Teaching Hannah Cowley in Dubai

WSG member Tabitha Kenlon, Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai, reflects on a recent teaching experience…

In an attempt to integrate my personal research into my Introduction to Literature course, I assigned my students selections from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Dr John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, as well as Hannah Cowley’s play A Bold Stroke for a Husband in its entirety.

Our initial discussion of the play focused primarily on clarifying the plot and some eighteenth-century terminology (we had a debate on the true meaning of “making love”). By Act 2, though, the battle lines were being drawn. Most of the male students didn’t understand how Victoria’s male disguise could possibly be convincing and thought her scheme was “psychopathic,” while most of the women admired her decision to take action to get back her husband and the family fortune.

All the students seemed to recognize quickly the rules guiding eighteenth-century conduct. They knew that Olivia was supposed to obey her father when he told her who to marry. The women were particularly amused by her behaviour to the suitor Don Vincentio, when she followed her father’s guidelines so exactly that she parroted back some of his suggested topics of conversation word for word.

But many of the discussions split on gender lines. When a male student joked about Olivia’s passion for Don Julio, which was based on just a glimpse of him at a party, a young woman pointed out that the men in the play judge the women by their physical appearance and asked why the women couldn’t do that too. By Act 3, the same male student was willing to concede that the male characters only seemed interested in “physical stuff” with women.

I was curious about the reception the play would receive among students living in a predominantly Muslim society, at a school in which some female students have been rumoured to fail classes so they can stay longer in Dubai, a comparatively relaxed environment. One of my students last semester told me that her husband made fun of her when he caught her reading or doing homework.

Unsurprisingly, the students never made explicit links between the material and their own lives. Some of them made passing comments that even in the twenty-first century marriages were sometimes arranged and took place when women were young. Most of these observations came from female students. When students consulted me about their essays analysing the play, they often did make more direct connections. One young woman explained that she wanted to write about how parents who arranged marriages for their children only had their best interests in mind and that children should trust their parents since they had more knowledge and experience. I asked her how she would feel if her parents arranged a marriage for her. She hesitated and then said she wouldn’t mind, but her parents wouldn’t do that – hers, she said, was not a “typical” Muslim family.

I am now toying with the idea of staging the play here, set in twenty-first century Dubai. One of my students (for fun!) created a poster and explained how the veiled women’s eyes revealed their characters. The idea of women in veils is not new to these students; that was one plot device they accepted with ease, and they seemed intrigued that their culture did not have a monopoly on the concept.

Overall, it was a good experience, and I will certainly assign the play again in the coming semester. Students said the play is still relevant today because, as they put it, society doesn’t really change – we still deal with sex, cheating, arranged marriages, social networks, gossip, and responsibility.

Reminder: WSG November Seminar 2015

The second WSG seminar of the academic year will take place in just over a week’s time at the Foundling Museum.  Directions for getting to the Museum can be found here.  Doors open after 12.30pm with the session starting promptly at 1, and tea, coffee and biscuits at about 2.30pm.  Non-members who wish to attend the seminar are very welcome to come but will be asked to make a donation for refreshments.

For the November session seminars organiser Carolyn Williams has scheduled papers on knowledge work, discipline and rebellion.  It promises to be a stirring discussion and will provide an interesting counterpart to the Foundling’s current exhibition, The Fallen Woman in Victorian Britain.

Fallen Woman campaign material
Fallen Woman campaign material

Saturday 28th November 2015, 1-4pm, Foundling Museum
Chair: Felicity Roberts

Tita Chico, ‘Knowledge Seduction
In this talk, I argue that the circulation of and belief in natural philosophy in the long eighteenth century can be understood through the logic of seduction, a well-established topos in literary history.

Andrew McInnes, ‘Resistant Readers in Sarah Fielding’s The Governess
This presentation explores how the act of interpretation is portrayed in didactic children’s literature of the eighteenth century, allowing a glimpse of indiscipline in works which have otherwise been read as straightforwardly disciplinary.

Chrisy Dennis, ‘“We were born to grace society: but not to be its slaves”: Chivalry and Revolution in Mary Robinson’s Hubert de Sevrac, A Romance of the Eighteenth Century (1796)
Mary Robinson’s Romance, written during a period of anti-revolutionary backlash in England, overtly criticises the patriarchal order that pervades Europe.  It offers the reader a new family dynamic – one that is based on equality.

WSG members online: Early Modern Medicine blog and the Orlando Project

Now that the academic summer break is well and truly over, WSG wants to highlight the rigorous research of WSG members online.  Over the past twenty years the internet has allowed new academic formats to take root and flourish and two great examples are the Orlando Project, co-run by WSGer Isobel Grundy, and the Early Modern Medicine blog, co-edited by WSG committee member Sara Read.

Orlando Project logo
Orlando Project logo

The Orlando Project is a textbase of women’s writing in the British Isles from the beginnings to the present.  Collaboratively authored and published by the University of Cambridge online since 2006 and available by subscription, the database is usually open access every March, Women’s History month.  Recent entries from WSG’s time period include Lady Hester Pulter (1605-1678) a significant poet who has remained unknown because she did not circulate her work, even in manuscript; Margaret Calderwood (1715-1774) a journal writer; Maria Susanna Cooper (1737-1807) a novelist and poet; and Isabella Hamilton Robinson (1813-1887), an erotic (possibly fantasist) diarist.

The Early Modern Medicine blog was founded by the University of Hertfordshire’s Dr Jennifer Evans and is a fast-growing collection of short essays on all aspects of early modern health, medicine, and gender.  Previous posts include discussions of postpartum incontinence, the therapeutic use of human body parts, and prayer and spa cures.  Jennifer and Sara also welcome guest bloggers and book reviewers.

In some ways the Orlando Project and the Early Modern Medicine blog represent two poles in the kind of innovative scholarly work, on women’s and gender studies in the early modern period and eighteenth century, that can be presented and disseminated online.  And as a group that prides itself on its independent, radical approach, WSG is happy to have connections with both.

WSG Foundling Museum talk

Jacobus Reuff, Lying in room with attendant, child and midwife, Woodcut, 1616. L0006501. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Jacobus Reuff, Lying in room with attendant, child and midwife, Woodcut, 1616. L0006501.
Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

UPDATE, 2 December 2015: Unfortunately this talk has been postponed for unavoidable reasons. We will post details when a new date has been set.

WSG is excited to announce that on 6 December 2015, committee member Sara Read will give a talk at the Foundling Museum.  She will be discussing customs and experiences of childbirth during the early modern period.  The talk begins at 2pm, followed by an interpretation of Baroque music at 3 from pianist Louise Cournarie.

The talk and performance are free to visitors of the Museum.  Sara is speaking as part of WSG’s commitment to developing its relationship with the Foundling, which is hosting our seminar series and workshop during the academic year 2015-2016, and we hope to be able to announce details of further collaborations in the future.  Those interested in Sara’s work can follow her on Twitter; her handle is @floweringbodies, while WSG tweets at @WSGUK.

Women’s Writing in the Nineteenth Century seminars

WSG member Susan Civale has organised a series of seminars to be hosted by the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers at Canterbury Christ Church University in 2015-2016.  Entitled “Women’s Writing in the Nineteenth Century”, several of the sessions may be of interest to scholars with interests towards the end of WSG’s time period.

Dr Sophie Gilmartin (RHUL), Tuesday 20 October 2015
Professor Angela Wright (Sheffield), Thursday 26 November 2015
Dr Felicity James (Leicester), Thursday 28 January 2016
Dr Matt Rubery (QMUL), Thursday 25 February 2016

The seminars are all open to the public, take place at 5.15pm, and details of rooms can be found here.  For more information, please email Susan.

Susan has also been awarded a Visiting Research Fellowship at Chawton House Library this year to pursue her research on the fiction of Mary Robinson (1757-1800).  She will take up her Fellowship in April 2016, and will write about her research for the WSG blog.