, and International Commissions.’ Collectively, the one-page introduction to each section, as well as the individual catalogue entries, offer much to learn for those unfamiliar, and familiar, with Kauffman’s ouevre. Furthermore, the extensive six-page bibliography will be of great use to students of both Kauffman and eighteenth-century women artists more broadly.
A closer examination of Kauffman’s printed oeuvre, her designs for the print trade, and more of her engagement with the decorative arts, would have been a welcome element to the catalogue. It seems that these media were included in the exhibition, as indicated by the Kunstpalast’s website, but there is little discussion of their importance for Kauffman’s reputation, and income, in the catalogue. For more on these, we eagerly await Dr Baumgärtel’s forthcoming, and no doubt highly illuminating, catalogue raisonné.
Once they return from Düsseldorf, Kauffman’s four roundels will be installed back in the entrance hall ceiling in Burlington House. Thankfully these paintings, as well as the preliminary oil studies in grisaille which are housed at the V&A, will be available for us to view once again. Yet, as former Tate Curator, Martin Myrone, lamented in a recent article: ‘There are important pictures elsewhere in the UK, but, given that she was one of the most celebrated artists of the day, Kauffman remains woefully underrepresented’ (Tate Etc. Issue 43: Summer 2018). The exhibition catalogue testifies to the great level of collaborative research that went into coordinating this exhibition, which would have been an important opportunity to revisit Kauffman’s work and recover her status as one of Britain’s foremost eighteenth-century artists. Sadly, it looks like London will have to wait a little longer before she is given the attention that she deserves.
Birkbeck, University of London
Hannah Lyons is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London and the V&A. Her dissertation explores the role, status and output of women printmakers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain. Previously she was Assistant Curator at Tate Britain and Curatorial Assistant at Christ Church Picture Gallery, University of Oxford.
Angelica Kauffman is currently on sale in the RA shop for £20 plus postage.
‘That’s the thing, mother. The journals got me thinking. I know you use them to help you teach. But think how many more midwives would learn from you if we made them fit for printing. I’ve published several guides to women’s health, but nothing like this, and you’d be writing from life, not other books. Think about it, mother: you’d be the first English woman to write a midwifery guide. It could make your fortune!’ (p.82)
Lucie Smith, the protagonist of Sara Read’s debut novel, chooses not to listen to the urging of her son, Simon, and retains her extensive journals for her personal private use. The journals, which comprise of detailed notes on cases from thirty years of midwifery practice, are a document of women’s secrets, and their author chooses to keep them from the eyes of the public. As Lucie herself remarks, few midwives in the seventeenth century would have either the inclination, or the literacy, to keep such detailed and valuable notes. It is unsurprising then, that many of Lucie’s remedies, and the advice she gives to her patients, are drawn from the work of Jane Sharp, who in 1671 actually became the first English woman to publish a midwifery guide, The Midwives Book: Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered.
Lucie Smith’s story begins in a bedchamber at Calstone Manor, where she has just safely delivered a young woman of her first child. Privately, Lucie believes that the new mother, sixteen-year old Lady Eleanor Calstone, is too young to be having children, and disapproves that the aristocratic Calstones have hired an expensive London doctor to oversee the delivery. It is clear that the circumstances of the opening chapter are not typical of Lucie’s practice – she is more familiar with delivering the babies of the wives of farmers, weavers and local aldermen, and she is certainly unused to the presence of men in the birth chamber. However, Lucie takes seriously her oath as a midwife to not turn away a patient, and throughout the novel attends to the needs of labouring women, no matter their class, occupation, or circumstances.
The Gossips’ Choice depicts Lucie’s day-to-day existence as the most respected and in-demand midwife for the market-town of Tupingham, and surrounding area. Much of the novel is occupied with individual cases drawn from the works of Jane Sharp, and the eighteenth-century midwife Sarah Stone, who also published a midwifery guide. Should Lucie have followed her son’s urgings and published her own journals, we might have expected them to resemble Stone’s A Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), which consists chiefly of annotated case studies, much like those Lucie uses to train her apprentice, Mary. Like Stone, Lucie Smith is married to an apothecary and is frequently called to intervene when less accomplished midwives, like the unlicensed hand-woman Mother Henshaw, risk losing their patients through malpractice. It is in the description of these many deliveries that Read’s extensive knowledge of birthing practices, and the lives of women in the seventeenth century, shine most strongly.
A number of separate storylines interweave throughout the novel, including: the fractious relationship between Lucie’s husband and their son Simon, a printer living in London; the ongoing rivalry between Lucie and Mother Henshaw; a clandestine relationship between the Smith’s maid Martha and a local widower; and finally the repercussions of a tragedy that occurs in one of Lucie’s cases. Although the events of The Gossips’ Choice are fictitious, the novel is richly informed by Read’s extensive work in the field of seventeenth-century medicine and reproduction. Here, she has skilfully blended anecdotes and cases drawn from the real work of early modern midwives, with an engaging story that explores the experiences of women across several social classes and stages of life. At times the novel feels slightly imbalanced between the narratives of Lucie’s cases, and the overarching plotlines which are concentrated largely in the second half. This does have an effect on the novel’s pacing, and its conclusion appears somewhat suddenly. However, Lucie Smith is a wonderfully rounded character whose expertise and authority shine through the text, and her charisma buoys forward the narrative.
Post-Restoration tensions in England are demonstrated through the interwoven connections between the Smith and Calstone families. The Calstones are newly elevated to the aristocracy for their support of Charles II, whereas the local townsfolk of Tupingham, and the Smith family in particular, are Parliamentary sympathisers and secretly hope for a return to the days of the Protectorate. These ideological differences are set against the friendships that develop between Lucie and Simon with various members of the wider Calstone family, and are complicated by the pervading presence of the conflict’s aftermath: in the wounded war veterans that linger on the edge of both the town and the narrative, and in Martha’s pervading spinsterhood – her fiancé having been killed fighting Prince Rupert’s army. The novel is also set against the events of the Great Plague of 1665, and the themes of quarantine, contagion, and the fear of disease are especially topical and poignant given its publication in May 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Gossips’ Choice largely avoids the debates surrounding man-midwifery that dominate eighteenth-century discussions of midwifery and women’s healthcare. Aside from the appearance of the arrogant London doctor in the first chapter, the pregnant women in Tupingham are all attended to by other women, save for the occasional appearance of a male surgeon. As readers we are invited into a world in which pregnancy and birth are the exclusive domain of women, and Lucie works hard to maintain ‘the female-only space that was proper’ (p.10). Indeed, it is the ritualistic aspects of childbirth, including the gossips (female friends invited to be present at a birth) that give the novel its title, as Lucie’s extensive knowledge and successful record in delivering babies makes her the first-choice midwife of the local gossips.
Read has also written a companion pamphlet, A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for theSeventeenth-century Woman, also by Wild Pressed Books (full details below), which serves as a primer for the medical world of The Gossips’ Choice. Also drawn largely from Jane Sharp’s work, the guide modernises much of the antiquated language of Sharp’s book, and serves as a sort of introduction to the knowledge seventeenth-century gossips might acquire from their own tenure as birth attendants and mothers.
Framed as a tool for the unfortunate time traveller (the back cover tells us that this guide will tell you all you need to know ‘should you find yourself unexpectedly in the seventeenth century’) the guide is a light-hearted pastiche of the slew of pregnancy books available to modern readers. With sections detailing how to tell if you are pregnant, how to determine whether infertility is the fault of husband or wife, instructions for antenatal care, and an explanation of the ritual of ‘churching’, A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman unveils some of the secrets of womanhood that Lucie Smith wished so desperately to keep from the press.
The attention to detail in both A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman, and The Gossips’ Choice, will delight any readers familiar with the medical world of seventeenth-century women, whilst also offering an excellent and accessible introduction for newcomers and popular readership.
University of York
Rebecca is a PhD student at the University of York. Her research explores representations of pregnancy and birth in the literature and medicine of the long-eighteenth century, and she is particularly interested in the literary output of midwives and female medical practitioners.
*Disclosure: Sara Read is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558–1837.